“Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in Lady Day –
Only 2 shows left, Oct. 23-24
“WHITE-WELCHEN PERFORMANCE MAKES THIS A MUST SEE.” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“TIFFANY’S PERFORMANCE IS TRULY REMARKABLE.” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
“LADY DAY DELIVERS RAW EMOTION…INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCE” Betsie Freeman, Omaha World Herald.
“A HEART-WRENCHING PLAY WITH INCREDIBLE MUSIC…” Loyal Fairman, The Nonpareil
Let me add to the rave reviews Tiffany White Welchen has received for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Choose whatever words of praise you wish to describe her performance – bravura, tour de force, scintillating, lights out, brilliant, mesmerizing, moving, multi-layered, multi-textured – and they all apply to what she does in this show. While the play is an often dark, despairing look at the low down ebb of Holiday’s final days, it is also funny, profane, provocative and ironic, just like the great jazz singer herself. Holiday went through some hard, harsh things but she probably didn’t think of her own life as tragic the way we do from the outside looking in. White-Welchen intimated as much in an interview she gave me. Holiday lived a raucous life and she did it on her own terms. While she made some bad choices and had some real dirt done to her, she wasn’t about regret.
White-Welchen sees similarities between her life and Holiday’s – from their shared experience growing up around lots of men to navigating life as an African-American woman to encountering discrimination.
“Most people see this beautiful, elegant woman on stage with a sleek ponytail and gardenias in her hair when actually she could curse like a sailor and hang with the guys like nobody’s business. That’s a parallel with my own life. I have three brothers and I’m very much a Tom boy. However, I’m pretty girly at the same time. It’s pretty awesome to be able to take those sides of me and kind of magnify them with a Billie Holiday twist, of course.
“I appreciate how she had to overcome so many difficult things that were happening to African-Americans at that time. There were times she couldn’t appear on-stage with Artie Shaw’s band until it was time for her to do her numbers. She’d get off the bus, perform, and then go right back on the bus when everybody else got to stay on the bandstand. And there were times she was supposed to sing with the band and venues said, ‘No, we’re not going to allow an African-American in our establishment,’ and the band would have another singer fill in for her.
“I really admire the fact she was able to get over such adversity.”
In the play White-Welchen courageously goes to some raw, naked places emotionally. She deserves credit for being willing to expose herself that way.
Performing the song “Strange Fruit” that deals directly with the lynching horrors blacks faced in the South is a harrowing thing for White-Welchen.
“I was really surprised one night when I started crying really hard during that particular song. Singing it gave me a chance to relate to what my grandmother and my great great granmother must have gone through and it makes me think about some deep-seated issues that have happened to me as African-American woman and about the lessons my mother taught me and about some of ugly parts of life I have to accept. I try to capture all that in that one song.
“I asked Mr. C (director Gordon Cantiello) to allow me to sing the very beginning of it acapella because I wanted people to get a sense of what was really going on at the time, to feel what it was like to go through those times, and to feel my pain as Billie Holiday.”
White-Welchen said she has come to realize that the deep cross-currents of Holiday’s life with social events of that time make the play a valuable and moving instructional tool.
“I didn’t realize I was teaching a history lesson on stage until I saw and felt the interaction from the audience.”
Having the responsibility to express all the potent themes and colors of the play while remaining true to Holiday and all her brilliance and dysfunction is a tall task for a performer who never leaves the stage except for intermission.
“I had never done a one-woman show before. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The greatest challenge for me is to clear my mind of any issue or anything going on in my life and to forget all the hats I wear and to get up on stage and just perform. So I have to forget that I’m a mom, that I’m the director of a department. I have to forget about my mother in the audience, I have to forget about anything that bothered me during the day, because if I take that on stage with me it will distract me.
“I’m able to bring all those things with me on stage in other shows where I’m not on all the time, but not with this one because I’m up there by myself the whole time. I have to concentrate my energy so that I hold the character and the audience and never release them.”
Credit also goes to director Gordon Cantiello for pulling those depths out of her. These two artists have a long working history and the trust they’ve built allows White-Welchen to invest all of herself in this demanding role. She knows Cantiello will support her when she goes out on a limb. White-Welchen told me there are moments, lines and lyrics that are particularly difficult for her to deliver because they trigger her own personal losses and heartaches but she muddles through anyway to serve the play.
“There is a moment in the show where Billie talks about losing her father and I’m very much a daddy’s girl, so when I get to that part of the show there’s times I can emotionally go there and other times that I can’t. I think it’s because I don’t want to think about that my own father isn’t here anymore. He was my greatest fan, he came to every show. My mom is at every show and I know how much she misses him.
“In that scene Billie talks about singing at a bar in Harlem and getting a call telling her her father’s dead and she went back on stage and sang. When she tells that part it’s very emotional for me.”
Informing her portrayal of the troubled Holiday is White-Welchen’s expertise and experience as a mental health therapist.
“When people talk to me about their issues you can barely hear them, their voice changes, the pain is so hard it’s hard to come up with the words as they tell me their most horrifying stories.
What I try to do in the show is to express how much my pain is, not by crying or shouting but by being silent or speaking in a faint voice.”
She said the experience of portraying such pain has affected the way she deals with clients.
“I guess it’s given me a level of sensitivity that I may not have had before. When you are in this field for so long you kind of become callous to it and I think by playing her I’m a lot more sensitive now and I’ve talked to staff about making sure that when people tell their story we’re not re-traumatizing them. So my level of sensitivity and empathy have definitely been enhanced by playing Billie Holiday.”
Cantiello is glad to have someone as perceptive and seasoned as White-Welchen in the role.
“I couldn’t ask for a better performer, actress, singer than Tiffany,” Cantiello said. “As a behavioral therapist, she brings a lot of understanding and compassion to the role. For me, understanding the amount of suffering Billie Holiday had to endure in her lifetime brought me to tears. I just knew Tiffany would be perfect for the part and she’s certainlly proved to be.”
Omaha has many outstanding vocal and theatrical talents and White-Welchen is among the very best because she’s the total package. This is a showcase part and she’s completely up to its challenges and opportunities. She does justice to all the Holiday signature tunes but her renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are worth the price of admission alone.
Kudos as well to music director Ric Swanson for the tight numbers and his piano accompaniment.
Helping draw us in is the intimate, immersive performing space that’s just right for the one set production.
