Neen Rock, longtime production stage manager and designer at Northern Sky Theater, died unexpectedly on Sunday, January 3, 2021. The cause was a cerebral aneurysm. Neen worked at Northern Sky for over thirty years, and her contributions to the company as a designer, stage manager, mentor, and beloved friend were numerous and far-reaching.
Neen began her work with Northern Sky in the late 1980s. She first worked with Northern Sky as a lighting consultant, assisting the company with its first use of theatrical lighting when the company was known as Heritage Ensemble. The variety of Neen’s playbill credits throughout the 1990s, as the company became American Folklore Theatre, makes clear the breadth of her talent and expertise: Neen is variously credited as technical advisor, production coordinator, set decorator, and designer of sets, costumes, and props. “Neen was an inventive, resourceful, problem-solving designer with extensive knowledge in all areas of theater,” said artistic director Jeff Herbst. “I worked with Neen for thirty years and she never ceased to amaze me with how she could make magic out of seemingly nothing.”
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A note from Neen's partner, Brian Smith:
I want to express my dearest thank you to all of you. My heart was shattered with the loss of Neen. I was blessed and honored to have shared my life with her. There was never a dull moment. I grabbed onto a lightning bolt and held on. It turned out to be the best sixteen-and-a-half years I could ask for. She was the most real person anyone could know. I know that all of the thoughts and memories that you have shared with me are so true, and I greatly appreciate hearing them. Hold on to these, knowing that the smile Neen gave us is carried on by all of you as a sign that her spirit soars. This helps dearly. Thank you again for your love and support. It will help carry me through this.
Neen was both softer and tougher than anyone else I have known. I went to her if I needed to mend a pair of pants or get a stain out of a shirt or buy a really good highlighter or cry. If she had to, Neen could design a set and build it and find the props and sew the costumes and rig the lighting and call the cues, tending to someone’s broken heart in the meantime. Her hair and her smile were radiant; her shoes were practical; she walked with purpose. In the times when I filled in for her as stage manager, she taught me what it really means to do a job well: how to comb a wig carefully, how to spray vodka on a costume between washings, how to set up a deck of cards so that the cards come up right in a staged game of Crazy Eights, when no one but the actors would see them. When she stage managed a reading or rehearsal for a script of mine, she was the only person who cared about the punctuation and spelling as much as I did.
It sometimes felt hard to tell how important you really were to Neen, because she made everyone feel important, and you could see her doing it. She’d be marching toward the stage, on a mission to repair this or gaff that, but she’d stop for a long, serious conversation with someone who needed her, carrying a post-it note on her finger so she didn’t forget what she was trying to do in the first place, walking a couple more feet toward her task before stopping to talk to someone else.
I guess in that way, it wasn’t hard to tell how important you were to Neen—it was easy. Everyone was important. As my husband Rich has always said, Neen was the kind of person who shined her light onto you. We were lucky to get some of that light. I will really, really miss her.
– Katie Dahl
I will miss her: The Northern Sky Theater family, which I am honored to be a part of as a volunteer, lost one of their own this past weekend with the sudden passing of Neen Rock. Who was Neen? Well.....she wore many hats in her 30 plus years with Northern Sky. Although she was small in stature, all those hats made her a giant in the theater world. She was a stage manager, props person, costume person, tech person, mentor etc etc etc. The most important hat she wore, and the one she wore when I was working with her, was the hat of a friend. She genuinely cared about what you had to say, she was funny, she was kind....I could go on and on. I didn't know her as well as I would have liked to because I was relatively new to the NST family but after working with her all summer and fall and into December, I can honestly say she was someone I wanted to know better. I wish we had had that iced tea on my front porch or taken that walk around my property. She was usually so busy with the theater and running the shows she didn't have time to get out and enjoy the fall color which she loved. I am glad that things were what they were this past season and she had the time to get out and see our fabulous colors. Her winters were spent with other theater companies including The Madison Ballet and others too numerous to mention. There was a lot she still had to accomplish and I guess it just wasn't in the cards for her. She leaves a huge hole in the hearts of all who knew her and has left us much too soon. Rest easy Neen. I will think of you every time I see a pair of big brown work boots or a plastic storage bin with a lid that doesn't fit.
– Liz Westen
I had become very familiar with NS before it was NS. My grandparents had spent the last week of shows at Peninsula State Park every year as it was their yearly honeymoon trip. Growing up and seeing shows at NS, I was always drawn to the technical side of things and talked with Neen from time to time. Later in my career it was a sincerer pleasure working the NS team and Neen as we recorded Guys on Ice with PBS Wisconsin. I was there to drive the production truck between the trees behind the theater. I felt as if I was completing a life long journey. I was home at NS. Now my career as Engineer in Charge at PBS Wisconsin had allowed me to share the fantastic talents of NS and Neen with even more people. Neen was an essential part of every show. I also had the pleasure of working with Neen at the UW Madison Varsity Band Concert. She will be greatly missed. Such a shock. What a very talented person she was. So sad.
