A Theater Twinning
A few years ago two very different Omaha theater companies did a twinning in the same space to help save costs. The Blue Barn Theatre is known for cutting-edge contemporary work. The Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company specializes in classics. During this pairing of convenience each organization remained autonomous. The arrangement and relationship proved satisfactory and in short order the Brigit Saint Brigit found enough support to go its own independent way, producing at a revolving slate of sites with the hope of finding a permanent home. The Blue Barn meanwhile consolidated its strong niche in the community and is well positioned for the future. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the afterglow of the twinning experiment.
A Theater Twinning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The venues comprising Omaha’s theater scene have their own identities, each as recognizable as any character or setting in a play.
The grand dame of them all is the Omaha Community Playhouse. She’s the well-heeled matriarch and life-of-the-party who throws sumptuous bashes in her plush digs. Her costumes and decorations are to-die-for but that glitter is sometimes more show than substance. Love her or loathe her, you must give the old gal her due. Secretly every ham desires to shine on her stage.
The other extreme is represented by the intimate Shelterbelt, a small, plucky poverty row entree that wears its penchant for arresting new work on its sleeve. This classic overachiever does wonders despite limited resources, consistently garnering top Theatre Arts Guild awards. The John Beasley Theater & Workshop is in a category all its own as Omaha’s only dedicated African American dramatic arts forum. While the shows aren’t always as polished as they could be, no one can question their heart or authenticity.
Then there’s the bohemian Blue Barn Theatre, which enters its 20th season as this burg’s undisputed home for cutting edge contemporary work, and the aristocratic Brigit Saint Brigit Company, now in its 16th season of presenting classics from the American and Irish stage. Although they seemingly focus on incompatible ends of the spectrum both are committed to professional quality theater. They also share a decidedly serious approach to everything from the fringe to celebrated standards of the theater canon.
Despite glowing reputations the Blue Barn and BSB have always just struggled by. That comes with the territory but things are tougher in these hard economic times. As a way to hedge their bets this pair of Omaha theater fixtures has joined forces to secure their present and realize their ambitious vision for the future.
Last summer the Blue Barn was in debt. The Old Market-based theater held an Aug. 25, 2007 fundraiser to help get its financial house in order. Supporters turned out in droves. Contributions poured in. The immediate threat was resolved but Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, along with her board, sought a long-term alternative to what she called the theater’s “treadmill” existence.
“We’ve dealt with debt before. But after 19 seasons it was time to either grow into something new or to stop,” she said. “I talked to the board and to the founding members. None of them were willing to come back and get back on the treadmill either. So we made the decision that if things did not change, if we did not change our view of what we could be, that we would close.”
Around this same time BSB contemplated losing its home at the College of Saint Mary, which gave the company until mid-2008 to find new quarters. Financially healthy but with no permanent facility lined up for its 16th season, doubt hung in the air. Artistic director Cathy Kurz and executive director Scott Kurz searched for a new home. Wherever the couple looked they found sky high rent. Nothing fit.
That’s when Clement-Toberer called with a solution to both theaters’ dilemmas. She proposed partnering by sharing residence in the Blue Barn space at 614 South 11th Street. The principals were already friends and colleagues who shared a similar forward-thinking, dream-big mindset. All parties concerned viewed it as a good fit aesthetically, philosophically and financially.
Teaming up, as Scott Kurz noted, only made sense. “It’s a win-win. Everybody comes out ahead,” he said. “I think it’s not just smart in a business sense but as an opportunity to present the entire gamut of theater in one place and to see both companies flourish in a way that supports the people who are creating the art.”
This marriage between two of Omaha’s most respected theaters got a dry run during a combined production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse this past spring. BSB’s Scott Kurz and Amy Kunz starred and the Blue Barn’s Clement-Toberer directed.
With the 2008-09 theater season kicking off this month, the two organizations will soon find out how their partnership is received in a space that, until now, has been associated with the Blue Barn. In recognition of the bookend theaters operating out of the same location the shared collaborative site is now called The Downtown Space, lending it a fresh, neutral name in what is a new beginning for each organization. A new sign out front announces the change.
With the two companies under the same roof, using the same stage, will this union dilute the audience base for one or both or will it rejuvenate things and grow audiences? No one knows.
Such questions are important in light of a long term goal the two theaters have of founding a combined professional repertory company in a new space. It was a goal each theater was independently desiring already. Now that they’re partners it’s only natural they pursue this vision together.
“The vision came out of a place of stagnation,” Clement-Toberer said. “We were no longer willing to produce theater in the treadmill way.”
BSB artistic director Cathy Kurz said, “We’re wanting to establish a repertory company where actors and other artists are paid an honorable wage.”
