The grand design of Professor Jeff Entwistle of UW-Green Bay, part 2


GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Jeff Entwistle is reminiscing a lot these days.

In two weeks, he retires from the faculty of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance, so thoughts of students and colleagues and shows and designs are rushing.

This is the second part of a column that takes advantage of time available due to the coronavirus COVID-19. The first column is here: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-the-grand-design-of-professor-jeff-entwistle-of-uw-green-bay-part-1/.

Today, we jump into the deep end of the pool with these career highlights offered by Jeff Entwistle during his 36 years as scenic designer in Green Bay area productions. Included are his personal notes.

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Favorite designs

(University of Wisconsin-Green Bay except where indicated).

+ “Jesus Christ Superstar” with director Lou Erdmann.

+ Pamiro Opera Company: “Madame Butterfly” with director Phil Krause. “Pamiro was a somewhat different process, and it often changed as stage directors changed. Ultimately, final choices came down to (artistic director) Miroslav Pansky’s and my approval.”

 + “On the Verge” with director Laura Riddle. American College Theatre Festival (ACTF) – Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “The Memorandum” with director John Mariano.

+ “Almost, Maine” with director John Mariano. ACTF – Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “Red Herring” with director Laura Riddle. ACTF – Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “India Song” with director Joel Sass. “Only student director to take a show to ACTF.”

+ “Spring Awakening” with director John Mariano.

Favorite production/concept experiences research to open

+ “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” with director Laura Riddle. (“Moves me emotionally favorite”).

+ “These Shining Lives” with director John Mariano – (“Moves me emotionally favorite”).

+ St. Norbert College Music Theatre – Next Stage: “Newsies,” with directors Andrea Hearden and Teresa Schmidt. (“Most rewarding and supportive process”).

+ Pamiro Opera Company: “Tosca (“Pamiro – Frederic Rieder – The scale doing the impossible”).

+ “Censored on Final Approach.” (“guest director Shifra Werch and visit by WASP Betty Strohfus at age 94”).

+ “Silent Sky.” (“Andrew Atienza full cyc photo real/Hubble like images”).

+ “Enchanted April” (“Laura Riddle”).

+ bobrauschenbergamerica” (“Laura Riddle and Rauschenberg concept favorite”).

+ “Expecting Isabel” (“Laura Riddle – concept favorite”).

+ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“John Mariano, Shakespeare favorite-1”).

+ “Much Ado About Nothing” (“John Mariano, Shakespeare favorite-2”).

Other American College Theatre Festival designs

+ “Play Nice!” – Distinguished Scene Design and Golden Hand Truck Award #7 (“One of four designs recognized in U.S. that year”).

+ “Avenue Q” – “My best paint job (no photos of finished set) and Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “The Christmas Schooner” – Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “Aloha Say the Pretty Girls” – Golden Hand Truck Award.

+ “In Circles”

+ “Camp Meeting”

+ “Children of a Lesser God” – (“First scene and lighting design at UWGB in 1984”).

+ “Rumors” – American College Theatre Festival Award of Merit.

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Along the way, hundreds of students were involved, and the productions were seen by thousands of people.

Name any one of those titles, and Jeff Entwistle can leap into a story or descriptions not like they were yesterday but today. I kidded him about that, saying, “It’s interesting listening because theater is so fleeting, but all I have to do is mention a title, and it’s like your mind is…”

“It’s right there,” he said. “Well, that’s what it’s supposed to do (be indelible), and if you are the one who did it, it’s like holy cow! I don’t want to be feeble minded yet. I’m a little too young for that.”

Our interview took two hours, so I’m going to cherry pick from Jeff Entwistle’s list and offer excerpts from his comments and descriptions.

In 1990, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was directed by Lou Erdmann, who came to the UWGB faculty from New York City. He was full of flint and ideas. Jeff Entwistle said he felt respected and appreciated by Lou Erdmann.

“Lou came to me and said, ‘You know, I want to think about our audience here up in the Great Lakes region, and I want to set this musical on river docks.’ That’s all he told me. River docks in this region.

