They're leaving on their own terms, with lots of lead time.
Carl Beck, the Omaha Community Playhouse's artistic director since 1997, and Susan Baer Collins, associate artistic director for almost as many years, have announced they are retiring at the end of the 2013-14 season.
The Playhouse staff got the news Wednesday afternoon. Beck and Collins said they wanted to give two years' notice to make as smooth a transition as possible.
They also want to help train their replacements, particularly in the intricacies of directing three annual productions of “A Christmas Carol” simultaneously. The local version and two touring companies of the Dickens classic generate about 20 percent of the Playhouse budget.
Beck became Playhouse artistic director in 1997 after the late Charles Jones, who wrote the “Christmas Carol” script, suffered a stroke. Beck, 63, has been at the Playhouse full-time since 1983. Collins, 61, his ex-wife, signed on full-time in 1987.
They began as actors with the Playhouse's professional touring arm, then gradually transitioned to directing duties. The two typically direct seven of the 10 shows in each Playhouse season.
“It's hard to express the gratitude the board and I have for their service,” said Dave Kirkwood, a member of the Playhouse Board of Trustees who is heading the replacement committee. “It's going to be challenging to find somebody to fill their shoes. It's very helpful we have a couple years so we can be really thoughtful about it.”
Tim Schmad, Playhouse president, joked he was stunned the two were not staying until the Playhouse's 100th anniversary. “It's only 12 years away.”
He said the past 38 years of Playhouse history were largely written by Beck, Collins and Jones. “It's going to be a cultural shock because of the strong artistic leadership we've had,” he said.
Schmad said Kirkwood was shaping “a neat plan” for transition, balancing challenge with opportunity. A national search is anticipated, though local and regional talent are bright on the radar screen as well.
The announcement marks a sharp contrast to April 2009, when Schmad asked Beck to resign, citing a budget gap worsened by recession. Collins turned down Beck's job, resigning as well.
But a public outcry led to negotiations in which Beck and Collins were reinstated.
Since then, the Playhouse has seen ticket sales and donations rise significantly. Attendance per performance, averaging both theaters, rose from 228 in 2008-09 to 313 last season, while a fund drive for the endowment is within reach of its goal of $6 million in new donations.
Beck and Collins said they plan lively third acts for themselves.
“We don't want to leave here too pooped out,” Collins said. “I have things I want to do that, because of this job, I can't. I'll still be in Omaha, and I'm not literally retiring. I just want a little more control of my time.”
The two said they started talking to each other about retirement last fall and decided the timing was right.
“This has been the career of my life, and I've loved it here,” Collins said. “But I get little signals maybe somebody else gets to sit in this seat for a while.”
Schmad said deciding whether the Playhouse's artistic structure will change depends on who gets hired. Kirkwood said he did not expect the change in leadership to have any long-term impact on staffing budget.
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