– Russ Awe
Neen Rock was a beacon of light at NST. She never let anyone down, she never didn’t know what to do, she was everyone’s advocate and friend. For the past three years, I worked with Neen. Some of you might know, one of the first things I would do after every show was to walk out of the booth and ask her if the performance “sounded good”. Although this may seem like an insignificant conversation, it meant the world to me to get her opinion. Neen was so talented and respected within the NST company and industry. Her professional credentials and accomplishments weren’t the only attributes I admired. Neen was such a kind and caring person who never left anyone out of her family. She was serious but never lacked the compassion that made her a beloved member of our lives. I can’t express how much Neen made NST feel like home to so many. I can’t express enough how much she meant to so many, including myself, and I will say that she will never be forgotten. Neen always brought out the best in us and we should continue to not let her down. We all know how she would never back down from anything. Neen’s perseverance and agility is something we can all learn from. She leaves behind a beautiful legacy.
– Ben Werner
Neen always had a smile and was the heart of the Theater. Bless her beyond words for her organ donations. Her smile and generosity will become part of them.
– Nancy Brueggeman
We started visiting Door County Wisconsin a few years ago and found the Northern Sky Theater and LOVED IT. We have made it a definite part of each of our visits and look forward to it again. Bravo to this lady for her dedication and contributions to its success. I'm sure her legacy will live on for a very long time. Thoughts and Prayers for her family and her theater family for their great loss.
– Bonnie Westrich
In the photo you've displayed of Neen at her "station" during a performance, you can't see the small foot-stool that is under her left foot. Several years ago, Dave and I gave her this foot -stool. We had observed that her feet did not have a resting place and swung free when sitting on that high bench. So we found this small stool during one of our IKEA shopping trips, thinking it would be just the right fit for Neen's feet. And ever since, we believe she used it when she sat on that bench. Loved that fine lady!
– Karen Studebaker
For 30 years or family has been coming to the park to enjoy theater in the woods. We not only looked forward to seeing the shows but also visiting with Neen after the show. She always greeted you with a smile and a hug. I also enjoyed doing strike with her to close out the summer season. Neen also dropped everything this summer to help make the dress for my son's wedding perfect. It makes me happy to know every time I look at pictures from the wedding, I will think of Neen. You will be missed. RIP.
– Kelly Leuzinger
There are far too many memories to share here. She was clearly, out of the hundreds , maybe thousands, of people that I have known throughout my long career, one of the most lovable, creative, profoundly hard working, and dedicated co-workers I have ever had the pleasure of being close to. We weren't just close, we were working soulmates. Her passing leaves a giant hole in all of the lives of the folks that knew her. My tears stop me again...
– Stewart Dawson
Neen was always so generous and caring to all she met. She let me shadow her while she worked her stage manager magic for an entire show and always welcomed my questions. While I watched all the time and energy that she put into making Northern Sky productions over the years, I never failed to be amazed. Neen showed me what hard work and dedication looked like while also reminding me that the most important thing was compassion. She helped make Northern Sky feel like home. I will forever miss her hugs and warm smile and I am so grateful for all she has taught me.
– Magdalyn Rowley-Lange
Neen will never be forgotten. She will always be remembered. Neen would light up a room when she walked in. Always had great stories to tell and a smile that would not quit. Her laugh, who could forget her laugh. Best laugh ever. Love that girl. Get on with the show in heaven my friend.
Hugs and love always.
Dear beloved Northern Sky Family:
I am shocked to hear about Neen's passing. I am so sorry for our loss. She was as loving as she was a straight-shooter—a noble combination of virtues. I have had family members pass that hadn't affected me as much, but then again Neem could make a heart connection in two seconds more indelible than decades of communication with some family members. She will be missed.
– Matthew Levine
“To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said “is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage. Our body is like the cage, and the spirit is like the bird…if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist. Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased…”
—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 228
My partner in crime, Bonnie Abrams, did Edgefest Follies with Neen, not to mention helped Joan plan the show for years. The Rocks generously let us stay in Jacksonport at the gorgeous house on the lake - many times. We always dreaded going home. Oh, The Townhall Bakery! I'm paying for the pastries now or is it because I don't dance anymore. "I can't dance, don't ask me". Hugs to everyone in the family. There isn't a person on the planet with a smile as beautiful as Neen's smile. Rest well, sweet lady.
– Patti Bricksom
My heart is very heavy as I try to put into words what Neen meant to me. I worked along side of her helping with strike for every summer as long as I can remember. She always had a smile for our family and loved seeing us as we arrived for the summer season.
She was so generous with her time, when I asked if she could fix my dress for my grandson's wedding she never even gave it a thought. Of course she said I'd be thrilled to do it. Again this summer she came to the rescue and fixed my blouse for another grandson's wedding. She was so giving and caring. Rest in peace my dear friend.
– Dina Herbst
The magic of Neen is that she had the ability to make everyone within her reach feel special and seen in the most simplistic and heartfelt ways. For me, it was her stance to make sure everyone spelled my name correctly within my first few weeks of being up north; and when she comforted and extended her generosity to me during an unexpected medical scar; and how she made me laugh through my tears when my car broke down; and how excited she was about the musical I am writing; and how she called me just to laugh sometimes; and her thoughtfulness, and helpfulness, and the way she loved...the list goes on. I’ve only known her the last three years, but her impact will surely live in me forever. I am so grateful that working at Northern Sky granted me the opportunity to know and befriend her beautiful spirit.
