When Art and Nature Collide
Discover the Magic of Outdoor Theater
Summers in Wisconsin are highly anticipated after long winters and sometimes equally cool springs. Its warm breezes and easy living are unmatched, so pair it with a cultural experience like live theater and the outcome is unforgettably enchanting.
You don’t have to travel far to see how art and nature collide to create this magic. Whether it’s a comedy in a pavilion, an original musical in a state park or tragedy under an ancient maple tree, now is the time to discover outdoor theater.
Peninsula Players Theatre
4351 Peninsula Players Rd, Fish Creek
Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek combines everything positive the area is known for, while, ironically, feeling simultaneously removed.
“It’s kind of the melding of everything that makes Door County great,” Brian Kelsey, Managing Director, explains. “We’re situated on the gorgeous shoreline of Green Bay… but it’s about disconnecting from the arteries of Door County, highway 42, highway 57… it combines art and nature so effortlessly. Mother Nature is our lobby.”
The Peninsula Players Theatre Experience naturally includes its surroundings, and is one of the reasons Kelsey explains urging guests to forgo typical indoor theater behavior and embrace the outdoor one.
“Most people are used to going to a theater in a city. You park in a parking garage. You don’t want to get there early because you don’t want to sit in your seat,” he explains. “We encourage folks to come an hour early to enjoy that time. Relax and enjoy the scenery.”
The 16-acre grounds include a beer garden with picnic tables along the shoreline, the Luna Bar, Canteen and bonfire area for intermission of two-act shows.
The theater, originally built in 1937 and rebuilt in 2006, has a seating capacity of 621 and has the ability to become an enclosed space but is most often open to the outdoors.
“Being a hybrid theater, you hear the crickets, you smell the air, you’re looking out at the gardens, you’re seeing the beautiful lighting. You can even hear the waves if it’s windier,” Kelsey says. “It’s that whole tranquil experience… the quality of an inside theater experience with the attributes of outdoor theater.”
At 87 years old, Peninsula Players Theatre is the oldest resident summer theater in the country, which means the majority of the company lives on property.
“People come from across the country whether they’re an intern, as a member of staff or a creative team member: an actor, director, designer, musician,” Kelsey says. “It becomes a collective community and it’s a great opportunity for people who are new to get to sit at tables with seasoned Jeff Award winners. It’s really special.”
Not to say it isn’t stressful, he is sure to point out. The regional theater delivers five shows in 18 weeks.
“At the Players, (actors) typically do more than one show. They’re sometimes in rehearsals during the day memorizing one show and at night time on stage doing a completely different show. You might see them as a funny character in one show and then someone really serious.
“We’re not doing your typical summer stock fare all the time,” he adds. “We’re not trying to make you laugh all the time… although we do a number of family-friendly shows, that’s not our mission. Ours is more dense. We’re here to have a conversation afterward.”
Kelsey himself doesn’t typically find a seat for the duration of the performance, but rather appreciates taking it all in.
“There’s nothing greater for me than to stand at the doors at the end of a performance when you’ve heard the audience cheering,” he says. “You know you’ve touched them, that the work that the artists have created have added to their memories. That’s my paycheck, the nonfinancial part of my pay. It’s the part that feeds your soul and the energy within you, hearing how much people are enjoying what you’re doing each and every day.”
Showing This Season:
“The Rainmaker” by N. Richard Nash
“Write Me a Murder” by Frederick Knott
“Ripcord” by David Lindsay-Abaire
“I and You” by Lauren Gunderson
“Murder for Two” by Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian
For more information and specific show dates and times, visit www.peninsulaplayers.com/2022-season
Northern Sky Theater
9058 Co Rd A, Fish Creek
“Northern Sky’s amphitheater in Peninsula State Park is nestled in a forest of cedar and pine, on a stage where performing one-of-a-kind musicals about American life has been happening for over thirty years,” Ann Birnschein, Marketing Director, says.
The non-profit (501c3) professional theater company uses both its unique outdoor environment and state-of-the-art indoor Gould Theater to bring original shows to audiences before being seen elsewhere.
The process is a collaborative one, beginning with playwrights sending treatments—short documents that describe the play within a few sentences—to Northern Sky Theater for consideration. Next steps include completing multiple drafts of the show, depending on feedback and rewrites.
