Walking around the backstage shop of the Omaha Community Playhouse, set builders are hard at work creating the upcoming musical Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks. They’re making gigantic cofins, painting large landscapes, sanding down staircases, and building a massive hayrack on bouncy springs for ‘ze roll in ze hay’. Checking in on the progress and showing me around the shop are the shows directors, Carl Beck and Susie Baer Collins.
“As big as Les Miserables was, Young Frankenstein appears to be even bigger.” Beck said.
This is a landmark show for the two of them because it will be their last as heads of the Playhouse’s artistic staff. From working as actors in the Nebraska Theatre Caravan to becoming Associate Directors and eventually taking over responsibilities from former Artistic Director Charles Jones, Beck and Collins have been a part of the lifeblood of the Playhouse for three decades.
They first met in the early 1970s as members of the Nebraska Repertory theatre in Lincoln, NE. They moved around the country to several locations as itinerant actors for several years (including work in the Nebraska Theatre Caravan), eventually landing consistent television work for Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta from 1981-83. As the work at Turner was finishing up, former Playhouse Head Charles Jones was in the process of expanding and revitalizing the community theatre.
“Luckily, every time a show at Turner was cancelled and you were out of work, I was able to pick up work here, jobbing in and guest directing,” Beck said. “I had done that a couple of years before and then came on as Associate AD and then we moved back to Omaha.”
Charles Jones had done wonders at the Playhouse. He arrived in the summer of 1974, just in time to meet the great tornado that ran down 72nd street in the summer of 1975 and the huge blizzard that followed that winter. The elements had left the Playhouse severely damaged. Jones not only rebuilt the theatre but expanded it, adding in the space that now furnishes the Howard Drew Theatre.
Throughout the 80s and 90s and still today, the Playhouse became known as the number one community theatre in the country. In 1997, Jones retired and Beck took his place as Artistic Director, with Collins joining him as Associate.
“In the relationship we had, Carles was very generous,” Beck said. “He gave you a lot of freedom. There was never a presence looking over your shoulder micro-managing. You had a certain freedom to make discoveries, to make gigantic mistakes, but also to create a positive learning atmosphere. I think we have continued that process as Susie and I have come in. We made sure to give that sense of freedom to all of our guest directors when they came here.”
Susie Baer Collins started at the Playhouse when she was hired as an associate artist alongside former Creighton professor and Omaha theatre icon Bill Hutson. Her jobs included performing in shows, teaching classes, and directing assignments with the Caravan. As time went on, she started performing less and less as directing became her mainstay. Collins remembers the spirit of Charles Jones, especially in the early years.
“When I first came here, I had maybe directed one show in my life,” Collins said. “There was a lot of belief from Charles that I could move into directing. He was one of those people who thought I could do something without a lot of stuff on paper that proved I could. He gave me an opportunity and I will never forget that.”
Directing any show is a challenge but the true ‘Trial by Fire’ for a Playhouse director is the granddaddy of them all, A Christmas Carol.
“When you get thrown into A Christmas Carol for the first time, it’s terrifying,” Collins said. “At least I was osmosed into the show. Carl was thrown to the wolves!”
Beck remembers the inherent challenges of trying to put together a mainstage show and tours at the same time in the 80s.
“I realized very early on that I could easily direct two different shows at the same time. But at the point I was asked to do three at the same time, boy I crumbled,” Beck laughed.
He continued on saying, “There are subtleties and variations when you are doing the tours vs the mainstage. Not only are you grasping one production but realizing that the rules change with a touring production and smaller cast. There are limitations. And best of all, nowhere was anything written down from previous years! Back in the 80s, they didn’t believe in writing! Nowhere did you have a stage manager’s notebook that said ‘Here’s the props involved.’ Everybody just knew it. Gradually, you learned to know it but you also wrote it down in case you were hit by a bus.”
Working between the professional tours and the community rendition of Carol in those early years revealed something about the Playhouse they will never forget. In the early years, coming from a professional acting background, they both tended to gravitate towards the Caravan. They enjoyed working with professional actors on limited contracts while putting together productions.
