If all the world’s a stage, then 25-year-old actress, dancer, and choreographer Courtney Stein is definitely a player.
While performing in the musical Once On This Island at the tender age of 5, Stein, who was born and raised in Omaha, says she got “the itch” for theatre. “I grew up in the Ralston Community Theatre, taking part in numerous summer musicals throughout my adolescence,” she adds.
After she graduated from Ralston High School, Stein headed out to southern California for a year to join the Young Americans, a touring performance and music education outreach program. She then returned to Omaha to study vocal music education at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Shortly thereafter, she went to New York University, where she created her own program of study in various culture, dance, theatre, and music, but then returned home once more to graduate from UNO in 2010 with an individualized degree in interdisciplinary studies—specifically, anthropology with a focus on music, dance, and theatre.
Today, Stein earns her living as a freelance choreographer and dance instructor, and she also teaches yoga, tai chi, and tap dancing at Bellevue Senior Center. Beyond her freelance work, Stein is involved with several nonprofit organizations, including WhyArts? and Arts for All, Inc. “I teach at a multitude of elementary schools in the metro, through both the Artery’s Dancing Classroom program and through the Omaha Community Playhouse’s educational outreach program. I [also] choreograph several area high school musicals and show choirs, as well,” she says.
But just teaching performance wasn’t enough for Stein; she wanted an outlet to continue the passion for performance her 5-year-old self had felt so long ago. That’s when she looked into the community theatre scene in her hometown.
“We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime.”
“Omaha is special,” she says. “It is home to so many artists—starving and otherwise, who are lucky enough to share their passion in a welcoming environment…We are privileged to have such wonderfully diverse yet mutually supportive theaters.”
One such theater is the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest community theatre in the nation. The theater opened in the 1920s after a group of Omahans—including Alan McDonald, architect of the Joslyn Art Museum, who later became president of the Playhouse—wanted stage performances to return to a community increasingly dominated by the rising popularity of films. In April 1925, the Playhouse’s very first play, The Enchanted Cottage, opened and was directed by Greg Foley, starring Dodie Brando, mother of actor Marlon Brando. The theater later saw the acting debuts of Henry Fonda (father of actress Jane Fonda), Marlon Brando, Dorothy McGuire, and Julie Wilson. For Stein, having the chance to stand on the stage where these legends once stood was an aspiration.
“The first show I auditioned for at the Playhouse was Urinetown, and I actually wasn’t cast.” But Stein was stubborn and auditioned for the Playhouse’s next big musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in 2007, where she was cast as a tap-dancing stenographer. During that role, Stein believes she must have done something the directors liked because she was then cast in the next show, A Christmas Carol, as fun-loving and energetic party girl Lucy.
Though she’s played Lucy for the past five years, this November and December, Stein plays Millie. “[Millie] is married to Scrooge’s nephew, Fred,” Stein explains of her character. “This is the first year since I have been a part of the Carol that I will not be Lucy, [who] is the slightly crazy, very energetic younger sister of Millie.”
Stein is slowly building a solid performance reputation with the Playhouse, as she has been involved in at least two musicals/plays each year. Her list thus far includes:
- Thoroughly Modern Millie (as stenographer), 2007
- A Christmas Carol (as Lucy), 2007-2012
- The Cocoanuts (as Polly Potter), 2008
- Batboy (as Ruthie/Ned), 2009
- Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (as chorus member), 2009
- All Shook Up (as Lorraine), 2010
- Fiddler on the Roof (as Chava), 2010
- Footloose (as Wendy Jo), 2010
- Nunsense (as Sister Mary Leo), 2011
- Hairspray (as Amber Von Tussle), 2012
This past year, Stein was even nominated for the Omaha Theatre Arts Guild’s awards for her supporting actress role as Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray. Though it was exciting, Stein says she was somewhat shocked about the nomination. “I’ve played several sweet, ingénue-type roles and never received as much recognition. But I was cast as Amber in Hairspray, a horribly mean-spirited—albeit charming and funny—young girl and WHAM! I’m nominated for a TAG award and an OCP award!” she laughs. “Perhaps I’m not as innocent as I thought!”
Though she has been nominated for several other awards for her performances in Fiddler on the Roof, All Shook Up, and The Cocoanuts and received the Charles Jones Director’s Award from the Playhouse in 2010, Stein feels humbled by awards and tries not to put too much stock into them, as the performance is her true honor.
During her time with the Playhouse, Stein has developed a new ambition beyond just acting, singing, and dancing in the shows—she also wants to work behind the scenes as a choreographer.
Stein as Amber Von Tussle in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of Hairspray.
Last year’s Carol was the first year that Stein was asked to co-choreograph the play with Michelle Garrity. “[We] used a divide-and-conquer strategy to teaching the choreography. The show is such an institution at the Playhouse, and the choreography has remained true to the original, so it was intimidating to say the least.” And this past summer, Stein helped choreograph Hairspray with Kathy Wheeldon. “It was a wonderful experience to see some of my own original choreography onstage at such a prominent theater,” she adds, hoping she’ll have more opportunities to have her choreography in Playhouse shows.
Although it may seem like a career in performance is difficult to get with all of the fierce competition, Stein feels like community theatre doesn’t work that way. “We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime. In fact, we sacrifice time, energy, and sanity for one reason—an undying passion to tell a story, to convey a message, to leave the world a little different than before. We want to reach an audience.
“In the whirlwind of everyday chaos, theatre provides an outlet for release, a platform for expression, and a vehicle for social commentary. I believe that arts education is essential to the growth of a well-rounded human being and community.”
A Christmas Carol runs from Nov. 16 through Dec. 23 at the Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St.) and will be followed by Yesterday and Today, which runs from Dec. 7-31, and Deathtrap, which runs from Jan.18 through Feb. 10. For more information, visit omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.