Posts Tagged ‘Carl Beck’

Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

February 28, 2013 3 comments

An Omaha asset know far and wide outside the city and the state of Nebraska is the Omaha Community Playhouse.  With the possible exception of the Joslyn Art Museum, it owns the richest history of any Omaha arts and cultural organization.  I mean, we’re talking serious pedigree here.  So it’s no small thing to hold a ranking position on the artistic staff there.  That a former husband and wife hold the artistic director and associate artistic director posts there and have done so for many years intrigued me and the result of my curiosity is the following story soon to appear in the New Horizons newspaper.   Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins have been making theater together for decades and they’ve gone right on working at the Playhouse even after their divorce.  They’ve made this unusual situation work and after the 2013-2014 season they will finally be going their separate ways, but there’s a lot of theater ahead of them yet.  If you’re a theater fan then check out my many theater stories on this blog, including a history piece on the Omaha Community Playhouse and features related to the Brigit St. Brigit, Blue Barn, John Beasley and other theaters.  You’ll also find quite a bit about the Great Plains Theatre Conference.


Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons


A shared passion for theater has kept Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck joined at the hip despite countless moves and significant life changes.

If they were a production, Collins-Beck would be a sensation for their show-must-go-on endurance. A year-and-a-half from now their decades-long run as a dedicated theater team – he’s artistic director and she’s associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse – will end when they retire from those positions and they finally go their separate ways.

Their love story is not just with dramatics. Back in the early 1970s they fell head over heels for each other while working in the theater – they were even introduced on stage. They began living together, traveling far and wide pursuing their dream, including two stays in New York City, where they made audition rounds trying to break in on Broadway. There and at other stops they worked regular jobs to support their stage aspirations. With nothing tying them down, these theater vagabonds went wherever the work took them.

Beck recalls, “We were exceptionally lucky along the way. We had connections that kept taking us to a different step. We remained very open. We were constantly moving, sometimes three or four times in a year, to different cities. So everything had to fit in a Volkswagen Beetle. You lived a very strange life but it was always interesting.”

They’ve performed in every conceivable situation, from grand venues to under a leaking circus tent in a driving rainstorm to a cattle auction barn to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where one group of inmates was on their best behavior while another group heckled the performers the entire time.

Dinner theaters became their mainstay.

“One of our trips took us to Atlanta where we were in a fantastic theater that did nothing but big musicals – Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof,” says Collins.

That Southern metropolis became home when Turner Broadcasting hired them to work in front of and behind the camera for its WTBS superstation.

On far right are Carl Beck and Susan Baet Collins, ©

“Maybe the biggest departure was an opportunity for us to write and perform on a children’s television show for Turner Broadcasting called Superstation Funtime. I was on the show and Carl was a writer,” says Collins. “We worked for three years, in and out of production of this show and in other positions at the network.”

TV was a decided change of pace for the theater artists.

“There wasn’t the same degree of comfort, of knowledge, of want to work in television as there was in theater,” says Beck. “I just always felt I would be scrambling to catch up in television, but my roots, my base is more theater-driven, and that’s what we would both prefer to be doing.”

Ironically, Collins has gone on to do extensive work as a voice talent for  network TV children’s shows (Street Sharks, Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Liberty’s Kids, Horseland, Strawberry Shortcake, Dino Squad). She also does narration for commercials, documentaries and corporate videos.

Perhaps the couple’s most memorable performance came for British royalty.

“We wrote and performed a live show for the Prince of Wales at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,” Beck explains.”Prince Charles came there as part of a U.S. tour. We had just opened a comedy improv group there with other Nebraskans and were kind of a new topic.”

Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the royal. “I ended up as the master of ceremonies,” Beck says. “Gladys Knight and the Pips were the big entertainment.” Collins appeared in a sketch quizzing Charles on his knowledge of Southern slang. She got to meet him backstage and was charmed by his droll flattery.

