Door to Culture: The roots of DCA’s Passport Programs

Door County definitely felt more quiet and secluded in 1982. Let’s be real: No internet. A lot fewer tourists and seasonal workers. No Door Community Auditorium to bring performers from around the world to this rural peninsula of Wisconsin. 

So, a group of parents – the Emersons, Birminghams and Guenzels, to name a few – decided to band together to ensure that the students of Gibraltar Area Schools had opportunities to experience and engage in diverse art forms and cultures here at home. 

“It was more a desire to create experimental learning through creative experiences,” said Anne Emerson, one of those parents. “I don’t think I would say we wanted to ‘bring culture to the students’ – sounds a little like missionaries delivering religion to the heathens.”

The parents were inspired by the Wisconsin Arts Board, which started an artist-in-education program to help fund artists’ visits and residencies in elementary and secondary schools. They wanted to join the effort, augment the teachers’ curricula and provide hands-on learning and engaging activities that bring education to life.

They called themselves Friends of Gibraltar (FOG), a nonprofit group committed to providing educational opportunities for students. They started fundraising and went to work setting up artists’ residencies, field trips and school programs.

Early initiatives involved creating a magical forest with sculptor Susan Gardels that remained a part of the school for years, and painting a huge mural with artist Caryl Yasko in what is now called the “mural gym.” Since then, students have also interviewed senior citizens in their communities, performed original songs about their lives and experienced other cultures through dance, music, art and food.

“Every now and then, someone will stop me and bring up an experience they had with a FOG program that made school fun for them, or opened up the world in a new way, or even changed their life,” Emerson said.

Ten years later, in 1992, these same parents helped to make Door Community Auditorium (DCA) in Fish Creek a reality.

“With the success of the programs, these wonderful performances they were bringing in, they realized, ‘We need an auditorium,’” said Cari Lewis, executive director of Door Community Auditorium. “So DCA is an outgrowth of FOG.”

DCA’s first performance featured the Ko Thi Dance Company, an African dance and drumming troupe that also completed a two-week residency at Gibraltar High School.

“Some of the students danced, some drummed, some wrote articles for the newspaper,” Emerson said. “It was standing room only for parents and friends of students who were celebrating a community coming together.”  

DCA and FOG have continued to work together to bring the world to the students – and community – of Door County for the past 30 years through the talents of, among many others, Irish singers and dancers, a Zimbabwean a cappella group, a Haitian American blues musician, a Cuban orchestra and even Siberian throat singers. They’ve also welcomed touring theater and performance companies that highlight American history: Freedom Riders, Everybody’s Hero: The Jackie Robinson Story and Bessie, Billie and Nina: Pioneering Women in Jazz. “Often [performance companies] offer study guides for teachers, curriculum ties, and sometimes we also have a workshop or master class,” Lewis said.

In 2012, they started calling these cultural and educational performances and community-outreach initiatives Passport Programs as a way of describing and promoting them. Though COVID-19 caused some hiccups during the past two seasons, typically Passport Programs include four or five touring groups that perform a public show as well as one or sometimes two student matinees, which any Door County student can attend and participate in. Cost sharing among DCA, FOG and generous sponsors makes this all possible and gives students exposure to arts and cultures they might not otherwise have.

“Some people have the idea that all Door County families are affluent and have opportunities to experience different cultures,” Lewis said, “but a good number aren’t able to do that kind of thing.” 

This year’s line-up offers a fascinating array of educational offerings: the Canadian Brass, a five-person brass ensemble; Peter Rabbit Tales, a theatrical performance of Beatrix Potter’s stories; Step Afrika!, a percussion/dance experience and a returning favorite; Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents, a performance of four decades’ worth of jazz music; and Yamato, a showcase of Japan’s Wadaiko drums.

Along with entertainment and education, these programs promote empathy and understanding, Lewis believes.

“Once you’ve heard someone’s music, someone’s stories, it’s hard to think of that person as an enemy,” she said. “You feel kinship, friendship, see similarities, while also acknowledging and celebrating differences.”


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