“The venue is perfect for immersive cabaret style theatre,” Cantiello said. “It gives the audience a chance to be a part of the story. Our new theater at the Crossroads is that type of space. A perfect space for ‘Lady Day.'”
The limited run of “Lady Day” is soon coming to an end and so act now and reserve your seats for one or more of these remaining performances:
Friday, October 23 at 7pm
Saturday, October 24 at 7pm
Tickets can be purchased by calling 402-706-0778. All tickets are $35 for all shows.
The theater is located in the Target wing at Crossroads Mall. Park in the Northeast parking garage on the lower level and enter the Northeast entrance. Enter the lobby and make a right. Look for the PART signs.
Omaha has institutional-type theaters and grassroots-type theaters. For most of its life the Blue Barn Theatre has been of the grassroots variety but now that a major capital campaign has allowed it to build its first permanent home, the Blue Barn is suddenly in a far more secure position than ever before. Of course, that “suddenly” only came after decades of passion, struggle, invention and equity in building community capital. And once the theater called in its chips and started rasing funds for the project, great pains were taken to retain its edgy, independent, homemade spirit in the beautiful new digs. On a personal note, fate decreed that I write three stories about the Blue Barn’s momentous move into this new space, and for three separate publications no less, and all this after years of not writing about Blue Barn. This is the second of those pieces and it appears in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater
Past, present, future converge in new space
Appearing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Until now the Blue Barn Theatre has been like Omaha’s many other small stage companies by operating on a shoestring in makeshift spaces. This grassroots passion project was born of a band of New York drama school transplants afire with the idea of starting their own troupe. Relying more on creativity, charity, thriftiness and ingenuity than real budgets, they mounted plays in rented and borrowed spaces.
Suddenly, Blue Barn’s done the unthinkable for such a by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor by parlaying years of scommunity equity and creative capital to build its own space. It’s Omaha’s first purpose-build independent theater to go up in decades. The arresting new digs at 10th and Pacific are the result of Blue Barn staying the course, remaining true to itself and letting philanthropists catch up to the edgy aesthetic that’s gained it a loyal following.
The theater occupied several improvised spaces from its start in 1988, never really securing a place to call its own. It did find stability at the 11th and Jackson Old Market warehouse site where it was housed the last several years. Though hamstrung by cramped quarters not really suited for theater and lacking amenities, Blue Barn made the intimate environment – exposed vents and all – work. Blue Barn personalized it with help from artists designing original posters and custom fixtures.
The new theater – part of a mixed used site with residential units, a restaurant and a public garden – features enlarged, upgraded facilities and a flex indoor-outdoor space opening onto the garden. As an ode to its name, the exterior evokes a hand-raised barn via weathered steel walls framed by rebar poles and the roof’s pitched gables. The interior captures the old Blue Barn in hand-crafted floor and wall elements. The theater seats are from the former site. The way the audience enters the auditorium follows the flow of the old space. Splashes of blue recur throughout.
The new theater is the culmination of a vision shared by original Blue Barners’ Kevin Lawler, Hughston Walkinshaw, Nils Haaland and Mary Theresa Green. Some took turns at the helm. Each moved on, though never breaking ties. All but Green attended the SUNY-Purchase theater school. Her then-marriage to Lawler brought her into the fold. As the legend goes, Lawler was visiting Omaha when Old Market denizens embraced his theater dream and offered space to realize it in. He got Walkinshaw and Haaland to come join him. Clement-Toberer arrived a year later. She’s now led Blue Barn longer than anyone.
The group’s deep, familiar kinship was evident one August morning at the new space. Emotions ran high during a tour and roundtable discussion. All agree the site fulfills what they once only dared imagine.
“Yes, it is the embodiment of a dream,” Lawler said.. “It’s just glorious to see. When we were in school in New York we’d go to these small off-Broadway places and see incredible theater and I grew up in Minneapolis where there are a lot of small incredible theaters just like this. So that was always a dream and to see Susan be able to make that happen for the Blue Barn in Omaha is amazing.”
“Every dream we’ve had in our entire existence is embodied in this building and we can keep dreaming,” Walkinshaw said.
Realizing that dream has been replete with challenges, including one space that burned down and people who burned-out.
“It’s been a road,” Clement-Toberer said.
Keeping it going meant digging into personal finances.
“A lot of sacrifices, big life sacrifices,” Lawler said. “There’s blood, sweat and tears in here. Nobody at this table has a retirement account. Nobody at this table probably has a savings account. We’ve all given our adult lives into making this art. The rewards have been with each other and the people we’ve been able to share stories with, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. So, yeah, there’s a lot invested.”
They say it’s all been worth it, given how far Blue Barn’s come.
“There were times we were homeless and there were times where there was a real chance the theater wasn’t even going to survive.,” Walkinshaw said. “Now it has, and I’ll tell you what, I breathe a lot easier, I don’t have to worry about the Blue Barn sustaining. I feel relieved now – like the Blue Barn way will continue now permanentlyand all the sacrifices we made and the passion we gave now will live.
“We survived long enough that the town made this happen. It made Film Streams happen, it made Saddle Creek (Records) happen. It found those art forms a little bit earlier. Now it’s made this happen.”
For Clement-Toberer it means, “now we know we have a home that we can create in where we can dream big, we can dream in ways and forms of storytelling we were never able to do before.”
Walkinshaw said the new building is “the final stage” of Blue Barn’s evolution “in terms of having a permanent place to live, but this permanent place to live also has endless possibilities for what the Blue Barn can do in terms of storytelling and play production.”
“To have your own space is pretty phenomenal,” said Haaland, who acts there. “There’s a long list of people that have definitely helped us out. I can’t help but have tremendous respect for all those who have sort of paved the way. Mary and Kevin saved it a number of times out of their own pocket. Hughston stood up and was the leader for a long time. Kevin led for a very long time. And then I’m truly just humbled by what Susan has done. It does take one person to lead and she has done just an exemplary job. I mean, we are very fortunate to have her.”
Green said, “I’m very moved just by the generosity of everybody coming together to put this together. It’s breathtaking, really, the scope of how beautiful it is. It’s gorgeous. It’s a testament to the community’s support for the theater all of these years.”
The Blue Barn’s long been a darling of Omaha tastemakers, with the likes of Alexander Payne among its fan-support base. But it only recently got corporate sponsors such as Omaha Steaks and donors such as developer-philanthropist Nancy Mammel to buy in.
