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World Premiere of UNSILENT NIGHT at Next Act Theatre. Photo by Ross Zentner.
30 June 2023

Garding The Wisconsin Idea: The Legacy of World Premiere Wisconsin

Mike Fischer, for World Premiere Wisconsin
Garding The Wisconsin Idea: The Legacy of World Premiere Wisconsin Image Theatermakers assembled for WPW’s Closing Celebration hosted by Northern Sky Theater. Photo by Len Villano.
In no other way can Americans so well express the core and blood of their democracy; for in the communities lies the final test of the acceptance of the arts as a necessity of everyday life . . . A consciousness of the people, a knowledge of their power to generate and nourish art, and a provision of ways in which they may do so are essential for our time . . . And let us start by acceptance, not negation – acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as in large . . . Let us accept the goodness of art where we are now, and expand its worth in the places where people live.


– Robert Gard, The Arts in the Small Community



Robert Gard visits with farmers on May 9, 1955. Gard traveled across the state (note the Wisconsin Idea Theater logo painted on the side of his truck) to promote and cultivate the theatrical arts in rural communities. Photo provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

In 1945, a 35-year-old Kansan, then directing a folklore and local history project in Canada, accepted an offer to join the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty. His name was Robert E. Gard, and he’d spend the next four-plus decades applying the Wisconsin Idea to the arts throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Inspired by Progressive Wisconsin governor Robert M. LaFollette and UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise, the Wisconsin Idea dared to dream that the boundaries of the state’s flagship university campus should be the boundaries of the entire state, with innovations in the arts and sciences made available to all Wisconsin residents.

Those residents were in turn encouraged to cultivate their own artistic interests and special talents, all with a view toward strengthening communities and, by extension, democracy itself. After gutting public funding for the arts in 2011, Governor Scott Walker attempted in 2015 to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the UW System’s mission statement. He failed.



Before 1945 was out, Gard had established the Wisconsin Idea Theatre Conference, imagining it as a “cultural movement” that might bring together all the theaters in Wisconsin.

Always generous in acknowledging the contributions of others while correspondingly modest about his own, Gard noted that the Wisconsin Idea Theatre was raised on a strong foundation. “The Wisconsin Idea had been responsible for the development of the first movement in community theater in the United States,” Gard noted in an interview.

Maryo Gard Ewell – Gard’s daughter – noted in a recent article that as early as 1914, Wisconsin community theater productions could draw thousands, while attracting national attention; by 1932, 40 of Wisconsin’s then-71 counties had staged a drama event. A 1938 Milwaukee Journal editorial suggested that “when rural communities reveal such a hunger for plays, it means something – something big.”



L to R: Festival Producer Michael Cotey, Northern Sky Artistic Director Jeff Herbst, and Forward Theater Artistic Director Jen Uphoff Gray. Photo by Len Villano.

Before the 1940s were out, Gard had also established the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association; in the 1960’s, he’d be among the initiators of the Council for Wisconsin Writers. In 1964, he launched the Rhinelander School for the Arts, bringing writers together each summer to share their work; many of them were rural women who’d never before been encouraged to develop their innate talent or give voice to all they’d felt and experienced.

All of these (and many more) Gard initiatives were, Gard said, about “trying to get people to investigate their own backgrounds and their own lives and to identify those landmark things” in everyday life.

“What I have tried to do,” Gard said toward the end of his life, “was to find in every place that I have chanced to live those things in local life which were tellable or retellable in terms of story and collected tradition and reminiscence.”

Gard himself was a playwright and fiction writer; a Gard story about lumberjacks inspired Madisonian musician Dave Peterson – with whom Gard had already collaborated on a Wisconsin Idea Theatre play – to write a musical for the Heritage Ensemble, a theater company he founded in 1970. Gard loved it.

We know the Heritage Ensemble as Northern Sky Theater, which continues to produce all new musicals grounded in Wisconsin life – including The Fish Whisperer, which debuted this year as part of World Premiere Wisconsin. Doc Heide, a Peterson protégé with a role in The Fish Whisperer, has been with the company for 50 years; Jeff Herbst, another Peterson protégé appearing in that play, is Northern Sky’s Artistic Director.


WPW creator and Forward Theater Artistic Director Jen Uphoff Gray. Photo by Ross Zentner.

It’s no accident that Jen Uphoff Gray – Artistic Director of Forward Theater as well as the person who dreamed World Premiere Wisconsin into being – invoked the Wisconsin Idea in the video unveiled at WPW’s closing ceremony, held in Northern Sky’s beautiful indoor theater space in Fish Creek. It’s not much of a stretch to call it the house that Gard built.

“I think of World Premiere Wisconsin as an embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea,” Gray said. “This idea of working together to uplift and share with everyone around us – this is our chance to apply that to the theater field. And I hope that people who live both within our state lines and far from here can see all that we have going for us here.”

It’s not hard to see, if you look – something national publications once regularly did.

The New York Times wrote in 1949 that Gard’s Wisconsin Idea Theatre featured a “theatre whose walls are the boundaries of the State of Wisconsin, whose stage is as large as all the stages in the state put together, whose audience numbers in the millions and whose participants are the thousands of actors, directors, technicians, and playwrights within the boundaries of the state.”


