First plays were absurd, provocative… and standard fare

It’s what founding chancellor Edward Weidner didn’t do after seeing his first student show that convinced director Jack Frisch he was on the right track.

“I didn’t hear a thing from him,” remembers Frisch. “No reaction at all.”

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Weidner dropped in at the UW Center on Deckner Avenue one evening in May 1968 – a few months before his new four-year university was to open – to sample the existing theatre program at the two-year campus.

The show was the bawdy farce “King Ubu,” a free-form “happening” overflowing with chaos and broad humor. The recorded sound of a toilet flushing greeted arriving theatergoers, with costumed actors doubling as ushers or milling about, hurling rolls of toilet paper at one another.

Professor Emeritus

Professor Emeritus Jack Frisch

No one from the Center Players cast recognized the distinguished visitor, but from the rear control room, Frisch did. He watched with interest as Susan Sloan, the actress playing the padded, outrageously-bosomed Mother Ubu (at far left in newspaper photo above), escorted the new chancellor to his seat… and promptly jumped into his lap.

“From where I was, I couldn’t see Ed’s reaction,” Frisch recalls. “Me? I was laughing my head off.”

Hearing nothing afterward, Fritsch took it as a green light and never looked back. Over the next two decades, the new University would make standard fare of provocative, unconventional, avant garde theatre.

“It was a time of protest, and there was a school of thought that college theatre should be stretching limits, pushing the envelope,” says Frisch. “I thought we should do provocative works here, too.”

The four-year University’s very first play, in fall 1968, was the challenging black comedy “The Empire Builders.” In March, Frisch and students presented “The Tempest” in the Deckner drama room, updating the classic with contemporary staging.

A year later, the playhouse shifted from Deckner to the Shorewood site when the “The Balcony,” a surrealist drama, was performed in the large lecture hall (ES 114) of the brand-new Environmental Sciences Building.

Notable from the “Balcony” playbill: Basketball players from Dave Buss’s first Phoenix team – Kelsie Wicks, Bud Mocco, Bob DeVos, Bob Popp, Dennis Woelffer – were pressed into action as assorted beggars and wounded men in the freshman- and sophomore-dominated cast.

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“They were taking my interpersonal communication class,” says Frisch, a determined recruiter. “With a large cast, I needed to drag them out of the woodwork.”

Also noteworthy from that first show on the present-day campus was the music. Esteemed Green Bay composer Gordon Parmentier contributed original music, performed by a dozen-member chorus and a sizeable instrumental ensemble of guitars, flutes, percussion and horns.

Original work, campus work, was also part of the early years. In 1971 Frisch and about 20 students enrolled in his theatre course came together to create “Mandala” around a native, wheel-of-life theme. Cast members dressed casually, barefoot and in blue jeans, revolving about one another in an improvisational blend of stylized movement, poetry and song. Their base script was later published and performed throughout the country.

“Now, some of shows we did in those years,” Frisch remembers with a smile, “we had more people in the cast than in the audience.”

As the program grew, UW-Green Bay offered its share of the classics, Eugene O’Neill, Shakespeare and others, but Frisch always gravitated to Beckett and other Theatre of the Absurd masters. His first production at the two-year center in the 1960s, and his final campus production before his retirement in 1992, was the Beckett masterpiece “Waiting for Godot.” Frisch became a sought-after conference speaker as a scholar of Beckett and his work.

At UW-Green Bay, the first full-length play on what would become the Theatre Arts Program’s permanent homestage took place in January 1974. That’s when “Summertree,” a contemporary play directed by noted New York actor and then-faculty member Paul Mann, was staged in the 450-seat Creative Communication Theatre. The Creative Communication Building later became known as Theatre Hall, and the theatre was renamed the University Theatre.

Text and photos are an expanded version of the story that appeared in the February 2009 issue of the Inside UW-Green Bay print magazine.