A year into Covid, Jessica Scheuerman missed live entertainment more than ever. She missed the city parks she visited on work trips, their amenities like clean bathrooms and running water which are absent from many of Omaha’s public greenspaces. Most of all, she missed the sense of community that comes with public space and performance.
If only there were a way for Omaha to safely gather in person again for live events. Scheuerman saw a need not just for a new outdoor venue, but one that could be shared by the entire city.
“There’s gotta be a way that we could activate public space with live entertainment. Like, this shouldn’t be too difficult,” Scheuerman says. “We just need a stage. Like, we just need a stage on wheels. No big deal, right? And so it just seemed like a very simple way to address social isolation.”
A stage on wheels is exactly what Scheuerman and her collaborators came up with: a box truck converted into a stage that can be driven around the city. The Omaha Mobile Stage, launching in May, is the flagship program of Partners for Livable Omaha as well as its first major project. Scheuerman envisions the stage as a multidisciplinary venue for free, live performances that both highlight a neighborhood’s culture and bring people together from all over the city. The project’s mission is similar to the bygone Goodfellows Show Wagon.
Scheuerman, a native Omahan, is the founder and executive director of Partners for Livable Omaha, a nonprofit she founded at the height of the pandemic to support local, live performing arts. The organization and the Omaha Mobile Stage (OMS) are built on the philosophy of creative placemaking: the integration of arts and culture into communities to promote a sense of belonging and encourage economic development.
Placemaking is part of Scheuerman’s ethos. She has a master’s in urban studies from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and was previously vice president of Partners for Livable Communities in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit working to improve arts access and quality of life in communities around the country.
“I knew that there was a need, and I knew the power of public space: the power of gardens, parks, schools,” Scheuerman says. “If you think of my career and, like, everything I’ve done, this is like everything thrown together. It’s just sort of like an expression of me as a placemaker.”
The stage is currently under construction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus with input from OMS technical director Brendan Green-Walsh. A team of UNL architecture students, some of whom also helped to design the stage, is hard at work building the stage under the supervision of shop manager Jerry Reif and UNL architecture professor Jeff Day, who’s also one of the project’s main collaborators.
The vehicle that will become OMS began as an 18-foot box truck used as a mobile knife-sharpening business. When it’s done, it will be a state-of-the-art 16-by-14-foot platform with adjustable side panels that can be unbolted and opened all the way for a total width of nearly 35 feet. Huge cabinets built into the back provide storage and a place to hide electrical wiring. The platform’s front half can be tiered into risers for choral performances. The back of the truck has a wheelchair-accessible lift that can also be used for heavy equipment. The ceiling has an optional canopy for especially bright or rainy days.
“It’s not a perfect stage for any one art form, but it fits almost all of them,” Scheuerman says.
OMS is reminiscent of another traveling Omaha venue. The Goodfellows Show Wagon was started in 1952 by the City of Omaha Parks Department as a youth talent competition. Before ending in 2010, the Show Wagon stopped in parks around the city for different neighborhoods to showcase their young talent. JoJo Siwa even participated as a little girl.
“We hear people describe it as a time where, essentially, the neighborhood’s coming out to see itself,” Scheuerman says. “It has these components of neighborhood life that you rarely see at that scale.”
Musician Dereck Higgins has fond memories of performing with the Show Wagon in the 1960s when it visited Miller Park and Adams Park. He, his sisters and a friend choreographed song-and-dance routines to tunes by The Temptations, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone — whatever happened to be their favorite song at the time.
Higgins, who is Black, says he hopes the utilitarian nature of the venue means it will be an opportunity for children — children of color in particular — to access the performing arts scene.
“If the Show Wagon, in this effort, can be part of something that’s real, and trying to do something good for the community and actually focused on the kids, I’m all for that,” he says.
Jeff Day says a critical aspect of placemaking is listening to the needs of the community. The Omaha Mobile Stage is meant to be a tool offered to Omaha neighborhoods — not forced upon them — to express their own interests and culture.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the wishes of the community, as opposed to sort of saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw this great stage in your neighborhood,” Day says. “Suddenly the neighborhood changes in a way that the community isn’t interested in. So it’s really important that those partners are there from the beginning.”
Scheuerman says she’s reached out to about 250 people and organizations in Omaha and surrounding areas for input on the design of the stage itself and community programming. Dancer Kat Fackler of Tbd. Dance Collective suggested the flooring be versatile enough to accommodate different kinds of choreography. Higgins proposed investing in quality stage monitors so performers can hear themselves over the crowd.
Marcey Yates is the founder of North Omaha community hub Culxr House, which is also a community partner of the Omaha Mobile Stage. Culxr House hosts summer block parties on Nort 24th Street with live music, food and dancing — exactly the kind of environment OMS was meant for.
“I hadn’t seen nothing like [Omaha Mobile Stage] before,” Yates says. “We always have to hire…or rent staging, so why not? You can get, like, almost an all-in-one thing.”
Much of OMS’s summer programming is still under wraps. The first confirmed event is a stop at the Millwork Connect Spring Open House on May 7. It will be at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market the first two Fridays in June with performers from Great Plains Theatre Commons, first for a puppet show, then for an international karaoke night. Tbd. Dance Collective, another community partner, has a performance slated for June 25 at Joslyn Castle.
“It just seems like a natural to get people together for an event, you know, a family-friendly event, and especially with all the accessibility that [Scheuerman’s] adding to it,” says Chris Foster, an OMS community partner through the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association. “We didn’t have that in the Show Wagon, you know, 15 years ago.”