The grand design of Professor Jeff Entwistle of UW-Green Bay, part 1


GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

It turned out to be a grand design, but it’s not entirely what Jeff Entwistle had in mind.

First, singing was his thing.

Then, acting was his thing.

Then, a theater director saw different.

Today, Professor Jeffrey Paul Entwistle is two weeks away from retirement from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance faculty.

Thirty-six years.

His forte: Scenic design for theatrical performances.

Thousands of people have seen his set designs for plays, musicals and operas. Two things have been hidden in his creations.

One. The name of his daughter, Taylor.

Two. Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens?

Yes, this way:

“When he changes, you realize that when you start thinking about humanity, it changes you from the inside. That’s what theater is always trying to do. I remember early on when I realized this is what I’m going to do for my professional career, it was like, ‘You know, I want to feel like that’.”

Much thought and research – and physical work – go into the sets that Jeff Entwistle designs and delivers.

What led him from the front of the stage to the back was his junior year at Bridgewater State University in his birth state Massachusetts.

As with so much about Jeff Entwistle, he has a story about it.

Because of the coronavirus COVID-19 concerns, we spoke by telephone from our homes.

“As it happened, my two high school theater teachers (in New Bedford) went to Bridgewater,” Jeff Entwistle said in his usual cheery voice. “It was about half an hour from home – close enough to get back and forth easily, but also far enough away that I could go to college and feel like I was gone away to school. And both my wife (Donna) and I ended up going there. She was a year ahead of me. We kind of never looked back.

“I was still acting then. I was in every show but one of the three years that I was on campus freshman through junior year. I completed all my courses, and I was in 11 of 12 shows. The last show of my junior year kind of changed my life forever.

“As I was rehearsing and going through that last show, in daytime I was designing a children’s show. It was one of our mainstage productions. We did a children’s show as one of our four every year. On spring break, we would take that show and tour it. While we were on break, the public schools were not. We would take it to different schools – two a day for five days. So it had to be a scaled-down version of the show. It was the first time I painted anything of that scale.

“One of the faculty directors saw that last show as I’m acting, and he says, ‘Jeff, I need to sit down and talk with you.’ I had done a lot of roles and a lot of characters by that time. He said, ‘I’ve got to ask you what you’re thinking about during the course of it because I’m just not seeing the character.’

“We had a conversation of almost two hours.

“Every single question he asked me, I responded, he said, ‘That’s exactly what you should be doing, but I’m not seeing it.’ And he kept repeating, ‘That’s exactly what you should be thinking, exactly where it should be going, but I’m not seeing it.’

“To age me a little bit, this was a time even before videotape. It was really a frustrating thing for me because here I am, thinking all of the right things, but somehow I’m not getting that across effectively enough.

“And at that same time as I was rehearsing, I had just through all of this design work on the children’s show, which was right before that run. What I loved about scene design was that I was able to stand back, see where I was, find what needed to be fixed or made better or changed, go back in, do it, and I could step back again and look – and it was really satisfying to be able to sort of constantly improve your work by how you detail and how you paint and the kinds of composition that you bring to that.

“And it was incredibly fulfilling, especially at a time as a performer I was so frustrated because the director keeps telling me, ‘I’m not seeing it, I’m not seeing it.’

“It was kind of that moment that I said (changing his goal from teaching theater), ‘No, I want to go and study design in grad school’.”

Easy, right?

Not.

In life, a shortest distance between two points often is elusive.

“I began as a singer,” he said. “I was always singing, from early on in school.”

He sang in school and in church. As a high school sophomore – as a chorus guy – he went to his school’s musical.

“It was great fun, and it was like, ‘Hey, it would be fun to do that!’ And the very next year is when I started auditioning in high school. I was smitten. When the theater gets you, it gets you. It just sucks you in.”

By his senior year, he was Tevye, the indelible Russian milkman/father in the great “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He remembers, “By that time, I was so totally in that all I was doing was looking for theater programs to go to college.”

We know where that led. His change of direction had this complication: “Although I finished all the courses in three years, I was still a full 12 credits shy of graduation credits. So I ended up becoming the first college intern at Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. They’re one of the leading rep companies in the

the country. They were the second or third one to win the special Tony Award for repertory companies when they started giving them out.”

Jeff Entwistle was taught by and worked with top-flight teachers such as Eugene Lee, “who has been the designer for ‘Saturday Night Live’ since it began, and he’s done many shows on Broadway. He’s designed and won Tonys for ‘Ragtime’ and for ‘Slave Ship.’ He did ‘Bright Star’ not too long ago. He’s still working on Broadway, still designing ‘Saturday Night Live.’ He was the resident scene designer at Trinity Square.”

That “phenomenal experience” led to pursuit of a master of fine arts degree at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Be aware I am skipping three or four stories about each step along the way. Hearing one about getting an assistantship at Michigan State, I said, “You talked your way into it, hey”?

Jeff Entwistle said, “Yeah, kind of. Plus, even in grad school, I got the whole acting thing jinging again.

“The very first Broadway show I had seen on a high school theater trip was ‘Pippin.’ Wouldn’t you know, the second year in the MFA program and our musical was ‘Pippin.’ The same semester we were doing the play ‘Play It Again Sam,’ which is really kind of cool – ‘Casablanca’ is part of it – a great fun Woody Allen play with all these Casablanca themes. I get called into the office.

“I wanted to audition for Charlemagne (in ‘Pippin”) because I love the role and I love the musical and, like I said, I was a singer my whole life. I went in, auditioned for the musical, and the next day I got called to the head of the program’s office. He was also the producer of all the shows.

“There sits the director of ‘Pippin’ and the chair of the program, who was going to be directing ‘Play It Again Sam.’ He says to me, ‘Okay, I think you have a decision to make because you can either play the role of Charlemagne or I’m prepared to give your first mainstage scene design for the MFA.’

“I took the design for ‘Play It Again Sam,’ and I’ve never looked back – except for times like this, when I get to reminisce.”

Jeff Entwistle is getting to reminisce in my columns today, Monday and Tuesday for two reasons.

One. The coronavirus COVID-19 shut down live performances in Northeastern Wisconsin, opening up more time for me to interview key people in the arts.

Two. A retirement by someone in theater so visible for as long as Jeff Entwistle is hard to pass up as material to write about.

The university has not overlooked him. Professor Jeffrey Paul Entwistle has the distinction of delivering the commencement address for the May 2018 UWGB ceremonies.

Speaking at May 2018 commencement. (UWGB photo)

More than one influential person on campus knew Jeff Entwistle would stand and deliver something with color and meaning – like one of his sets.

***

Here is how he ended that address:

“We need you to inspire us.
“Inspire us: Become an engaged citizen and use your voice.
“Inspire us: Remind the world that humanity has no color.
“Inspire us: Remind the world that ‘All lives matter.’
“Inspire us: Support school safety and a reduction in gun violence.
“Inspire us: Support First Nations throughout the country.
“Inspire us: Support your peers that are dreamers – and their families.
“Inspire us: Raise your own beautiful families.
“Inspire us: Support the arts.
“Inspire us: Support the LGBTQ community.
“Inspire us: Support public education.
“Inspire me: Believe in Santa.

“Congratulations UW-Green Bay graduating class of 2018, and thank you.”

***

Jeff Entwistle arrived on campus from Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

In our interview, he spoke about his time there as part of describing what a scenic designer is – part visual artist, part designer, part craftsperson and part collaborator. But not part engineer. His story:

“That role of engineer – you’ve got to think like one, but the technical director is supposed to solve all those problems. During my career, I’ve done a lot of both.

“In my first three years as an assistant professor at Illinois State, I was the technical director. They hired me in May and said, ‘We know you’re a designer and want to be a designer, but as technical director, you will not get to design anything. You just have to make everyone else’s design work and build those and technology and so forth.’ I said, ‘Fine, fine.’ That was like May 18.

