Summer Theater Memories (and nightmares)

Summer Fun With Forward Theater Company

We asked members of the Forward Board, Staff and Advisory Company to recall their most memorable summer theater experiences.

Board Member Tim Crisp:
Growing up in Oregon, my earliest memories of theater are from attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I must have been in elementary school at the time. After surviving the long five-hour drive from Portland (“Are we there yet?”) and camping in a nearby campground, my parents took me to an outdoor venue where I saw my first grown-up play: Troilus and Cressida. It didn’t matter to me at that age that it was one of Shakespeare’s more obscure, so-called “problem” plays. But what did matter was the larger-than-life acting, the costumes and pageantry, the rhythmic language, and the retelling of an ancient tale. Beneath starry southern Oregon skies, the stage was a magical place.

Advisory Company Member Jim Buske:
It was all the way back in the mid -70's. I was hired as a guest actor for the Straw Hat Players at Morehead State University. They did seven full productions in nine weeks and hired three professional actors to work with the students and act in the shows.
On my first day, I walked into the rehearsal room not knowing a soul. There were maybe 35-40 and I just sort of stood there. Over in the corner was a guy who looked really sick and worn out. I found out it was the local pro, Jerry ver Dorn, who has just had all four of his wisdom teeth removed. We chatted for a while and we really connected. We got along so well and had so much fun that the director had to block us on opposite sides of the stage so we wouldn't make each other laugh. Yeah, I know, not very professional but we sure had a good time. I spent two summer up in Morehead (flat, very flat) and got to know Jerry very well. Forty years later, he is still my best friend and we still make each other laugh.

Advisory Company Member Shannon Heibler:
In 2012, I made the summer pilgrimage to Spring Green, as so many of us do, to see a play at American Players Theatre, specifically The Royal Family. My life was in a state of flux at that moment, the extent of which I didn't even understand yet - I just knew I wasn't where I wanted to be. There was a scene in which Sarah Day and Tracy Arnold, playing mother and daughter in a theatre dynasty, reflected on theatre and what their professions meant to them. The passion and the sacrifice and how it's all they wanted to do. I suddenly found myself weeping openly and a few weeks later, I signed up to return to UW-Madison to pursue a degree in theatre. I finally knew exactly where I needed to be. I wouldn't be in a position to tell you this story today if I hadn't seen that marvelous production. My second favorite summer theatre story is working my first summer at APT last year and being able to thank those two women personally for everything they gave me through their excellent craft.

Board Member Sherry Wagner-Henry:
Illinois Shakespeare Festival--Summer 1993--A Midsummer Night's Dream: I was working on the staff as part of my graduate work at Illinois State University. Our outdoor theatre was lovely--set amongst old oaks on the grounds of Ewing Manor, a Chanel-Norman Style mansion. But the theatre space was in the flight pattern of the local airport. The second act, scene 2 opens with Puck, ready to deliver his first lines. Just as he opens his mouth, a very loud and long-lasting jet flew overhead. He waited patiently, starring at the sky with an expression of disdain, and when the noise ended, in his best deadpan delivery starred at the audience and said "Night. and Silence." The crowd roared. Best improv moment ever!

Company Manager Celia Klehr:
It was the summer of 1977 or ‘78 or ‘79 (I'm terrible at remembering dates) and I was the female ingénue at the Edgewood Summer Theater. Located on Hwy 12 between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells, the theater was shaped like a barn with canvas sides that rolled up, and was beside a corn field that we walked through to our lodgings. They were small "bunk houses" that slept up to 12 people, one for the men and one for the women. We performed 6 different plays a week in rotation with Mondays off. I believe that summer I had 2 lead roles, stage-managed one show, ran props for one and was wardrobe for one. That meant there was one show that I could sit out. As a member of the company I helped build all the sets, gather all the props, and create the costumes. I personally was put in charge of wig maintenance. Every morning we would put up the set and after every show we would break it back down. The plays we did were light comedies with names like No Sex Please We're British, Two In A Tub, Any Wednesday and Mary, Mary. It was the beginning of my professional career and it was my training.
One week there was an awful heat wave with temperatures in the high 90's. (Did I mention there was no air-conditioning?) I came down with an all-consuming summer cold and a fever. On my one show off, after putting up the set for that evening's performance, ironing the costumes and setting up the make-up table, I took a double dose of cold medicine, crawled into my top bunk and promptly fell into a deep sleep. Not an hour later I was shaken awake by that night's stage manager and told that I had to go on as the lead since she had just been taken by ambulance to the hospital with heat exhaustion. With no time to panic, I soon found myself backstage as the opening strains of the preshow music began to play. Due to my drugged induced state, I felt completely disembodied and down some deep tunnel. Vaguely I remember staring at a script trying desperately to learn my first lines as someone was zipping me into an evening gown. Concerned faces floated into my view as the cast told me everything would be fine. The next thing I knew, I was onstage with the curtain up. Out of my mouth came the first lines. After that everything was a blur. I remember my fellow cast members helping me through the blocking with small nudges or subtle raised eyebrows. Every time I went off stage I was met with the script so I could learn the next few lines. At one point I was standing off stage completely nude as hands out of nowhere did a "quick change" on me including switching wigs. I went from broiling hot to shivering, from onstage to off stage, looking at big eyes willing me to say lines I didn't know, being pushed here and nudged there, hearing swells of laughter from the audience and the beating of my heart in my ears. I felt like I was underwater in a nightmare I couldn't wake up from. Suddenly it was over. The audience applauded. My cast gave me a quick hug then went immediately to work striking the set. And I went back to my bunk.
And that is one memory from my life in summer theater!

Development Director Julia Nicholas:
This summer I found myself on the East coast with some time on my hands. My first thought . . . what theater can I get to. Lucky me, nestled about an hour away near Harpers Ferry is one of the best incubators of new theater in the country, the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. It was pay-what-you-can preview week no less. Four shows later, and I keep thinking about one . . . Allison Gregory's Not Medea. From the minute it started I was completely wrapped up in the heightened stress of this harried mother who was doing her best. . . that could be me. . . could that be me? Ripped my heart out but seared in my mind.

Board Member Orange Schroeder:
I must confess, my idea of roughing it is when there is a bee buzzing around the picnic table. But I will sit through impending storms with nothing but a trash bag between me and the elements to watch any production at American Players Theatre. The record stands for itself — my husband Dean and I have only skipped one play since APT opened in 1980. (When I mention that the play in question was Titus Andronicus, those of you who know your Shakespeare may understand why.)
Back in high school I had been a volunteer costume tech and dresser at Theater in the Park in Trenton, New Jersey. I moved to Madison for graduate school (in Scandinavian Studies, not theater), and Dean and I opened a shop when I graduated. We were both avid theater goers, and when we read that a classical outdoor theater was being built in nearby Spring Green in the late 1970s, we couldn’t believe our luck.
Our passion for American Players Theatre hasn’t diminished, and five years ago I started volunteering to do a podcast interview (APT Talkbacks to Go) for every play. That was about the time that I joined to Forward Theater board, and one of the things that I love about Forward Theater is the opportunity to see some of my favorite APT actors during the fall, winter and spring. Because much as we wish it would, summer in Wisconsin doesn’t last forever — and we need high quality theater like Forward’s productions to get us through the rest of the year.