Despite many lean years the theater gained enough credibility to launch a capital campaign to fund construction of the new site as well as raise funds for an operating budget and endowment.
Clement-Toberer said that in the process of Blue Barn gaining its first permanent home her main concern was maintaining the theater’s funky, grassroots identity and intimate relationship with patrons.
“The biggest struggle for this building in creating our home has been to keep the Blue Barn voice clear and pure to who we are and to how we create theater. Everybody thinks they know what a theater should be and how we should produce theater. Even with this major transition of moving into our own space there have been times where people say, ‘But that’s not how you do that in theater, you need to do it this way.’ Well, we don’t have to do it that way.
“If we want to change something after we’ve opened, we change it because it’s not instinctually, organically right for the story.”
Mary Theresa Green said the Blue Barn way is a process born of freedom, exploration and seizing inspiration where you find it, whether repurposing materials or calling in favors for props and set pieces.
“To me, it means producing something very organically and from a place of love and hope,” Green said. “Like the found objects and somebody who just happens to know somebody who has free things we can use and put together. Because everyone is so creative and imaginative and free and almost very childlike in creating the pieces, they become these deeply beautiful shows that really affect and touch people, way beyond just basic entertainment.
“I mean, a Blue Barn show to me is something where each audience member will take their own personal journey inside of themselves and connect with it on a really deep level personally.”
“A lot of times we are still scrapping, getting what we can to put up last minute stuff,” Haaland said. “But I think it’s really evolved now in that it’s much more methodical. With age there’s so much more experience, wisdom and maturity.”
Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference producing artistic director, described Blue Barn’s guiding ethos.
“There’s a certain type of show I think we all just loved when we saw it and if I had to put it into words, it’s like what any great work of art will do when you see it or partake in it, you walk away from it being cracked open as a person and looking at and feeling the world differently. Even if it’s an incremental amount of growth, it happens, and it’s very distinct. You can ask all of us and we all knew then this is what we wanted to facilitate with every show we put up.
“It’s like, we don’t have any money, all we have is ourselves, but somehow we’re going to get to the heart of this story so deeply it will facilitate this experience of opening up a compassion, and the people who come and share in the story will have that experience. That to me has been the seed of the whole thing from the beginning.
“And then all this has happened around it,” Lawler said.
Clement-Toberer, who with managing director Shannon Walenta built the theater’s business side to balance the artistic side, believes she knows why the community’s repeatedly come through with support.
“I think it’s pretty simple – it’s our mission. What we do on stage has not changed over the years. Matured a little bit, which I think is good. But I think it’s the stories we tell and the way we produce theater. And the way we built this theater is the way we also produce theater – the Blue Barn way, which is found objects that become magnificent and sets we build at cost but create a great vessel to tell a story. Our budget’s a little higher but I’m still digging through dumpsters.
“I think this building is a great manifestation of the history all of our work over the ears and of our training at Purchase. It’s been the common thread and people have connected to that. We know how to tell a great story and how to produce a show without forgetting the heart of the piece.”
She found the right interpreters to articulate these things in the building in Joshua Dachs from New York-based international theater space planning and consulting firm Fisher Dachs and in architect Jeff Day of the Omaha and San Francisco-based architectural firm MinDay.
“I think she sensed I would understand where she was coming from, which I did,” Dachs said. “When I visited the Blue Barn it was clear it’s a kind of artisanal handmade theater company. The old space had amazing show posters designed by artist friends – beautiful woodcuts and lino-prints – as well as handmade ceramics by Susan’s husband (Dan Toberer) and a hand-carved wood counter by an artist friend.
“The whole place had this wonderful, very specific spirit. And the biggest fear she had and that I wanted to help her avoid is that in moving to a new building it would somehow get sterilized and become generic and no longer reflect the spirit of the company and the character of the place it’s built up over many years.”
The very things bound up in Blue Barn drew Dachs to the project.
“What captured my imagination was the special quality and character of the Blue Barn,” he said. “It’s incredibly unique. The sort of mythology of how it was born and all of the artists that have played a role in making it what it is. The idea that this kind of artisanal theater company was going to make itself a home and fight the urge to become grand and formal and all of the things that happen a lot.”
Dachs admires the uncompromising stand Clement-Toberer’s taken to stay true to Blue Barn and not go for the slick or the inflated, like the 300-seat theater some pressured her to pursue. The new theater accommodates about the same number of patrons, 96, as before.
“It takes a really strong leader to fight that inclination and to stay within your means and to build something that’s right-sized, so that it can endure and sustain itself into the future. That’s really hard to do. But she’s really smart.”
Architect Jeff Day said, “There was a very strict sense of budget, so we knew from the very beginning how much they could spend on the building, and Susan was really on top of things to make sure this was achievable. We had to cut things out here and there. She was willing to make sacrifices on things they don’t really need.
“It’s not a showy building in the sense of being super-refined. It’s really a place for improvisation. We’re trying to leave a certain amount of open-endedness to it. The intention is that the building will allow them to grow into it and modify it over time. It’s really an evolving space. We thought of it as a framework for them.”
Mary Theresa Green
Just as Dachs did, Day found the project appealing because of how the theater does things.
“Blue Barn likes to think of itself as experimental and challenging,” Day said. “They’re not afraid of doing edgier things that might shock people or cause people to think. Obviously for an architect that’s exciting because it sort of gives us justification to do things that are unfamiliar as well, which we love to do.
“From a planning standpoint probably the most unique feature is that the back of the stage can open up to the covered outdoor space – we call it a porch yard. Then that opens up to the garden, so you really get continuity from theater to city. They can close the doors and have an acoustically-sealed space that will work like a black box or studio theater or they can open it up and have these events with really unique stagings.”
Many ways were found to give the new site the handmade qualities that distinguished the previous venue.
“There’s a lot of character in that theater which draws directly from the Blue Barn’s old space,” Day said. “It was really an attempt to break away from the neutrality of the black box theater type. For example, the old Blue Barn had this warehouse column structure and without replicating we brought some large timbers into the space to help create a framed area around the seating.”
Clement-Toberer calls it “the nest.”
“It brings the scale down to just slightly bigger than the old Blue Barn,” Day said. “It gives the sense of intimacy they’ve had while creating a sense of texture and character.”
