What began as a vaudeville house in Benson nearly 100 years ago now stands as a restored arts-centric hub for entertainment, education and inclusion. A $5 million project that was in the works for roughly eight years, the Benson Theatre is preparing its highly anticipated opening season, “Coming Home.”
First operated as the Benalto Theatre from 1923 to 1926, the Benson Theatre has had many uses over the last century, including as a movie theatre and furniture store. The theatre now aims to marry arts entertainment and social theatre with inclusive, community-building educational experiences.
With more than 110 community partnerships, the Benson Theatre collaborates with local nonprofits such as Rabble Mill, Arts For All and One Omaha to educate and offer help to those under-represented in the community as well as foster understanding among diverse groups of people.
A marquee donning the name of Mannheim Steamroller’s renowned Chip Davis is displayed atop the renovated building. Davis donated the theatre’s sound system, which includes accessibility features tailored specifically to disabled audiences, from those who are hearing and visually impaired to those who have sensory sensitivities. A hearing loop system has been installed to generate sound that can be fed to devices such as iPads or straight to hearing aids. The theatre is also fitted with a wheelchair ramp that runs from street level to the green room and auditorium.
Each feature is designed with welcoming and comfort in mind and for everyone who attends an event to be “seen, safe, and affirmed,” said Echelle Childers, who heads systems and operations for the theatre. In addition, safety and health measures have been ramped up to ensure the building is thoroughly sanitized in response to the pandemic.
The Benson Theatre’s first season will host a number of productions geared toward BIPOC, the LGBTQ community and artists with disabilities. Childers said she wants to promote an ongoing discussion on the topics that are not easy to talk about but are paramount in order to progress forward in an ever-evolving society. Her mission, she said, is for underrepresented voices to be heard.
Inclusive programming will integrate arts and culture, through visual arts, theatre, dance and music, into educational programming that includes talkbacks, seminars, mental health discussions and even food programs for those living with food insecurity. Talkbacks and therapy are envisioned as part of the productions, aiming to help audiences heal from traumatic experiences and create a safe space that engages individuals in the arts community.
“It’s designed to be a flexible space and is about as limitless as you can imagine,” said Michal Simpson, the theatre’s programming director.
Simpson hopes to bring in new talent in a season that will feature comedy, drama and musical selections with paid artists, directorial staff and technicians.
“Coming Home,” will feature several productions starting Oct. 21, including Twentieth Century Blues by Susan Miller, a play about women experiencing ageism, racism and sexism. A musical, Choir Boy, by Tarell Alvin McCraney is set to open in April. Featuring a cast of mainly Black men, the show touches on sexual orientation and religion at a preparatory school. The Father, a tragic farce around dementia by Florian Zeller rounds out the season.
“[There’s] an underlying mental health issue that happens in our community,” said Childers. “We need to make sure that we are all OK.”
Simpson said the pandemic has made it more vital than ever to incorporate themes of mental well-being into the arts, and he hopes the multi-functional theatre will pave a way for change.
“[We’re] trying to shed a light on some of the issues that we are all facing, point out the ways that we are more similar than different, and find ways to help people through that,” he said.
Poised to become a fixture in the Omaha arts and culture scene, the Benson Theatre will surely serve as an emblematic home for reform, inspiration, innovation and creativity.