“When a script and score really start to come into focus, we schedule a workshop. That is where the alchemy begins,” Molly Rhode, Associate Artistic Director, says. “When a group of gifted artists focus their creative energies on a new work, it really begins to take flight.
“Workshops are without a doubt my favorite part of the new play process. One person’s comment can create such a dynamic ripple of ideas. When a truly exciting solution is hit upon, you can feel the energy shift in the room. It becomes celebratory, triumphant.”
Jeff Herbst, Artistic Director, says the outdoor stage typically features one-brand new musical and one or two classic favorites in a rotating repertory.
“Shows in a season are decided based on multiple factors. Many times the world premiere that is chosen for the year is the main factor in casting for the repertory season,” he says. “Then that casting needs to work into the classics brought back to the stage in tandem with the new show.”
Northern Sky relies on, and is always looking for, fans to help the show go on: volunteers to usher, sell merchandise and concessions, assist with traffic flow in the parking lot, assist patrons to the handicapped seating area, and to drive a golf cart shuttle. There are typically more than 80 opportunities to volunteer at shows each week.
In 2016, Northern Sky Theater secured a 15-year agreement with Peninsula State Park, allowing the troupe to welcome the next generation of theater goers. (Well-behaved dogs on leashes included!)
“The charm of Northern Sky continues to be the original words and music that bring people and stories to life, creating empathy between theatergoers and performers,” Frederick Heide, Artistic Advisor/Co-founder, says. “Many adoring Northern Sky fans memorize shows and buy recordings to learn the lyrics. Parents from around the country write to Northern Sky, saying their children sing and act out scenes from NST shows all year round.”
“Many people treasure their memories of a beautiful summer evening: the feel of cedar beneath their feet, the smell of a campfire, the creak of the wind through the pines and the anticipation of witnessing a magical performance beneath a canopy of stars,” Dave Maier, Managing Director, agrees. “Friends tell their friends, grandparents take their grandkids, generations of families pass on the tradition of sharing time at our performances each year.”
Showing This Season:
“Fishing for the Moon” by Fred Alley and James Kaplan
“Love Stings” by Richard Castle and Matthew Levine
For more information and specific show dates and times, visit www.northernskytheater.com/2022-season
Björklunden, 7590 Boynton Lane, Baileys Harbor
In general, live theater needs a multitude of variables to get things just right. And even then, each performance will be different every time. According to Michael Stebbins, Producing Artistic Director of Door Shakespeare, it’s even more apparent in outdoor theater—and it’s one of the things audiences bond over most.
“When you’re experiencing a rainstorm or a lightning bolt and a show has to stop and everyone takes cover, or the bunny jumps across the floor… a large moth is so big that everyone is watching the moth. It’s a very unique experience,” he says.
“People have come back to shows year after year and engage in conversations like, ‘Oh, I was there the night it poured out!’ And we can also see the audience very clearly. There’s an increased connection in our outdoor theater that you may not find in a lot of indoor theaters.”
“Outdoor theater is a great place to bring a family as well because you’re not confined as you are in an indoor space,” Ensign says. “If the baby starts whimpering or the toddler gets ants in their pants and they need to run or walk, you can just excuse yourself and walk down a path or go to the water and come back.”
Door Shakespeare performances take place in the gardens of the 425-acre Bjorklunden estate in Baileys Harbor that effortlessly lends itself to the magical atmosphere of an outdoor show, but also proves to be more functional.
“Our stage is under the canopy of an ancient maple tree. There’s no denying that it’s there,” Amy Ensign, Managing Director, says. “So when you’re in the Forest of Arden it’s beautiful. And when you’re talking about a storm coming and a storm is coming, there’s nothing more magical than that. Or you’re talking about looking at the moon and the moon is right there, that’s pretty fabulous. Whenever we can use our surroundings to help tell the story, we absolutely do. But it also doesn’t keep us from telling different stories.”
Door Shakespeare focuses on plays by William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, but also incorporates modern playwrights with classical themes.
“For example, we’ve presented, a few times, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised],” Ensign says. “This is a very modern play with modern playwrights but it has this rich connection to Shakespeare’s text and who Shakespeare is and his vast body of work.”