Since collaboration is a hallmark of the company, the theater commissioned artists in different media to contribute their talents. The heavy timbers used in the new theater’s eight columns were salvaged and milled by Dan Toberer, a ceramist who collects felled trees and sawmill scraps he variously repurposes or uses in his wood-fired kiln.
“We identified different elements that could be turned over to artists and they weren’t working necessarily under our direction,” Day said.
Toberer also created original ceramic pieces and built the sinks in the bathrooms. He also sourced scrap wood that contractors used to clad the theater box in.
Omaha artist Michael Morgan did a piece of the lobby and vestibule in dark grey bricks with blue glazing.
Kris Kemp from the Hot Shops fabricated the enormous rear door that opens onto the green space.
Jim Woodhill of Kansas City, Mo. did lighting elements and furniture.
For Day, everything works together to create a mystique.
“I think of it as it almost being a character in a play. You can’t escape the fact this is the Blue Barn Theatre when you’re in there.”
He said the theater’s been designed with the eclectic character of its delightfully messy residential-commercial surroundings in mind.
“It does replicate sort of in a way some of the forms you might find in this neighborhood, which is really mixed up. So the idea was to make this complex of buildings feel like it’s part of that.”
Much thought was put into the theater’s setting since it’s now part of a robust South 10th Corridor with the Old Market, the Durham Museum, the House of Loom, KETV, Little Italy, Cascio’s. No More Empty Cups and the Bancroft Street Market. Vic Gutman’s coming Omaha Market will be just to the south of the Blue Barn-Boxcar complex.
“It’s a site in the city that’s very prominent,” Day said. “It could be a demonstration for other ways Omaha could think about development. The fact that we essentially have three projects on one site all working together is quite unique. We’re thinking of this as a microcosm of the city that has public space, nonprofit cultural space and private space. We sought to design this as kind of an urban arts hub.”
Even with the new theater, Clement-Toberer’s wish list is not quite complete where the Blue Barn’s concerned. She said the family-like dynamic she and the founders used to fire their work together is something she’d like to recapture there.
“It makes me wish for an underwriter to underwrite something here like the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky, where we all could be under this roof daily, creating. I’m waiting for the corporation in Omaha progressive enough to realize their connection with art will make whatever it is they do grow as well. I’m waiting – they’re out there.”
Blue Barn opens its 27th season on Sept. 24 with The Grown-Up. For details and tickets, visit http://www.bluebarn.org.
I do not write about theater a lot, but often enough to keep me in the game and I’m always eager to do it because there is nothing else like good live theater, and Omaha has more than its share of solid stage offerings. The Blue Barn Theater is one I’ve written about only from time to time. It is especially fulfilling to write about this well regarded institution again on the occasion of its soon to open new facility. Here is my new piece about the Blue Barn for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/). It looks backwards and forwards. As fate has it, I will soon be writing more on the Blue Barn.
Ironically, I recently did another theater piece for the same magazine a few months ago, only that time on the Omaha Community Playhouse and its 90th anniversary. My opus on the Omaha Community Playhouse is at:
NEW BLUE: Blue Barn Theatre Putting Down New Roots
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the August-September-October issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
Edgy material and intimate work have always defined “the Blue Barn way” and now this once nomadic theater finally gets a home of its own but remains committed to staying true to its rebel image.
When the Blue Barn Theatre celebrated 25 years in 2014, it joined the select ranks of Omaha’s longest-lived playmaking companies.
Now BB is putting down serious roots by moving into a new home at 10th and Pacific. A $7 million capital campaign is underwriting the newly constructed building ($5 million) with the imprint of a renowned theater consultant on it. Unusual for a theater this size, funding is to cover a $1 million operating endowment and a $1 million endowment.
Upon opening the 2015-2016 season there, BB will have in place what’s needed for another enduring run.
Stronger through the struggle
The cutting-edge theater’s founders never imagined this. They were fresh out of college diehards from New York City when they launched BB with little more than enthusiasm. Its first two decades saw consistently high quality theater tinged by crisis. The low points included a fire gutting one space, losing the lease on another, a homeless period, serious debt issues and a revolving door of leaders.
Kevin Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference director, began the migration from the State University of New York in Purchase. He recalls building BB’s former Old Market space “on personal credit cards…then watching from across the street as it was destroyed by a giant fire before the first season there was completed.”
BB artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s led the theater longer than anyone else, feels it’s stronger for the struggles.
“These times when we were in financial stress and maybe made not such smart business decisions really I think strengthened the drive to create Blue Barn-style theater in this town and became a catalyst for needed growth within us. We wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t gone through those tough times.”
Shared approach and consistent mission
BB’s found a niche doing provocative work. Its small but loyal following has stayed true through all the reversals of fortune.
A theater doesn’t survive on passion alone. Clement-Toberer says the BB’s made it by sticking to principles and finally growing up.
“Our mission statement from the beginning has been to produce theater that provokes thought, emotion, action and change. I think the reason we’re in the position we are now of putting down permanent roots is because we have always stayed true to our mission.”
From the start, BB set itself apart as a tight-knit cohort sharing the same ethos. Soon after Lawler’s arrival, SUNY-Purchase classmates Hughston Walkinshaw and Nils Haaland came. Mary Therese Green of Neb. joined this merry band of founders. Clement-Toberer followed.
“The voice of the Blue Barn was born through our training, individual talents, perspectives and passion for our art form,” Clement-Toberer says. “Our coming to Omaha really couldn’t be stopped whether we had one audience member or a hundred. We were kids and we were fired up, and still are, to tell stories.
“I think the play choices in the beginning were very unique and those voices were not being heard in Omaha at the time.”
“The whole endeavor was born of our deep longing to share exceptionally vibrant and surprising stories and to explore life together that way,” Lawler recalls. “When we began we had nothing more than that dream. That passion, free from any other agendas, is a big part of what makes the work at the Blue Barn so special.”
Omaha theater stalwart Jill Anderson is among several local stage artists who found something new there worth following, first as a fan, then as an actress and jill-of-all-trades. She describes how the “singular magic” of the work and “the unfettered, unconventional creativity” transfixed her and still does. “The things that set the Blue Barn apart are the consistent interest in pushing limits, exploring challenging subject matter, aiming really high in terms of talent and production values but keeping things at an intimate level so the audience feels they are a part of the story.”
For most of its history BB thrived aesthetically but lagged when it came to management.
