The outside temperature was 13 degrees below zero, but a dozen University of Nebraska at Omaha theater students had a hot idea back in 1983:
Why don’t we create our own theater company so we can pursue our craft without moving away?
The group turned to the only writer in the bunch, Doug Marr, a poetry major who’d taken a playwriting class at UNO.
“What can you come up with?” Marr was asked.
So began Omaha’s unique Circle Theatre, which performed “diner theater” in greasy-spoon cafes rather than dinner theater, which was going strong back then.
The Circle Theatre’s first home was Joe & Judy’s Cafe in Benson, and their initial performances were on Monday nights because, they figured, at least theater people would show up on that off night.
But diner theater was a hit, and the Circle became the city’s first independent theater company. It served as a forerunner to several others that were to follow, like the Blue Barn Theatre, the Shelterbelt Theatre, the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre and others.
“We kind of started that burst of other companies,” said Marr’s wife, Laura.
Doug Marr, suffering from multiple health issues, died Monday night. He was 66.
Marr, a native of Ralston, wrote and produced more than 100 plays, ranging from comedies set in the diner to Christmas shows that mixed in the paranormal and “creepy good fun.” He was the first playwright in the country permitted to dramatize the children’s book character “Curious George.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
His play about the hysteria whipped up by the Charles Starkweather murder spree, “Starkweather,” was presented by the Omaha Playhouse and was to be performed at a Lincoln theater this month. Marr, who used crutches to get around, also wrote theater productions for and collaborated with the Nebraska School for the Deaf, the Munroe-Meyer Institute and at Community Alliance.
His wife said his annual parody of “The Brady Bunch” gave many children their first start in theater, including a then-aspiring actor, Conor Oberst.
“He always liked to write pieces that involved kids,” said Laura Marr, who co-wrote several of her husband’s plays and acted in many of them.
Laura and Doug operated the Circle Theatre until 2016. Doug received many awards during his career, including the Governor’s Arts Award in 1994. In 2018, he and his wife were given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards event.
Doug Marr, whom his wife described as a “sweet curmudgeon,” was probably best known for his award-winning series of 11 “Phil’s Diner” plays, which launched the Circle Theatre. They were set inside a diner, with the audience sitting in booths and stools as the performance unfolded around them.
“The audience was always really close to you. It was a really great craftmaking time,” Laura Marr said. “Everything had to be so real. You were just right there.”
Sometimes, passersby would wander into the diner, unaware that a “performance” was underway and that the people dressed as cooks and waitresses were actors. Once during a rehearsal, Laura Marr said, one of the Circle Theatre actors was punched in the face out on the sidewalk by a man who mistook his acting — he was supposed to drag a younger actor through the front door — for an abusive attack.
“You never knew what was going to happen,” Laura Marr said. “It was an interesting experiment.”
In recent years, Doug Marr struggled with a string of health issues. He had used walking crutches since 1975, when a risky spinal surgery for cancer left him paralyzed from the waist down. But his physical limitations seemed to spur on his creative side, according to his sister, Nancy Bradley of Omaha.
“There is not a more dedicated theater practitioner on the planet than Doug Marr,” M. Michele Phillips, a Circle Theatre veteran, said in a 2017 story in The World-Herald about a fundraiser staged to defray Marr’s medical expenses.
His diverse body of work all focused on the human condition, Laura Marr said, and how “we are all connected in some way.”
Besides his wife and sister, Marr is survived by his father, Bob, of Ralston; daughter Emma of Hawaii; and son Dylan of Omaha. Services will be scheduled later, his wife said.