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Who ARE These People?

Belying their many years in the theater world, there will be no dramatic exit, no curtain call, no planned encore for Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins when they retire in June.

Who ARE these people? Susan Baer-Collins and Carl Beck retire

 

Belying their many years in the theater world, there will be no dramatic exit, no curtain call, no planned encore for Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins when they retire in June... 

...from their respective positions of Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director for the Omaha Community Playhouse. In fact, their last day of work will end the same way they’ve capped off countless theater seasons from years before.

“We’re working that last day to produce an awards night that night,” Beck said. “So, literally, when that last award is given and we finish that job, we’re done.”

Fourth wal​l

Both assumed their current roles with the Playhouse in 1997, but their association with the theater actually began more than 30 years ago when Beck was brought in as associate director in 1983 by Charles Jones, the then-executive director. Their son Ben was an infant at the time, so Collins didn’t join the theater staff until a few years later. Their leadership in the theater survived a 1996 divorce following a nearly 20-year marriage, and despite the fact that Collins is now remarried to attorney Dennis Collins, the two are forever coupled in the collective memory of the theater community.

There’s no acrimony, Collins said, and she insists that the two actually like each other very much. Being perceived as a twosome professionally remains a positive thing, or as she put it, “That pleases me: I’m all good.”

“It’s been a very strong relationship,” Beck said. “Divorce certainly happened but luckily we moved beyond divorce and have a great working relationship. We were primarily motivated at the very beginning to be a strong set of parents for our son and both be involved in raising him.”

“And neither one of us wanted to step down from our job, so we had to figure it out,” Collins added.

Backstory

Not surprisingly, it was theater that brought Beck and Collins together in the first place. The two met in the 1970s and their combined entertainment industry repertoire includes acting, directing, broadcasting, and teaching/coaching in numerous communities. There’s still an easy back-and-forth in how they tell their shared stories.

“We went everywhere and we did everything,” Beck said. “There’s a wide variety between us of experience and job opportunity and working in different areas that ultimately wound back and got us here. We both started out as performers, it evolved into television work and writing and performance there before evolving back into (what we do) here. We were involved in cabaret acts, dinner theater.”

“We killed off most of dinner theater,” Collins said. “We had a club act, a comedy act with four of us: Carl and I and two others. Carl did all the writing for it and it was called The Nebraska Product, but it performed in Atlanta, Georgia, where we were living at the time. We even wrote and did a project for Prince Charles.

“Prince Charles came to the United States—prior to Lady Di, prior to anything—when he was of marriageable age and single,” Collins said. “He was going to ten cities—each city was going to do something very special for the prince—and he was coming to Atlanta, so Carl wrote basically the first act for the show. The second act was about Gladys Knight and the Pips, who were from Atlanta. We performed for the prince, I got to meet the prince and we...chatted about Carl, actually.”

“I was late getting to the reception and never met the prince,” Beck explained. “He was putting the props in the Volkswagen, of all things,” Collins added. 

Change of scene
They were still in Atlanta when they decided to collaborate on a new project: starting a family.

“We were working in television when Ben was born because it was the first time that we ever had insurance,” Collins said. “We figured that if we were ever going to have a kid, we better do it now, because we had insurance and we had these full-time jobs. And when will that ever happen again?”

Their son was born in 1983, which proved to be a pivotal year for the couple in other ways. The offer from Jones to come to Omaha beckoned, and Collins wanted to live closer to her mother in Lincoln, who was in declining health. And Collins already was fond of Nebraska; she is originally from Detroit (no, she’s not related to the Omaha Baer family of Brandeis fame, although people still occasionally ask) but her physician father’s job with the Veterans Administration brought her to the state as a youth.

“We settled in Lincoln when I was a junior in high school, so Nebraska’s pretty much home,” she said.

Beck, on the other hand, is a transplanted Southerner who grew up in Louisiana and Oklahoma, although there’s not a trace of accent left. “When family gets back together, it comes in out loud,” he said.

