Blue Barn Theatre's new home has slightly larger capacity, one-of-a-kind features

September 9, 2015
The reality of the new Blue Barn Theatre building still is sinking in for artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer.

She's spent many late nights at the recently completed structure on 10th and Pacific Streets. But no matter how long she's been there, she can't resist driving around the corner on her way home to take in the beautiful new building and to reflect on how it got there.

"I've been thinking about the people of Omaha who have chosen to make a difference in their community," she said. "That's pretty stellar."

The public will get a chance to tour the theater's new, permanent home Thursday night, starting with a 5:30 ribbon cutting followed by an open house until 7:30. What they will see is as eclectic and creative as the plays its owners have presented since a handful of recent graduates from the State University of New York in Purchase founded the Blue Barn in 1989.

The new $5 million building grew out of a land donation from developer Nancy Mammel and gifts toward an ongoing $7 million capital campaign. Clement-Toberer said the campaign is near the $5 million mark. The goal includes a $1 million operating endowment and a $1 million general endowment.

Clement-Toberer and architect Jeff Day of Min Day have carefully maintained the Blue Barn's identity by retaining the scale and intimate feel of its longtime home at 11th and Jones Streets.

But a long list of repurposed and handmade interior features make it one of a kind:

Naturally rusting sheet metal and rebar cover the exterior, giving way to a tall glass lobby wall facing east on 10th Street. The same materials were used to finish both ends of a long, wood coffee bar, the first thing you see as you walk in. The wood for the bar came from local trees.

Four-thousand salt-fired, handmade Nebraska clay bricks in various shades of blue line a vestibule and box-office facade. Philadelphia ceramics artist Michael Morgan numbered and placed each individual brick.

Thousands of pieces of recycled wood cover the main lobby's 22-foot-high gratitude wall, many containing the names of supporters. A hallway and interior walls of the theater's seating area also are covered with wood, raising the total to 30,000 pieces donated by Integrity Architectural Millwork of Omaha. Other walls are painted the theater's signature blue.

The lobby's maple floor was reclaimed from a demolished building at 27th and N Streets.

Jim Woodfill of Kansas City created lobby lighting fixtures and made office desks and actor makeup tables from repurposed scenery and stage flooring from the old Blue Barn.

In public restrooms, sinks custom-made by Hot Shops ceramic artist Daniel Toberer Susan's husband rest atop South Dakota granite repurposed from the facade of Angie's Steakhouse, which formerly sat on the theater site.

Audience seating comes from the Omaha Community Playhouse, donated when its main auditorium got a face-lift five years ago. On either side of the seats are 12-by-12-inch wood pillars, which, like the coffee bar, are shaped from donated trees around the city. They recall support beams in the old space that framed the seating. Dan Toberer milled all the new beams either at the site where the trees were cut down or on the dock at Hot Shops. "I found a new hobby," he joked.

And two tall folding metal doors custom-made by Hot Shops artist Chris Kemp form much of the stage's back wall. They will open onto a covered outdoor performance space that will allow added flexibility for staging and programming. Theater staffers have dubbed them "the big damn doors."

The covered outdoor space gives the Blue Barn new options for alternative programming or for seating on two sides of the stage. Its open-air space adjoins a greenspace to the west.

Day, the architect, said those doors and the building's relationship to the outdoor space make up its most important feature one that's quite uncommon at theaters elsewhere.

Said Clement-Toberer: "I think these doors are going to get national recognition."

Creating the doors which open with oversized silver knobs sporting the Blue Barn logo took up every inch of space at Kemp's shop. Their innovative design came from "many hours of doing this," Kemp said as he mimicked pulling out his hair.

The new auditorium itself seats 96, only about 10 more than the old. But the stage ceiling is 16-feet high, compared with 8 in the old building. And the stage is larger, giving actors more options for entering and exiting and creating more space on the sides for scenery or props.

Even though the lobby and performance space are similar in size to the theater's former home, the new building has 12,728 square feet of space, nearly double that of the old space. Additions include a scene shop, better dressing rooms with toilets and a shower, added office and storage space, central air and heating, better noise control, a bigger light booth, a more adequate electrical system and easily accessible public restrooms all features the old space lacked.

In short, said Clement-Toberer, it has all the good aspects of the old location without many of the things that irritated actors or theatergoers.

Day said a couple of other elements set the building apart. The use of artists to design and build different parts of the building, such as the stone entryway, is not a common way to integrate art and architecture. Artwork usually is done after construction is finished. And, he said, the building's design nods to its neighborhood a mixture of homes, brick industrial buildings, a post office.

The building is attached to Boxcar 10 condos, which Day also designed. "We want it to be a hub of activity. We're hoping that it spurs additional development," he said.

The Blue Barn's first show in the new space, "The Grown-Up" by Jordan Harrison, opens Sept. 24. Rehearsals already are underway. On the heels of the final performance at its old home the critically acclaimed "Our Town" the theater seems poised for success.

"We leapt into this adventure because our art form needed to be able to grow and fly in new ways," Clement-Toberer said. "We are so grateful to Omaha and all the people who are helping us."

Omaha World-Herald
By Betsie Freeman
Former World-Herald staff writer Bob Fischbach contributed to this report.
Photo by Megan Farmer