Some of Matt Zembrowski’s fondest childhood memories took place beneath the trees of Door County’s Peninsula State Park, where he and his family frequently camped during the summer. “My family has camped in that park since before I could walk,” says Zembrowski. “It is still one of my favorite places.”
That forest also nurtured Zembrowski’s love of the theater, a passion he has transferred into a career as a teacher, performer and composer. His latest creation, the musical Doctor! Doctor!, will premiere at Northern Sky Theater in Door County this summer.
Zembrowski traces the spark back to a chilly night in August 1995, when he and his brother attended a Theatre Under the Stars production at Northern Sky (then known as American Folklore Theatre).
“My brother Zach and I attended a performance of Bone Dance that evening, which had me hooked even through I didn’t realize it at the time,” says Zembrowski. “At the time, I had no idea that this show would be so pivotal in my career path.”
The ambience of Northern Sky’s space, which presents theater outdoors with the forests of Door County as a backdrop, was something Zembrowski couldn’t shake, even as an adult. In 2009, he finally got the chance to do something with it. That year, he was hired as a music director by the company, performing and co-writing songs with longtime idols and Northern Sky company members Fred “Doc” Heide and Lee Becker. “It was for a show called Sunsets and S’mores,”says Zembrowski. “It was an amazing experience which proved inspirational for me.”
After that summer, Zembrowski channelled that inspiration into several play scripts, which he sent to Northern Sky for consideration. None were accepted.
“As I look back on the rejections, I see why that was the decision,” says Zembrowski. “At the time though, it was disappointing. But I tried not to let it discourage me, and persevered.”
Northern Sky’s homegrown musicals always are rooted in Wisconsin-based themes, so Zembrowski spent the next few years keeping an eye out for the right story to tell. The answer came in 2012, while Zembrowski was flipping through an issue of the Door County Pulse while waiting to be seated at a restaurant.
The article was about Dr. Joan Traver, a soon-to-be retired physician from Sister Bay. She was one of the last remaining “country doctors,” who had spent most of her career making house calls instead of working in a hospital setting.
“The story stuck with me,” Zembrowski says, “and I realized that I may finally have the story for Northern Sky.”
That story became Doctor! Doctor!, the play Zembrowski finished a few months later and sent off to Northern Sky. This time, they accepted it — and that was when the real work began, he says.
After several years of workshopping, including a public reading in 2015, the show is finally ready to take the stage. Its production in Northern Sky’s 2016 season will be its first full performance.
Doctor! Doctor! follows the story of a retiring doctor who is rewarding his years of hard work with a vacation. In his absence, he’s called upon his nephew, also a doctor, to take his place. “It’s very city mouse meets country mouse,” explained Zembrowski. “The nephew’s take on modern medicine ruffles a few feathers at first, but slowly the rural community begins to embrace the new changes. The show explores the concept of change and how it isn’t always a bad thing.”
Doctor! Doctor! opens June 15 and runs through the summer with Northern Sky’s other three summer shows: No Bones About It, When Butter Churns to Gold and Lumberjacks in Love. Tickets are $22, $11 for students, $6 children 3 to 12. They can be purchased online at: northernskytheater.com or 920-854-6117.