Second act

Collins said she wishes now that she had completed her studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but the theater drew her away at a young age.

“My dad’s father and mother really pushed him hard to become a doctor and I don’t know if that’s really what he wanted to do. So I really appreciated that they (my parents) didn’t try to talk me out of it,” she said. “They didn’t blink an eye.”

“My parents wanted me to go into law and that didn’t last. And I had five other majors in college,” Beck said. “Then finally they threw in the towel or threw up their hands. Or something was thrown. And I ended up getting a degree in theater.”

The fact that Beck’s sister had some theater experience and that Collins’ mother had degree in speech and drama helped smooth their own youthful paths to entertainment careers. And when their son Ben decided to follow in their footsteps, in a fashion—he works in entertainment production and is involved in local theater, plus earned a degree from the theater program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha—they embraced his career choices, although not without some good-natured ribbing.

“Wouldn’t you like to go to med school?” Collins joked. Added Beck, “Theater people cheer when their children go into other areas.”

All kidding aside, both Beck and Collins said Ben’s interest in theater was probably inevitable and they’ve enjoyed supporting him from the wings.

“Ben frequently came to the Playhouse after school and he would do his homework; he was kind of raised by a village. Everybody kept an eye on him and there were a lot of other kids doing exactly the same thing.” Beck said.

Backstage
In their years with the Playhouse, Beck’s and Collins’ names have become synonymous with local theater although from their perspective it never equated to celebrity (“It’s impossible because you’re too busy setting up chairs or cleaning up a mess,” Beck said). It took some sacrifices like six-day workweeks much of the year and “you can never live more than ten minutes away from the theater,” as Collins put it, but the two nevertheless managed to bring in a viable income in a field where so few succeed financially.

“(It takes) a lot of luck, especially in a town this size,” Beck said. “We, along with maybe a handful of other people, have been very fortunate to be able to make a living in theater.”

They were even more fortunate in the very experience of being associated with the Omaha Community Playhouse, Collins said.

“For the Playhouse to employ so many theater craftsmen, artists and designers, production personnel, in Omaha, Nebraska—You feel very privileged to not only work here but to work with the caliber of people here with you,” she said.

Promenade

Over three decades, they’ve seen several generations of local families enter and exit the stage, like “those Tiny Tims who grow up to become adults with kids trying out for Christmas Carol,” Collins said. “And we have our little list of alumni who have gone on to do great things and we just have such pride in these people, although we probably had very little to do with their success.” Beck added, “We’ve been here long enough that we have people who have acted with is who have went on to have very strong careers going on now. That’s thrilling.”

Their own careers have been a little thrilling, too.

“You certainly have shows that you’re very proud of, a good healthy list of them, that you’ve enjoyed working on and that you were very pleased with the outcome,” Beck said. “Sure, I’ve had some problem shows, but you learn from the problem shows.”

“I’ve done some plays I’ve liked less than others, but in taking this job that I’ve had, I think that my heart is in acting. So I sort of miss the fact that I kind of had to put that part of my life on hold. I’ve done two roles in 15, 16 years. But that’s another reason to retire, I’m too old to play a lot of the parts,” Collins said. “But that’s okay, I’ll play the grandmothers.”

Encore

And perhaps the best is yet to come.

“If I had a show that I’ve always wanted to do and still wanted to do in my heart, it would be Nicholas Nickleby. That’s an eight-hour production, an eight-hour Dickens over two evenings,” Beck said.

“I did get to play a part I’ve always been dying to play, and that was Violet in August Osage County. And I’ve gotten to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd; that was on the list somewhere, too,” Collins said. She admits there’s another unfulfilled role, but “I’m almost too superstitious to say it.”

“King Lear!” Beck joked.

On the eve of their retirement, the twosome reflected on what their legacy with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest community theater in the country, might be.

“I feel very proud that we were able to maintain the integrity of the Playhouse that was first established by Charles Jones. It gets more difficult every year; the face of Omaha continues to change and there is a greater mass of entertainment and competition for entertainment dollars,” Beck said. “So to maintain the strength of the Playhouse—as the face of Omaha changes—has been very tricky. Not only for us but for administrative staff, our president Tim Schmad, and our board of directors—to always be ready to reinvent and refashion the Playhouse for the future. I feel very happy that we have been a part of making the Playhouse continue to be a strong entity.”

“I agree, and that we’re leaving and the Caravan is still in existence. That professional company gives us a really great resource for staying connected to the rest of the theater world,” Collins said. “Many of us who are long-time staff members first started as members of that professional company and losing that would lose a lot of opportunities for the Playhouse.”

“In many ways, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan is our national face; it is where other venues theaters and actors know of us,” Beck explained.

Rave reviews

They may be modest, but the pair certainly leave behind an outstanding reputation among their colleagues in the Omaha theater community.

“Both are extremely professional and Omaha was very lucky to have them here for the time we did,” Emily (Griebel) Peklo said.

“I met Susie when we both worked for the Metropolitan Arts Guild in the early ‘80s. She was funny, focused and enthusiastic for live performance,” said Stacy Maddux. “Thirty-odd years later, I had the distinct pleasure of working with the same amazing woman at OCP in Hairspray. Susie is one of the most loving and open people I’ve ever met.”

“Carl I worked with on two shows, both in the small theater. He has such a dry sense of humor, he is also very witty and quick, and I think you see that in his finished product,” Peklo said. “And Susie is a very thoughtful director. She really has a good sense, going into a production, of each character’s through line and story. One of my favorite things to block with Susie were big chorus numbers; the way she’d put these together was amazing. Every person had a path and an intention from moment to moment in a song, it was like putting together a huge 3-D puzzle.”

New role

Beck and Collins said they are looking forward to seeing how the Playhouse will evolve under new artistic leadership. Beck’s successor, Hilary Adams, is already in place to ensure a smooth transition, while Collins’ successor will come in later.

“That may not happen for a while,” Collins said. “I think there’s an intent for Hilary to get her feet on the ground before she brings in an associate (director). As a result, a lot of the shows the Playhouse is bringing in next season will bring in some guest directors, several of whom Hilary has helped to put in place. And perhaps from those will come the new associate. But there will be a national search.”

Beck turns 65 this month, and although Collins is a few years younger, they started contemplating retirement several years back and announced their intentions two years out.

“We both came to a decision, and just about the same time,” Beck said. “It was a consensus—because Susan has batted it around too—that when we left, leaving together made a lot of sense. We were very much a co-team in terms of the Playhouse and assignments and communication and all that, and we both felt that if you pass it along, pass it all along and bow out.”

Exit stage left and right

And for the first time in more than 40 years, Beck and Collins will be diverging.

“For all of this working together, we are forging two different paths,” Beck explained. “I am basically selling everything I own, putting my condo on the market, and moving to Florida—where I have lots of family and friends—and spending some years near water.”

“I’m not going to leave the theater community. I hope to work in other theaters and I will be coming back here. I’ll be guest directing with a project for Christmas Carol and with the Caravan production of Little Women,” Collins said. “I don’t know that I will finish my degree, but I would love to go back to school. There’s just a lot of things I’d like to learn about...I don’t see myself as not working; I just like the idea of picking my projects a little more.

And after three decades of knowing exactly what they would be doing at any given point of the year thanks to the cycle of the theater season, both said it’s time to step onto life’s stage without a script and improvise for a while.

“It’s awfully exciting right now, not knowing,” Beck said. “It will be nice to reinvent all of that.”

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“We went everywhere and we did everything. There’s a wide variety between us of experience and job opportunity and working in different areas that ultimately wound back and got us here.”

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