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Northern Sky Announces the Passing of Foundational Figure Neen Rock

Neen worked at Northern Sky for over thirty years.

Northern Sky Announces the Passing of Foundational Figure Neen Rock

Neen Rock, longtime production stage manager and designer at Northern Sky Theater, died unexpectedly on Sunday, January 3, 2021. The cause was a cerebral aneurysm. Neen worked at Northern Sky for over thirty years, and her contributions to the company as a designer, stage manager, mentor, and beloved friend were numerous and far-reaching.

Neen began her work with Northern Sky in the late 1980s. She first worked with Northern Sky as a lighting consultant, assisting the company with its first use of theatrical lighting when the company was known as Heritage Ensemble. The variety of Neen's playbill credits throughout the 1990s, as the company became American Folklore Theatre, makes clear the breadth of her talent and expertise: Neen is variously credited as technical advisor, production coordinator, set decorator, and designer of sets, costumes, and props. "Neen was an inventive, resourceful, problem-solving designer with extensive knowledge in all areas of theater," said artistic director Jeff Herbst. "I worked with Neen for thirty years and she never ceased to amaze me with how she could make magic out of seemingly nothing."

Neen contributed design elements to every show the company produced during its first decade, placing her among the handful of artists that forged Northern Sky's identity from its outset. Her designs of sets, costumes, and props were central to such iconic shows as Belgians in Heaven, Bone Dance, Lumberjacks in Love, Goodnight Irene, Fishing for the Moon, and Guys on Ice. Towering bunkbeds and old screen doors, fishing poles and angel wings, skeleton suits and welding masks: Neen imagined, sewed, and hammered nearly all of Northern Sky's most memorable shows into being. "Her ingenuity in figuring out how to outfit two guys in real snowmobile suits, with trick zippers and Velcro to facilitate choreography, altered lining to keep the actors from over-heating, and embroidered vintage patches for authenticity-that alone puts her in the Northern Sky Hall of Fame," said Herbst.

In 1999, Neen became Northern Sky's first-ever production stage manager, coordinating all of the various artistic departments of the theater throughout rehearsal, production, and performance. In addition to these added stage management responsibilities, Neen continued as the company's prop designer and builder, adding to her extensive credits with props for dozens of shows including Loose Lips Sink Ships, Packer Fans from Outer Space, Muskie Love, Victory Farm, The Bachelors, Dairy Heirs, We Like It Where?, and Dad's Season Tickets. "Neen was our go-to person for just about anything you needed a solution to," said associate artistic director Molly Rhode. "Her contribution to Northern Sky really cannot be overstated."

Neen was also instrumental in developing Northern Sky's extensive intern program, serving as a teacher, manager, and mentor to hundreds of young actors and technicians over the years. Each spring she could be seen huddling with her new group of eager theater students, instructing, guiding, and molding them into the team they needed to be in order to tackle their many challenging tasks. "Our interns are the de facto, all-around crew for Northern Sky. Neen had to turn them from often very green theater practitioners into a well-oiled collective practically overnight," said artistic advisor Doc Heide, who started working with Neen in the 1980s. "Neen possessed an unparalleled combination of professionalism, hard work, and kindness. People not only responded to her, they revered her."

Neen's input was crucial in determining the design and layout of Northern Sky's new creative center and Gould Theater, which opened last fall, and once the new theater was built, Neen applied her usual expertise in organizing the storage areas and costume shop. "There is hardly a thing in the artistic side of the new building that Neen didn't have a say-so in finding a home for," said development director Holly Feldman. "Whenever I give tours of the building, Neen's name comes up. She was thrilled to have everything in one place to make her life and job so much easier. Walk into almost any room and you'll see some of Neen's handiwork."

Neen's singular presence and impact at Northern Sky extended into every area of the organization. Neen was loved by the artists, office personnel, house staff, board members, countless volunteers and patrons with whom she interacted over the years. "In most theaters, a stage manager is not visible to the audience. But Neen's stage management post in the park was visible, making her role quite public," said board chair Cyndy Stiehl. "It was commonplace to see her interacting with fans and volunteers. Fortunately for Northern Sky, she was incredibly warm and friendly in that role, often making a lasting impression, even during brief interactions."

The loss of such a key contributor and friend was expressed by technical director Dave Alley, who worked in tandem with Neen starting in 1988. "Neen was my work wife. My time at Northern Sky is marked by working side by side with Neen, often through dinner and late into the night. She was as dependable and inspirational as they come. We will all miss her tremendously."

In addition to her Northern Sky family, Neen had an extensive network of colleagues and friends in Madison, where she grew up. She worked at many venues there, including Children's Theater of Madison, Madison Ballet, Madison Opera, and the Overture Center. She was a proud member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE Local 251, and Actors' Equity Association.

Consistent with her life-long generosity, Neen made the ultimate gift as she left this world. As a registered organ donor, she gave new life to at least five individuals.

Northern Sky extends its sympathy to Neen's partner, Brian Smith, and her family. "We developed long-lasting relationships with Brian and Neen's family over the years," said Herbst. "Neen's mom, Joan, choreographed for us. Her physician dad, 'Doc' Rock, was a go-to for any ailments we had. Neen's niece Libby interned with us. Many in the company worked side by side with Brian over the years, as Neen often recruited him to be part of Northern Sky activities." Neen's obituary can be found here:

Northern Sky is in the process of working with Neen's siblings and Brian to determine the best way to memorialize her. "There are just so many ways that she could be remembered," said managing director Dave Maier. "We will do our best to honor her legacy to ensure that Neen's contribution is long-remembered."

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