The mission of Northern Sky Theater is to create, develop and present professional musical and dramatic productions that will further the knowledge and appreciation of the culture and heritage of the United States.
The Theatre is dedicated to maintaining standards of artistic excellence; celebrating and illuminating the human condition; reaching a large audience of all ages, including families; and fostering a humanistic work environment with adequate and appropriate emotional, financial and creative support for all those associated with us.
The story of Northern Sky Theater (Northern Sky) begins with Dave Peterson, a professor from Madison, Wisconsin who taught a one-month course about the folklore of the Great Lakes at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay in January 1970. He and his students wrote Song of the Inland Seas, an epic to celebrate the American heroes of the Upper Midwest.
Soon after, while camping at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Peterson came across a pine-rimmed theatre, one used for occasional slideshows or naturalist programs. Feeling the magic in the beautiful wooded setting, he put together a cast of 18 singers and instrumentalists and performed Song of the Inland Seas on the Peninsula State Park stage for two weeks in the summer of 1970. The show was a hit and was presented on the Peninsula stage for the next two years by the newly-formed company known as “The Heritage Ensemble.”
Original shows, Midwestern lore: The Heritage Ensemble years
The Heritage Ensemble performed on the stage in Peninsula State Park for the next 20 years. Over those two decades, the Ensemble produced and performed original shows covering many aspects of Midwestern lore: the history of Milwaukee, the settlement of the Fox River Valley, Carl Sandburg, Mark Twain, and railroad workers and miners.
Those who joined the troupe — Fred “Doc” Heide, Fred Alley, Jeff Herbst, James Kaplan, Paul Sills and Gerald Pelrine — became household names as summer audiences returned year after year to see what new shows the troupe had created.
After years of changing costumes in the mud behind the stage and having inadequate lighting and sound equipment, the company built a technical booth and hired a sound technician in 1987. Two years later, a dressing room was constructed with donations from loyal patrons.
Broadened scope, preservation of roots: the change to American Folklore Theater
In 1990, Doc Heide, Gerald Pelrine and Fred Alley helped the organization move to a new level of professionalism. The group’s name was changed to American Folklore Theatre (AFT) to reflect their intent to broaden its scope while still preserving its roots in the traditions of populist culture. The word “Theatre” was added to clarify that its productions were both dramatic as well as musical.
1991’s Moon of the Long Nights thrilled theatergoers with Native American songs, and were enchanted by the Northwoods love story Northern Lights in 1993. In 1992, AFT decided to continue its music making into the fall season and started its Town Hall Series. The group began playing in several Northern Door village halls with ensemble shows like Goodnight Irene in 1994. The hit show Lumberjacks in Love premiered in 1996 and has been so popular that it’s been reprised multiple times.
In 1997 a community board of directors was formed, providing additional strength and stability to the organization. In 1998 AFT hired a full-time managing director to allow the writers and producers more time to spend on creative projects. AFT launched its first capital campaign in 1999 to raise money to build a new dressing room at Peninsula State Park in 2001.
The passing of a dear friend: the loss of Fred Alley
In 2001, AFT unexpectedly suffered the loss of its co-founder, Fred Alley. Fred had been involved with AFT since 1980 and came to be known as the “face” of AFT — and for many was the “face” of the Door County arts community. His beautiful tenor voice was emblazoned in the minds of all who heard him, he collaborated on more shows than AFT can count, and he was a key player in developing Northern Sky Theater into what it is today. Fred was 38 when he died of a heart attack while on his daily run in Door County.
The same year, AFT received two major awards from the Peninsula Arts Association. The first, “The Visionary Award,” celebrates the commitment of local organizations to the development of new programs. American Folklore Theatre received the award for its New Works program and for its help in launching Door Shakespeare. The second award, “The Champion Award” was presented to Fred Alley posthumously. This award was renamed “The Fred Alley Award.”
Expanded reach, and new musicals
Even with the loss of Fred Alley, American Folklore Theater continued to grow and develop. In 2001, Loose Lips Sink Ships became AFT’s single season bestseller, with record audience attendance nearing 900 at several performances. Aided by funds from enthusiastic patrons, a new stage at the Peninsula State Park amphitheater was completed in time for the 2003 season.
The theater also started to expand its reach outside Door County by staging performances in cities and states across the country. A great example of this is the ice-fishing musical Guys On Ice, which proved to be such a sensation that AFT took it to the Wisconsin cities of Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Madison in addition to far-flung locations like Ashland, Oregon and Chelsea, Michigan.
At the same time, AFT was also experimenting with new shows on the theater’s stage in Peninsula State Park, expanding its group of writers, composers, and musicians. In 2004, Muskie Love, a musical by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman, premiered on the AFT stage, and many other new musicals would follow over years. Cabin With A View, Victory Farm, Cheeseheads: The Musical, Strings Attached, When Butter Churns to Gold, Doctor! Doctor!, Dairy Heirs, Naked Radio, and Dad’s Season Tickets are just a few of the shows that have been produced over the past 15 years.
Entering a new era: the shift to Northern Sky Theater and a new indoor space
In the midst of this run of shows, American Folklore Theater kicked off 2015 — and the theater’s 25th anniversary — with a new name: Northern Sky Theater. The company changed its name to broaden their audience appeal and better reflect the work they were doing.
As Northern Sky continued to grow, the theater identified the need for a place of their own — to stage indoor theater productions year-round, centralize support operations, and create an environment to continue to develop new shows. A Constellation Campaign to build the Northern Sky Theater’s Creative Center and Gould Theater was launched in 2016. After three years of fundraising, planning, and building, the company celebrated the grand opening of its new home on August 30, 2019, just in time for the fall season.
2020 marks the 50th anniversary of performances in the park, and the 30th anniversary as a professional theater company in all of its iterations. Between the outdoor Peninsula State Park amphitheater and the new indoor Gould Theater, this year’s season has expanded to include ten total shows over the summer, fall, and holiday months. The future looks bright for Northern Sky, and we can’t wait to welcome you to our two stages.