The summer season traditionally consists of two productions running in repertory, every other day, from late June to mid-August.
Live auditions have evolved into self-taped submission videos in recent years, and bring talent from (primarily) around the Midwest.
“The fun part is offering the work,” Stebbins says. “It’s really fun, then, to look at these people—this ensemble—and in both shows this summer most actors are playing multiple roles in each play. It’s a great process. It’s very fun.”
Door Shakespeare sells merchandise and food, and offers events outside of show performances for guests to learn about the show and enhance the production.
“When people have that door opened to them—young or old or in between—it’s “Oh, I like that. I can have that again… you end up embracing Shakespeare and that feels really good because it’s not off putting, it’s not too high brow,” Stebbins says.
“We can talk about Door Shakespeare and how beautiful and magical that outdoor experience is as much as we want, but once people get in there and experience it as dusk comes and dark comes, it really is something I don’t think people forget… those who do return certainly return partly because it is a very special place.”
Showing This Season:
“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare
“The Three Musketeers: An Adventure with Music” by Joe Pine, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, with music and lyrics by Scott McKenna Campbell
For more information about events and specific show dates and times, visit www.doorshakespeare.com/the-plays
Riverside Park, 500 E. Wisconsin Ave., Neenah
Celebrating its 66th season, “Theatre in the Park,” presented by the Riverside Players in Neenah, has become a community tradition.
“It’s something that happens every summer. It’s been a staple of our department,” Jim Kluge, CPRP, Superintendent of Recreation, Neenah Parks & Recreation Department, says. “People look forward to it every year.”
The community theater troupe typically brings two shows per summer—one musical and one “straight show,” performances that rely on the spoken word—to the Riverside Pavilion within Riverside Park.
“We’re under a pavilion. We have a roof over us,” he explains. “And then on the sides we have some screens that we put up—more to keep the bugs out but it is rain or shine. It is open but we have screens that come down. If you hit it right and there’s a breeze, it’s always a bonus.
“When it’s dark, it’s all you see. You see the theater, you see the seats. It’s dark outside. You hear the crickets chirping. That’s what makes it unique.”
COVID paused the theatrical scene worldwide, but Riverside Players’ naturally socially distanced outdoor space lent itself to creating an alternative show for the community last year.
“We did not do our regular Riverside Players but we did what we called ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat,’ more of a musical,” Kluge says. “Some of the Riverside performers we’ve had in the past did a performance of a bunch of different show tune songs off the back of the pavilion. The audience sat on park benches or they brought their own chairs in the grass area.
“We’re glad we did it. It was for those people who still wanted to keep the juices flowing with performing in front of people or seeing a show safely.”
Anyone is welcome to submit show suggestions, with the caveat that they are able to make the time commitment. Directors are responsible for creating their teams, including actors, choreographers if necessary, etc.
“We open it up to anybody, but in the last couple of years we’ve had repeat actors,” Kluge says. “There’s a rich history of these local actors wanting to be a part of Riverside Players.”
“This would be a great opportunity for someone to direct for the first time,” he says. “And a couple of seasons ago we had someone in their early 50s who hadn’t acted in 15/20 years. She moved to the area, saw this and thought ‘Maybe.’ She ended up getting a role and loved it. It relit the flame she had from years ago, from high school, college.”
Riverside Players offers concessions from the local Dairy Queen during intermission, and is always looking for sponsors or volunteers in the community to help the shows run smoothly.
“From a Park & Rec standpoint it gives us a variety of programs that we’re able to offer,” Kluge says. “We have the pool, we have our recreation programs and sports programs, things like this, but the arts are important in our community.
“(It) has opened my eyes to the theater. This wasn’t an exposure for me in high school or college. I’ve started taking more of an interest and now appreciating what these actors and actresses can do. It’s their thing. They’re so proud to be out there, and they should be. You can see the joy that they have being on stage.”
Showing This Season:
“The Savannah Sipping Society” directed by Laurie Friedman-Fannin
“The Addams Family” directed by Erick James Gyrion
For more information and specific show dates and times, visit www.ci.neenah.wi.us/departments/parks-recreation/riverside-players
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