Theater is the couple’s life. Upon marrying in 1977 they followed, in their own humble way, the tradition of more famous husband and wife stage teams such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

The couple have a son together, Ben Beck, who is a playwright and actor in Omaha. Though Collins and Beck divorced in 1996, they’ve remained friends and colleagues, managing to amicably, successfully work side by side at the Playhouse. Their parallel careers long ago brought them there. Beck came first. When Superstation Funtime was cancelled he “jobbed in” to direct for the Playhouse’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.

“Then we got the call that (then-executive director) Charles Jones was looking for an associate director to help him because the Playhouse then was undergoing a large expansion, so we moved up there with a 6-month old baby and I became associate director,” says Beck. “That was 1983.”

When Jones suffered a stroke in ’96 Beck became artistic director and Collins associate artistic director. They’ve remained in those positions ever since.

“We feel absolutely incredibly lucky to have stumbled into the positions that we have that allow us to live a very pleasant, normal life in a community like Omaha being able to make our living doing something we both feel very passionate about,” says Beck.

Between them, they helm most of the theater’s mainstage shows, particularly the big musicals that are the theater’s stock-in-trade moneymakers.

Their professional alliance has endured dating, marriage and divorce. “We’ve been joined at the hip professionally most of our lives. It’s kind of unusual,” says Collins. When their wedded bliss was no more they looked past their differences to focus on what was best for their son and their career. “It couldn’t work any other way,” she says. “We celebrate holidays together, we’ve taken trips together.”

She’s been married 13 years to an attorney from Norfolk, Neb., Dennis Collins, who performs at the Playhouse and has been directed by her ex.

“It’s an odd little family, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Susan says.

Having lived and worked together so long, the pair connect deeply.

“It’s definitely a relationship you cultivate, especially after a divorce,” says Beck. “You realize the important things. We certainly don’t want to make anyone we work with or are friends with choose sides. Our single greatest focus was to continue to raise our son and both be very much a part of his life. No one was going anywhere.”

Because they’ve shared a life together, the two artists enjoy a bond that goes well beyond what most associates share.

“We obviously do know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have grown very comfortable over a period of time with being able to support or cover one another or when one’s fired come to the rescue,” says Beck.

They had each others’ backs in 2009 when Beck was asked to resign by Playhouse president Tim Schmad in the midst of a budget crisis and Collins promptly resigned to show her support for her ex. That riff with management was resolved when Playhouse supporters expressed indignation at Beck’s dismissal and Schmad had a change of heart. The artists patched up their differences with administrators and Beck and Collins resumed their posts.

The pair perform similar but separate roles at the Playhouse, where they form a conspiracy of hearts and minds that is all about mutual support.

“We rarely work on the same project together,” says Collins, “What we do is kind of go to bat together in front of the board or executive committee for what we think is necessary to maintain or add to our productions here.”

Just as the couple found enough common ground after their divorce to remain friends and colleagues they found a path to come back to the Playhouse after  that celebrated flap with their bosses. Healing the wounds from that severing was crucial if the Playhouse were to thrive.

“It was a very intense period for absolutely everyone,” recalls Beck. “Those of us that were most affected by it came to realize this was very detrimental to the Playhouse and hurting the institution and that, differences aside, we all very much loved this organization. And for that reason we sat down and started coming to terms with one another because the institution was much greater than the individuals involved and the incident that happened.”

Collins says, “Everybody came bearing an olive branch all at the same time.”

Still, there was an awkward feeling-out period.

“Everyone had to find their way after that point and very carefully move forward because you were trying to absorb different people’s attitudes and what had taken place,” says Beck. “It was a gradual process.”

A direct benefit from all of that was that the division that previously existed between the art and business sides of the Playhouse was eliminated. Instead of operating independently as they did before, with little discussion or appreciation of what the other did, the two sides began communicating.

When the couple first joined the Playhouse the artistic and financial decisions were made by one person, Charles Jones. Eventually, those duties were divided among different people. It just made sense.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more collaborative decision making that happens then when we first came,” says Collins. “At the time artistic and financial decisions were pretty much managed by the same person. A lot of theaters operated in that way until they started splitting the responsibilities.”

