A Christmas Carol
Commentary by Eleanor Jones- November 2008
Growth in the 1980s
The renovation led by Margre Durham after the tornado was followed by a six-million-dollar expansion in the mid-1980s with Barbara Ford heading a campaign that doubled space at the Playhouse. Additions allowed the Studio Theatre to move out of the basement and become the Fonda-McGuire series, replaced the old entry area with the glass-fronted Owen Lobby, and created the Hitchcock Rehearsal Hall. Early in the Jones era, season memberships doubled from 4,000 to 8,000, and passed 10,000 in the mid-80s. Nearly 20,000 attended a 1988 production of South Pacific and more than 18,000 packed the 1991 performances of the annual A Christmas Carol. Three Caravan companies took the Dickens-Jones collaboration on Midwest, East Coast and West Coast tours. The once music-deprived Playhouse now offered both fall and spring musicals on the main stage, others in the smaller space. The Robber Bridegroom in 1979, followed by The 1940s Radio Hour and The Quilters, performed in Europe. Sculptures of Don Quixote and other figures by artist Milton Heinrichs enlivened the exterior of the Playhouse.
Before Jones stepped down in 1997, the Playhouse was widely recognized as America’s top community theatre as measured by attendance, staff size and budget. “Charles took a medium-flight theatre and made it No. 1 in the nation,” one outside observer noted, citing both size and quality of productions. Other theatres produced his A Christmas Carol and he adapted Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia for the Playhouse. As season membership peaked at over 12,000, My Antonia and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor® Dream Coat set attendance records for drama and musical in 1994. Growth brought a managing director to run the operation and two former Caravan performers, Carl Beck and Susie Baer Collins, as associate directors. Beck became artistic director on the retirement of Jones and continued its distinctive status. In response to the Playhouse’s growth in artistic excellence and subscriptions, the building itself adapted and the black box theatre underwent a $1 million renovation funded by Omaha businessman Howard Drew, thus being renamed the Howard Drew Theatre.
Number One in the 1990s
New Millennium, New Scrooge, New Mainstage—2000–2010
The Omaha Community Playhouse exited one millennium and entered the next with its 75th Season. As the world experienced this millennial change, the Playhouse was experiencing a change of its own in leadership. Former Managing Director Duwain Hunt left the Playhouse and was replaced by current Playhouse President, Tim Schmad. Schmad hailed from the Aksarben world—a place of culture and philanthropy. Personnel wasn’t the only thing that changed in the Playhouse in the new millennium. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan—the Playhouse’s touring leg—cut productions to two tours of A Christmas Carol. In the 2000s, the Playhouse continued to put on top rated shows. The musical Buddy–The Buddy Holly Story earned over $200,000 in 2002, setting a revenue record for productions other than A Christmas Carol. 2004-05 brought two milestones: the Playhouse’s 30th Season of Charles Jones’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol and the retirement of Dick Boyd, the 83-year-old actor who played Scrooge for 30 years without missing a performance. His retirement from the stage garnered national media recognition. As the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, the treasured mainstage theatre underwent a much needed renovation and was named for the generous supporters who made it possible, becoming the Howard and Rhonda Hawks Mainstage Theatre.
Passing the artistic baton—2011 and beyond
The second decade of the new millennium brought changes in programming, touring and leadership. In the fall of 2012, OCP introduced edgier content in the Howard Drew Theatre with the "Find Your Stage" branding campaign. It kicked off with the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County. The show brought in the second highest revenue numbers the Howard Drew had seen in the regular season only being surpassed by the musical Quilters in 2009. Another record-breaking show came one year later on the Hawks Mainstage. After 25 years of waiting for the available rights, OCP received the opportunity to stage Les Misérables. More than 350 people auditioned for the production resulting in an all-star cast led by New York equity actor, Timothy Shew, as Jean Valjean. The show was critically acclaimed and set a new Box Office record for earning the highest revenue in history other than A Christmas Carol. It also swept the Theatre Arts Guild Awards winning 13 awards. Just a few months later, a newly revitalized the Nebraska Theatre Caravan launched a national tour of a steampunk-inspired version of The Fantasticks. This tour was the first show, other than A Christmas Carol, that the Caravan toured since The Spitfire Grill in 2005. In the spring of 2014, beloved Artistic Director Carl Beck and Associate Artistic Director Susan Baer Collins retired ending a 30-year era. They were succeeded by New Yorker Hilary Adams who was selected by the Board of Trustees as the new artistic director after a national search. However, in December 2015, the Board of Trustees voted to relieve Adams of her duties. Susan Baer Collins returned to the Playhouse as interim artistic director until a suitable replacement could be found. Kimberly Faith Hickman, a director and choreographer from New York City who was no stranger to the Playhouse board and staff as she had guest directed and choreographed in recent years, was offered the full time artistic director position in early 2016. She accepted and began her official duties June 1, 2016.
It was also in June 2016 when Tim Schmad, longtime president of the Playhouse, announced his retirement as of January 31, 2017. After a national search, Omahan and former Playhouse Marketing and Public Relations Director Katie Broman was hired as the Playhouse's new executive director. Broman returned to the Playhouse in January 2017. The future of the Playhouse looks bright with Hickman and Broman at the helm.