Dr. James Larson is retiring this spring after 28 years as artistic director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People. Over the decades, many thousands of Omaha children received their introduction to live theater through their experiences at The Rose because of the leadership and commitment to accessibility of James Larson.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished way beyond what I ever imagined,” said Larson, who turns 60 in September. “My kids are getting out of college, and I’ve got a couple young-adult novels I’m trying to finish up. It’s a good time.”
Larson was hired as artistic director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater in 1984, when it was housed in a former movie theater at 35th and Center Streets. It moved to the former Astro Theater at 20th and Farnam Streets in 1995, greatly increasing its seating capacity and classroom space. It was renamed the Omaha Theater Company at The Rose. It has sold out season memberships the past three years. The company’s $3 million budget is 10 times what it was when Larson signed on.
Larson established a national touring program 20 years ago, taking shows to millions of patrons in large performing arts centers throughout the country. Larson has directed about 75 shows for The Rose including If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, Miss Nelson is Missing, and Pinocchio. He brought Max Bush’s Hansel and Gretel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a week in 1992. The Omaha Theater Company was honored with the Sara Spencer Artistic Achievement Award in 1990 from AATE.
He brought top playwrights and artists to Omaha, including Tony winner Mark Medoff, National Book Award winner Robert Bly, Pulitzer nominee Joe Sutton, director Everett Quinton (the former artistic director of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and 5-time winner of New York Drama Desk Award), director Rob Urbinati, associate artistic director of Queen’s Theater in the Park in New York, and best-seller Stan Berenstain, creator of “The Berenstain Bears.” The Omaha Theater Company was the first theater to commission James Still to write a play and helped convince him to be a playwright. James Larson enjoyed his long relationship with playwright Virginia Koste for many wonderful years.
Himself a playwright, Larson adapted several books for the stage and toured them nationally, including “The Little Engine That Could,” Mercer Mayer’s “There’s an Alligator Under My Bed,” Beverly Cleary’s “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” and many more.
He built the theater’s extensive educational programs. “Every Single Child” provides drama outreach programs to every single child in over 66 local schools each year. Each grade gets a different experience, ranging from seeing a professional show at The Rose, to getting a drama workshop teaching acting skills, to using drama teachers to bring history to life, or bringing in a touring Theater in Education show to the school. Most schools serve low-income students and grants and foundations fund the programs so they are free to the schools to participate.
He started the youth theater program, now called Teens’n’Theater, in which teens do all the acting. Teens’n’Theater includes free annual programs serving Latino, African-American, and GLBT teens. The theater also added after-school and summer classes on Larson’s watch, plus the recent musical-theater Broadway at The Rose program. The education programs now serve students with autism, students who are deaf and hard of hearing, students with Downs Syndrome, and other special needs students. The theater also has an extensive scholarship program offering free drama classes to low income students and free drama programming afterschool at local middle schools.
Susie Buffett, chairwoman of the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center Foundation, which owns The Rose, said Larson used the theater’s move to larger quarters as an opportunity “to grow it into something really spectacular, and nationally known. One thing I like best about him is how much he cares about access for every person in the community,” Buffett said. “It’s a lot about inclusiveness, which is part of why I’ve gotten involved and stayed. It’s a theater but also a social-service organization. That’s due in large part to James.”
He got a degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa, then moved to Omaha to work on a master’s degree in theater. He later earned a doctorate at the University of Kansas and, for a year, taught children’s theater at New York University.
On a personal note, James Larson gave me my first job out of graduate school 15 years ago. He gave me incredible opportunities and support as a playwright (allowing me to adapt Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, The Misfits, Julie of the Wolves, If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, and more great books). He trusted me as an Education Director to run the program, hire the teaching artists, and train the interns as I saw fit. James Larson was amazingly supportive of Pride Players (the queer youth teen theater troupe I co-founded at the Omaha Theater Company) allowing the project to grow and flourish. He stood by the program from the beginning in 1999, even though it was an unpopular choice among some of our ticket buyers in the conservative state of Nebraska. James wanted the artistic staff to be both artists and educators and supported our artistic careers. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with James Larson for the last 15 years.
Larson’s resignation is effective May 31, and a national search has begun for his replacement.