Jamie Ulmer, the new executive director of Theatre Lawrence, has a tough act to follow.
Over 45 years, Mary Doveton ran the show at the community theater, founding Theatre Lawrence in 1977 and building it into one of Lawrence’s leading cultural organizations. She oversaw more than 200 productions, from quirky comedies to Agatha Christie mysteries to versions of Broadway musicals, directing many of them herself. She expanded the theater’s reach beyond the stage and into educational programs.
Doveton managed the construction of Theatre Lawrence’s modern home, which opened in the Bauer Farms neighborhood 10 years ago, replacing the theater’s old venue in a former church at 15th and New Hampshire. And she even took the stage before each production to hawk Theatre Lawrence’s signature bar drinks and alcoholic milkshakes with silly names tied to each show. Then, last year, Doveton decided it was time for her final curtain as executive director of Theatre Lawrence.
Enter Ulmer, stage right. Or, more precisely, from small-town Beatrice, Nebraska (pop. 13,000), where Ulmer, 48, had spent more than a quarter-century running Beatrice Community Players, a troupe much like Theatre Lawrence.
Initially splitting time between the theater and a job as a reporter at the local newspaper, Ulmer built Community Players into its own local cultural force — based in a former auto and motorcycle repair shop in downtown Beatrice, 40 miles south of Lincoln.
Community Players gained national renown last year when it was featured in HBO’s “Mind Over Murder,” a six-part documentary series by filmmaker Nanfu Wang. The series examined a 1985 murder case in Beatrice in which six people — known as the Beatrice Six — were accused and later exonerated under circumstances that left deep, long-lasting scars in the community. As part of the HBO production, Community Players put on an original play, “Gage County U.S.A.,” that revisited the case using a script drawn from court transcripts.
Ulmer succeeded Doveton as executive director of Theatre Lawrence in March, directed his first show — the Broadway satire “Something Rotten” in June — and now is preparing for the opening of the theater’s 2023-2024 season, which launches Sept. 22 with “Crowns,” a musical play that examines the importance of decorative hats in Black religious and social identity.
Ulmer sat down recently with Mark Potts of the Lawrence Times to talk about his experiences in Beatrice, the new season, his plans for Theatre Lawrence and the challenges that theaters are facing in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.
LT: You spent a quarter-century at Community Players in Beatrice, long enough that they threw you a gala 25th-anniversary celebration. And then you left! Was your decision to come to Lawrence some sort of midlife crisis?
JAMIE ULMER: (laughing) Yeah, that’s it, you know, maybe. … I’ve been aware of all the wonderful things that Theatre Lawrence has achieved over the years, particularly when they built this facility. And when I saw that Mary was retiring, I was like, you know, what the heck, it doesn’t hurt to throw your hat in the ring. … I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave. But I had always said, when I was there, that if the right opportunity comes, I’m going to take it. And oddly enough, the right opportunity didn’t come for 25 years. … (Beatrice) was such a great place for me to learn my skills, and a community that really allowed us to do a lot of really inventive programming and some really neat things in the space. … It just kind of all coincided that this was finally the right opportunity.
LT: You took over the theater in Beatrice pretty much right out of college. What did you do to build it up?
JAMIE ULMER: That organization is about 48 years old. It’s like a year older than Theatre Lawrence. … I’ve said that, getting that job in Beatrice, had I known then what I know now about arts management and nonprofits and running a theater, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job, because I would have seen the red flags. But — ignorance of youth. It was at a point where it really needed a kind of a reinvention as an organization and we did that and really turned it into a very substantial arts organization in Nebraska. We did amazing things that shouldn’t be achieved in a town of 13,000.
LT: And you did it all inside a former auto garage.
JAMIE ULMER: Yes. Some of the people who were with the organization back then had told me stories about when they moved in, they would clean the concrete floors, and a few weeks later, oil would still seep up from the concrete because it was so saturated for from being an auto center for 30 years or whatever, and then it was a motorcycle repair shop, right before the theater purchased that building. That theater is a great example of turning a found space into something really amazing.
