Playing Their Part

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by Charles Collier, The Denmark News

TISCH MILLS—A simple message welcomes travelers to the unincorporated community of Tisch Mills along the border of Manitowoc and Kewaunee counties minutes inland from Two Rivers. It reads, “No mayor, no city council. Life’s good!” underwriting, in subtle but certain terms, a rural mindset of collective preferences guiding community culture.

Catherine Egger and Michael Sheeks have been embracing that mindset in equally definitive strokes since reopening the Historic Forst Inn last fall as a theatre and music venue.

“We’re testing the water on a lot of things to see how they go over,” Egger said of her efforts booking varying styles of musicians. “The balance for me is to find groups that are appealing to the audience here in the area and yet affordable.”

Upcoming performances by Michael Perry and The Long Beds show at least one example of catering to local interests. Perry, a renowned author from small town western Wisconsin, is in part known for stories relating to time spent as a volunteer firefighter. Egger had heard the multitalented artist had written a musical and hoped the show might be one the non-profit Forst Inn Arts Collective which guides the venue’s theatrical endeavors could produce in-house.

“But I found out our stage was too small,” Egger explains. “But, he also has a band, and our stage was big enough for the band.”

The resulting performances on April 7 and 8 will provide volunteer firefighters from within the Tisch Mills community discounted tickets as a token of appreciation for their role as lifesavers and as stewards of small town values.

Egger is a member of the Collective’s Board of Directors and runs the presentation side of the operation, booking music acts and managing the bar alongside other administrative duties. Though she has previously acted on the Forst Inn stage, she became entwined in the 100-plus-year-old building’s newest incarnation by pure happenstance.

“I’m a realtor, so I just thought I was doing a good job connecting the right buyer to the right property,” Egger said of introductory conversations she had with Michael Sheeks, a UW-Manitowoc theatre arts professor who relocated from Minneapolis.

“I have some experience with business, some with education, some with theatre so I wanted to find a place where I could bring some of the education and theatre pieces together,” said Sheeks, who has directed theatre in community and educational settings for the last 17 years.

Egger, while working with Sheeks in his purchase of the historic property, said that her client, “kept using this ‘we’ word,” while talking about future goals. “I had no intention or idea that I would be involved,” Egger said. “But slowly, we figured out how to divide and conquer and it’s just been great.”

Sheeks admits that the theatre circuit in rural Manitowoc County is less vibrant than metropolitan atmospheres, but to him, that’s far more of a blessing than a curse.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere, and I say that in the best possible way. That’s kind of the charm of it though, right? It just blows people away because it’s a cool little space, and at night with all the candles lit and the warm lighting, and the whole place is warm and comfortable and there’s people and drinks and food and there’s kind of this ambiance going on…it’s just this sort of magical place tucked in the middle of a lot of good, wholesome Wisconsin farm country,” Sheeks said of the 88-seat theatre’s fulfillment of what had once been a simple dream. “It’s pretty cool.”

Directing and acting in a handful of the theatre’s offerings, Sheeks noted the unavoidable connection between performance and audience in a space where the closest seats literally touch the edge of the stage.

“We actually had a scene in Glass Menagerie last fall. And there’s this really intimate moment where two young characters are sitting at the end of the couch having this kind of tender moment. And they’re, you know, sitting right here,” he says, indicating a space no more than six inches from the edge of the stage.

“And right there,” just a few inches further into the darkness of audience seating, “is a lady with a glass of wine and you can hear her set it down. That’s one of the beauties of live theatre; There’s a connection between what’s happening on stage and in the audience. To be in a space where that connection is so immediate is really cool.”

The Collective is in the midst of its first full theatrical season consisting of four musicals and four non-musicals in between Sunday music features. A creative cocktail menu offers drinks titled and crafted with the accompanying show in mind. Ticketed shows include small appetizers at the start and an intermission dessert, which the pair say has been well-received by audiences.

They know their place in history, though, and are striving to create something new without sacrificing what has been beloved in the past. Restorative work to the building’s interior has been limited, leaving the dark, exposed wood beams and rugged hardwood floors to accent the new with that of the old.

“Everyone comes in here and talks about the history,” said Egger. “A lot of people are so gracious we’re here because they have memories of their childhoods in here. Some of these people are in their 80’s or older, so it feels great to provide something like that to the community.”

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