– Lachrisa Grandberry
Oh Dear Neen...
From my first day joining NST with Naked Radio, I felt as if I had a production guardian angel beside me. Always so thoughtful and supportive...such a creative professional living life with great passion. I will cherish many personal memories shared.
– Doug Forrest
When I think of Northern Sky, I think of Neen as I think she embodied the spirit of the company in every possible way.
I am honored to have known and worked with her and I'm certain those are the feelings of everyone who was lucky enough to know her.
Her loss is great sadness for all.
– Pam Kriger
Like all of us who cherished Neen, I am heartbroken. I’m forever grateful for our time together during the summers of 2006 & 2008 when I performed at AFT (now Northern Sky). She was one of the finest stage managers in our industry and a dear friend. Simply put: Neen ROCKED.
– Monica Heuser
Neen and I went to Edgewood High School and graduated together in Madison, Wisconsin. She was popular, sweet and beautiful, and kind to everyone. It was such an honor to work with her years later at the UW Varsity Band Concerts! She worked so hard, but made it all appear effortless. She went through a lot in her life, but always came out as a fighter. The world will miss her kindness and beautiful smile.
– Tracy Wolfgram Walker
Neen was our neighbor on Kangaroo Lake. We loved her and are sad to see that she passed away. I will always remember her working on her old van repairing a fuel line.
– Tony Chelmecki
God rest her soul!
– Peggy Walters
Good show m'lady. Good show.
– Patrick Walsh
Neen was my first interaction with stage management, which ultimately led to me taking a stage management class this past semester. I would write reflections on the course material for assignments and would constantly mention Neen's name whenever I made a connection to my summer at Northern Sky.
During one of my first days as an intern, I got a bloody nose during rehearsal. I sat off to the side and tried to get it under control so that I could resume my intern duties. However, it would not stop! After some time, Neen came on over to check on me and offered to drive me to the emergency room (keep in mind, it is 30 minutes away). That made me laugh. I assured her that I was fine; it's just a bloody nose. She then insisted that I go home if I wasn't going to go to the hospital. Again, I told her it's just a bloody nose and that it should stop soon. She then proceeded to call her friend, Dr. Gorchynsky, for tips and advice. Whatever he suggested solved the problem and I was able to resume my intern duties. Something as small as helping someone with a bloody nose just goes to show how much Neen would do for everybody.
Whether I pursue performing or stage management in my future, I will carry her in my heart everywhere I go. And, of course, I'll think of her each time I get a nosebleed. Thank you, Neen, for the inspiration and for being such a light in my life.
– Elizabeth Henry
Neen taught so many of us as young artists what it meant to be professionals - to care about our work with the highest regard, to be true to our word always, to be kind and compassionate to everyone in every moment, and, most importantly, to make magic every single night. While these seemed like "job lessons," they actually wound up being life lessons. Pouring one out for you, Neener. You truly made a dent in the universe.
– Ethan Angelica
Neen was my first introduction to American Folklore Theatre thirty years ago. Having recently moved to Door County, I had gone to the park to see what this theatre was all about. It was very early Spring and there was someone poking around in the melting snow, getting the stage ready for the season. It was Neen and she graciously answered all my questions with her humor-laced smile but without pausing from her tasks. Her ability to mean business in a way that made business taste like desert, was apparent then and was a gift through the many years of working with her on numerous shows. How well she deserved the evolution into a new theatre in the park, a new name for the company and the new creative center! May her spirit live in the wings forever.
– Jim Maronek
There is another star in the Northern sky looking down on us tonight. On Earth, she was a blazing rockstar, a master of her craft, and she exemplified what it means to be a good human. Neen Rock was a legend, a goddess, an inspiration. She never failed to ask (or more often anticipate) what I needed. She knew the importance of maintaining a metronome marking and the effect of a carefully selected non-glare heavy duty sheet protector. She graciously welcomed a not-quite-six-year-old to quietly sit at her side while she called an entire two-act musical. She was as kind as they come, and her smile was infectious. She was the sort of person you hope to be like when you grow up. I am deeply grateful to have known Neen and to have been among those whose lives she touched. I think there might just be another star up there tonight shining down on us, twinkling just a bit brighter and sporting a particularly utilitarian Sharpie necklace.
A particularly cherished memory of Neen: In Fall of 2019, I arrived backstage early for a matinee, and Neen came up to me very seriously saying, “I need your opinion. Would you take a look at something?” She then revealed this custom DJ Marshmello head that my niece Silvia had asked her to make for a Halloween costume. Neen wanted to make sure I thought it was “good enough,” and that she had constructed the interior to both sit right and be comfortable. It was SO important to her that this 7-year-old would approve of her work. With her glue gun and exacto knife at the ready, Neen was treating this project with the same love and care she gave to every task. It was as if the Queen of England had commissioned this piece. It mattered to her because it mattered to Silvia, and it had to be just right. In the end, of course, my niece approved. This was typical, classic Neen Rock.
