EPHRAIM, Wis. — As the sun sets in a blaze of color over the waters of Green Bay, a few hundred visitors to Peninsula State Park intentionally miss the sight.
They're only a couple of miles from the shoreline, but their eyes are focused on another local spectacle. As the sun goes down, the stage lights come up, and the actors take to the boards of the park's amphitheater. Nestled deep in a forest of red cedar, this place apart is home to the American Folklore Theatre, one of the most exceptional professional troupes in the country, and, for many, as much a Door County tradition as homemade cherry preserves.
Like much of Wisconsin, this was once logging country. So it's fitting that, on this particular night, the stage is dressed as the dormitory of the Haywire Lumber Camp, where the grizzled, unwashed male masses can only dream of the wonders of fancifully dressed, sweet-smelling womanhood — that is, until the day a sophisticated lady arrives from the big city.
"Man eating hay, mule in a hat. What in the world is more out of place than that?" croons Fred "Doc" Heide, one of the founders of the American Folklore Theatre.
Founded in 1990, with a hearty dose of storytelling assistance from the late Paul Sills of Second City, the theater has lured hundreds of thousands of vacationers to the North Woods for a night's entertainment with a true Wisconsin bent. Since the beginning, all their musicals have been originals. And each one basks in the sometimes curious culture of America's Dairyland.
"We've created a body of work about Wisconsin culture and touched on many themes that are uniquely Wisconsin," explained Heide. "'Guys & Does' is about Wisconsin deer hunting. 'Guys on Ice' is about Wisconsin ice fishing."
The list of subjects goes on and on. There are cheese heads, cherry pickers and, of course, those saintly Green Bay Packers. All are fair game for the creative minds, Heide's included, that churn out shows to delight children and adults.
"That's incredibly tricky," noted Jeff Herbst, a Madison actor and veteran of the troupe. "It's the ability to attract an adult audience while maintaining the kids' attention."
They're obviously succeeding. Roughly 25 percent of theatergoers here are children, often brought by parents or grandparents who have been coming season after season.
"'Lumberjacks in Love' has a rambunctious, amazing, Marx Brothers kind of energy which the kids really love," Heide observed. "Yet it's full of double-entendres that the kids don't get."
"I've never been afraid to take a grandchild there," said Diana Jansen of Waunakee, Wis. She's been a loyal follower since the theater started.
"Every night, someone comes up to me who says they were here when they were a child, and now they're coming back and often they're bringing their own kids," Heide said. "So it really is a family tradition."
As showtime approaches, anticipation is in the air — along with the scents of pine needles, popcorn and bug repellent. This heady mix of live, original theater costs just $19 for adults. The kids, or grandkids, get in for even less.
"We strive to try and keep our ticket prices affordable. We really do believe that families should be able to afford to see live, professional theater and not have it break the bank," said Herbst, who is also an artistic director. "We don't necessarily glory in dropping chandeliers (as 'in Phantom of the Opera') or $70 million
This season runs from mid-June to late August. The troupe will stage three musicals: the ever-popular "Cheeseheads the Musical," plus "Belgians in Heaven" and a new production, "Victory Farm." It's set on a Door County cherry orchard during
"The fact that we do original programming here is a large part of why we've been successful," Herbst said. "People know that when they come to see AFT, they're not going to see something they've seen anywhere else. I think that makes people feel like they have a certain kind of belonging here."
"It's not like we're rubes and this is all we've seen," added Jansen, the faithful fan. "We've seen Broadway many, many times, but this is different. This is folklore."
In 1990, its first year, the company had a budget of a meager $20,000. That's now pushing $1 million, and attendance continues to grow. Last August the theater had its best night ever, when the evening's two productions drew 1,100 people.
"We want everyone to be able to come to theater," Heide said. "It frankly disturbs me when I go to most theaters and see that the audience is older than I am. And I'm pushing 60. American theater is going to die out … if it only attracts older folks."
If you go
Tickets for the 2012 season of American Folklore Theatre (folkloretheatre.com) go on sale April 16. Order tickets by calling 920-854-6117. General admission is $19 for adults, $9 for teens and $5 for children 3-12. Reserved seats cost $5 more.
Half of the general admission tickets for each performance are held for walk-ups the hour before showtime, so there's almost always a good chance of just showing up and getting a seat.