But over time the two camps became isolated and mistrustful, all of which contributed to the 2009 fall-out.

Collins says, “When we first came back from that Tim (Schmad) and Carl and I would have at least weekly meetings, which is something we’d never done. We reported to each other a lot and you could watch both parties start to see what life was like for an arts administrator in the middle of a big recession.”

She says where before she and Beck never gave much thought to money matters they now routinely ask themselves, “How do we help justify the budget?” She adds, “And now he (Schmad) sees what is really necessary for all this programming to take place. It’s admirable to watch because before we were seeing the other side as the enemy. Before the ‘dust up’ I never went to a financial committee meeting or a board meeting. I go to everything now. It helps you see what we’re facing.”

Part of what the Playhouse faces is a changed environment in which it is no longer the only show in town.

“When we first came if you wanted to see a big musical in Omaha you went to the Playhouse,” says Collins. “Now you can see a first national touring production of Memphis or see The Lion King sit down here for six weeks. That never happened before. There are more theaters now, too.”

She frets that what makes the Playhouse special is lost on some.

“There are people I worry who don’t see the value in nurturing this part of the art form with theater as an avocation. I want to keep in everybody’s brain how important this centrally located community theater is to the nurturing of new talent and new audiences.”

The theater is having to adapt to stay relevant.

“Audiences are changing,” says Beck. “The old rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. People don’t buy season memberships the way they used to.

There are so many more options for their arts dollars today. So we’re becoming less membership oriented and more reliant on single ticket sales.”

To better appeal to different audiences the Playhouse now promotes a slate of traditional and nontraditional offerings.

He says, “We’ve rebranded our theater as having two very separate spaces. We call it, ‘Find Your Stage.’ We have a more traditional mainstage theater and an edgier, more contemporary theater, the Drew.”

Collins says a big challenge is getting capacity seating up in the mainstage.

A Christmas Carol

Theater’s been the glue that’s kept the couple together and so it shouldn’t be a surprise the two met as actors with the Nebraska Repertory Theater in Lincoln. She’d moved with her family to Lincoln after growing up in Detroit, Mich. and other places. She was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater major. He gravitated there from his hometown of Shreveport, La. by way of theater studies at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa.

After stints with dinner theaters and rep companies around the nation and that three-year hiatus in TV, they ended up back in Neb. and here is where they’ve stayed. Collins and Beck have faithfully continued the Playhouse’s rich tradition that extends back to its 1924 founding and that includes notable alums Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire and state of the art facilities.

The Playhouse has become their theater home.

Each feels they’re exactly where they’re meant to be but after giving so much for so long they’ve also put in motion their leaving the Playhouse at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Their rationale for parting ways is simply wanting to move on to do other things. Then there’s the fatigue factor of time and energy spent mounting shows. Announcing their resignations so far in advance has as much to do with their love for the institution and giving it time to find the right replacements as it does leaving on their own terms. After all, they’re in good health and they don’t want to wait and be forced out due to illness.

They make no bones about what a special place the Playhouse is and the special place it holds in their lives.

“It’s a long history,” says Beck. “We came as actors. We then grew into what we became. We had a deep strong appreciation for its strengths and an understanding of its weaknesses. Moving into management and directing positions we were able to maintain the strengths we always appreciated and went to work on things we felt we could improve. It’s been embraced by the Omaha community for 89 years and when you work here as we have you become entrenched in the history of the organization.”

On the other hand, he says, “we’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been living in a rehearsal hall a long time. You reach a point where you realize new blood is a very positive thing and a transition for the Playhouse is a growth.”

Collins says, We’ve seen a lot of people go out of here on walkers or in ambulances. We didn’t want to be those people who say with a last gasp, ‘I have one more show in me…’ Because as much as this is what we love to do rarely do you have a day away from the Playhouse, You’re here days in the office but then you’re back from 6 to 10 o’clock in rehearsal. Weekends, forget it. It kind of runs your time.”