Thirty-one WI-based writers gathered for the WI Dramatists Retreat held at Ten Chimneys. Guest speaker Samuel D. Hunter seated center.

Unlike the increasingly parochial Times – which declined to cover WPW even though one of its best theater critics twice pitched the idea of doing so to her editors – playwright Samuel D. Hunter came out from New York to speak at the WPW Dramatists Retreat at Ten Chimneys.

Sponsored by the Dramatists Guild Institute and the Wisconsin Arts Board, the retreat allowed playwrights from all over the state to gather at Ten Chimneys – channeling the spirit of Robert Gard as well as new work champions Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who’d long called Ten Chimneys home – during workshops and panels involving their work.

“What you’re doing here represents the frontier of what American theater should look like,” Hunter said of World Premiere Wisconsin. “Take it out of New York. Coming from a guy who lives in New York, I want to read writers in Wisconsin.”

“You did the brave thing, staying in your communities and writing about your communities,” Hunter observed. “I hope theater becomes more local and less New York-centric, less Chicago-centric. You can and should make really good plays in Wisconsin for Wisconsin audiences,” he added, while noting that such locally sourced theater is “the theater that will survive.”

“Fifty new plays in Wisconsin?,” Hunter rhetorically asked. “That’s incredible. Can you imagine if that were happening in every state?”

“As a close neighbor of Wisconsin, I have to say, I’m envious,” said Chicago-based playwright Kristin Idaszak, whose play Tidy was Renaissance Theaterworks’ entry in World Premiere Wisconsin. “My hope . . . both selfish and altruistic, is that it creates a long-term investment in playwrights and new plays that can really rise and respond to the moment in all sorts of ways.”

“I would really love for World Premiere Wisconsin to help encourage people to take the leap and invest in new works, creat[ing] some places for stories that haven’t yet been seen or told on our stages,” said Music Theatre of Madison Associate Artistic Director Adam Qutaishat (his musical Micro, presented through WPW, is one such story).

“My hope for World Premiere Wisconsin,” said Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, is “that in the future this will become one of the premier new playwriting festivals that we’ll see around the country.”




Such projects don’t just take imagination. They take money.

Wisconsin has experienced a long drop in public arts funding since Gard’s heyday; as I’ve noted in prior blog posts, Wisconsin now ranks dead last in public arts funding – at 14 cents per capita – among the 50 states. The comparable figures for neighboring Minnesota and Illinois are, respectively, $7.34 and $5.04. Over the past nine years, Wisconsin has consistently ranked among the bottom five states in public arts spending.

That’s not just embarrassing. It’s a travesty – particularly when one considers that the state is currently sitting on a $7 billion surplus, placing Wisconsin in its strongest fiscal position in more than 40 years. Even as it vetoed Governor Evers’ proposal to invest $100 million in the arts, the Republicans who control the gerrymandered state legislature proposed tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Arts funding isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a political issue.

Even in neighboring and fiscally conservative Iowa, Republican governor Kim Reynolds launched an initiative last year to invest $100 million in arts and tourism because she recognized that such spending isn’t just intrinsically valuable. It also bolsters economic development.

Wisconsin’s creative sector contributes $10.8 billion each year to Wisconsin’s economy, while supporting nearly 90,000 workers and attracting talent that wants to live in a state with a vibrant arts scene. Failing to support that sector isn’t just wrong. It’s also just plain stupid.



That World Premiere Wisconsin happened under such dire conditions – and during a moment when, as Hunter noted in his Ten Chimneys remarks, American theater is in crisis – is more than impressive. It’s miraculous. And it clearly buoyed creatives and audience members alike; I’ve long lost count of how often during the festival’s four-plus months they’ve asked me when WPW 2.0 will debut.

Answering that question is above my paygrade, but here’s what I do know: Since we can’t depend on the legislature to give us the public dollars this project deserves, theaters around the state will need to contribute more if they want there to be a next time for WPW.

Make no mistake: theaters large and small gave time, talent, and money to get our inaugural World Premiere Wisconsin festival off the ground; all of them and the many theater fans who made contributions of their own deserve our deepest gratitude for taking a leap of faith, on behalf of a hitherto untried idea.

But while it’s not nearly the biggest theater company in Wisconsin, my artistic home of Forward Theater gave a disproportionate share of time and treasure, in ways it simply can’t – financially or logistically – do again, notwithstanding it’s outstanding and dedicated staff.

If we’re going to have a second festival – and it’s frankly inconceivable to me that we wouldn’t – other players will, on a proportionate basis, need to do still more next time.


ABOVE: WI Producers on World Premiere Wisconsin.



I’m confident they will; in opening eyes to how much we gain by working together, World Premiere Wisconsin has simultaneously made us aware of all we stand to lose if we don’t.

World Premiere Wisconsin “provided community at a really difficult time,” Renaissance Theaterworks Artistic Director Suzan Fete said, in the closing ceremony video.

WPW brought “such a strong community of support to new plays,” said Sunstone Studios Executive Director Amber Regan, in the same video. It “gave our little theater group credibility, connections, and courage to produce something new,” added Play-by-Play Theatre Artistic Director Mary Ehlinger.

