Jeff Horger’s path the Omaha Community Playhouse is one of preparation meeting opportunity. After his wife received a position at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Horger started floating his resume around town, seeing where he could find a fit. Boy, did he find one.
“We consider ourselves very lucky,” he said.
Born in small town Illinois, Horger received degrees in theatre, education, and Spanish from North Central College in Naperville, IL. Soon after, he traveled south with his wife and focused on teaching, but his love for theatre kept bringing him back to one opportunity after another.
“It came to a point where my wife and I were talking about me getting a higher degree and she said, ‘You need to get a degree in theatre. That’s clearly what you want to do.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s going to suck for you!’” he laughed.
Soon after, Horger found himself in the graduate theatre program at the University of Alabama. There, he focused a lot of his time and energy in Cuban Theatre. The state has a large Cuban contingent and, until recent years, the only way to get into Cuba from America was with an academic visa.
“I happened to be the only person in the department that spoke Spanish, so I became the translator,” he said. “When they would send theatre artists or government employees over, I became their translator and followed them around for the week.”
In his travels, Horger noticed that most of the plays performed were Cuban adaptations of Shakespeare and other classical texts.
“I saw a production of Twelfth Night that would make even a seasoned Rocky Horror Picture Show fan blush,” he said.
He saw an opportunity to bring modern American works across the Caribbean and soon received Christopher Durang’s permission to translate, produce, and perform Beyond Therapy for a Cuban audience. In doing so, Horger became the first American actor to perform a contemporary American play in Cuba.
“A couple years later, we did an original work based on Greek mythology written by an Alabama professor,” he said. “For it, we were able to bring several Cuban artists to the United States. We ran the show in Alabama, then we ran off-Broadway for a little while, and then we took it to Havana. When we switched over, I had to perform the role in Spanish.”
After finishing graduate school, Horger got picked up by the Riverside Theatre in Florida, directing plays and musicals, working in children’s theatre, and getting involved in outreach programs. He also spent time directing and teaching at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 2012. In every stop on his journey, Horger looks for unique and alternative approaches to storytelling. It’s the same mindset he brings in running the Omaha Playhouse’s new-look Alternative Programming.
“I really see it as a way to offer different types of programming to the community,” he said. “We’re the Omaha Community Playhouse. We wear that name as a badge of honor. Omaha has a lot of great theatres, but we can’t do it all. There’s always room for more stories to be told and Alternative Programming is a way to allow some of these things to happen.”
One constant of the Playhouse’s Alternative Programing is the popular staged reading series. Horger said it’s a great way for people to participate in the Playhouse’s programming without a huge time commitment.
“We love our volunteers,” he said. “We are so lucky that we have people that, from start to finish, can give us three months of their lives. But the fact is, there are a lot of people that can’t do that. The staged readings are more plausible for them. It’s a way that allows them to perform, to do what they love, to be a part of our theatre family with a smaller time commitment.”
The shows featured in this year’s staged reading series include a number of shows both old and new. Detroit 67 by Dominique Morisseau takes a look at two siblings during the Detroit race riots. Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg deals with a star baseball player who comes out as gay to a variety of reactions from friends, fans, and teammates. Civil War Voices by James R Harris and Mark Hayes is a collection of compelling and passionate true stories of real individuals who lived through the Civil War. A Steady Rain by Keith Huff tells the story of two friends on the Chicago police force whose relationship is put on the line after a domestic disturbance call. The new musical from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dogfight, based on the Warner Brothers film, is about three Marines learning the power of love and compassion. Nebraska Shakespeare interim Artistic Director Vincent Carlson-Brown will guest direct a reading of the classic Treasure Island, adapted by Ken Ludwig.
“We’re just trying to tell good stories,” Horger said. “As long as good theatre is happening, we’re great with that. Take Me Out is relevant because it deals with a lot of issues that we are seeing in mainstream society right now; a lot of identity issues, LGBT issues, and sports in general. With Treasure Island, we’re throwing in classical works. There are some shows that just aren’t done because there’s not always a place for them in the season. I might not be edgy or mature content, but there’s something to be said for honoring those works.”
“Another bigger element that we are adding this year is the idea of music with Dogfight and Civil War Stories. I just assistant directed Spamalot and being in the room and seeing what our local talent can do with just a week of music rehearsal gave me the confidence to say, ‘You know what? We have singers out there and we need to serve them.’ Let’s give them some opportunities.”
Along with the staged reading series, the Playhouse will feature a New Voices show, featuring the artistic talents of local students, giving the community a chance to meet new artists. From the Ground Up, the development program for new works in partnership with the Great Plains Theatre Conference will continue next season. Last year’s program culminated in the staging of Ellen Struve’s new play Prince Max’s Trewly Awful Trip to the Desolat Interior at the Joslyn Art Museum this past May.
“It’s a wonderful way for us to celebrate the fact that we have people here that create great art. We have a lot of great writers in the community. Our Patchwork Play Project is another way we are looking to create new work. There are folks that want to create theatre, there are people who want to tell these stories but they don’t always have the way to do it. We’re nominating ourselves to be the kick in the butt for some people. You want to write something? Come with us, we’re going to help you get that done.”
After finding his footing in Alternative Programming and getting his opportunities to direct main season shows, Horger looks most forward to working with Omaha’s theatrical talent.
“As a director, there are two things I always ask, regardless of the show. First, what is the world? You need to establish the world in which it takes place. Sometimes, it’s a grounded world. Sometimes, it’s a crazy, episodic world that’s constantly changing. You need to lay that out. The second question, whose story is being told? There’s something to be said for having a through line that we track to an audience. Actors need to be aware of that shared goal. The reason I love directing is that there’s always a surprise in it. You don’t know exactly how it’s going to end up until it ends up.”
More information on the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming can be found at www.OmahaPlayhouse.com.