Despite initial skepticism from friends back home, Robyn Helwig isn’t regretting her decision to leave the Pacific Northwest for the Great Plains.
In January the effervescent, 25-year-old Oregon native was honored with a 2019 Omaha Entertainment & Arts Award (OEAA) for “outstanding scenic design.” She won for her work on The Dairy Maid-Right at Shelterbelt Theatre—in a category where she was the only woman nominated and the competition included some of the metro area’s best known design talent.
Helwig takes that as a sign. “Maybe Omaha wants me to stay…so here we are!”
It wasn’t as if the multidisciplinary artist was about to leave. She’s committed to several projects this spring, including acting in Men on Boats at Omaha Community Playhouse; designing props for a demanding project at Bellevue Little Theatre; and her ongoing commitments at The Backline comedy theater. Not to mention her ‘day job’ working as a paraeducator with a local school district and her part-time teaching gig at The Rose Theater.
Helwig recalls advice she received from a mentor to “use your 20s to do everything,” because she can always sleep when she’s older.
She first enrolled at the University of Puget Sound as a piano performance major. But she soon realized that life as a professional musician wasn’t for her.
“If you make a mistake on the piano you can’t be like, ‘it was an acting choice,’” says Helwig, explaining her performance anxiety as a pianist.
Theater, in some shape or form, has been part of her life since fourth grade. So, she switched majors and discovered that she not only had talent onstage, but also behind the scenes.
“I was required for my major to take a tech theater class and then one of my teachers was like, ‘Hey, you’re kind of artsy aren’t you?’ and I was like, ‘You know what? I am!’” Helwig says. “I kept doing it (set and prop design) and now I consider myself more a designer than a performer, but I like to do both.”
Thankfully, the relatively small theater community in Omaha means that Helwig doesn’t have to choose between performing and stage design. She’s also grateful for Omaha’s relatively low cost of living, especially compared to the financial challenges faced by artist friends in cities such as Seattle. Helwig also says that there are a lot of “amazing, creative women here in Omaha who are directing and I work with so many…I could just enthuse about them for hours, they’re so great.”
One of those women is Amy Lane, director of The Dairy Maid-Right and Helwig’s aunt.
It was Lane who suggested that Helwig consider teaching theater because of her love for all aspects of the craft and mentioned that there were opportunities at The Rose. Helwig applied, and was accepted, to a summer internship followed by a year-long fellowship at the nationally recognized children’s theater.
Helwig says she has not looked back.
“I packed up my car and drove out here and have been here for the past three years,” Helwig says. “And every time I think I’m going to head home, I don’t. I find something else to do out here and [that] keeps me here.”
As a designer, Helwig says that her specialty is detail work. It was an ideal skillset for The Dairy Maid-Right, the final production for the Shelterbelt Theatre in its California Street location before the company was forced to vacate its long-time home. She points out that it was a “weird-shaped space,” not to mention small.
“One of the hardest things is—just because it’s so intimate—every little detail can be seen,” Helwig says. “So you kind of have to consider every little bit of space because the front row of your audience is in your set.”
The play takes place in a slightly rundown, mom-and-pop ice cream shop in a fictional Nebraska town. The story required the set to have indoor and outdoor space, a door that locked, a functional cellar door, and an authentic-looking kitchen.
“The main focus on the set was on the inside and making it feel like those places that haven’t been updated in 50 years,” Helwig says.
Lane and playwright Ellen Struve visited, and took photos of, small-town ice cream shops across Nebraska, providing inspiration for the production. Helwig’s design included a cluttered kitchen counter, a hand-written menu with items crossed off, and a painted parquet floor that was left in place for the next tenants to discover.
Helwig will keep her multiple talents and tremendous work ethic in Omaha for the foreseeable future. Following that flurry of upcoming projects in the spring, she plans to attend graduate school and become a certified teacher—because at some point, an artist needs health insurance.
Reflecting on how many irons she has in the fire, Helwig reassures herself with a laugh, “It’s fine, everything’s fine. It’s gonna be great!”
This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.