In an unusual move, they announced their impending departure in August 2012, a full two years before their resignations take effect.

“We were having discussions about it probably two-and-a-half years ago and we both came to the conclusion we were both ready to do it and doing it at the same time made a lot of sense,” Beck says.

Besides, he adds, it’s time to do something else and to structure your life in a different way. We’re both wide open. I have a lot of family in the South and in all likelihood I will relocate and spend more time around a beach.”

Collins, meanwhile, intends staying in Omaha, where she’s planted deep roots as an actress, director, playwright and voice talent.

“I probably won’t leave Omaha and I will be a part of the theater community but it’ll be more my timetable and I’ll pick my projects. Carl and I in these positions take on the most potential income-producing projects of the season, which means we do the big musicals with the mega casts. Back when I first came here I was more like our resident director Amy Lane where I would get to do the funky quirky little plays in the small theater that we know aren’t going to make money. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play with some great piece of writing in a small room with seven or eight actors.

“I would like to do that and I would like to do a little more performing.”

She’d also like to write more. She and her late partner, composer Jonathan Coles, wrote three widely performed musicals for young people.

 An inevitable consequence of announcing their retirement so early, she says, “is people are thinking we’re retiring tomorrow. We kind of get, ‘Are you still here?'” A big part of giving such long notice was affording the Playhouse ample time to find successors who are the right fit for unusual jobs at what is a singular institution. Once their replacements are found, Collins and Beck fully expect to help train or advise them in order to ease that transition.

“We know what’s involved. It’s just a very different thing, so you have to have knowledge of the place,” says Collins. “So we’re hoping whoever comes in can give us time before he or she just kicks right in with their first production.”

Not only are there multiple productions to mount each season there’s the great elephant in the room that must be constantly fed – the Playhouse’s annual mega production of A Christmas Carol. Besides its long mainstage run in Omaha, it’s performed by two companies of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in tours that take the show to the east and west coasts.

A Christmas Carol is a huge component of why we are able to sustain          ourselves. It’s both tour and resident production,” says Collins, “and it isn’t like you could come in tomorrow and just direct the show.”

“It’s a machine,” says Beck. “We rehearse three productions at the same time. You come in at 9 a.m. and you leave at 10 at night, juggling all three, and the intricacies of that.”

“It has a legacy. There’s an integrity about this production,” Collins says.

That production is the adaptation that the late Charles Jones gifted the theater with after his arrival there. Jones, a consummate Southern gentleman who oozed charm, was one of the most charismatic figures the couple has had the pleasure of knowing.

“Charles Jones had an amazing capacity to talk anybody into anything, be it corporate donors, be it actors, whomever. Charles was an impresario. Working for him, working around him was daily an education,” says Beck.

“There’s the kind of teacher who takes you down to nothing and then lets you try to stand up again and I was never able to respond to that very well,” says Collins, “but I have always thrived under someone who says, ‘I think you can do anything’ or ‘I think you can do more with than you know,’ and that was always Charles. When I first came here he gave me lots of encouragement as a performer and then came a day he decided I should start directing and I hadn’t directed anything outside a class. I’ll always be grateful to Charles.”

Education is a major aspect of what Collins and Beck do whether directing a show or conducting workshops and classes. By its nature, Beck says, community theater means working with casts filled with people who have dramatic training or stage experience as well as those who’ve never appeared in a play “and your job is to get them all to the same level.” He adds, “You’re constantly learning, constantly starting from square one with each project and each group of people. You’re dealt a different hand every time you go off.”

“In every cast I would love to have one very young, inexperienced, eager, talented high school student because they are so genuinely excited to be there and they become the heart and soul of an entire company,” he says. “You can bring a person along and nurture someone. I’ve had two this year.”

Similarly, Collins says “it’s the process” of creating theater she most enjoys.