“That was one of the most difficult shows to come up with a floor plan because it was so open-ended. Nothing seemed to make sense until – you know, that lightbulb thing goes off sort of moment?

“For that show, it was ‘Passion Play.’ The ‘Passion Plays’ always tell the story of the last seven days of Christ’s life, which is exactly the same story that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tells.

“As I was trying to figure out the floor plan, I didn’t know where to go. There’s a very famous picture that’s in all the theater history books of a ‘Passion Play’ in France. When you look at that ‘Passion Play,’ the hell mouth is always stage left or the audience’s right, and heaven is always stage right or to the audience’s left. And in between those two anchor locations are all the other places where scenes take place.

“In the time that these ‘Passion Plays’ were being done, they would move the audience. They would set up scenic locations all across a town square or outside a church in a large courtyard. The audience would watch one scene in one place and then go to another and then go to another.”

Looking at that “Passion Play” Jeff Entwistle came up with the idea of moving the crucifixion scene from stage right to the middle, “and we could we hoist J.C. up on pulley, up on a pole in a cargo net.

“I added a second pole to the behind that area of the set, and we had block and tackle so that we could hoist Him up pretty easily.

“And then on stage left – because there is the scene with Caiaphas and his cronies where he gives Judas the 30 pieces of silver – I put a live bait shop on the docks. I had a sign, ‘Live Bait,” because metaphorically I thought of Judas. I mean, that’s like the most significant piece of live bait that’s ever been used in human history – to try and capture J.C. by using this guy.”

Preparing set for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Being a musical, a combo became part of the onstage effects involving a river.

Jeff Entwistle said, “I developed a river boat with an upper level so the actors could go to the top and could both dance and participate in the scene up there, and the band would embody the lower part of the ship. Right at the time of that show, out in the Fox River, a ship that had sunk many, many years ago resurfaced. Its name was the Mini Selvick. So on the back of that river boat I put Mini Selvick II.

“We made half our river boat with a turning wheel and mast and stuff like that. The spear carriers in the original we made dock workers with peavey poles – those things with metal jaws used to move the logs around in the water, to control them. That’s also what we used to hang J.C. with. We tied His arms to a peavey pole across His back which gave us that cross shape and then hooked it into the cargo net and hoisted Him up to hang Him.

“In that show, I was also doing lights, too. It was fun to be able to have that God light come down through the cargo net. It was a pretty cool moment.”

Of note, the student portraying Christ was Woody Mankowski, who would go on to make a mark as a jazz saxophonist and vocalist.

Jeff Entwistle was an important participant in a remarkable period when Pamiro Opera Company put on full operas in Green Bay. With smoke and mirrors, Miroslav Pansky presented 20 seasons of operas in English.

‘Madam Butterfly’ (1994) is certainly one of the best designs I’ve ever done,” Jeff Entwistle said. “There’s one moment toward the end of that opera where that character sings her most well-known aria. It’s at night, and she’s longing for her love. It was one of those moments that kind of felt like a perfect moment where she was there singing, the light cue looked just so, and it was right at the edge of the house as she was sort of leaning there against the post and looking off into the distance. And it was just one of those beautiful moments where everything comes together, and it felt so good.

“The approach to that show was director Phil Krause told me, ‘I want this to be a westerner’s view of Japan.’ And ‘A westerner’s view of Japan’ – oh my God.

“I had actually done this kind of research in grad school about that era of Japan. One of the ways that we in the west learned about Japan was through woodcuts and woodcut prints. Postcards were very common at that time.

“I started researching all of those, and I found two different panels. I found one that was a repeated pane that they used in Japanese art called Four Seasons pane. You see the same visual image but each image is painted in a different season.

“I also found this perfect one that really captured part of the Madam Butterfly story. She falls in love with the captain of an American ship. It’s a woodcut that shows a picture of a ship in the harbor with other small boats, and you see all the landscape surrounding it. It’s like a bay where the ship has come in. It really captured the sense of the story of her longing for the love of her life, who is going to be coming on this ship. And those four seasons panels also reminded me of longing, that she is willing to wait through the seasons and through the years for her love to return.

