American Folklore Theatre: From the Page to the Stage – Original Musical Theater

As I write this, I’m sitting in American Folklore Theatre’s rehearsal hall west of Baileys Harbor. It’s a chilly, rainy day, and the acting company (bundled in blankets and competing for seats close to the space heaters) are gathered in a corner with our music director, learning the final song of one of the shows that will debut at AFT this summer:  Cheeseheads: the Musical.

This is my first experience of staging a brand-new production, and I’m fascinated by the process. Dave Hudson and Paul Libman, the creators of Cheeseheads, have already put countless hours of work into the raw work of writing the show:  envisioning its characters, mapping their journeys, composing their songs, inventing their jokes. The more we work to refine the show, the more I realize how much work has gone into Cheeseheads before I ever arrived in the rehearsal hall.

Now that we’re here, there is a different sort of work to do. Everything about the production needs to be made from scratch. There are songs to be learned, and because we are testing all aspects of the production (music, choreography, sets, and props) for the first time, we are constantly making changes – assigning certain lines to different characters, for example, or changing the material we use to represent the shredded cheese in the factory where Cheeseheads takes place.

Since my role in Cheeseheads is that of assistant stage manager, my work for the last two weeks has mostly involved watching the play – a lot. I’ve had time to think about the play on many levels:  not only about how we will depict shredded cheese onstage, but also about what the play is really exploring at its core. The musical tells the story of a group of workers in a Sheboygan cheese factory who worry about losing their jobs in the face of the shifting economy. These characters buy lottery tickets as an outlet for their various hopes and dreams, but in the end, Cheeseheads is not a show about the power of chance. Instead, it is centrally concerned with living sustainably – that is, supporting oneself with one’s work, putting the emphasis on living well rather than on turning a profit.

It strikes me that the endeavor of running a theater that stages exclusively original musical theater is itself an exercise in sustainability. The process of creating a show is one that calls for conservation, innovation, and creativity:  how can we make use of the props we already have? Are we using our limited rehearsal time as wisely as possible? More importantly, the act of staging all original musicals – musicals about northern Wisconsin, no less – creates a sense of using what we’ve made ourselves, like we’re harvesting vegetables from our own backyard garden rather than buying them at the supermarket.

Though this is my first experience with watching a new show take the stage, it’s something that AFT has been doing since its inception. AFT was founded on and is dedicated to the principle of creating original musical theater to be performed outdoors at the amphitheater in Peninsula State Park (or, in the fall, in Door County’s town halls). In fact, this year alone, AFT will present not only Cheeseheads, but two other brand-new shows:  this fall’s Guys and Does, written by AFT favorites Doc Heide, Lee Becker, and Paul Libman, this summer’s Sunsets & S’mores, written and compiled by the Heide-Becker team with the addition of Matt Zembrowski.

It is shows like these that keep audiences coming back to AFT. And in large part, it is these shows themselves that make me want to work here, that make it seem worthwhile to spend hours deciding on which shredded cheese substitute looks most realistic. Whether you’re talking about vegetables or theater, there’s nothing better than knowing that the product you’re enjoying was grown carefully and lovingly, or that you’ve contributed even a little bit to its creation.

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