“It’s going to that audition and your heart’s kind of in the pit of your throat because you’re not sure you’re going to find the people you’re looking for.” More often than not she does. “We get criticized for casting the same people but I challenge anybody to name a play where we haven’t introduced someone new to the stage.”

Discovering new talent is a side bonus.

“Julia McKenzie in All Night Strut is my latest, Oh-my-gosh, where-did-you- come-from? find. This young woman that none of us knew just showed up at our auditions and she’s proven to be a phenomenal dancer, with personality out her toes and she can sing, too. We have been nothing but thrilled with her since the day she walked in.

“There was a little girl we cast long ago in A Christmas Carol named Caroline Iliff. I knew her mother, who said, ‘Oh, my daughter’s auditioning for A Christmas Carol,’ and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, who isn’t it?’ And this little girl was darling and we put her in the company and over the years she became such a poised, amazing, capable young performer. She ended up playing Annie in the musical Annie. She went on to play my Wendy in Peter Pan and developed this impeccable British accent.

“Now she’s a grown-up person playing Belle in A Christmas Carol and off in Texas studying music theater and I feel, ‘That’s my baby.'”

Collins and Beck also enjoy immersing themselves in the world of a play.

“You do a play about Helen Keller or Ann Landers or the music of the 1930s and 40s and you learn a whole bunch of stuff. Each play is its own little being,” she says. “I want to steep myself with as much information as I can get about the subject matter. Then you try to see it in your head and then some actor comes along and maybe changes your mind or takes your suggestion and runs with it or takes it further than you imagined. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Beck says, “Every two to three months you’re faced with a new set of challenges and starting back at square one with casting, with putting a piece together, with finding your way. It doesn’t allow room for getting dull.”

He says mounting a community theater production is a balancing act.

“You make the rehearsal process as positive an experience as possible.

You don’t abuse. You realize these people get up the next morning and have to be at work, so you’re careful in how you use them.”

He says one reason why the Playhouse attracts top talent show after show is that it offers something no other theater in town can match.

“Cast are featured in a very professional setting with top notch costumes and sets and sound and orchestra and all of the trappings and so it’s a wonderful realization for a performer. It’s a remarkable facility.”

Collins and Beck are quick to add they don’t do it alone.

“There would be no way we could feel this pleased about the work we get to do if it wasn’t for the production team and the people we have the privilege of working with every day,” says Collins. “These people are under a lot of pressure and yet they will go the extra mile every time and they’re right there at your side.”

And they’re all under one roof – props, costumes, scenic design, sound, music.

“That’s a really fortuitous thing,” she said.

Almost as fortuitous as Collins and Beck enriching the Omaha theater scene for 30 years.

Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

August 4, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of Henry Fonda from the fil...

Image via Wikipedia

I wrote this New Horizons story during the 75th anniversary season of the Omaha Community Playhouse, a not so ordinary community theater where stage and film legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire both got their start in acting.  The Playhouse is a genuine institution in my hometown. It’s rich history is interesting enough, but the theater’s success over all these years  is the passion of the people who make its productions possible.  That love of theater is the same today as it was decades ago, only the names and faces, casts and crews, most all volunteers, have changed.  After a rocky couple years, the Playhouse has regained its bearings and the tradition, just like the old theater credo about the show going on, continues.


Show goes an at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


For 75 years now, just about anyone with a bit of ham in them has been afforded the chance to trod the boards or rig the lights or erect the sets at the largest community theater in America — the Omaha Community Playhouse. Because it is first and foremost a volunteer theater, where no professionals need apply, countless people, from all walks of life, have left their 9-to-5 jobs behind at the door for its magical world of greasepaint. For a chance to go on with the show. And for the chance to launch a Broadway or Hollywood career, as some Playhouse alums have done, most notably Nebraska natives Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire.

On April 7, another opening night found an electric current running through the crowd, cast and crew for The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a bittersweet comedy. No matter what the show, it never gets old, this thrilling adventure in live performance. There is a palpable excitement among the playmakers, whose craft brings a make-believe world to life, and among audience members, who willingly surrender to the spell the players cast. Then there’s the unpredictability of live theater, where anything is liable to occur. Only the night before, a mechanical wagon smashed into wooden flats that did not fly out in time and, amid the sound of splintering wood, everything came to a screeching halt.

“No matter how many plays you’ve done, it’s absolutely a live experience and anything can happen. You never get too smug because you’re always perfectly capable of having your pants pulled down around your ankles. It’s truly putting yourself out on a limb,” Playhouse Artistic Director Carl Beck said. “And being a community theater we have varying degrees of experience. It runs the gamut from veteran actors and actresses to some doing their very first show.”

Adding to the charm is the fact just plain folks — friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers — are the ones putting on the show as performers or technicians.

With the main stage auditorium still empty that April night, the crew trussed-up the Ballyhoo set while lead actor Jeffrey Taxman paced-off nervous energy with his character’s (Uncle Adolph) ever-present stogie in his mouth. Backstage, director Judy Hart encouraged her players to “break a leg.” The show, opening in mere minutes, was out of her hands by then. According to Beck, at that late stage the director, any director, is “the most useless person in the world. There’s absolutely nothing you can do by the time opening night rolls around, except stay out of the way and keep your fingers crossed.”

In a dressing room, four female cast members animatedly chattered while applying makeup, adjusting wigs and squeezing into costumes. A stagehand knocked at the door to ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” and the actresses replied, “Just fine, honey,” mimicking the southern Belles they portray. Even as an overhead voice announced, “Ten minutes to the top of Act One,” the girls of Ballyhoo continued nonchalantly getting ready for the curtain rising on this opening night, only their steady jabbering betraying their butterflies.

Out in the lobby, arriving theatergoers buzzed with anticipation. Among them was Omahan Lisa Jensen and her family. For Jensen, the appeal of live theater is “the excitement of seeing real people up there portraying a show, a story, a song. You get a different interaction than you feel watching a movie or a TV program. You’re clapping for people who are up there performing for you, and that’s exciting. And I think you get a little different excitement on opening night you don’t get as the play progresses. The actors are more breathless, the jitters more pronounced.”

As the near-capacity crowd filed in the auditorium and settled in their seats, the sound of eager voices rippled throughout. A darkened set, meant to represent a richly-appointed Southern parlor, only hinted at what lay ahead. Then, as the lights dimmed, a hush fell over the theater and the stage was illuminated by the glare of spots and warmed by the spark of actors breathing dramatic life into a space that only moments before was cold, static, dead. For the the next two-and-half hours 400 people suspended their sense of disbelief at the unfolding story before their eyes. As in all good theater, a visceral exchange occurred between stage and spectator, until only the play became the thing. Until the lines between fantasy and reality blurred. Another show begun. Another journey into imagination joined.

Whimsy alone is not enough to make a theater succeed. It also takes guts, vision, labor, love and money. With that kind of dogged spirit behind it, the Playhouse has enjoyed 75 uninterrupted performance seasons — weathering wars, a depression, a tornado and changing times along the way. This spirit of “the show must go on” has been translated into unparalleled support for the theater, which boasts a season membership base of 9,800, a volunteer corps of 2,000 to 4,000 and a large, plush physical plant including two theaters, many rehearsal halls and bustling costume and scenic shops (The theater is unique among community theaters in building its own own costumes and sets rather than renting them.).

Former Playhouse executive director and artistic director Charles Jones, who is credited with growing the theater into the nation’s largest, said, “A strength of the Playhouse has been that people have cared so much about it, and when people really care about something it’s bound to flourish. A secret to the Playhouse’s success has been its professional staff and  volunteer brigade. It has also been fortunate to have a wonderful board of directors who have always enjoyed a marvelous rapport with staff and volunteers.”

What accounts for the community’s deep embrace of the theater? Longtime volunteer Florence Young, who appeared in the very first play there in 1925, said, “There’s a feeling that it is OUR theater, and that makes it seem very close to us and very special to us. That we’re really a part of it. We love it.” She said community support for it mirrors the support Omahans show the Henry Doorly Zoo and the College World Series. “We really get behind things in Omaha. We don’t do things half-way. People really pitch-in, and that’s been the story of the Playhouse…of so many people contributing to it. One person’s enthusiasm for it draws another person to it, and they become enthused too. It’s an inspiration.”

Perhaps Henry Fonda summed it up best when he said once, “The Omaha Community Playhouse isn’t a mere building. It’s the spirit that has been put into the Playhouse by thousands of volunteers over the past many years.”

And true to its grassroots community origins, the theater’s artistic staff work hand-in-hand with amateur casts and crews to achieve productions of professional caliber. “Prior to most people’s first visit to the Playhouse they have certain expectations of what a community theater will be — a group of amateurs getting together to do a show of not so high caliber quality — but after they see the work of the Playhouse their perceptions of community theater are generally completely altered. It is the mission of the Playhouse to bring the quality of performances and production values to their highest possible end,” Beck said. Over the years its work has shined outside Omaha as select casts have participated in regional, national and international (Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union) theater festivals and through annual touring shows of its A Christmas Carol production.

The Playhouse presents 10 to 12 diverse productions each season. There is no sure formula for finding the right mix of plays that will please young, old, conservative and adventurous theatergoers alike. Said Beck, “There are people who have been members of the Playhouse for 20 and 30 and 40 years. These same people will support you but will also let you know very quickly when artistically you’re falling short. You see it directly in box office and membership sales. As a staff we try to live up to the heritage and continuity of the Playhouse by finding a balance of plays that challenge both the audience and the performer and that live up to the mission of a community theater, which is a varied and diverse season.”

The Playhouse also has an educational component via theater arts classes and workshops for all ages. It also offers an accredited apprenticeship program in technical theater. As part of an educational outreach effort to make theater available to everyone in the state the Playhouse formed a professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theater Caravan, in 1976. Since then the Caravan has taken to the road each year performing plays in smaller communities across Nebraska, Iowa and the greater Midwest. The Caravan annually mounts three productions of A Christmas Carol for audiences coast to coast. The Caravan, which recruits performers and technicians at regional auditions, has become an internal talent pool for the Playhouse. Beck, a Caravan veteran himself, said, “We have at least a dozen persons on staff who began as Caravan personnel. Together, we bring a professional strength and continuity to this community theater that is exciting.”

From the first opening night in 1925, when The Enchanted Cottage premiered, to this 75th anniversary season’s finale production of My Fair Lady, closing June 18, thousands of volunteers have supported the theater through long rehearsal hours, generous contribution dollars and annual season memberships. The story of the Playhouse is the story of the arts in Omaha. Of visionary figures (including early Playhouse stalwart Dorothy Brando, the mother of Marlon) pursuing a dream. Of a community pitching-in to realize that dream. Of supporters not letting hurdles stand in the way of grand designs. With The Roaring Twenties in full swing, the idea of creating a playhouse in Omaha was a natural. The city was fast transitioning from a frontier outpost into an urban center where all the amenities of modern life could be enjoyed. Movie and vaudeville theaters flourished. Why not a playhouse then? A group of civic and arts-minded citizens took up the challenge. By the fall of 1924 a board of directors was elected and by the following spring the Playhouse, aided by proceeds from fundraising events, was incorporated — with $10 shares issued to hundreds of stockholders. Now, it only needed a performing space.

