When Matt Gutschick came to Omaha last September, the first thing he did was attend shows at as many local theatres as possible. Everywhere he went, he introduced himself to local actors and directors as the new artistic face of The Rose Theater, Omaha’s stage for children and families.
He was reaching out as a stranger in a new town, inviting anyone and everyone to come see the plans he had for the decades old playing space. With almost a year in Omaha under his belt, Gutschick sat down with The Reader to talk about his vision for The Rose, the importance of quality children’s theatre in Omaha, and opportunities for local artists to contribute.
Tell me about your path to becoming Artistic Director at The Rose.
“I went to graduate school for the last 3 years and as part of my studies, I got to spend a significant amount of time with the two largest children’s theatres in the country, one in Seattle and one in Minneapolis. I worked at a place called Twin City Stage in Winston Salem, NC and we merged with the Children’s Theatre of Winston Salem. That was when I became an Artistic Director of an organization that just presented the work of children’s theatre. I went to graduate school at the Yale School of Drama. When I was there, I got the chance to work with a lot of great artists via residencies with Yale Rep and Yale Cabaret. Then I went on fellowship with Peter Brosius at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
In learning from the artistic leadership of those institutions, I realized that this was something I really wanted to do for a major producing organization. I put out an application when they had the open call for proposals. I was very surprised when I got called in for a follow up interview. My initial phone conversation lasted all of maybe 15 of the allotted 30 minutes. When I came into town, we talked about the idea of continuing to raise the bar artistically; making sure that our work is as artistically rigorous, fun, and entertaining as possible. Also, engaging the best artists that Omaha and the country has to offer while still embracing a new form of participatory theatre.”
What is it about children’s theatre that made you want to dedicate your artistic career to it?
“When you are engaged in what we call a state of creative flow, it feels a lot like what it felt to play pretend as a kid. Whether you were out in the woods near a creek, pretending you were fighting in the Civil War, or playing a far more innocent game with your brothers and sisters, there was something that happened in your brain that clicked. It was how you were learning about the world at a very young age. You were building the foundational skills that would someday lead you to read, have career interests, social skills, all those great things.
I knew intrinsically as an actor, director, and playwright that theatre offered something that was very unique and innate to the human experience. So when I was a freshman in college I started teaching classes at Twin City Stage. I knew that I was scared out of my mind to try to teach middle schoolers.
My first day, I walked in there with 12 of them were staring at me and I’m going ‘What am I going to do for the next two hours?’ Essentially what I did was distill the things I was learning in college… taking things from a voice or movement class and gamifying them so that middle schoolers would really latch on to them. I continued doing that throughout college. Then I got a Kauffman Fellowship to learn about how to run a theatre company. All this time, I was making work that blended theatrical illusions and theatrical narratives. Think David Copperfield meets traditional theatre.
I realized that there was a connection to children’s theatre that was deeper than the classroom. Children’s theatre, generally speaking, is far more aesthetically adventurous than your average play that’s geared for adults. You can talk and show magic in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or forced inside the context of a story about a boy and his dragon best friend. That’s normal, in fact it’s necessary in a story like that.”
In what ways are you reaching out to and presenting theatre to kids and their families?
“Our big ambition for years has been to make sure that every single child in this community has a meaningful theatrical experience. We’re not touching every child; we’re not getting to every kid. Every kid doesn’t know about the Rose Theater. That’s the work we have before us. How we make sure that 5 or 10 years from now, we are continuing to do better and better at that. It requires broad based community support, the highest artistic standards possible, and a first rate staff and board, which we have.
Next is making sure that what you see on stage is phenomenal. Ultimately, if the art at The Rose is so good that you can’t get it out of your head, then we’re doing our work in large measure. In addition, we’ve got to make sure that you feel invited to the theater. I don’t know that everyone in this community understands that we do shows for kids between the ages of 3 and 13 but you can enjoy them until you are 99 years old. That’s a fact.
We’re trying to be the Pixar of children’s theatre. We want to make sure that there are jokes that adults get, jokes that kids get, and that there’s of happy memories for families to have together. That means we have to have the friendliest and most competent staff in town.
It’s about making sure that you are empowered to extend the moment of the theatrical experience into your own home. At its core, if you can risk your time and energy and spend an hour with us, we need to deliver on the promise of giving you an exceptional experience, something you are going to remember for a lifetime. And we need to do it 9 times a year. That’s what I think about all the time.”
It’s also difficult because kids can be a tough audience to win over.
“We make theatre for a sophisticated audience. I think 3-year-old theatergoers are incredibly sophisticated because they respond on a moment-to-moment basis so your standards artistically as a director or actor have to be that much higher. A 3-year-old doesn’t understand the concept of polite silence. They’re going to tell you when something stinks. They’re going to tell you when something’s amazing too. So you better make sure that it’s amazing, that it’s funny and engaging, and that it’s not talking to them like they’re stupid.
That’s the body of work that we focus on the most. How do we put together the most exciting and compelling and diverse season possible while also respecting the intelligence of our audience members so that you’re not walking into the theatre and seeing something that feels like it was made for a broader commercial audience. That’s not what we do.”
How is The Rose progressing in terms of using artists from the local community?
“I think The Rose developed a reputation over time out of necessity’s sake of precasting some folks so that an actor didn’t have to find some other job over time. I totally understand the rationale behind that, however I think it limited the pool of artists that we were able to draw from at the very beginning. We have seen over the course of this first season, as we’ve made gestures to the artistic community, an immense improvement in the levels of participation. I think that we already had some of the best actors in town working with us and I believe we’ve had some of the best at least come to auditions at this point. We want that to continue.
We want to have relationships with the institutions in town that are training artists. We want to make sure that we are pulling designers, directors, and actors from the local talent pool because it is so strong.
All the work I have seen in this town has demonstrated significant ambition and artistic rigor. From the BLUEBARN to the Omaha Playhouse to the Nebraska Shakespeare, these are extraordinary organizations and they’re working with exceptional artists. We want to make sure that all of those folks know that The Rose is not just an employment option available to them but an artistic outlet that is going to treat their gifts with a seriousness of purpose. I know there is an actor out there who doesn’t think that children’s theatre is for him or her and the bottom line is, when done right, it is. It is some of the best kind of theatre there is out there.
And you are bringing in national artists as well?
“My hope is that it seeds some great thinking in the community. For example, we have Jesse Jou coming in from New York. He just finished his Drama League Fellowship, one of the most prestigious early career awards that a director can receive. I know him from graduate school and we hired him to come up and make Narnia with us. As I’ve looked at the pool of people that are auditioning for that show in September, he is going to have a fantastic all-Omaha cast.
Those actors are going to walk away from that experience with an exceptional sense of what Jesse can do as an artist and I believe that they will take those ideas into their classrooms and other rehearsal processes. My hope for him, too, is that he walks away with an understanding with how exceptional Omaha is.
There is a sort of acting style in Omaha that has become very apparent to me. Actors and directors in this community are very concerned with emotional honesty. It’s one of the most precious virtues in great performances. I think Jesse will go back to New York believing that there are a lot of actors in Omaha that he could use in his future work. He has said sometimes that it is one of the hardest things to get an actor to do, to just operate from a place of emotional vulnerability and honesty. I think that’s something that Omaha actors in general excell at. That’s going to seed both communities. We’re trying to find artists from around the country that will have the same dialogue with the artists in town.”
The Rose Theater’s new season begins with “Knuffle Bunny” opening September 6th. For more information on the rest of the season, visit www.rosetheater.org or call (402) 345-4849.