“I decided, ‘What if I surround this whole space with postcards or these woodcuts?  Anytime you see a production that’s done realistically of ‘Madam Butterfly,’ you see the house and all the cherry blossoms and pine trees and so forth. What I did is work in the idea of the postcard and woodcut images.

Jeff Entwistle on the set of “Madam Butterfly.”

“There were three portals, and so I did three sets of four seasons panels. Across the top, I would alternate. First, there would be a see-through panel that would be painted like a cherry blossom or pine tree. And then would do two woodcuts, sort of famous postcards – waves of Japan or the volcano in the distance. Every other panel you would have trees that would have been a part of the realistic scenery, and they were separated by woodcuts. And so those alternated all the way.

“At different times in the show, I would turn on the lights behind those panels that had the trees and the cherry blossoms, and so they would glow and illuminate from behind. And then when I lit them all from the front, you just saw these panels surrounding the house and the garden and the little bridge.

“And that little bridge that was down left where the little son goes to play with his boat is still out in my backyard. This is where we brought it after the end of the show.”

Jeff Entwistle’s list includes the 1998 UWGB production of “On the Verge” in which, he said, “great concepts drove the design.”

He said, “The play that goes to all these different places – from the jungles of Borneo to the Himalayan Mountains to a Yeti that’s there to Paramus, New Jersey, to a gas station and a reiki surfers paradise, to a scene that takes place in outer space.

“It goes all over, and I tried to imagine when researching that show, ‘How does the audience go to all those places? How would they connect with any of these different locations?

“That’s when I thought, ‘Through the pages of National Geographic.’ They’ve always had some of the greatest pictures and photographs you’ve ever seen.

“On the Verge” scene.

“In that design, there were something like 800 covers of the magazine and then thousands of colored pages. My wife and my daughter and I sat in our living room, and we went through more than 800 magazines. We just brought back a whole collection of those from the East Coast when we came back that year, and we cut them all up.

“What I discovered when looking through is that you could find some pages that were almost all red. You could find pages that were blue, pages that were green, pages that were largely brown, and then there was a gray. The last one was something that I called photographic, a picture that captured a combination.

“We went through all of those magazines and cut out, knifed out, these pages and put them in six different packs for the colors, and then cut off all the covers.

“Also, a very popular design thing was a lot of artists were thinking about words in design.

“Seeing that cover – and it was so iconic, that yellow band around the outside – I built a yellow band that basically made the border of our cyclorama in the back.

“I remember the conversation with Laura (Riddle, the director), ‘It’s so vast, the places they go to,’ and I made a gesture with my hand sweeping up in a curve. That movement made me think about this mountain that was kind of like a skateboard half pipe. I was like, ‘I gotta do that.’ I sort of created the idea of this swooped-up mountain.

“There’s only four people in this play – it’s very small – and we had a very tiny stage of 10 or 12 feet deep of platforms and some stage floor outside of that, but it was plenty of space for only four people. But we still had to have this vastness of the mountainscape for the show. So I did that half pipe, and it also gave us a nice flat surface to wallpaper everything on.

“And so literally what we did, we had our six boxes of color, and we started at the top of the curved mountain pieces and we went down and we would just do all six colors in an order. So we’d do three colors, then we’d put a cover. Then we did three colors, then put a cover. And the next three colors, and then we just let it happen wherever it happen where it happened, so it had this random quality to it. And then I went back in with extra covers and put them in to help the composition of the visual that you were looking at so I could get a lot of covers there.

“And three of those covers at stage right did happen to say ‘Taylor’s Geographic’ on the cover.

“It was wonderful how that concept and that conversation led to actually a design solution.

“We also knew that we had a fire that we had to do on stage. The characters were supposed to be gathered around a little campfire. We did a half-inch Plexiglas section of the flooring, and that was all covered with reds and oranges and yellows. The colored pages were all in those flame colors, and we put lights under the stage and so they made it glow when we needed to do campfire scenes.”

Again, the idea that “Theater is fleeting” depends on the perspective.