It’s rare, BSB executive director Scott Kurz said, that theater artists can make a living in Omaha practicing their art. “And that’s what we’ve both been working towards as companies since the very beginning. It’s the reason we started doing it because it’s our career, it’s not just a hobby.”
Despite the theaters being in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they’ve merged. The artists describe their union as “a partnership,” which has to do with cooperation and sharing resources. The theaters are not morphing into some hybrid that negates or obscures their signature brands. They remain artistically and administratively autonomous but in a mutually supportive environment.
Each theater is keeping its own identity, maintaining its own budget and retaining its own board and membership base while alternating shows in their respective schedules and collaborating on select other shows.
They have their own separate contacts for both individual show tickets and season subscriptions. They have their own distinct web sites.
The theaters share administrative, storage, technical space and pool some resources to effect cost savings. To accommodate BSB’s office-costuming needs some physical changes have been made to the site’s back stage area.
Along the way, it’s meant “figuring out the new rhythms” of two theaters working side by side.
Clement-Toberer said the new model brought about by the relationship offers a best of both worlds scenario. “We stay separate entities creating theater under the same roof and creating a vision to grow towards a true repertory company.”
For Scott Kurz, it’s all about freedom and possibility. Each theater, he said, retains “the flexibility to do the things we do best. The cool thing about where we are right now is the future is ours. It’s a blank piece of paper and we can incorporate any way we see fit. The benefits to the community we provide in terms of art and theater are only enhanced by our independence. That independence will be used as a selling point because you’re getting two for the price of one.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Cathy Kurz said.
Combining the seasons of two companies has meant some adjustments — the end result being more theater opportunities for audiences. The BSB is now running each of its productions four weekends instead of three and adding Thursday shows to its usual Friday-Saturday-Sunday mix.
Programmatically, the theaters’ alternating productions offer a diverse lineup of old and new classics.
BSB presents: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Sept. 4-27; The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Feb. 5-28; and The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, April 23-May 30. The Blue Barn presents: The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Oct. 16-Nov. 8; Wit by Margaret Edson, Mar. 19-April 11; and Reefer Madness: The Musical, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, June 18-July 11.
A collaborative holiday production by the two theaters presents Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Nov. 28-Dec. 20. The schedules do reflect a broad sampling of theater.
Clement-Toberer said the partnership is already paying dividends in the overwhelming response being felt from the theaters’ patrons. “It’s a very smart business deal,” said Clement-Toberer, who reports “increased” individual and corporate support. The theaters are exploring joint venture grants.
For the first time in either theater’s history, endowments are being started to provide the kind of long term security they’ve never known before.
As Clement-Toberer said, ticket sales alone “do not keep your doors open. In order to grow and to be able to continue to produce theater you have to have donors.”
People are jumping on the bandwagon, the artists say, because they see two established theater companies taking steps to assure their sustainability.
“If one thing has staved both theater companies to the longevity we’ve had it’s been the reputation for the work we do,” Scott Kurz said. “I think we’re finding more doors are open to us because we’re together. The idea of an artistic venue being smart and responsible enough to pool their resources and move forward is a good indicator to corporations and larger foundations that we’re serious about what we say.”
“There are so many true philanthropists that are behind both theaters and they’ve very excited,” said Cathy Kurz, adding that each company brings “credibility” to the table.
It’s a fact of life that small theaters struggle. But none of these artists was willing to settle anymore for what Clement-Toberer described as a “hand-to-mouth” scramble to just get by. Being on that treadmill was exhausting.
“Money never leaves your mind. It’s like a vacuum and it’s sucking out your creativity,” Cathy Kurz said. “So then the thing that is your vocation becomes less fulfilling.”
“The vision had to change to get us out of that rut and that’s what happened,” Clement-Toberer said. “The vision became broader and more direct into what we wanted to do and become.”
Money is being raised. A new space is being sought. Chances are it will be an existing site that’s renovated for reuse. Whatever happens though, the two theaters will continue moving ahead together towards their vision.
‘Experience has shown that it’s always about moving forward,” Scott Kurz said.
“There’s a unique energy that’s coming together. It’s a renewal. It’s like a rebirth,” Cathy Kurz said. “We’re actively looking at our own future,” Scott Kurz added, and that future, Clement-Toberer said, “is bright.”
“We’re going to produce great theater here this season — both companies — and I think possibly some shows better than we’ve done before because we’ll be collaborating,” Clement-Toberer said. “We are going to grow into the premier regional professional company in the Midwest. I see that happening.”
- Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene (latimes.com)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company Sues to Stay in Building (legaltimes.typepad.com)