In the immortal words of MC Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, “It takes two to make a thing go right.” For Omaha’s Shelterbelt Theatre and SNAP! Productions, that wise 1980s musical maxim proves incredibly true. The two theater companies have shared a performance space (at 3225 California St.) for the past 18 years, with a sibling-like relationship that’s buoyed them both, allowing them to share expenses and audiences alike.
According to Michal Simpson, artistic director for SNAP! Productions, who’s been with the organization its entire 25 years, Shelterbelt originally occupied the space and SNAP! was nomadic, performing its shows wherever they could borrow space.
“We put our heads together and said, ‘What if SNAP! came into the space and we rotated productions?’ It was convenient timing-wise and also meant we could share some of the expenses, purchasing, and upgrades to make our facility better for both theaters,” Simpson says.
The arrangement worked beautifully for 18 years. But now with their building up for sale and out of their price range, the final California Street curtain call will occur after Ellen Struve’s The Dairy Maid-Right closes on August 5, and the Shelterbelt/SNAP! lease expires at the end of August 2018. Shelterbelt and SNAP! are seeking a new home—and both companies definitely want to keep the family together.
“We want to continue sharing a space because it’s much like a sibling relationship—very supportive and close,” says Roxanne Wach, Shelterbelt’s executive director. “We share expenses, but we also share resources and help each other out when somebody’s in a bind. I don’t know of any other arts organizations that operate in this way. It’s a really unique relationship. Plus, space is difficult in Omaha, so I think finding two spaces would be nearly impossible.”
Indeed, they’ve spent two years diligently searching for a new space to rent, seeking an affordable, optimum location for their theatrical package deal. High rental costs and the need for a space with quite specific functionality have slowed down the relocation process.
For those who wish to support these two local cultural gems and their impending move, Wach says both theaters have donation buttons on their websites. She says they’ve raised about $22,000 through a recent fundraiser drive benefiting both theaters—which she calls “a good start.”
“That money will be used directly for moving costs. After being there for 25 years, you can imagine what we have to move! So, it’s going to get us moved out and into the new space, and hopefully even cover a few items on our wish list,” Wach says.
Simpson and Wach both believe finding the right space is entirely worth the struggle, because it’s key to maintaining Shelterbelt and SNAP!’s crucial contributions to Omaha’s cultural landscape—which they call “a vital part of the theater ecology” in Omaha. Both companies offer opportunities for emerging actors, directors, writers, designers, and crew members, greatly strengthening the local theater community throughout the past 25 years by incubating talent. Additionally, each is unique in the region for its mission—with Shelterbelt’s focus on presenting original, local work and SNAP!’s focus on bolstering inclusion and understanding by featuring underrepresented identities and stories.
“[Shelterbelt does] all original theater and Omaha is really lucky to have that. Most cities our size don’t have a theater nurturing new playwrights, giving entry-level actors, directors, and designers a shot at production. Without theaters like Shelterbelt there is no new theater. To have the very talented writing pool we have in Omaha and a stage where their work can be produced is an immense benefit to Nebraska’s cultural landscape,” Wach says. “It’s a really special experience to be part of bringing a new play to the stage for the first time because, in the end, everybody has contributed to bringing this new thing to life. Even as somebody who’s been in theater basically my whole life, I still find it special every time I get to be part of that.”
Simpson says it’s been exciting to watch SNAP! evolve over the years and “adapt to the growing, changing world around us.” SNAP! was originally an acronym for “Supporting Nebraska AIDS Project,” with the intent to do theater that increased awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and raised money for Nebraska AIDS Project. As HIV/AIDS awareness and funding increased, Simpson says SNAP! broadened its focus to include shows about various social issues in addition to LGBTQ and AIDS-related issues.
“We’ve diversified as the times have changed. Along the way we’ve addressed things like ageism, autism, cancer, PTSD, the transgender experience, suicide, and on and on,” Simpson says. “We’re constantly finding that more and more people are becoming braver and coming forward about their individuality and their identity. Since we started out doing plays about gay people and HIV/AIDS long before it was mainstream or acceptable for theaters to do, we wanted to carry that on. As different things have come to the forefront, we’ve tried to address them and foster understanding of these issues and of the people who face them. We’ve always tried to educate people and promote inclusion and understanding.”
While Shelterbelt and SNAP! have distinct missions, the companies complement each other well, “We have a real symbiotic relationship that’s been good for both of us in many ways,” Simpson says.
Wach completely agrees and looks forward to continuing their important work.
“Our missions are very compatible. There’s a slight overlap because we do scripts with diversity and inclusion content, and they’ll occasionally do a new play. So, we play very well together,” Wach says. “We both offer theatergoers a slightly different experience than many are used to, and I really hope we can continue to bring that to Omaha for years to come.”
Wrapping up their stretch at 3225 California St., Shelterbelt’s Three to Beam Up runs April 20-May 13, SNAP’s Lazarus Syndrome runs May 31-June 24, and Shelterbelt’s The Dairy Maid-Right runs July 13-Aug. 5. For more information or to donate in support of the upcoming relocation, visit shelterbelt.org and snapproductions.com.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.