One of Jeff Entwistle’s best-known scenic designs is that of “Green Bay Nutcracker Ballet,” which has been presented for 14 years on Thanksgiving weekend in Meyer Theatre.

Many eyes have viewed that fantastical scenery and looked at the front piece and wondered, “How’d they do that?”

At one time, that piece was blank, of course.

Jeff Entwistle rendering.

“Let me tell you a daunting feeling. I have never found anything that makes you feel the way that you do when you’re in a scene shop staring at a piece of fabric that is 20 feet tall, 48 feet wide and empty – and knowing where you have to get it to. Let me tell you, that’s a real daunting challenge.”

The image of two nutcrackers on an expansive field was painted on a frame in a huge space at UWGB.

“A lot of places don’t have large paint frames anymore,” Jeff Entwistle said. In those cases, “if you’ve got a 20-foot drop, you’ve got to climb 20 feet up and paint.

“Now, we have a paint well that goes down about 10 feet before you get to that lowest foundation of the Theatre Hall building. So we have only have about 10 feet of drop that we have to get up on a ladder to paint at the very highest part. But it’s a small ladder, and you’re not up in nosebleed territory. So painting on a paint frame is so much easier and doable. For 15 or 16 feet of that drop, you are on a solid ground surface. You’re not wobbling. So you’re very comfortable working. That works out nice.”

Completion of all the scenery and props was done over two years at UWGB and the studio of Timothy Josephs, artistic director of Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization. And then… and then… Jeff Entwistle has the story:

“I was in Rennes (Health and Rehab Center) after my first hip surgery about five years ago. I’m lying in there, and Tim Josephs comes in to visit me. While he’s there, he says, ‘Jeff, I have some bad news. The pipes burst at the studio – downtown, the Green Bay School of Dance – and one of the major pipes that went was right over where all the drops are hanging.’ The water was flowing down on those, and some of the drops were also damaged.

“That summer, I hired my daughter back up from Chicago, and I hired Wendy Huber, who had been a student in our program who works professionally as a props artisan. The three of us repainted and repaired all of the drops that had been water damaged – almost every single one of them.”

Theater is very much a collaborative venture among creative teams. A prime example for Jeff Entwistle is the 2016 UWGB production of “Play Nice.”

“We all share visuals and different details. That play was supposed to take place in an attic. I start researching architectures and structures of houses in that region of the country and that period. We talked about, ‘Where might his house have been? What kind of family?’ We actually knew because we knew the playwright on that one, so we had some clues of where to look for things.

“So here I am sharing these visuals of houses and so forth, and our costume designer, Kaoime Malloy, comes in, and she’s sharing a lot of different pictures from the characters. One of her favorite artists, and certainly mine, is Tim Burton. She brought in a book by Tim Burton (artist, film director, etc.) because there were a few characters that she was thinking of as an inspiration for the kids in ‘Play Nice.’ And she’s flipping through the book and comes to one that has more characters in it, and the ceiling overhead is a huge Tim Burton spider web – everything’s so dangerous, things hanging down.

“The one thing about that attic scene in ‘Play Nice’ is there has to be an added window. At one point in the show, they reference it in the dialogue. They have to look out to see someone coming up at the front of their house. One small moment that in the play, and you hardly even remember it. But it’s got to be there.

“I saw this thing overhead. I had been developing different rafter designs, with all these angled linear rafter designs. When I saw that, it was like, ‘That could be really cool. Instead of rafters, we could make it like a huge spider web.’ Well, that was it, and we took off.

“Then we started thinking of it as a visual metaphor for the mother who looms over all those kids.”

Set for “Play Nice!”

“In the ultimate in terms of design, it’s a very simple thing technically. Visually, it worked fine in Jean Weidner Theatre. I had those webs, the strings, running from the outer corners of the web right up over the audience to connect to the pipes back near the light booth.

“But when the show was at the American College Theatre Festival venue with a larger proscenium space, they actually went from on stage all the way up to the catwalks. So it really came out over the audience. And you were very aware of that because you were looking down. You saw where that web was going, and it was sort of enveloping the entire audience into that. That was something we certainly played into.

