By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 05, 2012 at 4:32 PM

Sturgeon Bay – The performing arts have been steadily expanding in Door County during the past 20 years, and two organizations are operating with new management this summer.

Door Shakespeare began in 1995 as an American Folklore Theatre project in collaboration with Blue Circle Theatre, and when AFT spun it off into an independent group four years later, Suzanne Graff and Jerry Gomes, a married couple, poured themselves into running it for 13 seasons. They resigned their positions, Graff as executive director and Gomes as artistic director, in December, and Door Shakespeare is being led this year by a new team of theater artists.

The Third Avenue Playhouse sprang to life in 2000 in a vacant old cinema, the Donna Theatre, in downtown Sturgeon Bay, and it has offered sporadic programing since. Two theater artists with Broadway experience, James Valcq and Robert Boles, assumed management of it last fall, and TAP is now producing its first summer season of professional theater.

The Door Shakespeare change was unexpected and caused the company's board to scramble to mount productions this year. It hired Ross Dippel, whose long resume includes acting credits with the Milwaukee Rep, American Players Theatre and the Utah Shakespearean Festival, to be interim artistic director, and he is supervising the productions of "As You Like It" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" that are running in rotating repertory this summer. The season runs through Aug. 12.

As in the past, the shows are being staged outdoors on the Bjorklunden garden estate in Baileys Harbor, where the company can accommodate up to 190 persons per performance.

Dippel has brought a number of high-profile state theater artists to Door County for their Door Shakespeare debuts. Angela Iannone is playing a duke in "As You Like It," not the first time she has portrayed a male Shakespearean character.

Former Milwaukee Rep resident director Norma Saldivar, who runs the graduate-level directing program at UW-Madison, staged "As You Like It," and American Players Theatre veteran Drew Brhel directed "Complete Works."

Company manager Terese Boeck was running the corporate side of the company until  April, when the board turned to Amy J. Ludwigsen, a Chicago-based actress and administrator whose family lives in Door County, to be the new managing director of Door Shakes.

Ludwigsen was a 16-year-old intern at American Folklore Theatre in 1999, and she returned as an actor and assistant stage manager in 2001, 2006 and 2007. She holds a master's degree in classical and contemporary text from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland, and her extensive acting experience ranges from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Utah Shakespearean Festival and a residency at the Globe Theatre in London to more than a year on "All My Children."

The actress has produced Equity workshops in New York, and she was a marketing and administrative associate at the Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago when Door Shakespeare called. "I quit my job, bought a car and got here June 2," Ludwigsen said during an interview in her office.

"I have always wanted to do this (run a theater company) in Door County."

Ludwigsen said Door Shakes is not in financial crisis. "This is not a make or break season for us." Ticket sales actually increased last year.

But management kinks need to be ironed out. Ludwigsen wants the company to have a greater presence in Door County in the off-season, and she has identified the need to rebuild the Door Shakespeare board, which once had 13 members. Only five persons are currently on the board.

Those improvements would assist fund raising.

Beyond that, she is looking to consolidate administrative, rehearsal and storage space in a single Baileys Harbor location that would include a public area and box office. Ludwigsen's plan would raise the company's profile and allow the troupe to organize its costume inventory to facilitate rentals to high schools and colleges.

Graff and Gomes are raising their two children in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where she acts and he is a senior project manager for a small software firm. They spent summers in Door County, but running a theater company from 350 miles away the rest of the year was a Herculean task. Graff also had to deal with a serious health issue last year.

"Door Shakespeare was grossly underfunded, and grossly understaffed as a result," Graff said during a phone interview. "That put a lot of pressure on the people who were there.

"And there were management and organizational issues. We hit a wall."

Door Shakespeare is the reason Valcq and Boles are now running the Third Avenue Playhouse. Milwaukee native Valcq began performing professionally as a boy soprano with the Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Opera Company, and he acted in summer stock.

After earning a master's degree from New York University's musical theater program, Valcq turned his career toward composing, conducting and music directing for theater. Collaborating with the late Fred Alley of American Folklore Theatre, his stage musical adaptation of the film "The Spitfire Grill" won the Richard Rodgers Production Award presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The show has had more than 400 productions across four continents.

On Broadway, Valcq was a pit musician and associate conductor for the revival of "Chicago" for eight years, and he also played for "Scarlet Pimpernel" and revivals of "Cabaret" and "Flower Drum Song." But a few years ago he got the itch to act again, and Valcq began spending summers onstage with Door Shakespeare, working for his old friend Suzanne Graff.

Valcq and Boles, who met in a Skylight Music Theatre production in 1984, bought a summer home in Door County, and they began exploring the possibility of starting their own theater company. Boles' resume includes performing in "Footloose" on Broadway, working at a long list of regional theaters, appearing in the various versions of "Law and Order" on television, and acting in a number of films, including "The First Wives Club" and "The Royal Tennebaums."

He was most recently the founder and director of the theater program at the University of New Haven.

The Third Avenue Playhouse is owned and operated by a non-profit organization, and when a management vacancy occurred last year, Valcq and Boles stepped in as, respectively, managing director and artistic director. TAP had been mostly a presenting house, meaning it did not produce shows on its own, and the duo has changed that.

"The Subject Was Roses," the debut production of the new theater company, is currently running through July 15. Following that, "Souvenir," featuring Valcq and former Skylight singer-actress Claire Morkin, will be mounted July 19 to August. 12. Morkin has moved to Door County to be involved with TAP.

"Shirley Valentine" will be offered Aug. 16 to Sept. 16, and the season will end with "Almost, Maine" Sept. 20 to Oct. 14.

TAP has two performance spaces, with capacities of 250 and 84 persons. The theater productions are being presented in the smaller venue.

"We are doing small cast plays," Valcq said during an interview. "We have no plans to do 'Hamlet' or original regionally-themed musicals," he added, referring to the specialties of Door Shakespeare and American Folklore Theatre.

"We aren't competing with the large outdoor venues in the county. We want to offer something different, unique."

TAP is also presenting a wide selection of summer workshops for kids and teens, ranging from a clown class on Saturday to stage combat with AFT's Dan Klarer July 14, and improvisation with AFT's Doug Mancheski July 28 and Aug. 4.

Valcq and Boles are continuing TAP's tradition of presenting a variety of musical performers in the larger theater. Milwaukee's Four Guyz in Dinner Jackets (Saturday, Sunday and Aug. 25-26), Heidi Swedberg and the Sukey Jump Band (July 21) and Milwaukee jazz singer Ellen Winters' tribute to Rosemary Clooney (Aug. 11-12) are among the shows on the schedule. Swedberg played George Costanza's fiancee on "Seinfeld," and she is also a big time ukelele musician.

Winter plans for TAP include a midwest playwrights festival next March. Dramatists will be invited to develop their new works, aided by directors and actors.

"We are going to do as diverse programing as possible here," Boles said.

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.