“So I went to work. I also was hired to work as technical director for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which was housed at Illinois State University. About a week in, I get called into the chair’s office. He says, ‘Well, we’ve got a situation. The MFA student who was going to be designing the very first show of the season has left school. He quit the program. So we now don’t have a designer for the very first show of your very first fall semester.’ So they asked me to design it.

“This play I was never supposed to design was ‘Old Times,’ a Harold Pinter play. After that, they said, ‘You can pick whatever show you want next year, and you can pick whatever show you want the year after that to design. But when you design, you have to be your own technical director.’ So, you only get to do it if you’re willing to do all that extra work. So I understand all of those aspects really quite well.”

This all goes into saying scenic designers have to have a wide knowledge base while being conscious of finances.

Jeff Entwistle said, “Even though designers are supposed to imagine anything they can, because of the way I began my career, I’m always trying to solve those problems to make sure that they can be done without just throwing tons of money at it. Because that’s the realities of schools, of working at universities and such. It’s not unending budgets.”

At Illinois State University, Jeff Entwistle began adding something personally meaningful to every set he has created.

“I always hide my daughter’s name,” he said.

“It was when we were pregnant. I was working at Illinois State, and I was designing a production of ‘The Country Wife’ by William Wycherley that had four different locations. We decided to do it so it was period accuracy with the sliding panels and forced perspective the way shows used to be done in the 16th century inside theaters. One of the locations is a series of shops on the streets of London. I had to come up with six or eight shops that could potentially be in an open square. Our costume designer was a grad student – he’s actually been the chair of UW-Whitewater for many years, Marshall Anderson – so I decided I was going to put a tailor shop as one of the shops.

My wife, Donna, and I also had decided by then on the name Taylor. So I put Anderson’s Taylor Shop as the building sign on that particular business. And so that was the first time. It was about two weeks before she was born. After that, I just starting doing it.

“Usually, it’s just Taylor. There’s only one time that I have ever done ‘Taylor Helene Entwistle,’ and that was on the production of ‘Anything Goes’ where the International Signal Flag alphabet spans the whole stage. Sometimes I put ‘THE.’ Most of the time, I put Taylor in in some way.

“It’s hidden in a lot of different ways. It works well in marble. It works great in wood grain and tile patterns and things like that.”

***

Favorite hidden “Taylor” places

+ Pamiro Opera Company: “Madame Butterfly” – Red Japanese signature labels on woodcut panels and one naughty one.

+ UWGB: “Anything Goes” – International Signal Flag Alphabet.

+ UWGB: “Cabaret #1” – Border around Kit Kat Club signs.

+ UWGB: “Blithe Spirit” – Marble flooring up center.

+ UWGB: “Treasure Island” – In wood grain and trim around the ship railing balusters.

+ Weidner Center for the Performing Arts: “A Christmas Carol” – In wallpaper of stage right room for the narrator (Jeff Entwistle).

+ Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization: “Green Bay Nutcracker” – In marble panels at top of Stahlbaum’s arch and Chocolate Chips in “Land of Sweets.”

+ Pamiro Opera Company: “The Italian Girl in Algiers” –   Hidden in the grass at bottom of a Pamiro drop.

***

The name has been imbedded in productions of Illinois State University, in productions of UWGB in University Theatre and the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts spaces of Cofrin Family Hall and Jean Weidner Theatre, in productions of Pamiro Opera Company at Ralph Holter Auditorium of Green Bay West High School and the Weidner’s Cofrin Family Hall, in productions of Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization’s “Green Bay Nutcracker Ballet” in the Meyer Theater in downtown Green Bay and in St. Norbert College Music Theatre Next Stage’s 2019 production of “Newsies” in Walter Theatre in Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts on the campus in De Pere.

That is a lot of places… and a lot of productions.

Monday, this column will continue with Jeff Entwistle exploring more of his career through memories of his favorite productions.

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