October 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It took two-and-a-half years of eager anticipation for the new Blue Barn Theatre to take shape at 10th and Pacific streets, as producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer waited impatiently to start creating in the new space. The wait was worth it.

This welcome addition to the booming 10th Street corridor gives her a new playground in which to produce stage magic.

Blue Barn is part of a mixed-use project on the site, which also houses the Boxcar 10 condos and restaurant on the south side, and public green space to the west that the theater opens onto.

The theater’s distinctive design by Omaha architect Jeff Day of Min|Day, with input from international theater space consultant Joshua Dachs, is a whimsical play on the Blue Barn name and purpose. Weathered steel and slatted wood evoke the barn motif. A vertical wall of rebar suggests a curtain. Splashes of blue appear throughout.

Great pains were taken to express the organic qualities that distinguish the way the company makes theater, including the use of salvaged materials and hand-made fixtures by area artists. Elements from the old 11th and Jackson space were integrated. The house was kept small to preserve intimacy with audiences.

“Rehearsing our opening play I had a moment where I was transported back to our old space and it felt like I was home. We worked long and hard to create a space that felt familiar from our old digs but also inspiring in new ways, and I think we have done that,” Clement-Toberer says. “For awhile during the building process I was a little freaked out that it was too big, but it’s not. Once the walls and the reclaimed wood slats got put up and our comfy chairs from the old space were installed, I clearly saw this new building—with the expanded lobby and adjoining back garden—offers incredible new spaces for us.

“But they still feel like the Blue Barn. I feel like the building is a body that warmly embraces our work.”

Occupying a permanent, dedicated space is a giant leap forward for a theater that rented and repurposed venues for more than 27 years, and even went homeless for a time.

“It’s very exhilarating to know we actually have a full space of our own that we will get to know every nook and cranny and creak in the floor and not have to go anywhere else to create our art.”

Amenities include larger dressings rooms, and, for the first time, backstage restrooms the actors won’t share with patrons. There are also enhanced lighting and sound systems, more expansive wing and storage areas, and a much higher ceiling for flying props and lights.

Clement-Toberer says, “I became adept at creating around limitations. Now my head’s spinning with the possibilities. We don’t have to have any confinement in how we create anymore and that’s the biggest transformation—what we’re able to do on our stage.

“If we want a scene to take place outdoors we can open the back doors of the house out onto the porch yard. We can let the actors and audience feel the wind blowing and see the moon. That to me is a gift.”

The potential configurations excite the director in her.

“I can see us…putting in a long table that runs from the indoor space all the way outdoors and having a beautiful dinner with the show happening around on the green space. I can see seating on the fixed stage and the performance being on the porch yard.”

Indeed, she regards the building and its signature indoor-outdoor flex space as “a set design malleable enough to allow the Blue Barn to grow into it and find different ways of utilizing it. Hopefully we have created a palette and a place that will continue to inspire us as artists as well as our audiences in the different forms we can create and in the different feelings we bring about through the stories we tell.”

Blue Barn hasn’t come to all this without struggle. The building’s a testament to resilience and community support built over time.

“We’re very lucky and full of gratitude that people in Omaha believed in us enough to help us grow ourselves in all the right ways,” she says.

Through it all, Blue Barn stayed true to itself.

“Our voice is a little more grown-up but it’s still speaking the same language we were 27 years ago.It is kind of like having our child grow up, and we still get to play hard and fierce.”

The new theater also strengthens Blue Barn’s position as a regional professional theater now that it meets equity standards.

Clement-Toberer credits Omaha philanthropist Nancy Mammel—who donated the land to Blue Barn and developed the adjoining Boxcar project—“as the real visionary for knowing 10th Street deserved a revitalization.”

This 2015-2016 season Clement-Toberer’s making sure to “savor every moment.”

Visit bluebarn.org to learn more.

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