– Alissa Rhode
When I arrived in Door County for the first time in the lead-up to the opening of Windjammers, Neen was the one who welcomed me and showed me around the rehearsal space. Then she took me to my own little writer's room, where she had posted a sign on the door, "The Honorable Robin Share." That was Neen. She honored and valued the work we did there, and embraced her mission of supporting and nurturing artists. It is hard to imagine Northern Sky without Neen's humor, her ingenuity, her professionalism, and her heart. I know Neen's spirit will live on in the music and the magic of Northern Sky.
– Robin Share
My heart hurts to think that Neen is really gone. She had so many talents, but her greatest gift was to make you feel that you were the most important person around when she talked to you. She gave you her undivided attention and listened with not only her ears but her heart. We've been coming to the park for over 30 years, and every year she was thrilled to see the Herbst family. She would give us the biggest smile and want to know how we all were. I thoroughly enjoyed doing strike with her and was amazed at the knowledge she had in her head. If you asked her a question about anything related to the shows/costumes/etc., she would have an answer immediately. Even though there were no shows this past summer, I am so happy that I was able to see her a couple of times and have those last memories of talking to her. It's so hard to imagine not seeing her at the theater. She will be missed dearly. RIP my dear friend. Thank you for everything you did to make Northern Sky what it is.
– Dawn Welter
I met Neen for the first time sometime around 2005-06. We had bought a little cabin on Kangaroo Lake and at the time AFT was looking for housing for all the employees so we offered that summer. I spoke to Neen on the phone and met up with her about a week after she was at the cabin. I wanted to meet in person and make sure she was ok at the cabin or had any questions. As I pulled up in the drive I noticed a big van was on the lawn up on a ramp and someone was underneath it. I called her name and this tiny adorable grease covered woman (Im 6'5 so tiny to me) came crawling out and it was Neen. I said hi and asked how it was going. Apparently the van she was using needed a new axle, or tie rod or steering column and she was repairing it! it wasn't just a simple oil change! So we talked for awhile and after she told me all she did with AFT and I was amazed at her fixing this van in her 'spare' time. After that I got to know her as a friend and had made it out to as many AFT shows as I could and always got to go backstage to say hey and often ran into her and Jimmy Kaplan at the AC Tap after a show! And in the whole last 10 or 15 years I've known her she has always been non stop and on the go, but still always had time to talk a bit or at least say a quick hello. My heart goes out to all of her family and friends for such a great loss. She was one of a kind and will be missed always. Best wishes to all of you.
– Pat Palmer
Neen Rock will be greatly missed. She was a co-worker, a union sister and friend. She was a great stagehand, so good in so many departments and as we were union sisters, we worked together on many shows and tours.
She was the best stage manager I have ever worked with and it was a pleasure to work with her in Door County ( Neen was the person who introduced me to Northern Sky/ American Folklore Theater and thought I would be a great fit as their Costume Designer and she was right, it was.) and in Madison at Madison Ballet.
Most importantly, she was a close friend. We spent hours on the phone as we were each other's sounding boards for the shows we were both a part of, discussing our families and life in general. We both had the same philosophy of "There are no problems, only solutions"
I will miss Neen's smile, her kindness, her quick wit and her ability to weigh every issue and find the best solution.
There is a big hole in my heart but I hope to fill it by passing on Neen's kindness in my one life and keep her spirit alive.
– Karen Brown-Larimore
My first knowledge of Neen was before either of us were adults. She was the beautiful red-headed "big kid" who lived down the street. Her sister, Mary Ellen, and I sometimes played dodgeball with other neighborhood kids in the summer on the playground kitty-corner from their house. I recall Kathleen calling her little sister back from supper on a summer afternoon and, before they ran home, checking that I was okay to get home alone, just up the hill. She made me feel like there were big kids watching out for us, when not all were.
That was Neen.
We met first professionally through a rehearsal for Christmas Carol at CTM in 1980. Her mom was choreographing the show and had Neen come into help her recall the choreo she had worked out at home. She was trying to convince Neen to step into the show in case one of the other gals would be snowed out (many cast members came from rural parts of Dane County). It was the same year I met Fred Alley, actually, when we did a show together at another theatre. They were not to meet for another few years. Neen was everything I wanted to be: smart, beautiful, capable, kind, strong, light on her feet, quick witted, easy to laugh, with a great eye for design and function and tough as an old pair of boots when she needed to be. We could never recall the first show she stage managed that I was in but I do recall the first one we worked on together as a team. It 1984, my family returned to Wisconsin and after the summer children's show, I was offered me a chance to run spot Op for a show called, "Canterbury Tales" with my friend, NY actress, Jenny Woodward. On the first day, I mentioned to Neen that my favorite stage manager up to that point had been Nancy Troia, a bit of a legend in Madison theatre in the 70's and early 80's. Neen told me that was who she aspired to be as good as Nancy. Humble, hard-working and ambitious.
That was Neen.
