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Northern Sky Opens Season with “The Fish Whisperer”

Fishing poles are among Northern Sky Theater’s most often-used props, according to artistic director Jeff Herbst.

That’s because the theater company has presented a long list of fish-themed shows since 1992, including Fishing on the Moon, Muskie Love, The Fisherman’s Daughter and Guys on Ice. This year, The Fish Whisperer joined the lineup when it made its world premiere June 14. 

Cast and crew members of The Fish Whisperer went on a fishing excursion to learn how to properly cast a line. Submitted.

Northern Sky’s fishy focus isn’t intentional, Herbst said, and most of the theater members don’t even fish. But “being on a peninsula, surrounded by water, it just makes sense.”

The Fish Whisperer follows the residents of Shewauga, a small Wisconsin fishing town where the fish have stopped biting. The townspeople are left feeling stuck until a mysterious stranger appears and promises a solution to their problem – for a small fee of $10,000. 

The setting of the play is easy for Door County audiences to relate to, as is the theme of being roused after a period of inertia – especially right now, Herbst said.

“Coming out of the pandemic, it feels sort of appropriate,” he said. 

In addition to serving as Northern Sky’s artistic director, Herbst will star in the upcoming musical as Amos, Shewauga’s mayor. Juggling the two roles isn’t easy, but it’s easier than the balancing act he used to do when he acted in productions that he also directed, Herbst said.

“I would pull myself out to direct, and therefore I wasn’t really in it as an actor,” he said. “And if I was in it as an actor, then I wasn’t able to pull myself out to be the overseer. It’s a luxury to be directed by someone else and just concentrate on my role.”

Jeff Herbst. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

A World Premiere

The Fish Whisperer is part of World Premiere Wisconsin, a statewide festival running March 1 – June 30 that celebrates new plays and musicals. The inaugural program came from Jennifer Uphoff Gray, artistic director of Madison’s Forward Theater, who approached Molly Rhode, Northern Sky’s associate artistic director, to gauge the company’s interest.

Joining World Premiere Wisconsin was a no-brainer for Northern Sky, Herbst said.

The characters go fishing. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“We didn’t even have to have a meeting on whether we would consider joining because [original productions] are all we do,” he said. 

Northern Sky joined Forward Theater and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater as one of the three lead producers of the festival. Other local theater companies are involved in World Premiere Wisconsin, too: Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue PlayWorks premiered I Carry Your Heart with Me May 10-29, and Peninsula Players Theatre is premiering A Rock Sails By June 13 – July 2.

As a theater festival, World Premiere Wisconsin has an unusually wide reach, Herbst said.

“There are certainly new-work festivals that happen throughout the country, but they’re usually only one particular theater company and maybe another co-producing company,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything on this scale. It’s very exciting.” 

But hosting world premieres is nothing new for Northern Sky: That has been its focus since its inception.

“One of the first times I was able to direct something that wasn’t a world premiere, it was so easy,” Herbst said. “Someone else had already figured out that everything worked.”

Fast Facts 

Where: Northern Sky’s outdoor amphitheater, 10169 Shore Road in Fish Creek

When: June 14 – Aug. 25: Mondays, 8:30 pm; Wednesdays and Fridays, 7:30 pm.

To reserve tickets ($10-$33 per person), call 920.854.6117, visit northerskytheater.com or stop by the ticket office at 9058 Cty A in Fish Creek (open Monday-Friday, 1-8pm & Saturday 4-8pm).

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