‘The Bystanders’ by Kim Louise takes searing, moving look at domestic violence as a public health issue
Last night I had the privilege of experiencing as searing and moving a piece of live theater that I have seen in a long time. It was a staged reading of a new play, “The Bystanders,” by Kim Louise of Omaha. It tells the story of four friends who hear an incident of domestic abuse in the apartment next door. They are split on what to do next. The play asks – What would you do? The play is touring this week as part of the Metropolitan Community College Theatre Program’s Spring Tour. The program annually features a play written by an MCC student playwright in a staged reading format produced and performed by theater professionals. Kim’s “The Bystanders” is this year’s featured work. She first got inspired to write the piece some years ago and she has more recently developed it under the guidance of MCC theater program instructor Scott Working, who directs the production. The playwright, whom you may know as Kim Whiteside, is a much published author and veteran writing workshop faciliator under the pen name Kim Louise. She has writen a powerful piece whose heavy truth is impossible to ignore and to forget.
Some leading local theater talents comprise the cast:
Victoria – Beaufield Berry
OthaJean – Pamela Jo Berry
Benet – TammyRa’ Jackson
Ashland – Felicia Webster
Carla – Doriette Jordan
Cullen – Developing Crisp
Some pics of the cast and playwright after the May 9 evening show at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus (photos courtesy Deborah Steele):
Performances are free and open to the public, but you only have two chances left to see this staged reading:
Wednesday, May 11th at 11:00 am in the Conference Room of the MCC Sarpy Center, 9110 Giles Road.
Thursday, May 12th at 12:30 pm in ITC Building Room120 at MCC’s South Omaha Campus, 27th and Q Streets.
What the play utilmately confronts us with is the fact that domestic violence is a public health issue that none of us can stand by and allow to happen without speaking out against or taking action to prevent it from happening again. Otherwise, we are as complicit in the situation as the person who commits the violence and the person who lives with the violence. This is a community problem we all have a share in. As witness, as advocate, as friend, as advisor, as safe house, as 911 caller, as whatever it takes or whatever we are prepared to do. Just don’t stay silent or do nothing. That’s how battered women end up traumatized or dead.
In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.
John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man
John Beasley, Living His Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons
Following a dream
Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.
Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.
The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.
“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”
Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .
“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”
John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.
“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.
A path of his own
John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.
“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”
His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”
Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.
“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”
Michael admires his persistence.
“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”
Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”
She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”
John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards
Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”
He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).
While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.
“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”
John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)
production of August Wilson’s Fences
Taking from life, making his mark
When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.
He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.
“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.
Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.
“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”
Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.
“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’
“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”
Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood – file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.
“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”
Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.
“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact. one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”
In the moment
In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.
“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”
Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.
“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”
Robert Duvall as The Apostle
Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.
“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”
Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.
Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”
Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,
Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.
Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.
“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”
Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.
A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.
Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.
Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.
He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.
He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.
Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”
Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.
East Texas Hot Links
The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.
Beasley produced the play at his own theater.
“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”
Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”
Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.
Building a Nebraska film culture
The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.
“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”
He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.
“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”
There’s some self-interest at work, too.
“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”
John, middle seated, from The Soul Man
Bread and butter
Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.
“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”
Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”
Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”
There were some bumps in the road.
“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.
“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”
Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”
Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”
Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.
John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences
Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.
“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”
The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.
Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”
One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.
“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”
He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”
He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.
He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.
“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”
He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”
All in the family
He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.
“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”
Hoops runs in the bloodlines.
“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”
Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”
Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”
All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
“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.