After Canterbury Tales came "The Fantasticks" and the three of us, Jenny, Neen and I were on headset again, in hysterics. The jokes from Canterbury Tales and Fantasticks have kept Neen, Joe Thompson and one or two others giggling for 35 years. The Isthmus Playhouse was the setting for a dozen or so shows that we did together for the next three years. The next spring she gave me my first gig in the booth with her running the board for a production of Madison Rep's "The Miracle Worker" where she told me that the hardest part of my job was to stay awake for the 12 minute crickets cue during the dinner scene between Annie and Helen. We never laughed so hard as on that show, our stomachs hurt. And we never missed a cue.
That was Neen.
in summer of '85, when I think she earned her IA card and mentored several others beside me to do the same, she upgraded me and gave me more responsibility. Thanks to Neen and those to whom she recommended me, at 16 I had a purpose and a home that I felt valued and seen and heard: as her ASM on"Oklahoma" and "Peter Pan" and in the summer ASM and Props on Madison Savoyards, "The Gondoliers"
But here's what these titles and chronology belie... Neen didn't just teach stage craft or tell me what to do. She let me figure it out and gave me a reassuring backstop that said, "I believe you can figure this out on your own and if you need anything, I have your back." We would sit there and parse it all out - why this costume did or didn't work with THOSE lights. Why that prop was hilarious and that one wasn't. What could we do to increase the charm/terror/beauty/expression of that moment in our alloted design slot? What did THAT director do this year that other one didn't do last year? We had a technical/design and performance colloquy that lasted decades. There was no one I loved to discuss all aspects of theatre with more than her.
That was Neen.
Years later, as friends, she told me she felt we were growing up together. I do the math now and that feels like it might have been correct. But, at the time, she seemed incalculably older and wiser and more beautiful and knowledgable than I could ever attain. We shared laughter, wisdom, giggles and friendship for more than 40 years.
When I got the job with AFT in 1994, it was on Neen's recommendation via Fred. I remember we drove up to the county together in my car (because hers would not make the trip?) and we landed at Burnt Hollow where Fred and Jeff were living at the time to deliver a bundle of props, etc. and I was going to stay the first night until I had my own lodging at the Potter's Wheel. Having no car, Neen needed me to drop her at her folks house down in Jacksonport. Actually, when we got there, what she really needed... was for me to go into her house first because "the man" might be in there. I laughed and laughed as I turned the key, opened the door and went in hollering with my flashlight, looking for a lightswitch, falling over furniture and making a giant racket. Neen, laughing at her own childhood fears of a dark house alone as a young woman, came in and switched on the light to see me sprawled over a chair that I nearly broke in my flailing about. This memory will seem at odds with the courageous, intrepid dame everyone at NST knew her as in the last 20 years. But there was a time when even Neen was afraid of the dark. And she knew that every single one of us had that sort of vulnerability because she was never afraid to express hers to others.
That was Neen.
Many people will speak to her innumerable, immeasurable contributions to specific companies. And, I only worked with her at about 6 of the ones she impacted. Her grace, good cheer, incredibly quick ability to say, "Yes, and..." to all problems posed was iconic and built the spine of technical theatre throughout SW and NE Wisconsin. Between her work at Opera, Musicals, Theatre, Ballet, Modern Dance, and touring shows (I will never forget when she almost got crushed moving 180lb speakers at the Madison Coliseum for a UB40 concert. And how hard it made her, Frank Furillo and a bunch of other local IA guys laugh when she told the story...) I would hazard that she mentored literally thousands of young and developing artists and genuinely uplifted, supported and created space and safety for thousands of mid-career artists who crossed her path creatively. Those artists knew they had been touched by Grace on some level, even if it was simply more confidence or joy as the lights went up.
That grace... was Neen.
Recently, Jeff Herbst in a tribute to Neen said that he never wanted to let Neen down, ever. That rang very true for me and felt the way I have since I first met her. Her integrity, her solid spine, her ability to care for the most shy and unfocussed of children in a cast of 60 kids in a summer show, her ability to make very anxious adults calm in a crisis and her unwavering sense of purpose, duty, clarity and love for this "world of show" was so inspiring. That calm net of love and competence ...
that was Neen.
I keep wanting to simply say that I will miss my friend. Over the past 25 years, that is what we have been... Friends. There is no one I want to talk about a show (Dance, Opera, concert, musical, theatre performance) more than my friend, Neen. She was a keen critic and we allowed the other to say things that we would not normally. And she was never afraid to voice dissent so we could get down to a deeper truth. She was profoundly talented and profoundly in love with talent and the ability to draw it out of others was a great joy and source of pride to her.
That was Neen.
Yeah, we could work on a show and we could build something together that looked frighteningly professional in 24 hours, given the chance. But, the thing I cherished the most was that we always had our friendship at that back of it. When we both stopped what we were doing (which almost never happened), we could connect and touch the bottom of the ocean of our hearts... which was located somehere between the corner of Chadbourne and Roby in Madison, Peninsula State Park and the corner of F and A in Fish Creek. Perhaps, I will see her there again.
My love and deepest condolences go out to her siblings: Julie, John, Bill, Mike and Mary Ellen, you were so lucky to have her as an ACTUAL sister. I hope to give you all hugs very soon - just as soon as we can. Love to all who loved her and felt her love back.
That love you are feeling?
That was Neen
– Amy Chaffee
How so much drive, compassion and skill could fit into one person, I will never know.
I had the pleasure of working as a production intern for Neen in 2018. It has always stuck with me how she managed to make time for everyone while still masterfully handling the hundreds of tasks she seemed to do everyday. I do not think anyone felt insignificant around Neen. She always had time to lend a hand or an ear. (Or if she was busy, she would always do her best to circle back to you.) She seemed to see the best in people and bring out the best in people too.
Thank you, Neen.
– David Firari
Neen was a dear friend for 50 years. We skied in the U.P. and would connect a couple times a year to catch up. Her smile and laugh is a memory that I’ll treasure.
– Mike Shouldice
I feel for my friends at Northern Sky. I was lucky to work with Neen on three shows for AFT/NST. There are very few artists who are as generous and welcoming as she was - in her spirit and memory may we continue to pass her generosity on to others.
– Stephen Hudson-Mairet
Neen was the first professional stage manager I worked with...and of course, then the bar as set has high as it could go forever! I was lucky to be able to work with her in the early 1990's on the UW-Madison Humorology shows. I was in awe of how someone could be so great at their job, so intense, so focused...and so warm, so welcoming, so funny, so well, everything great...at the same time.
When I got to see her in-person again over recent years during our time sharing space with Madison Ballet, it was just a treat. She will be missed by so many.
– Mike Ross
I am deeply saddened to hear of Neen’s passing. I will miss the warmth of her presence and her cheerful smile. She was truly the glue that made the magic of Northern Sky happen!
– Peter Tan
I feel blessed to have gotten to know Neen while working with Northern Sky during the summer months of 2015-2017. After my shift at the box-office, I would often sit and watch the rest of the show beside her on the infamous back bench. I was always in-awe of how focused she was managing each and every show, regardless of how many times it had been performed. I will always remember her friendly smile and the laughs we shared from behind the audience.
– Eva Jade Webber
At the first day of the workshop for "Oklahoma in Wisconsin", Neen introduced herself and said, "I am here to facilitate your creativity. Anything you need, come to me." I hugged her and told her I wished she could stay with me forever! I was floored by her warmth, generosity and sincerity. When I returned home to California, I sent Neen a personal note telling her I felt that I had made a new friend. When I returned to Door County for rehearsals of "OK/WI", Neen continued to amaze me. She created a prop of a genuine Fish Creek phone book from 1954 (the year our show was set), and made a fan magazine with a picture of Howard Keel on the cover. The audience would be too far away to see the incredible detail, but it was important to Neen that everything onstage be as authentic as she was. I will never forget Neen and the way she welcomed me into the family at AFT/Northern Sky.
– Richard Castle
Neen Rock. The brightest light in the Northern Sky. A woman who touched every soul she met. A woman who deserved to be showered with turquoise earrings every day.
Summer of 2019 Neen took 6 individual actors and turned them into a team of stagehands, and each member of Team Bone Man did everything in their power to make Neen proud. I remember *wanting* to put in more hours just to get sacred alone time with Neen. When we left at the end of the summer, she looked at us with tears in her eyes and said “I know I’m never going to have another group of interns like this.”
Neen, thank you for making 4 months of 15 hour days seem like less of a marathon. Thank you for being our biggest cheerleader, confidant, and friend. You will be missed by an entire community. I love you.
– Mari Duckler
Neen and I attended Edgewood High School together. We were acquaintances but Neen was one of those people who made everyone feel welcome in her presence. I live in Ashland Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I love theatre and so enjoyed watching the tribute video for Neen. What a great life she had. It is an honor to make a gift to help sustain the place she loved so much. Please tell her siblings hello for me.
– Kathleen Quinn
Neen was such a light. Yes, she was an amazing Stage Manager, but more rare and importantly, she was an amazing person. My summer at Northern Sky Theater was made invaluable by having her as a boss. She taught with grace, held everyone’s spirits high and had absolutely everything under control at all times. She taught me how to be a strong woman in the theatre by her example of dedication to the art, to her integrity and to those around her. So many were impacted by her life, directly and indirectly. Although there were so many unforgettable moments with her, the memory that I will never forget was one of the many times I was horsing around as an inexperienced and naive intern, she very firmly and intensely reprimanded me at notes at the end of the night and when I went up to her to apologize after she not only accepted the apology but took time and compassion to share a story of a time she was in the same position. This was one of the first times that I had seen true compassionate leadership. I always felt safe around her and taken care of by her, even though I knew she would whoop me if I stepped out of line. She is and will always be one of my role models. Neen, thank you for everything. I truly believe I wouldn’t be who I am today without our meeting.
– Laura Lydia Paruzynski
Howard and I have seen every show AFT/Northern Sky has done, so we've known Neen for a long time, though many of the people who wrote comments had the joy of knowing her even longer. We didn't consider ourselves "special friends," because we didn't work with her every day or socialize after work, but she was certainly someone special in our lives. Every year since 1992, (except 2020, of course) we've volunteered one or two nights a week, and Neen was always there to say hello or share a hug. It just occurred to me that I never saw her just stroll around or sit down -- unless it was in her stage manager's chair. Otherwise, she was always on her way to do something. But she was never too busy to stop for a minute wherever we were assigned for the evening. She cared.