“Artistically we’ve always been strong and we finally built our business side to kind of keep up with our artistic side,” Clement-Toberer says. “We’ve always run the Blue Barn on a shoestring budget. We’ve gone through a lot of different challenges. We’ve been through the ringer.
“But we’ve built from the very beginning the mentality of you don’t have to spend more to do great art and that’s still how the business is run.”
Resources or not, she says, BB’s always been “artistically driven.”
“It’s very unusual in its structure where the board does have say but the artistic director and the work we do is what drives our growth. It’s a very big gift that we’ve been able to retain the core values we began with 26 years ago.”
Along the way, she says, “our voice has matured in a wonderful way,” adding, “It’s still speaking the same language and feeling, just a little more fluently. Sometimes now we do a show more ‘commercially’-based, like 33 Variations. But our process remains intimate and story-driven.” The same with BB’s Our Town production to close last season.
Seeing things through
Relatively few local theater companies have enjoyed its longevity. There were periods when it wasn’t assured of making it another season, much less reaching the quarter-century mark.
“Hughston (Walkinshaw) and I took it over in 2001. Some programming choices that were big and bold ended up not getting underwritten. Then Hughston ended up leaving. I took over leadership fully.”
Looming debt threatened to dim the lights for good.
“I thought, what the hell, the worst thing I can do is close the doors. But I didn’t want the Blue Barn to close on my watch. I was like, ‘Uh-uh, not going to happen.’ It was a grow or go mentality,” Clement-Toberer says. “I think it was my time to run it. I surrounded myself with people i trusted and knew, like Shannon Walenta, my managing director. From 2008 on we started to build it. A fundraiser got us out of debt. From that point on with Shannon as my right-hand woman and the business aesthetic I learned from my father we have steered the Blue Barn to a great artistic and business balance that is fairly equal for the first time.
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts over what anybody else says. Not that I don’t take input but I’ve learned having my own voice is crucial to succeeding and growing. The same with hiring the right people.”
Production manager Amy Reiner and associate artistic director Randall Stevens are other members of her team.
Philanthropist Nancy Mammel says long before joining the BB board “I saw tremendous potential and ongoing growth for the company.” She champions its “dynamic vision” and “track record of excellence” and she feels its repaid “the generous community” support shown it.
Jill Anderson speaks for many in saluting Clement-Toberer.
“Susan has been a great steward of the theater. I think the power of her positive thinking has brought about great things for the Blue Barn. She keeps a strong and steadfast ‘can do’ attitude about the very difficult task of helming the theater. Her persistence is inspiring to me.”
Right place at the right time
There’s wide agreement, too, the theater should prosper at its new site, where it will neighbor with the Durham Museum, House of Loom, the restored Burlington Station, the booming Little Italy district and the coming Omaha Market.
“It’ll be a destination place. I love the area. It’s the perfect place for our home. I couldn’t see it anywhere else,” Clement-Toberer says.
Board member Ariel Roblin, president-general manager of KETV, which occupies the Burlington catty-corner from the new theater, says, “The Blue Barn is the perfect addition to the revitalization of South 10th Street.” She admires BB for “filling the space with great art born from a process that starts and ends with integrity and heart. This wonderful building is just a reflection of the art you will find going on inside the building.”
With the theater’s west wall opening onto green space, BB has an alfresco presence it’s never had before.
“Our indoor-outdoor convertible space is just outrageous and rife for great parties and great theater,” Clement-Toberer says. “It’s a unique set up that I believe will be limitless for opportunities to create our art.”
She says the expanded new digs and deeper resources will help BB to “stretch our wings and go to Chicago and and New York to bring in professional actors,” adding, “Our goal from the beginning has been to make the Blue Barn a regional theater.” BB also has a residence to house out-of-town actors and other artists.
She says the new theater space will retain the BB mystique.
“We’ve realized we are Blue Barn no matter where we are. Many people thought we should build a 250-seat black box and I said, ‘That’s not who we are, that’s not who we’ve ever been.’ We knew we wanted to keep the intimate quality between our audience and the stage.”
Noted project consultant Joshua Dachas suggested the new auditorium repeat the pillars that wrap around the old site’s seating area to create that same “nest-like feeling.” The pillars at the new site are fashioned from fallen trees. Area artists used reclaimed materials to fabricate various architectural features in the theater.
“All these are handmade and very Blue Barn in that nature,” Clement-Toberer says.
Reflections and appreciations
Kevin Lawler, who admires the “beautiful” new space, says, “I feel immense gratitude for having been able to be a part of the Blue Barn.”
“When we started the Blue Barn we just wanted to do theater that thrilled us. No knowledge of how to attract an audience. Just hoped they would show up,” Walkinshaw recalls. “In one of the early years we did a performance for one person. Now Blue Barn is part of Omaha’s cultural landscape and the new building totally seals that deal. To start a theater with only a dream and know it is set up now to thrive for years to come, well, being part of that legacy is profoundly gratifying.”
Clement-Toberer, too, is grateful to be there for its blooming.
“It’s an amazing adventure and opportunity for us to actually be putting down permanent roots in our own space and to do it really the Blue Barn way. It still sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s really real. But I do see an incredible stage light at the end of the tunnel as we create something that will be here long after we’re gone.”
For season details. visit http://www.bluebarn.org.
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show
Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.
Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.
Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.
Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.
Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.
A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.
“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.
She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.
“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”
She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.
“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”
Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.
“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”
Both young women find it a friendly environment.
“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”
“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”
Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.
“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”
Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.
“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”
She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.
About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”
Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.
“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”
Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.
The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.
Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.
“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”
He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.
Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.
Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.
While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.
Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.
New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.
She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.
Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”
He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”
The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.
Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.
For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.
South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.
This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.
As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.
Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.
Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.
Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”
Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”
He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.
“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”
Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.
He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”
Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.
“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”
She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.
MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”
Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.
Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.
“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”
Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”
Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.
The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.
When it comes to the arts in Omaha there are maybe a dozen artists and arts organizations with national reputations (Jun Kaneko, Thomas Wilkins, Therman Statom, Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore, John Beasley, Timothy Schaffert, Opera Omaha, Omaha Theater Company, Film Streams, et cetera) and the Omaha Community Playhouse is the longest lived of these. Its celebration of 90 years concludes in 2015 and what a nine decade ride its been for this theater from the community, for the community. Two of the biggest acting names to ever come out of the city, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both got their start there. But the theater’s legacy is far richer and expansive than these two. Read my Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) retrospective about this pillar of community theater still going strong today and find out what makes it one of the city’s cultural gems whose reputation extends far beyond the confines of Nebraska.
Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission
Theater from the community, for the community celebrates 90 years
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May-June-July issue of Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
Omaha’s love affair with its Playhouse nears a century
During its 2014-2015 season the Omaha Community Playhouse has celebrated nine decades of stage productions and theater arts education. On June 27 the venerable theater is throwing itself a grand Birthday Bash on its east lawn. The free 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, organized by the theater’s support group, Act II, will feature live entertainment, headlined by Playhouse favorite Billy McGuigan, a convoy of food trucks and Broadway bingo. All of Omaha is invited to party like it’s 1925.
When the Playhouse put on its first season 90 years ago the theater brought some much needed culture to a wild and woolly city still shaking the dust off its frontier origins. From a humble start motivated by a desire to just put on plays, it became an Omaha institution. Along the way it changed locations, survived a natural disaster, added a professional touring company, expanded facilities and welcomed many unforgettable characters. Hundreds of productions have been performed before millions of patrons.
Bound up in the Playhouse story is an aspiration to bring people together for a common goal of producing entertainment that engages and fosters community. Civic pride has made it Omaha’s theater. Ambition, determination and generosity has taken it to undreamed of heights as America’s largest community theater.
“The key figure in the rise of the Playhouse to the top, Charles Jones, arrived in 1974,” says Warren Francke, author of the new book, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph. “The simplest reasons the Playhouse became number one were the things Charles Jones accomplished.” Jones penned a wildly popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol and created the professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Under his leadership the Playhouse’s audience, budget and staff eventually exceeded any community theater in the nation. “His adaptation of A Christmas Carol became, pardon the expression, the cash cow for decades.” That show’s a tradition 39 years and counting now.
Francke says the Caravan brought talent to the Playhouse and carried the theater’s brand nationwide. Several standouts came to Omaha via the troupe. Jerry Longe succeeded Dick Boyd as Scrooge in Carol. Bill Hutson headed the Creighton University drama department and won multiple Fonda-McGuire acting awards.
Jones was also adept at getting donors on board. “Everyone describes him as the most charming Southern gentleman they ever met and he charmed people, not just performers, but the business community and Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben leaders,” says Francke. He says Jones’ ability to get people like Marge Durham, Barbara Ford, Ed Owen and Howard Drew to see philanthropy as crucial to the future of the Playhouse was critical for the ascendancy that took place from 1975 through the mid-1990s.
He says the Playhouse’s stable of memorable personalities is led by the charismatic Jones and the flamboyant director, Bernard Szold, “an ex-football All-American opera cape-wearing character.” Dodie Brando, actor Marlon Brando’s mother, was a passionate if troubled enthusiast.
Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda in rehearsal for “The Country Girl”
Early players and echoes of the past
Long woven into the community fabric, the Playhouse developed as the city did. Omaha was a wide open cow town when the Playhouse gave it its only legitimate theater. As Omaha grew, so did the arts. The Playhouse mirrored that evolution. In the span of a decade that saw the Jazz Age give way to the Great Depression, the Playhouse joined two other significant arts organizations in maturing the cultural landscape: the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and the Joslyn Art Museum. All made their mark and remain strong presences today. Of the three, the Playhouse has perhaps been the least stuffy.
Founded as part of a movement to democratize the arts, the Playhouse formed from the community for the community. Even with a professional staff, its grassroots volunteers have always filled out the casts and crews and supported the theater in myriad other ways. Among those figuring prominently in its early success were two families who, against all odds, produced stage and screen icons. Dodie Brando played the lead in the first play, The Enchanted Cottage. Her husband, Marlon Brando Sr., was theater manager. Their son Marlon, who changed the face of acting in New York and Hollywood, was 5 when he and his family moved away, otherwise he would likely have been pulled into the Playhouse orbit the way another future star was, Henry Fonda. Dodie recruited young Hank into the Playhouse fold. He served as a jack-of-all-trades assistant director and as an actor. His sisters Jayne and Harriet were regular players on the fledging theater’s stage.
Not long after Henry went East to pursue an acting career he returned to star opposite a promising ingenue, Dorothy McGuire, in A Kiss for Cinderella (1930). McGuire herself went onto stage and screen stardom. In 1955 she and Fonda, long established names above the title by then, came back to play opposite each other in a benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s then 17-year-old daughter, Jane, the future two-time Oscar-winner, made her stage debut. Jane’s brother, Peter, who also became a screen star, continued the Fonda family’s Playhouse legacy – acting there while a University of Omaha student. A cousin, Matt Fonda, later acted there.
The Fondas and McGuire are not the only Playhouse “graduates” who moved onto Broadway, film, television success. Current Playhouse president Tim Schmad’s uncle Howard Fischer used the venue as a stepping-stone to a career as a Broadway stage manager and actor.
The Fonda-McGuire heritage lives on at the Playhouse. Artistic director Hilary Adams says, “Having a pedigree is very beneficial for us. I think anything founded and initiated by people of that caliber and passion – it really is the passion in their work – has a continuing legacy here.”
Adams heard of the Playhouse while working in New York City as a much-in-demand freelance director, but she only learned about its distinguished past once she started researching it. She appreciates being part of an organization so intertwined with its community and one that boasts such a long, colorful history. “Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater. That’s huge. Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts . That immediately stood out for me – its history and the way it was founded as part of a desire for a community-based organization to bring culture to Omaha as part of the Little Theater Movement.”
“Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater…Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts… –Hilary Adams
Elaine Jabenis, center, hosting live TV special atopening of the new Playhouse
The only show in town
Ex-associate artistic director Susie Baer Collins says the Playhouse parlayed that pedigree into a reputation as “the premiere place for local theatrical entertainment.” She says it’s remained a considerable force even as other theatre companies have put down roots and professional touring productions now regularly come to town. “It was a little scary for all of us the first time The Lion King came to the Orpheum Theater and stayed for more than a month. I wasn’t sure if the Playhouse could survive that kind of stellar competition and still find its audience, but somehow we did. We tried to remain relevant.”
She says the theater’s knack for putting on stellar shows, particularly musicals. grew “in the heyday of Charles Jones,” adding, “He was extremely committed to strong production values and the Playhouse gained a reputation for wonderful scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced every production.”
