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
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
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.