By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 27, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Door County's American Folklore Theatre has backed up the truck and loaded the scenery. After 20 years of being essentially a stay-at-home theater company, it has hit the road, taking it folksy style of original musical theater on a 14-city tour throughout the state.

First stop is Milwaukee. The AFT opened a two-week engagement of its box office smash "Guys and Does" at the Tenth Street Theatre on Tuesday. The run continues through Nov. 6.

After that, it is taking the cornball musical about deer hunting to cities as large as Sheboygan and Wausau, and as small as Sauk City and West Salem. The company is also reviving its most popular show of all time, the ice-fishing tribute "Guys on Ice," and touring it to four cities, including Madison.

The dual production venture is being called "The Singing Sportsmen Tour," and it signals significant change in how the American Folklore Theatre operates. In the last couple of years, the company has taken steps to grow beyond being an outdoor summer theater that also mounts a small fall show in a small indoor space.

In 2010 the AFT moved its autumn production to the much larger Door Community Auditorium, and it tested the touring waters by performing "Guys and Does" in Beaver Dam, Oconomowoc and Madison. This year the company mounted two fall productions at the auditorium and committed to doing the 50-performance tour that began here on Tuesday. Along the way, the AFT annual budget has grown 38 percent in the last year to $1.4 million.

These are not the symptoms of an overly ambitious arts group hell bent on fame and fortune. The growth is necessary to cultivate the company's creative future, in the opinion of artistic director Jeffrey Herbst, managing director Dave Maier and the organization's board of directors.

Here's some background. The AFT owns an unusual and unique niche in American theater. It produces only original, family-friendly one-act musicals under the stars in a forest – Peninsula State Park. The pieces have been revues and book musicals that relate, sometimes frivolously, to Wisconsin history or life.

The company has, in effect, created its own theatrical genre, and that raises a dilemma. How does it maintain a steady flow of new material onto its summer and fall stages in Door County? The AFT originally relied solely on its own ensemble members to develop new work, but that started to change after its brightest artistic spark, Fred Alley, suddenly died 10 years ago.

Outside theater artists know they are creating for a limited market when they write for AFT. An expanded AFT season that stretches into winter and gives new work exposure beyond Door County provides more financial incentive to write for the company.

"We are working on how to encourage and reenforce the pipeline," managing director Maier said in a recent chat. "We are utterly dependent on original musical theater. We don't have enough resident writers to create at the pace we need.

"With our geographic location, we don't get the attention theaters in large metropolitan areas receive."

Maier calls the current 14-city tour a learning experience for the company. While the AFT has no national touring plans, it sees northern Illinois, Michigan's upper peninsula and the Twin Cities as potential areas for expansion in future years.

This is not the first time AFT shows have played Milwaukee and throughout the state. The Milwaukee Rep has produced four of the company's pieces in the Stiemke Studio Theatre and Stackner Cabaret, and the Rep also took "Guys on Ice" and "The Bachelors" on tour. The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre staged AFT's "Main-Travelled Roads" a year ago.

But now the AFT has taken the touring into its own hands. In Tandem Theatre, the resident company at the Tenth Street Theatre, is handling ticket sales for the Milwaukee leg of the AFT tour. You can buy tickets online here.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.