Doing a Playhouse show meant you’d arrived. “It was like if you got on at the Playhouse then that meant you were doing something theatrically in the city,” says Playhouse veteran Camille Metoyer Moten. “I mean, even now it’s still a big deal.” “It’s definitely a big deal,” says fellow stage veteran Elaine Jabenis. “It opened up a whole new world for me. I met people I ordinarily would not have met,” including Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Dorothy McGuire when Jabenis worked backstage for The Country Girl. “There’s a lot of people I met and worked with who helped pull me up because of their talent.”
Jabenis says it’s no accident the Playhouse has held the community enthralled for going on a century. “Audiences just keep coming back for that magic, for that moment to escape their own life and to see what happens in other lives. It is absolutely magic.” The Playhouse annually nets more local Theatre Arts Guild awards than all its competition combined.
All for one, one for all
Year after year, generation after generation, the Playhouse, no matter the need or challenge, has always found the necessary community backing because it’s a vital, touchstone place for people. “You know, it’s a funny thing about feeling vital,” says Jabenis, whose first Playhouse role in a 1952 production of Father of the Bride was in the old 40th and Davenport site. “When they announced plans to build the present theater I was on the committee to help raise money. I went house to house. I was never that bold a person. I was really pretty shy. But I believed in it, I really did. I was so anxious for it to happen.”
Jabenis says her eagerness to pitch-in reflects a communal desire “to make Omaha the best in everything we do,” adding, “It’s kind of a hunger and it’s something we’ve pushed for.” She also starred in the first production, Say Darling, at the current site in 1959, taking the stage mere minutes after hosting a live remote for local television.
“It’s like the perfect storm or something,” says Metoyer Moten, whose first role there was as the title character in Evita (1986). “You had the people who started it off that had this dream and these high expectations. Somehow they were able to impart that to the next generation, who had that same passion. I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry for culture. We don’t have mountains or the ocean, so we turn to ourselves to give that thing we can bring, which is artistic. “It’s a good common cause.”
This sense of getting behind something is not so different than Omaha’s embrace of the College World Series. It’s what happens when something springs from the community and is nurtured by it. The community theater model, dependent as it is on amateurs or volunteers, leads to misconceptions the Playhouse fights against.
“There’s been times over the years where there’s been debate whether community should be in our name,” says president Tim Schmad. “We hear that newcomers to town see community in our name and they immediately think of a renovated 70-seat church space with productions not the quality we think ours are.”
But Schamd points out community is part of the theater’s DNA and its volunteers work side by side with professionals to create work that he and artistic director Hilary Adams, a veteran of New York City theater, say compares favorably with Broadway. “We feel community definitely needs to be in our name because of the status we have in Omaha and the fact we rely on Omahans to put on our product for the most part,” Schmad says. “Our job then is to get those newcomers here just once. If we can’t get them back that’s our fault but we think if we expose them to our product they’ll understand why community definitely is a part of who we are.”
“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do.”–Hilary Adams
Susan Baer Collins
Before Adams ever started working at the Playhouse she was impressed by what she found on visits there during the search process to replace longtime artistic director Carl Beck.
“It was really about community engagement – that’s what I immediately saw. And then I discovered not only do they support the Playhouse in Omaha but they support the arts in Omaha.”
Since joining the staff in mid-2014 Adams, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, has been bowled over by the Playhouse’s singular approach to community theater.
“The quality of work is astonishing. I think it’s a real hybrid situation that’s unique to community theaters in that we have a paid staff and everything we do supports our volunteer actors, with the exception of the Caravan. What we do have here is really high quality and high support for volunteer actors, and the staff here is incredibly talented and experienced. We treat the people who walk in our doors the same or better as Equity actors or people who do this for a living get treated.
“Volunteers are at the heart of the Playhouse. We have more than 1,000 in a season. They’re involved onstage, backstage, in the box office, as ushers, answering phones, on the board, in Act II. The public is everywhere in this building.”
Her first exposure to the Playhouse in action was at a performance of Les Miserables. The seamless blending of community she witnessed that night is what she’s come to expect. “I saw all that in operation backstage, And in the front of the house at intermission for Les Mis the entire audience stood up and cheered and I still get like goose bumps thinking about this because almost the entire cast was fellow community members.” The outpouring of love happened again at curtain call and once again at the meet-and-greet in the lobby, as community members in the audience, the cast and crew expressed appreciation for each other. This mutual admiration happens nearly every show.
Schmad grew up with this sense of community. His aunt Margaret Fischer saw every production from the theater’s start until her death. Many of her friends acted on stage there and she and the rest of the family were always in the audience to encourage them. Schmad says many Omaha families claim similar Playhouse legacies. Whether attending shows and classes or volunteering onstage or backstage, the Playhouse becomes a multi-generational tradition. He says it’s not uncommon for someone to start there as a child and to either continue or resume ties in adulthood, often getting their own children involved. “That’s really symbolic of what the Playhouse is,” he says. It goes back to community being the basis for everything there.
“That is very unique. It’s all part of this cycle of “bringing theater with and for communities,” says Adams. It jives with her own theater interests, which is why she left New York for here. “I was looking for a place where I could combine the professional theater experience I had with the skills and focus of my master’s program, which is in applied theater – using theater for social change, transformation and education. I really wanted to merge those two parts of theater. I also came from a community theater background as a young person. From the time I was really small I was also going to New York and seeing shows. So I’ve always sort of been in that hybrid.”
“We learned that this place is bigger than all of us.” –Tim Schmad
Camille Metoyer Moten
Training ground and professional environment
Baer Collins says “The performers may be volunteers, but they’re surrounded by professionalism. A great number of the designers and directors, along with the music director, choreographer, technicians, carpenters, costumers, et cetera. are employees of the Playhouse and all are committed to making each show the very best it can be.” That expertise and care shows up on stage.”The Playhouse’s professionalism continues to have a reputation among the theatre community,” she says.
“Actors who may have significant experience or training are often interested in performing at the Playhouse as a volunteer because it strives for such high-quality and its shows have such a professional look. “It was always a thrill when an audience member would say they thought the actors were professional.”
Metoyer Moten, who starred in last spring’s production of the musical Little Women, says it’s a regular occurrence, “You hear it all the time at the (post-show) meet-and-greets where people say, ‘I saw the same show on Broadway and this is way better.’ Ot they ask, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s such a professional performance they don’t think it could be local. They think it’s a cast that’s been brought in from someplace else, when the truth is I may live around the corner from them.”