“Somehow, gradually, over the course of years, you shifted,” Beck said. “We both did. You shift into really a preference and joy of working with the community theatre volunteer actor. You got this wonderful sense from them. They are there every single night because they want to be there, because they like doing it. They’ll work 8 hours a day, then miss dinner or bring dinner in a bag, then come in and give three months of their lives because they want to be here. It makes for such a wonderful rehearsal atmosphere.”
During their tenure, there have been many amazing productions performed on Playhouse stages. Collins remembers shows like Violet, Secret Garden, and many others where magic just seemed to manifest on stage.
“You have the absolutely perfect group of people in a great project that becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “We’ve just had so many. It seems unfair to pick any one. Of course, I could more easily list the complete failures than successes!”
Anyone who has worked in theatre will tell you with uncanny detail, the great flops of their career. There’s something in the humility and humbleness that comes with falling flat on your face.
“You know at the time, you have to believe this is the most wonderful project in the world,” Collins said. “But you do that in order to get through it. Then afterward you look back and say, ‘I had no business directing that show.’”
For Collins, it was show called The Enchanted Cottage that was done to celebrate an anniversary at the Playhouse. The higher-ups wanted to put it on the season but the script was terrible. They tried to freshen it up with Larry Williams coming in from LA to create a new version that was doomed from the start.
“It had witches from MacBeth in it, a story about real estate, people were disfigured. I don’t know what happened. It was a mess,” Collins said.
Beck talked about a production of The Coconuts, once again trying to take a weak script and turn it into something fresh.
“I wanted to recreate it,” he said. “I added a fantasy sequence for Harpo where he goes underwater and saves a mermaid. There were people dancing on airplane wings. And, of course, we built a huge, gigantic turkey that nobody wanted to see.”
But even in the failures, both said, you still make fantastic relationships and memories that stay with you long after the show closes.
The show almost closed prematurely for them in 2009, when the financial crisis hit the Playhouse hard. Tensions between the administration and artistic staff arose, culminating in Beck being asked to resign. Collins walked out immediately after along with the cast of Moonlight and Magnolias, the show Beck was directing at the time. A town hall meeting with the community followed and the end result was Beck and Collins returning to work along with President Tim Schmad in steering the Playhouse through the tough times.
“I think the primary result from that whole thing was how hard everyone worked to amend the damage done,” Collins said. “We were a unified force putting on our programming as opposed to fighting about money and whatnot.”
Beck agreed saying, “It was a unified effort on everybody’s part to keep in mind that the Playhouse is a bigger entity than the personalities involved.”
Now the Playhouse is as strong as ever. Beck and Collins are preparing to hand the reins over to new Artistic Director Hilary Adams who will usher in a new era for the nation’s largest community theatre. As they prepare for one last show, Beck and Collins thought about the legacy they will leave.
“One thing that was important to me was diversity,” Collins said. “I don’t think I ever said ‘Here’s my mission! I’m going to create more diversity!’ but it seemed to be what fell in my lap to some degree. To what extent I was successful might be limited but we made some wonderful strides while I was here and they are only going to progress further.”
Beck said that one of their most important legacies to leave was continuing the high standard of production values the theatre is known for.
“That was Charles’ vision,” Beck said. “I think we have worked very hard to maintain that sense and make sure the production quality will always be up to those standards.”
Now they prepare for the next chapters of their lives. Collins will stick around helping with next season’s A Christmas Carol while directing the Caravan’s production of Little Women and exploring all of life’s new opportunities.
When asked what’s for Beck, he smiled and joked, “I have finally turned in my application to be a greeter at Sam’s Club and am looking forward to hearing from them.”
The Playhouse is built on the names that made it great. From the stars on the outside steps, to the bricks on the lobby floor, to the names of volunteer award winners on the walls, each name has been vital to the spirit and essence of the Playhouse.
Carl Beck and Susie Baer Collins have left their names elsewhere. They’re in the joys and memories of actors putting on a show, in the communal spirit that fills the house as audiences get to their seats, in the awe and wonder of kids being mesmerized by A Christmas Carol. It’s those names that cultivated the loving community spirit that runs throughout Playhouse and will continue to be felt for years to come.