A temporary home was found in the Cooper Dance Studio at 40th and Farnam. It was there The Enchanted Cottage, with Dorothy Brando and Jayne Fonda (a sister of Henry’s) in the cast, was performed. Within months a shy, gangly young man named Henry Fonda made his stage debut there, and, well, the rest is history. The Cooper remained the Playhouse’s home for two and a half seasons but when it was unceremoniously converted into a chicken restaurant in 1928, the theater finished its third season at the Benson High School Auditorium. In need of new quarters, the board set their sights on five nearby lots purchased a few years earlier from Sarah Joslyn, the widow of printing-publishing magnate George Joslyn. The story goes the lots, on the corner of 40th and Davenport, served as pasture land for Dame Joslyn’s cow. The fertile ground proved a rich spot for the new Playhouse, erected in only 28 days, to grow. The theater, variously described as “an old barn” and “an ungainly thing,” was meant to be a temporary facility but instead saw service for 31 years. Casts and crews made do with the structure’s shortcomings, including backstage space so cramped actors exiting stage left had to dash outside, exposed to the elements, to enter stage right.

By the end of World War II the theater was badly in need of a new and larger home. Enter Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire. The two stars, who performed together in the theater’s 1931 production of A Kiss for Cinderella, returned in 1955 for benefit performances of The Country Girl (co-starring Henry’s daughter, Jane) at the Music Hall to kick-off a capital fund drive. Within four years the Playhouse had opened at its present mid-town 69th and Cass Street site. Henry Fonda, who served on the Playhouse advisory board until his 1982 death, played an active role in visioning the theater’s future growth and ensuring its legacy. By the early 1960s, his son Peter also found his way on stage at the Playhouse. Besides the Fondas and McGuire, scores of Playhouse alumni have gone on to significant careers in theater, film and television, including actor Jim Millhollin and cabaret performer Julie Wilson. Even famed artist Grant Wood worked there — as a set designer. The place is still turning out talent. “We have a multitude of people out there doing exceedingly well. Last spring, for example, we had four former Playhouse or Caravan performers appearing in separate productions on Broadway,” Beck said.

A defining moment for the theater came in May of 1975, when a killer tornado ripped the roof off the building, blew -out the windows and doors and scattered costumes and props to the winds. A Rebuild the Playhouse campaign fund drive promptly began and by that fall the structure was repaired and a lavish 50th anniversary production, The Golden Follies, dazzled audiences. According to Charles Jones, the disaster made the community realize how much they valued the Playhouse and how fragile its continued existence was without their support, and people’s quick and generous response to its plight was the springboard for a new era of dramatic growth — in terms of memberships, contributions and additions.

Major renovations and expansions in the mid-1980s saw the refurbishing of the plush lobby, the addition of a second, more intimate, performing space (the Howard Drew Theater) and the creation of a newer and bigger scene shop. Later improvements have included a state of the art computerized lighting console. But now, some 15 years later, the Playhouse has once again outgrown its digs and is pursuing a new, grander vision: namely, to become a regional theater on par with the fabled Guthrie.

To bring that ambitious vision to life the theater is embarking on an $11 million dollar fund drive to support a new renovation project and to supplement its endowment. To stage today’s large-scale musicals, plans call for enlarging the main stage proscenium to allow for soaring two-story sets. To update the physical plant, old heating and cooling systems are to be replaced. To house the growing staff, who share quarters now, more office space is on the drawing board. To meet the growing demand for acting, dancing, singing classes, additional classrooms are in the works.

Big dreams indeed. Then again, the world of theater is all about making dreams come true. Will the Playhouse meet these lofty goals? Only time will tell, but if longtime supporter Dee Owen’s recent donation of the former Chermot Ballroom building (to provide more storage space for the theater’s $3 million worth of costumes) to the Playhouse is any indication, than Omahans will once again heed the call.

Just ask season subscribers Steve and Cindy Hutchinson of Omaha. According to Cindy, she and her husband value the Playhouse for the “consistent high quality of its marvelous productions” and “the continuity” it offers from year to year. Steve said they feel they have “an investment” in the Playhouse: “Because it’s a community playhouse the community stars in it. It’s a real expression of how much people here appreciate the arts.” Season subscriber Lisa Jensen of Omaha added, “It’s a little piece of Omaha culture at its best, and something we should all take advantage of.”

Bravo, Omaha. Now, let’s go on with the show.

%d bloggers like this: