When officials at the Omaha Community Playhouse looked at reviving the scaled-back Nebraska Theatre Caravan, they knew the key was finding a show they could sell to cities and towns across the country.
“The Fantasticks,” a 1960s musical, turned out to be that show — because of the Playhouse’s fresh take on it.
The Playhouse staged a popular, award-winning version of the musical in February 2012, reimagining it visually with a steampunk design theme. Steampunk melds industrial-revolution mechanization, Victorian fashion and a punk-rock attitude from the 1980s.
Now the Playhouse board has approved a Caravan tour of “The Fantasticks” to 67 cities in 28 states from January through April 2014.
It will be the first Caravan tour, other than “A Christmas Carol,” since budget cutbacks after “The Spitfire Grill” toured in fall 2004.
The tour already is assured a profit, said Beau Bisson, the Caravan’s director of booking. The Caravan charges a flat fee per performance, leaving ticket sales to the individual venues.
But the revival means more to the Playhouse than added revenue, Caravan managing director Greg Scheer said. The Caravan bolsters the Playhouse’s national reputation while attracting a wealth of talent to the Playhouse and Omaha.
“I started with the Caravan,” said Scheer, who has been associated with it for 25 years but also is production coordinator at the Playhouse. Carl Beck, the Playhouse’s longtime artistic director, and Susan Baer Collins, its associate director, both began at the Playhouse as Caravan hires. So did Lara Marsh, who is the Caravan’s artistic coordinator and the Playhouse’s apprentice coordinator.
Scheer said many Caravan actors and technicians have settled in Omaha and continue to perform on its stages and do production work, elevating the level of theater performed here.
“It’s also been a wonderful springboard for local performers to tour with ‘A Christmas Carol’ and then transition into professional careers,” Beck said.
Former Playhouse director Charles Jones led the charge to form the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in 1975. It began as a joint project between the Playhouse and the Nebraska Arts Council. The idea was to bring together professional performer-teachers for student workshops and community performances.
By its second season, the Caravan was playing to 45,000 people in 37 communities across Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming. The Caravan’s national tours of “A Christmas Carol” began in 1979. Two touring companies still venture out each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, playing to about 80,000 last year.
Jim Eisenhardt, a Playhouse board member who served on the initial committee that helped form the Caravan, said it fell on hard times in the wake of 9/11, when touring companies were finding bookings tough to get.
“It wasn’t just smaller tours like ours,” he said. “Several big Broadway companies announced tours and then had to cancel them.”
The revival began when the Playhouse hired Bisson’s New York City booking agency, Hyperion Productions, in 2007. The Caravan was a charter client for Hyperion, which was hungry for business. At the same time, theater venues had become more open to booking shows as the economy bounced back. Bisson had extensive connections from previous jobs.
“We had a fresh, new take on the product (‘A Christmas Carol’), and clients just got on board,” Bisson said.
The company grew so quickly, Bisson and his partner decided they had had enough by 2011 and wanted to move on. That’s when the Playhouse decided to hire Bisson, a native of Schuyler, Neb., as its booker and begin a new effort for touring projects.
The next step was finding a show that Bisson could sell. The process of acquiring rights to a show, booking a tour, casting and creating sets and costumes can take up to two years.
When Bisson saw Beck’s production of “The Fantasticks,” he thought steampunk could be the angle that would sell the show for a tour — marrying a classic title with a fresh take. The Playhouse had promotional materials in place, and the tour bookings built rapidly.
Even Tom Jones, one of the writer-composers of “The Fantasticks,” got behind the Playhouse’s steampunk concept.
Beck said there’s time to take costume and set design a step further than the Playhouse production, expanding and embellishing to fill larger theater spaces. “But it’s very much our product, with the input of the entire Playhouse design crew.”
Eisenhardt said the Playhouse is a strange anomaly, neither purely professional nor purely community theater.
“We can provide communities with theater that can’t really be provided by the larger Broadway and regional companies,” he said. “They’re too costly. We can take the place of the old bus and truck tours, sort of like becoming the new summer stock on tour.”
Scheer said the Caravan’s rebirth is an opportunity to reimagine its role while preserving its education outreach with teaching professionals. An Iowa West Foundation grant means “The Fantasticks” can do educational outreach in schools, working with theater students as well as business students and others.
“We’re looking at all scenarios, at what our markets and venues want,” Marsh said.
The search for possible Caravan titles for a 2015 tour has already begun.
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