For 15 or more years, we've provided dinner once or twice a season for the cast, crew and volunteers. Often, the menu included spicy tomato dill soup. If there were leftovers, Neen always asked, "Could I take that home?" I hope there's someone else in the company who likes it as much as she did!
I am comforted by the thought that Neen and Fred are together again. What conversations they'll have!
– Patty Williamson
There is no one will not miss Neen Rock. She impacted everyone she met and never with a shred of negativity.
For me, she embodied the spirit of Northern Sky like no one else and her spirit will ride with me always.
With much love, and enormous admiration.
– Pam Kriger
It is wonderful just to read the thoughts of all who loved Neen. Our family shares them too. I think that she is just the poster girl for the many other "Neens" that make Northern Sky exceptional. She represents so many of the group that have bonded, loved and created wonderful fun things together. I hope that all can stand on her and others shoulders to continue this great tradition. When we served meals, Neen always helped when we needed something and it was important to save beef franks for her to eat as she buzzed by. Oh, and remember not to park in her parking place.
– Lloyd Rowley
I have a profound memory of a backstage moment with Neen that I would like to share. I can't speak for all actors, but many of us have a tendency for the dramatic off stage as well as on. Sometimes, especially during the long hours of tech week, we (I) may blow problems out of proportion.
In this memory I have, I went to Neen with a problem. I was full of self righteousness at what I perceived as the unacceptable scope of it. It was my first summer working with Neen, so I'm not sure what reaction I was expecting from her; probably also a heightened one. But she met my indignation in a way I will never forget. She put her hand on my arm and calmly asked for more details. She looked at me and listened as if this problem was just as important to her as it was to me. And the amazing thing is that her humble acceptance and sincere willingness to help made me take a step back and put things in perspective; it made me never want to act like that again. Neen was no dummy. She probably wrote the handbook on how to deal with irate actors. But here's what I know. She made me change the way I approach such problems.
In her humble, obliging manner she made me a better actor, castmate, and person. Thanks for the life lesson, Neen.
– Rhonda Rae Busch
Neen was one of the brightest lights in the Northern Sky. She had a singular way of giving you all the support one could ever need, and making sure you knew exactly what was expected of you in return. Although you knew Neen was constantly pulled in many directions (as stage managers always are), she was remarkably "present" the second you needed her. I'm grateful I had the opportunity to work with her, and even more got to call her a friend. Every visit I made to Door County, we managed to carve out time for each other, and I'll always remember her generosity and heart. Much love to her immediate family, and to her artistic family at Northern Sky.
– Richard Carsey
I had the pleasure of meeting Neen in the summer of 2013. It was my first time working with what was then still American Folklore Theatre. Neen was a singular force that helped push us all in the right direction at all times and it was so easy to love her. There was one time that she had me run to the barn to pick up some props we needed to use for 'Loose Lips Sink Ships.' I was tasked to find this plastic punch bowl that looked like it must have been used for over a decade already. When I found it and all of the matching cups and ladles, they were completely sprinkled in mouse poo. I brought all the props back to the rehearsal space and began unloading. When Neen saw the state of the punch bowl she was naturally taken aback. How could she ask actors to put their lips up to something that had been quite that dirty? I was in the scene where the bowl was used and needed to drink out of thses cups so before she could say anything I offered, "Would you like me to clean out the typhoid bowl?" It took a moment for us both to hear what I had just said, but we absolutely lost it afterwards. For the rest of the season we referred to the punch bowl as the typhoid bowl. I'll always remember Northern Sky as a place where I was part of a truly loving community - and that was in no small part thanks to Neen. I will always be thankful for having known her.
– Teddy Warren
I had the pleasure, (or displeasure for some) to help with strike for several years. Neen was always so pleasant and always had time for you. Whenever I was at the park or in the office, she always had a smile, hug and time for you. I will miss her smiling face, when I am there.
Sending hugs, and prayers for her family and friend.
– Joyce Herbst
Neen was so much.
To the theatre, to Brian, to the world. She was, and is, a special force of nature, changing our world, and altering countless people's lives for the better.
I'm so grateful for this rare, precious person.
– Colin Welford
Neen was our neighbor for a summer when she stayed in the cabin next to us. One day, the hood on the old van was up. I walked over to see if my handy Tony could help her out. She said, 'That's ok, it is only a brake line; I can fix it myself.
Another time, Neen had a really bad cold. When she hadn't emerged at the regular time to go to the park, I walked over with some soup to see if she was ok. Had to knock on the window to wake her up. When Neen realized how late it was, she hopped in her van and zoomed out of there. I didn't understand until later how important her role was in show prep, beginning and continuing.
– Trudy Chelmecki
Neen was so easy to work with. When we knew that Need was stopping by to pick up keys, we felt assured that Birch Creek facilities were in good hands. The metaphor of a conductor comes to mind- she had all of the players, entrances, themes and tasks in her mind and seemingly without effort made everything come together on cue.