“The other thing about that show is that the kids are always playing make-believe. The reason they’re up in the attic is they’re trying to get away from their mother. She’s so heavy, so big and fat, that she can’t get up the attic stairs. So that’s where they go to feel safe. We decided, ‘Well, what if they have a whole bunch of stuff in boxes strewn around?’ Basically, we built that show out of cardboard boxes and some props – blankets and old dolls and things you might find up in an attic.

“Because we knew they were going to have to stand on them sit on them, play on them, stack them – every one of the boxes was filled with pink insulation foam. We cut it all and stacked it inside the boxes, and then sealed up the boxes so they could be sat on any which way.

“Then there was another box. One of the key bits was one of the kids had to get into the box to hide. We probably had four of those. You use one a few times, and you go, ‘Whup, that one’s got to go to the graveyard. Let’s get another one.’ So we had multiple boxes prepared for the one that they had to climb in and out of in the course of play.

“But, yeah, it all came from looking at that one Tim Burton drawing and then taking it from there. Once we settled on that web being a visual metaphor for the mother, it took off. That show was one of four designs in the country honored that year during ACTF. I got a small plaque for distinguished scene design. So that was pretty cool.”

Sometimes a scenic design takes on deeper meaning than visual pop. That is certainly the case for Jeff Entwistle with UWGB’s 2017 production of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which he spoke about with a quaver at times.

“When I was chair (of the theater department) the last time, we entered a two-year agreement with the Weidner Center that one of our four shows would be included in the Weidner Center’s education series. All those children’s shows that are brought in? – One of our four would end up being one of theirs. But it was also going to be – because we’re doing it – the only one presented that’s actually going to be a full stage and set production.

“(In the play) people are seeing all of this children’s artwork that was done in the middle of the most horrific events in human history, and yet their artwork sings. It comes from those kids’ soul, and it’s about their dreams, and you’re sharing that with an audience.

Child’s drawing in Weidner Center teaching material for “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

“Researching that particular piece was, well, it is one of my interest eras, right in the middle of the Anne Frank era. The Nazi era has been something that I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by. It touches my soul a little bit – a lot a bit I should say. Doing that show and the research to that show, it just sunk in (his voice turns emotional) as to what their world must have been like. That’s why it’s there as one of those favorites to work on.

“The thing is, the design is pretty simple. It wasn’t anything great shakes. But it worked.”

Theater is constant adapting.

Jeff Entwistle said, “Once I come up with what I present as a final draft and show a perspective sketch of, that is when I can hear anything from, ‘This will work great’ to ‘I don’t think this is going to work because….’ ‘This Random World’ (2020) is a great example of the latter. 

“I had felt that a Japanese shrine was central to the meaning of the show. I originally had a large red Shinto shrine upstage that the actors would walk under, and up above that arch I was going to try to make it rain in the theater. 

“John (Mariano, the director) thought that with so many different locations in this play that he did not want to confuse the audience as to where the scenes were taking place. John asked if he could have more variety of platform heights, which would allow for different platform areas for different scenes. Then some scenes could be played in the thrust area but all defined simply.

“That was when I took another approach to the visual metaphorical meaning of this play – all these characters are searching for meaning in their life and what is the answer about their life. I came up with the idea related to yarn ropes betwixt and between tall vertical posts/trees – when in a park scene, they are trees, and when in an interior, they are perhaps structural posts or they define the edges of the space. 

Concept for “This Random World.”

“I thought of those ropes like a wall in a police drama where you are looking to find who the serial killer is. You have strings connecting all these photos and looking for connections. All the characters are looking for that meaning, but none of the characters get any direct answers – so the answer or the identity of that mythical serial killer is right in the middle of that wall where their picture would show how they connect to all the victims. Only in my design, there is no answer in the middle. Those rope lines don’t have a final destination. There is no one answer to be found, and the audience should try to figure it out as well.”

Tuesday, this column continues with Jeff Entwistle talking about theater and a university, the main topics what happened as COVID-19 arrived and in a bigger picture.

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