The years of being an understudy are over for Vincent Carlson-Brown.
Over 13 seasons working for Nebraska Shakespeare, Carlson-Brown has gradually been promoted from his first job working park security in 2000, to associate artistic director and finally to directing a mainstage show this year.
Shakespeare on the Green opens its 26th season Thursday night in Elmwood Park with “Julius Caesar,” directed by Alan Klem. Carlson-Brown’s take on “The Comedy of Errors,” set amid a 1930s traveling carnival, opens June 28. Each show will have six free performances before the festival closes July 8.
For Carlson-Brown, 31, this season marks a new level of responsibility atop a long list of jobs with Nebraska Shakespeare. With each new task, his admiration for the Bard and what Shakespeare has to offer contemporary students and audiences has grown.
“My mom and dad and brothers and I would come to Nebraska Shakespeare when I was a little boy,” Carlson-Brown said. “I mostly thought it was boring till the fight scenes started. I woke up for that, and I would replay those scenes at home.”
Little did he know he would one day become fight choreographer for the festival, a skill he learned from Terry Doughman over the years.
What he calls “the fun stuff” spurred an initial interest, but the language and the richness of the plays led Carlson-Brown to study Shakespeare and theater at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned his degree in acting and directing in 2004.
Toward the end of his freshman year in 2000, he auditioned for the mainstage cast but wasn’t chosen. He was instead hired as a carpentry intern, earning college credit while helping build the set.
The next season he was cast as Outlaw No. 2 in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and Francisco in “The Tempest” — bit parts, “but I had lines and I did get paid,” he said.
Rubbing shoulders with veteran local actors Cork Ramer and Kevin Barratt, plus professionals hired in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, Carlson-Brown said he learned what it means to be a professional actor and director.
“They taught me the amount of preparation it takes, how you treat people, how to behave in rehearsals,” he said.
He also learned how not to be, from actors with big egos.
“Those who are great to work with get asked back,” he said. Finding that middle ground between cockiness and self-confidence, knowing crew members by name and showing respect for the collaborative aspect of theater are among lessons he hopes he is now teaching interns, as he once was taught.
For the past six years, Carlson-Brown and his wife, actress Sarah Carlson-Brown, have appeared on Nebraska Shakespeare’s fall educational tour, which brings the plays and drama workshops to schools across Nebraska and southwest Iowa. Last year he directed the tour.
Training as a fight choreographer was his first professional experience with directing. That, and his experience with students on the tour, led to directing jobs at Westside High School over the past eight years.
He has acted with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and in a production of “King John” at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., both a direct result of connections made through Nebraska Shakespeare.
Klem, a festival co-founder and its artistic director since 2010, recalls Carlson-Brown as eager and talented early on.
“By 2009, when we did ‘King Lear,’ Vince was helping choreograph fights and handling large roles,” he said. “He also developed a soundscape for the show, and I was impressed by how versatile he was.”
Cindy Melby Phaneuf, longtime artistic director of the festival until fall 2009, said the directing gig is a great opportunity for Carlson-Brown.
“He’s part of that wonderful, talented couple we want to keep in Omaha,” she said. “I know his heart is in a good place. He’s passionate, he cares so much and he works hard.”
Vincent Carlson-Brown said fear of failing caused him to pour that work ethic into preparation for his mainstage directing debut.
“And preparation is most of the job,” he said. “The great thing is, I’m used to doing so much myself when I direct. With Nebraska Shakespeare, it’s a luxury. I haven’t had a creative team of this size and caliber to date in my directing career.”
This year Carlson-Brown’s professional growth includes learning the art of delegating.
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