Asked in that same video to describe WPW in a single word, producers and artistic directors from across the state chose words like “unifying” and “inspirational.” “Camaraderie” and “unparalleled.” “Hope and pride.” “Astonishment” and “visionary” and “supportive.”

In her rousing curtain speech before the final WPW opening in Green Bay this past Sunday night, charismatic Weidner Artistic Director Kelli Strickland summed it all up, underscoring what it means to bring together producing and presenting theaters on behalf of the communities where, ultimately, art must live.

Perhaps this festival’s greatest achievement is driving home how very alive art is here in Wisconsin. “The soul of Wisconsin has proved to be just right for the development of that kind of half dynamic, half intellectual and spiritual idea,” Gard once said, reflecting on why the arts thrive here.

How very right he was.



I didn’t always feel this way. Like Gard, I’m a transplant who moved to Wisconsin in my mid-thirties; unlike Gard, it took me a long time to fully appreciate how lucky I was, as someone who has been passionate about arts and letters all my life, to live here.

Regularly reporting on Wisconsin theater for two decades will do that for you. But I was still unprepared for how covering this festival as its designated journalist would strengthen and deepen my love for both Wisconsin theater and artists as well as Wisconsin itself.

I blame the many playwrights and producers I interviewed – more than four dozen in all – as well as the many more who I met during my travels; all of them were generous with their time and open about their enthusiasm regarding the work they’d made or were staging.

I blame the additional theatermakers – designers and actors, stage managers and crew, marketers and front-of-house staff, carpenters and electricians and painters – who generously shared themselves and their work with those of us in the audience, often before or after working long shifts in their day jobs.

I blame United Performing Arts Fund President Patrick Rath and Wisconsin Arts Board Executive Director George Tzougros, who offered me their time and accompanying insights regarding the importance of Robert Gard and community-based art; UPAF’s generosity also made this blog possible.

Festival Producer Michael Cotey. Photo by Len Villano.

I blame all that I experienced during the hundreds of hours spent driving highways and byways taking me to parts of the state I’d never seen or rarely visit – to be regularly reminded along the way of John Steinbeck, whose Travels with Charley makes clear that he was similarly bowled over by Wisconsin’s consistently surprising beauty.

Finally, I blame Wisconsin natives Jen Uphoff Gray and Michael Cotey, whom Jen and the rest of the WPW leadership team tapped to be the festival’s producer (it was easily the smartest WPW-related decision they made).

Jen didn’t just birth World Premiere Wisconsin. During the four-plus years I’ve collaborated with her at Forward Theater, she has done more than any theatermaker in my life to expand my vision of what theater can be, in ways that are avowedly populist, champion marginalized stories, and never – ever – forget the audience. WPW is an embodiment of everything Jen believes about theater; her vision regarding all it could be has expanded my own.

Michael has been changing how I see theater since the days he led Youngblood – still for me the most exciting new theater company to emerge in Wisconsin in this millennium. His passion and enthusiasm are contagious; ditto his fervent belief in vibrant community theater that belongs to and exists for the people. This blog wouldn’t have happened – and I wouldn’t be writing these words – without his work in bringing it into being, laying out every article, and sharing his ideas.



“The best of regional writing,” Gard once said, “is tied to places and people that you have known intimately and that are still very real and many times very important to you.”

That goes for arts criticism, too. As I wrote in a blog post early in the festival, we don’t need more removed and reductive arts criticism that reads like book reports while arrogating the right to instruct audiences what they should see, as judged by some personal aesthetic standard that pretends to be Olympian and objective.

Yes: arts criticism must be informed and expertise matters; I’m a firm believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which suggests that one must log at least that much time to do any job well, arts criticism very much included.

But how will one use that expertise, once it’s obtained?

I’d like to think that World Premiere Wisconsin has marked the most dramatic stage in my own ongoing evolution toward a view of the critic as a conduit, appreciatively channeling what’s seen, as part of a conversation empowering creatives and audience members alike to think for themselves about the why and the wherefore as well as the what and the how of a play.

Yes: As I’ve tried to demonstrate throughout these nearly three score essays on World Premiere Wisconsin, this means that part of a critic’s job involves demonstrating that plays talk to each other.

But more important, so do the people who make and see them, as the experience they share in the dark spawns conversations involving what we love and how we live, in a world where we’ve never been more divided and where we desperately need to come together, democratically collaborating to build our collective future on the world’s stage.

That was Gard’s most invaluable insight. Traveling since February to see plays throughout his and my adopted home state has made clearer than ever to me that despite all the obstacles, his spirit lives on, through the collective conversation we’ve been having about plays allowing us to dream together of all we might become.

We’re having it right now, as I write these words, thinking of you as you read them.

Thank you for all the notes and calls, the emails and words of encouragement, the disagreements and the passion; all of them demonstrate Wisconsin’s hunger for good conversation about theater. I’m looking forward to more of the same with all of you, as we gather to watch the next chapters unfold in the Wisconsin Idea’s never-ending story.



Meet Mike

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter is made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more: