It began with three actors, fresh out of a college near New York City, settling in Omaha to found a theater. Their mission, which has never changed, was to stage cutting-edge, thought-provoking plays.
Today the Blue Barn Theatre, celebrating its 25th anniversary, unveiled designs for a new indoor-outdoor performance space at 10th and Pacific Streets that will open just over a year from now. Ground will be broken in late spring, with completion slated sometime between February and June of 2015.
A permanent home cements the Blue Barn's place in the cultural fabric of Omaha and boosts efforts to develop an arts district along 10th Street. The corridor includes the CenturyLink Center, Film Streams, TD Ameritrade Park, the Old Market, Durham Museum and House of Loom, with Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium anchoring the south end. KETV is restoring the former Burlington Station on 10th Street as its headquarters.
Developer-philanthropist Nancy Mammel, who donated land for the Blue Barn, has announced plans to build Boxcar 10, a four-story condo building with suitable work-live spaces for artists and a ground-floor restaurant, just south of the new Blue Barn. Landscapers are vying for the contract to create a public green space just west of the theater. Competing designs for Green in the City will be unveiled in The World-Herald's Money section Tuesday.
The Blue Barn has raised $4.4 million in the large-donor phase of its $7 million capital campaign for the new space and will begin the public phase later this month. The total includes $1 million for an operating budget and a $1 million endowment.
“While many small theaters around the country are closing their doors, this really shows Omaha is a thriving arts community,” said Susan Clement-Toberer, the Blue Barn's artistic director.
Clement-Toberer said the new space will have 96 permanent seats. But the west wall of the theater can be opened up onto a partly covered patio, which also can be used for added seating or as an outdoor performance space. The patio opens out onto the public green space.
The new building includes a scene shop, better dressing rooms, heated office space and public restrooms in the lobby, all improvements over the Blue Barn's present space. Space will almost double, to 12,000 square feet. The stage will be about 31 feet square, with 6 feet of wing space on either side. The front of the present stage is 20 feet, with two pillars midstage on the sides. The stage ceiling will be 8 feet higher than in the present space, which is 8 feet and has sewer pipes visible overhead.
Architect Jeff Day of Min Day, which is designing the building, said the performance space will be wrapped like an onion with a weathering-steel exterior, a glass-fronted lobby and blue walls in the public spaces. Clement-Toberer's husband, ceramics artist Dan Toberer, will make bathroom sinks and a lobby wall of weathered wood. James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo., will do custom cabinetry and lighting; Kris Kemp of the Hot Shops Art Center will do custom doors; and other area artists will help furnish and decorate the space.
Day, head of the architecture school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the design preserves the present theater's sense of intimacy and its funky, eclectic feel.
“We think the building's not finished until it's inhabited,” he said. “It will modify and grow with the theater over time.”
The new Blue Barn will be the first non-university theater built here since the Omaha Community Playhouse opened a black-box space in 1986. It's a welcome addition for its neighbors in Little Italy and along South 10th Street.
Nancy Calinger, a neighborhood activist whose home at 1215 S. 10th St. has been in her family for 65 years, said she's thrilled to have the Blue Barn nearby, where she can take friends from west Omaha who may seldom venture downtown.
“The people who have purchased the condos and apartments and townhouses developed here over the past decade are also excited to get to walk to the theater and dining,” she said. “This will draw people to our neighborhood, which has been the greatest-kept secret for years. Now it's no longer a secret. We're blooming.”
Brent Crampton, co-owner of House of Loom just north of the new theater's location, agreed. House of Loom hosts a mix of cultural events and serves craft cocktails.
“We already have a great working relationship with the Blue Barn, and their presence here will increase the creativity in our little corner of Little Italy and bring foot traffic through,” he said. “I just wish it could manifest quicker.”
Matt Gutschick, artistic director at the Rose Theater, said the Blue Barn is one of the best incubators for actors, designers and directors, setting the gold standard for local theater while doing adventurous pieces.
The Blue Barn survived some hard times on the way to securing its future, including a 1999 fire that inflicted heavy damage on the theater's current rented space and a financial crisis that nearly closed its doors in 2007.
