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 stage manages and 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."
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 www.bluebarn.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.