When James Larson was named artistic director of the Rose Theater (then the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater) in 1984, Matthew Gutschick was just a few months old.
Soon after Larson retired last spring, the Rose’s board hired Gutschick, 29, to succeed Larson. Gutschick had just finished a master of fine arts degree in theater management from Yale. His well-rounded résumé includes experience in management, education, playwriting, acting and directing, belying his relative youth.
“I think it shows the Rose is excited about infusing the organization with new ideas,” Gutschick said in a recent interview. “We’re taking a look right now at our strategic plan, at how we can be the best out there in the activities we engage in.”
One goal for Gutschick is to develop new plays focusing on the Rose’s core audience of 6- to 10-year-olds, as well as for pre-kindergarten and teen audiences.
“It’s an impoverished area” within theatrical literature, scripts that speak to children without talking down to them, he said. “We can gain more control of our own destiny by commissioning more plays.”
Gutschick also hopes to enfold Broadway at the Rose, an education program for musical-theater students, further into the fabric of the theater.
“This complements the educational work (Rose playwright in residence) Brian Guehring is already doing in creative drama,” he said. “I’m so proud of Pride Players and our Teens ’n’ Theater program. Theater helps students develop a language to express their thoughts and feelings. Language is related to an increase in cognitive capacity.
“So, children can come to the Rose and not only have their cognitive capacity increased, but their imaginative horizons broadened within a couple hours or weeks in a class. We have an immense opportunity to grow as a comprehensive theater arts training institution that’s very much accessible to all.”
Gutschick’s enthusiasm for children’s theater pours out of him as he talks. It’s been a long time building.
While raising Matt and his two younger brothers in suburban Chicago, their mom, Karen Gutschick, was a sculptor who taught ceramics and decorated cakes. The boys were into sports, but she insisted they learn one art skill.
“I couldn’t sculpt or paint,” he said. “When we’d tried about everything, I signed up for a theater class. That was kind of it.”
Gutschick continued acting in high school. His senior year, the school added a student-directed one-act play to its annual lineup. He was the first to direct, and it opened his eyes.
“Control of production elements is something you can’t appreciate sitting inside of a role,” he said. “It was pretty horizon-expanding.”
By his junior year at Wake Forest University, Gutschick had co-written a play that used magic and theatrical narrative to tell a story in which a Cherokee is adopted by white Southern Baptists and faces identity issues. He helped raise $100,000 to stage it his senior year, picking up fundraising and grant-writing skills along the way.
It was an awakening, and “probably the most fun I’ve ever had. I had found this thing I loved doing.” And he has continued to write for the stage ever since.
He picked up more experience at the Lincoln Center Directors Lab in New York City and a fellowship at the Tony-winning Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. He was also artistic director of the Children’s Theater of Winston-Salem, N.C., and education director at Twin City Stage in Winston-Salem.
Along the way, his interest in children’s theater grew. A recent Yale study, tracking arts participation over an average American lifetime, confirmed its importance.
“Arts participation is high in our juvenile years,” he said. “It gets lower in high school and stays low until the late 30s, then rises to the end of life. Catch kids before their teen years, and there’s a better chance they’ll be interested again as adults when they have the means and the time.”
Sparking that interest now feels like a calling to Gutschick.
“Theaters like the Rose are playing an important role in the ecosystem of the arts community, the business community and the political community. You can’t decouple them.”
Gutschick said he quickly fell in love with Omaha, though he had never been here before interviews in July.
“I’m so pleased with the sense of community people have,” he said. “There’s a mix of Midwestern humility and urban ambition. It’s the kind of place that truly feels like a city without losing a sense of connection. I can’t imagine an urban ideal better than that.”
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