The season after Birch Creek re-keyed all of our buildings, Neen picked up the new set of keys for the rehearsal spaces that Northern Sky was renting from Birch Creek. But, that year it was a bit tricky -- areas were assigned zones which triggered the use of a different key. Rather than memorize the key codes, Need color coded the zones with a corresponding key. No doubt this saved time and brain power when working with a myriad of interns who were coming and going; all on tight schedules. Neen's dot is still on one of the door handles today. Every time I see that handle, it makes me smile. I have such fond memories of a dear soul.
– Mona Christensen
I'm thankful to have had Neen in my life. She was a guide, a comfort, an artist, a pro, and ever a friend. I really appreciated her vast knowledge of theatre, music, dance, and wisdom when working with people. We shared a few summers in the same cabin compound when I was playing for AFT/NST. That meant that sometimes we shared lawn mowing duties by day and porch stoops and a beverage by night after a long week of shows. We could talk shop or nonsense and there was often some animal or star to observe. Later, I always felt I had a seat at the bench whenever I wandered into the Park years after my time with the company was over. We still connected like it had been a week, not 6 months or a year. I'm sure it was like that for many of us. If I feel this level of grief at her parting, I can only imagine how her family, and my friends who have been with her every day, are feeling right now. It is like the pages are missing from the prompt book, the cues are yet to be written, and we "go" in 5.
– Maureen Milbach
Two summers working with Neen as an intern changed my life--and it's a little hard to write about it. What do you say about someone who was so inspirational, stalwart, passionate, giving, humble, honest, and caring? I have so many little stories and so much love for Neen.
Luckily, I had talked to Neen a few times in the months before her passing. We shared feelings of pandemic and political anxiety--loneliness and fear. Here are some words from the last email I received from Neen on the day of November 3(the presidential election):
"I too am terrified. However, I believe that regardless of the outcome of the election, we will persevere. I believe as this pandemic moves into possibly the most dangerous of times, we will persevere. I believe that even though this country may stay divided for some time, combined with rising feelings of some hatred of which I could never have ever imagined, we will persevere. We must. We represent people of love, compassion and acceptance. This is what compels and drives us. This is how we will survive.
I am so lucky to have you in my life and on my side. I am so lucky to know you and your beautiful family. I feel part of a wonderful and loving community because of you and others like you! This message from you is incredibly strong and that strength is passed to me. I will do my best to pass that strength along, especially to those who may be in despair at this time. With love, Neener"
– Isaiah Spetz
Our hearts go out to Neen's home family and her stage family and send our most sincere sympathy to all. We are shaken to the core at her passing. To us, Neen was a dear friend. She always had time to say hello and share a hug.
Neen encouraged and inspired me to write a book about Northern Sky and she was the main character along with Mischief, a racoon patterned after one she found in her car going through old food wrappers. She provided me with countless props from shows past and many photos were taken. The book was put on hold with the Covid outbreak. I told her I planned to dedicate , Mischief and the Magic of Northern Sky Theater," to her. She laughed and asked me why I'd do a thing like that. I told her she was the soul of Northern Sky and needed to be recognized for all that she did. She was very pleased and humbled. I never did get the final pictures but now feel compelled to finish the book in her honor and will dedicate it to her. To us, Neen was the soul of Northern Sky. She represented all the hard work and sharing of self that all the Northern Sky family continue. There is a huge hole in our lives and it is hard to grapple with. When we usher and look up at the stars there will be a new star shining on us all. Neen's soul lives on in our memories as her positive actions touched each of us in a special way. Her organ donation is a reminder that she is still giving to others. Thank you, Neen.
– Sue and Joe Jarosh
One of the very best human beings I've ever met.
– Dennis Johnson
Neen... a treasure chest overflowing with love... plain and simple... I won't ever forget her... ever...
– Corinne Rockow
Neen—one of the most generous, supportive, organized, and skilled I’ve ever known. Receiving her nightly performance reports made me feel like I’d been in the park watching the show, and reminded me that the company and our show could not be in better care. I wish we’d spent more time together, and I will miss her deeply.
– Clay Zambo
Neen was not only a friend, a stage manager or fellow college, but I believe Northern Sky's number one fan. She sat in the back of the house calling hundreds of shows probably thousands. And I know that she watched every one with the excitement of being opening night. She rooted for you to succeed on stage. She watched your mistakes without disdain. She let you explore, try new things, and tell you what worked and especially what didn't. And she loved it. It was never a chore, it wasn't a job, it was a complete joy. And I can say it was a joy to work with her and perform for her every time.
I'll miss her energy. I'll miss seeing her in the back of the house. I'll miss her calling places. I'll miss replying to her, "I'll never be ready!" I’ll miss how she would get excited about something you said and grab your arm saying, “Get out!”
I thank her for always willing to listen. I thank her for helping out when you ask. I thank her lending you that tool you needed. I thank her helping my daughter with her costume. I thank her asking my opinion. I thank her treating me as an equal.
We love you Neen. Thanks for everything.
– Chase Stoeger
Have a memory or sentiment about Neen that you would like to share? Send us your story or photo using the form below to have your memory featured in a tribute. Or email your tribute to our Marketing Director, Ann Birnschein, at email@example.com.