Metoyer Moten says the professionals employed in key positions at the Playhouse “guide mentor” volunteers to do professional-level work. “They have high expectations. It’s all about expectations. I’ve worked in quite a few theaters and I still feel like when I’m there I have the most professional treatment.”
“You feel more secure because you know they’re really pulling out the very best in you and you’re making it the very best you can,” Jabenis says.
Amid the bright lights and standing ovations, its easy to forget the Playhouse is a training ground for people of any age and experience level to get a top-notch theater immersion and education.
“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do,” Adams says. “We have a very strong education and outreach program that includes adult and youth classes, youth summer camp intensives, in-school workshops and residencies, after-school programs, a Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program, an alternative programming series and go-beyond the show programming.”
She’s proud of the two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with Metropolitan Community College and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our apprentices run a lot of the shows backstage. They are supervised, supported and mentored by our paid staff every step of the way. So here you have a professional house that looks like what you’d have on Broadway or high off-Broadway or high regional theater, with all the accoutrements, bells and whistles, and the people working that are this really unique combination, from teens on up, of people really new at it and people really experienced. “It’s an incredible program. It’s the only one like it in the country.”
Apprentice grads have gone on to work for big-time theatrical troupes, theater festivals and network television. The Playhouse is also where young talent gets its start.
Baer Collins says, “We worked very hard to bring young people into our shows, in particular A Christmas Carol. That yearly production became an amazing training ground for children to learn about the discipline and art of performing onstage. I worked with some amazing young people who grew into outstanding performers. They start with learning to smile onstage and to hang up their costumes and end up playing amazing roles like Annie in Annie or Wendy in Peter Pan.” John Lloyd Young made it all the way to Broadway, where he headlined the cast of Jersey Boys, winning a Tony for his efforts. Others who’ve gone onto stardom include Terry Kiser and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.
Two Caravan alums who found fame returned in triumphant roles: Kevyn Morrow, a veteran of the Broadway and London stage, headlined the cast of Ragtime in 2006; and opera star Greg Ryerson anchored South Pacific in 2008. Some Omaha natives who made it big before acting at the Playhouse have returned to play there, including Equity performer John Beasley, who starred opposite Elaine Jabenis in 1996’s Driving Miss Daisy. Former Omaha mayor and congressman Glenn Cunningham and film-TV producer William Dozier are among the notables who acted there.
The show must go on
Hilary Adams is impressed the Playhouse has consistently dared to do provocative work. “They really came out of the gate very strong with innovative productions even in the ’20s. They were doing wonderful work here.”
Historian Warren Francke says, “Almost from the start the Playhouse was willing to tackle Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie about a prostitute. When they did controversial plays then they were defended by two board members who were clergymen, one a rabbi and the other a Unitarian minister.” Francke discovered a “wonderful story nearly lost to history” that illustrates the pressure the Playhouse sometimes felt. “A man wrote a play about Brigham Young and Bernard Szold, the then-Playhouse director, knew him and together they conspired to pick up the play. Szold went to his artist friend Grant Wood, who’d just done “American Gothic,” to do the scenic design. That’s overshadowed by the fact the night before opening the Mormon Church got the president of Union Pacific Railroad and their general counsel to convince the Playhouse board to drop 14 of Young’s 17 wives in the cast.”
Adams says community theater serves so many tastes that devising a slate of plays “is about finding the right balance and challenging people but not so far that they get upset with us. For 2015-2016 we’ve created a diverse season of offerings from new American playwrights rising in prominence as well as better known pieces. The season mixes genres and styles and includes two experimentations in form.”
Controversy over content still happens. In the 2003-2004 season profane language in the main stage production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife elicited such negative feedback that Schmad says “it showed us how we shouldn’t mess with their Playhouse.” “We learned a lesson from that,” he says, namely that the main stage Hawks Theatre is better suited to tamer shows. “We did lose a lot of memberships because of it. Hopefully. we got some back. They sent a message. It was kind of ironic that our first show in the Hawks the next year was Hair,” the nudie musical about free love. “It did fine.”
Playhouse leadership has come under fire, too. ‘When we had some public issues in the past I learned just how important the Playhouse is to the community,” Schmad says. In 2009 friction between the administrative and artistic sides made news. “It was something at that time that needed to be discussed and it was and we came out much better because of that. We learned that this place is bigger than all of us. We all came to that conclusion.” Schmad says the upshot of that has been better communication and a clearer division of responsibilities. “The way we’ve structured it now, which is different than a lot of community theaters, is that I’m here to do the administrative things. though I do also oversee the artistic side. But I leave the management of the artistic up to them. I have confidence and trust in what they do.”
“When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” –Tim Schmad
Schmad views himself as the steward of a valued community resource. “When I first came here I said i want to be the caretaker of this place but I also want to move it forward. I feel responsible for this place. I know how important it is to people. In my decision-making I certainly have to take care of my staff and the people who come to the shows, the donors, the board members. There are many nights where I’m awake at three in the morning, but that comes with the territory.”
As for what’s next, he says, “We’re looking at the future, we’re looking at strategic planning, and that’s very important to us. It’s a combination of what we need to do administratively and artistically. There’s no question that selling tickets, donor support and remaining relevant to the community is extremely important. “Right now I think we’re in good hands. Our board is good, our foundation is strong. I’m really proud of our staff. We’ve got some real go-getters that know what they’re doing and are very talented and that love theater and love the Playhouse. “It’s not all roses but I’m kind of proud of where we are.”
A clear indication of the theater’s continued popularity is that some hit shows in the last decade broke all box-office records. Through all the Playhouse’s needs – realizing a new home in 1959, repairing structural damage from a 1975 tornado, supporting a major addition in 1986, building the endowment – Omaha’s responded. “We’ve been very fortunate the community’s come forward to support any special needs,” he says. “We are always trying to improve ourselves. Our facility looks nice but we’ve got 50-some years in this building and so we definitely have some improvements that need to be made, especially in staging and equipment that’s pretty old. So we’re in that mode right now in trying to really improve what we have.”
He expects, not takes for granted, the community will respond again. “They’ve always been there.” Everyone from philanthropists like Howard and Rhonda Hawks to season subscribers and casual theatergoers. “That’s what makes Omaha what it is. The community is proud of the arts and culture in Omaha. When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” They’ve given their time, talent and treasure, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership that comes with that.” That’s why it’s called the Omaha Community Playhouse.