As a founder, he once called the mere fact of its existence “a fluke.” Now Kevin Lawler calls the Blue Barn Theatre “an incredible source of joy.”
And he’s “blown away” by the high-quality work of his successor, Susan Clement-Toberer, as producing artistic director. His only problem? “It just kills me” that his work scheduleA deprives him of time to play the doctor In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) on the Barn’s Old Market stage.
How unlikely was it that three boys from theater school in Purchase, N.Y., plus a girl from Crawford, Nebraska, would not only create a company that would survive 23 years later, but thrive by winning annual awards and an growing audience?
It not only survived fire and flooding water, but rose to become the place the theater community looked to for boundary-breaking plays. When the Omaha Community Playhouse did an impressive staged reading of Sarah Ruhl’s vibrator play, it seemed clear that the Barn was the place to fully produce such an intimate, humorous look at sexual repression.
Don’t be surprised if it sells out and audiences roar when the cluelessly clinical doctor (Lawler at the staged reading but now Matthew Pyle) treats a woman’s “hysteria” by inducing “paroxysms” via pelvic massage. But the crowds will leave better knowing the history of ignorance about orgasms and the toll it took on marriages.
And the play should be added to the long list of Blue Barn offerings that won Theatre Arts Guild awards for best drama, most recently Three Tall Women, Rabbit Hole and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
So how unlikely was it that all this evolved? Very, when you revisit that January, 1989, photo in a weekly newspaper. It shows the four founders, Lawler, Hughston Walkinshaw and Nils Haaland, sent forth by their State University of New York-Purchase mentor, Charles Ludlom, to start their own theater, and Mary Theresa Green, who met Lawler while both toured with A Christmas Carol for the Playhouse.
Actually, that photo also includes a dog named Dunyasha and an elf statue named Mr. Happy, both of whom attended rehearsals and performances. The dog only walked on stage once during a Samuel Beckett drama (no, not “Waiting for Dog to Go”).
But Dunyasha’s presence captures some of the charm that Omaha held for the three who’d left New York. Walkinshaw told a reporter he was thriving here: “I’m glad that I can have a dog and I’m glad that I can walk to work.”
He played a one-man role in the first big hit for the theater, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which was directed by another former SUNY-Purchase student, Susan Clement-Toberer, who would later share the artistic director job with the actor.
That came after still more unlikely events. Lawler from St. Paul, Minnesota attended Creighton University for two years before transferring to Purchase and meeting Walkinshaw from Oklahoma, Haaland from upstate New York and Susan from Seattle. (Other SUNY grads were involved for several years.)
But it was a weekend visit to see his sister, a Creighton grad student, that found him walking downtown, spying a warehouse space, walking in and “talking to people” from the Bemis Foundation. Thus begins the Andy Hardy drama where Scene One shows Lawler heading back to New York and shouting, “Hey guys, lets start a theater in Omaha.”
They shared a red house in Dundee for $95 a month. Lawler returned from another Carol tour on
Christmas Eve to find a two-foot snow drift blown in through a broken window of his third floor bedroom. And that was hardly the toughest test of the coming years.
After moving from their first space to 1258 S. 13th St. next to a donut shop, they came to their current location in 1998 with Lawler, aided by Green, then his wife, back as artistic director. That ended a nomadic period when, for example, the Barn did Go-Go Boys from Planet X at the Magic Theatre and Quills in the chilly Burlington Depot, a challenge for actor John Durbin who spent much of the play stark naked.
Then their Waiting for Godot in the new space was reviewed by a new critic, Bob Fischbach, under a headline declaring it “boring and depressing.” Walkinshaw wrote a letter to the Public Pulse claiming the reviewer left after the first act, thinking the play was over. (For the record, Fischbach has raved about most Barn plays in recent years.)
A bigger blow struck in May, 1999, when a five-alarm fire gutted the top two floors of the old Bemis Bag warehouse. Flames didn’t reach the theater below, but water did. “50,000 gallons per minute” flowed into the building for 20 hours, Lawler recalled.
When he was allowed back into the theater many months later, “It was a black cave with stalactites of mold.” All equipment was destroyed, seats were soaked and the stage floor badly warped.
So the barn was nomadic again, using Creighton’s black box or staging HOT L Baltimore in the lobby of the Paxton Manor until returning during the 2000-01 season to the S. 11th Street space. The next season, Walkinshaw and Clement-Toberer took charge and ran the Barn together until 2007, when he left.
New highlights built its reputation: A Piece of My Heart about women at war traveled to Washington and 5000 Nights went to the New York City International Fringe Festival.
But it wasn’t all clear sailing. Susan felt “very defeated when we almost closed the doors in 2007. We incurred debt due to ambitious programming where we ended up not getting underwriting we thought we had secured.”
Later, after the nation’s economic downturn, the Barn shared the space with the Brigit St. Brigit theater to cut costs for both companies before again going separate ways.
“The thing that really turned things around was the outpouring of support both from my board as well as the community that loves the theater that we have created.”
Growth followed, including a 50 per cent increase in season ticket holders each of the past two years, enough to nearly fill the 86-seat space for two nights. What propelled gains? “A decision to really concentrate on building up the business side,” Susan says.
The Barn had paid its technical staff for years, and paid Equity actors, but paying community actors “was the next logical step.” Since 2009, everyone gets paid.
The business focus meant hiring Shannon Walenta in 2008 as part-time managing director to “bring business standards to the same height as our artistic ones,” and last year adding Kevin Mahler as part-time development director. He secures gifts and show sponsors, such as Omaha Steaks which supports one of the four shows each season.
But the plays selected, Clement-Toberer stresses, “will never be and have never been chosen by a ‘what will make money’ mentality." In other words, the mission remains the same.
It has been articulated with different words at different times, from the early days when Walkinshaw talked of “provoking audiences to think, to action of some sort, to a very strong emotional reaction” and on to the present-day web site statement:
“Enhance the cultural life of Omaha by producing professionally-executed boundary-breaking plays that ignite a passion for the art form. Dedicated to the theater’s most important tradition: to provoke thought, emotion, action, change.”
And now that mission is taken up by guest director Amy Lane and her cast of In the Next Play. It poses the sexually-charged challenge that the Blue Barn has often met in the past. This time that means maintaining the artistic excellence that doesn’t allow the play’s Chattanooga Vibrator and a wet nurse to become titillation that distracts from a story of socio-historical significance.
Lane has referred to the problem as “tricky,” knowing the audience will laugh. But she’s determined that her serious subject won’t fall into farce.
When Lane was joined by sex therapist Lindsay Novak, their program on the history of sex medicine packed the Slowdown for a ScienceCafe session on a Tuesday night. Novak dealt with sexless marriage and the evolution of other topics linked to the play, and Lane focused on the challenges of Ruhl’s script.
The playwright was inspired by several books, including “The Technology of Orgasm.” She advises actors to avoid orgasmic clichés, referring for example to “a quiet release.” So don’t expect the operatic “Ah, sweet mystery of life” from Young Frankenstein.
Mrs. Daldry (Teri Fender), the patient being treated by Dr. Givings, is much quieter, but exclaims, “Oh, God in his heaven.”
In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) runs Feb. 16-March 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, Sundays Feb. 26 and March 4 at 6 p.m. in the Blue Barn’s Downtown Space, 614 S. 11th St.
Tickets are $25, $20 for students, seniors and groups. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.