Culture Club: Inside Northern Sky’s New Home

by Dave Hudson

Four years ago, Northern Sky Theater found itself at a crossroads. The theater organization had started as the Heritage Ensemble during the 1970s and had grown into a cultural mainstay of Door County as American Folklore Theater at its outdoor home in Peninsula State Park. 

But for more than 40 years, the organization had lacked an indoor home, so it rented spaces for offices, rehearsal and storage all over the county. It was an inefficient way to run a theater, to say the least. 

In 2015, Artistic Director Jeff Herbst and Managing Director Dave Maier came to the realization that Northern Sky needed two homes: the one in the park for performances and one for off-stage work. That led to the launch of the Constellation Campaign, which eventually raised nearly $8 million to build the magnificent, new theater at the corner of County Highways A and F. 

Holly Feldman, director of development and public relations, said she was overwhelmed by the generosity of patrons in Door County and beyond. From the Goulds, to anonymous donors, to a college student who donated $500 because of what the theater means to her family, the campaign has successfully raised all but $300,000 of its $7.8 million goal to ensure the future of Northern Sky. 

The Campus

Lead architect Peter Tan of Strang Architects took pains to pay homage to the theater’s longtime home in the park, from the parking-lot entrance to the theater. Tan said he was struck by the visual impact of the vertical trunks of the pine trees in Peninsula State Park, echoed by the vertical trunks of the light poles, echoed by the vertical boards backing the stage, so he echoed those elements at the new campus. It starts with the parking lot, which is intentionally set away from the theater so patrons will be taking a walk from their cars up a winding path through the trees and into the new building.

Outside, the blend of natural and modern is striking. There is wood grain and earth tones, but there is also unpainted metal that reflects the light in every weather and at every time of day – glowing at sunset and muted under cloudy skies. Inside, the lobby is a mix of wood timbers and metal, aiming to be timeless but still honoring the history of the theater in the park.

Inside, the lobby itself invites both people and nature in, with tall windows overlooking the landscape. To the west of the lobby, beyond the box office, are the administrative offices where, for the first time, the artistic leadership will sit in the same wing as the administrative staff.

Last, but certainly not least (it had to be said) is the magnificent, new Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater, made possible by a naming gift from longtime supporters. When the project started, the idea was to build a space large enough to rehearse shows that would be performed in the park. The stage at the park has a very large footprint, and the goal was to be able to tape out the entire performance area during rehearsals, not just the downstage arena. The first thought was that this would be a flexible space where risers and chairs could be set up for indoor performances, but it was decided early on that it would make more sense to just commit to building a permanent, indoor performance space.

What a performance space it is! The stage is huge. Anyone who has worked in small theaters knows the challenges of working in spaces without wings (the side areas) or very shallow stages that do not allow much depth in a playing area. None of those problems exist in this space.  The wings are massive, and the stage is incredibly deep. Seeing the bare, empty, massive platform makes the viewer feel as though anything is possible when it comes to staging.

Anyone who has been to the space in the park will immediately feel at home. There are vertical lines and natural wood everywhere, and the space is tall – almost towering. To the house-right side is the most unusual feature: a row of floor-to-ceiling windows that allow daylight to spill in, which makes it possible for rehearsals to take place in natural light. The windows are equipped with natural wood shutters that run the full length and can be closed at any time to allow for a fully lit theatrical experience. Even the ceiling reflects nature through blue lighting bays that evoke a darkening sky.

Literally, the new site is at the crossroads of County Highways A and F, a point not far from what might be thought of as Northern Door’s geographic center.

Figuratively, the theater stands at another crossroads. If you compare Northern Sky Theater to a family, the theater organization stands at the moment when a family sets foot into its first home with doors and windows and a roof. On Aug. 30, when Northern Sky officially opened the doors of its new campus, it began a new chapter that started many years ago – and will continue during the summer season – in the wooded peace of Peninsula State Park. 

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club throughout the summer season, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.

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