“We had a steep learning curve on how to run a theater, how to form a nonprofit, how to write grants and raise money,” said co-founder Hughston Walkinshaw.
He, Kevin Lawler and Nils Haaland were classmates at the State University of New York at Purchase. Each year's students were an acting and directing company that took all their classes together. The goal put before each class was to form a new theater.
Lawler had attended Creighton University before enrolling at SUNY-Purchase. After graduation, he came to Omaha for a visit and wandered into the Bemis Gallery. Rose Levan, director of Cultural Arts Together, struck up a conversation and offered a rent-free space in the Bemis Bag Building, one floor above where the Blue Barn is now.
Lawler called Walkinshaw and Haaland, who agreed to move to Omaha. He also fell in love and married Mary Theresa Green, an actress from Alliance, Neb., he toured with in “A Christmas Carol” for the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.
“He kept talking about starting a theater company with his friends,” Green said. “It was so wholesome and innocent, it was like a Judy Garland movie. We didn't even know what the purpose of a board (of directors) was. Or financial records.”
The four moved into a house in Dundee together, along with Lawler's sister, working part-time jobs to scrape together rent. “It was our own little commune,” Walkinshaw said, laughing. Early on they performed a lot of small-cast, low-cost plays by their favorite authors, David Mamet and Sam Shepard.
The Blue Barn moved to 1258 S. 13th St. in 1990, then 614 S. 11th St. The four were soon joined by SUNY-Purchase classmates Clement-Toberer, Michelle Zacharia and John St. Angelo. Local talent, including Amy Matthews, Sheila Malone and Rachel Hauben Combs, joined the mix.
While the theater was artistically solid from the start, its management by consensus proved draining, and its finances were shaky. Each founder eventually burned out on long hours and lack of funds, leaving the Blue Barn. Lawler and Green split up. Consensus gave way, and a single artistic director took over in 1997. Clement-Toberer, who came on board in 1991 and has led the theater solo since 2006, hired business staff and got the Blue Barn on solid financial ground.
But it was the theater's strong artistic reputation, and the button-pushing, thought-provoking plays it presented, that drew support for building a new home.
“From day one when we arrived, I thought this was a remarkable town,” Haaland said. “To trust four young adults to create a performance space — it gave me a kernel of hope we could be accepted and our art would have permission to grow.”
Lawler said it was fun to talk about the theater's beginnings when all the founders gathered for a 25th anniversary party in October.
“But what's really fun is talking about the future. There's a good chance, if things go well, that this theater will be here, fully operating after we're all gone. It's a cool thought that my daughter, who will be born this April, might see shows at that theater after I'm gone.”
Blue Barn contractors
Kiewit Building Group, Omaha, lead builder for both Blue Barn and Boxcar 10
Fisher Dachs Associates, New York, functional layout, lighting grid, technical theater aspects
Morrissey Engineering, Omaha, mechanical, electrical, plumbing
Ehrhart Griffin and Associates, Omaha, site grading, drainage, utilities, sidewalks
Tim Burkhart, Omaha, audio-visual systems
How the Blue Barn got its name
In their freshman year at the State University of New York at Purchase, theater students had to memorize monologues for movement class, for voice and dialogue classes, for acting scene work. It was a lot of memorizing.
Then came an assignment: Find a scene of your own choice to memorize, not something assigned. Each will be performed solo before the class and critiqued.
Nils Haaland failed to find a scene. Instead, he made one up on the spot.
“I got up, and out of my mouth came, ‘Hey, Janie, the cows are out. They’re in the Russians’ yard.’
“When I finished, our professor said, ‘Nils, you always bring such interesting pieces. What’s that one from? I’ve never heard it.’ “I said, ‘Oh, it’s from “The Blue Barn.” Norwegian playwright, and the translation is pretty new.’
“The whole group was snookered, until I got to the cafeteria and sat across from Susan Clement. She gave me a steely-eyed look and said, ‘You made that up, didn’t you?’
“From then on, other students started Blue Barning it. Apparently it snowballed into a legendary event there.”