LT: How were you able to do such innovative, interesting work in Beatrice, in such a small town, with limited resources?
JAMIE ULMER: It’s, in part, again, going back to the ignorance of youth, just being like, well, let’s do this, let’s push for this, let’s try this thing. And really establishing high standards of professionalism, and really an eye towards innovation and technology was what we really did there. One of the stories I tell is that when I started working at that theater there wasn’t a working computer in the building. This was in fall of 1997. But there was a manual typewriter on the desk in the office. So that’s just how things can grow and progress. … But the biggest thing was focusing on the quality productions and quality experience. That’s something that Theatre Lawrence has already. One of my goals is that we continue to really exemplify those quality productions, and making sure that our volunteers and our patrons are all having really quality, memorable experiences, whenever they come through our doors.
LT: How did the “Mind Over Murder” project with HBO come about?
JAMIE ULMER: We were contacted — this was shortly before the pandemic — by one of the producers for the project. And honestly, at first we thought it was someone trying to scam us, because we just got this email from this random person saying, “Oh, I’m with Vox Media, we’re doing this project for HBO.” And we’re like, “Yeah, sure you are.” And then they followed up, like a month later … with a phone call, and it was legit. But then we had to have some really serious conversations about the project, really understanding what their vision of it was, and how we were going to collaborate together to tell that story and produce that work in an honest way, but also a considerate way. Because that whole story, still, is a very raw experience that Beatrice had, even after all of these years. … I think that’s what ultimately became one of the great things about our involvement in that project, the impact that it had on the community, on people and on the family members of both the victim of the crime and the six who were exonerated. How, being in the same room together, and sharing that experience of hearing the story told, changed minds, changed hearts, and the documentary exemplified that.
LT: Community theater is mostly about putting on shows a lot of people are familiar with, so “Mind Over Murder” was a notable exception. Are you hoping to be able to do original work at Theatre Lawrence?
JAMIE ULMER: We do some — some of our youth stuff. We just did one this summer, and one of our fall education classes is an original show that’s being developed. Also, part of our expanding education program here is that we’re doing playwrighting workshops for the community, one for teens and another for adults, where they’re going to get to come together and bounce ideas about shows and share and collaborate on developing their own original 10-minute shows. That’s really exciting and great that we’re able to encourage that as part of the overall growth that Theatre Lawrence was seeing before I arrived. We’re really pushing hard on our growing education program.
LT: What other sorts of programs would you like to add to Theatre Lawrence?
JAMIE ULMER: You know, Theatre Lawrence has so much going on, which is great. I don’t think a lot of people realize how active this building is. This fall, I don’t think there’ll be a single day of the week where there isn’t something going on in here, whether it’s a rehearsal, or a rental event, or classes. There’s something going on in here almost every single day, which is absolutely great. So we really want to capitalize on all that programming that we are doing, making sure that it is as top-quality of programming as we can deliver. Based on the success of the programming, then you’ll examine, “OK, what’s next? What do we add on top of that?” Because there’s so much potential in this community and with this organization to just keep growing. So that’s what we’re working on.
LT: As opposed to professional theaters like Broadway or Kansas City Rep, Theatre Lawrence and Beatrice Community Players rely largely on amateur and volunteer performers and support staff. What makes that special?
JAMIE ULMER: Theatre Lawrence is, at its heart, a theater for the community. We want to be able to provide those resources, we want to be able to provide the opportunity for anyone to be involved. (Audience members say), “Oh, this person is the receptionist at my doctor, and oh my gosh, look at them, I didn’t know they could tap dance.” … The great thing about community theater is how it brings all walks of life together. You can have your dentist there, with a teacher, with a high school student, with a college student, all interacting together, and they would have never been in the same sphere otherwise. Seeing those relationships that are built is really what I think is the most exciting thing about community theater. It brings those people together in ways that weren’t available otherwise.
LT: On a broader scale, this is a tough time for regional theaters and community theaters. COVID hit theaters hard, subscriptions are down, audiences are aging. How do you deal with that?
JAMIE ULMER: It’s taking time for audiences to fully return to pre-pandemic levels. Even here, we are just about back to pre-pandemic levels as far as attendance goes. We’re still a little off last season, and just a little bit off of the 2019 season. But it’s building back. I think what needs to happen is that we need to be providing those quality experiences onstage, but also, as people are coming to a show, that it’s about more than just going to be entertained. It’s about socializing, it’s about seeing people, it’s about those impromptu conversations in the lobby as you’re standing there with your drink. A great thing about Theatre Lawrence is that we have the art that we display here, so it’s about prompting conversations as people are looking at the artwork that’s always here. It’s always about more than just the performance. I think as organizations continue to find ways to recover and connect it, it’s (about) thinking creatively about those ways that you can stay connected. But it’s a constantly moving target.
LT: How do you make that happen?
JAMIE ULMER: If I knew the exact formula, I would be a very rich man. It’s not being afraid to experiment, and then also to recognize, OK, that worked, that didn’t, and being flexible and adapting. … You need to think a little bit more broadly in the programming and think more about how you attract those single ticket buyers. What can you do to retain them and entice them to come back to their second show? That’s where you really need to focus on that audience experience, the customer experience, what’s unique about your show, about your organization, and that means focusing more on marketing stuff. You’ve got to market harder. You can’t just assume that you’re going to have your full houses anymore. You’ve got to go out and earn them. … I long for the days back when I started doing this, heck, even when I was in high school, where you could just print some posters, walk through town, put the posters up in all the shop windows, and everyone in town would know about the show. Those days are gone. You’ve got to work hard all the time to make sure that you’re front of mind.
LT: Is there anything we’ll see this season that exemplifies these things?
JAMIE ULMER: We are really thinking about how we reach our audiences. “Crowns” opening the season this year is a great example of reaching out to a different segment of our community, with this wonderful show that’s that uses the tradition of hats in the African-American church as the springboard for the storytelling. The entire cast of “Crowns” are all new to Theatre Lawrence, which is extremely exciting. And we’re working on some of those additional things, like we’re going to have some preshow live music — we’re reaching out for gospel music, talking to some of the churches about having some people come in and sing and perform. We just announced we’re doing a community conversation at St. Luke (AME Church) the week of the show to talk about hats and to share the stories. … Also (there are) some fun things that we’re doing. Our social media has really increased. We do a live Facebook video every Thursday, and we’re hearing a lot of people who are really enjoying that, because we’re (focusing on) different parts of the building, and we’re talking about what’s happening this week. We’re going to be launching a preshow podcast this week. So it’s finding all of those ways of communicating, connecting with people in ways that they want to be communicated and connected with.
LT: You mentioned “Crowns.” Let’s talk about the upcoming season and how it was planned. How did it come together?
JAMIE ULMER: This season was picked (before) I was hired, but it’s a really great season. We’re calling it a season of new traditions — we’re honoring the traditions and the legacy of Theatre Lawrence and how it got to this point. But we’re also establishing our own traditions and our own new paths forward. And it’s all exciting. The new tradition thing just ties in perfectly with “Fiddler on the Roof” that will close the season, of course — “Tradition!” But, it’s a great mix of shows this year, opening with “Crowns” and all of its associated outreach and then “Christmas Story,” which is just going to be a family-pleasing crowd favorite. So that’s going to be exciting. We’re also continuing to offer that variety this season with “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” which is a wonderfully dark comedy, a thought-provoking show, that’s going to be in January. We’re continuing our Agatha Christie traditions with “A Murder is Announced,” then a flat-out comedy that is kind of smart sometimes too — but don’t tell anyone it’s smart — “I Hate Hamlet,” and then wrapping up the season with “Fiddler on the Roof.” So just a lot of really great fun shows. And then also additional events that we’re doing, too. We’ve got “Rocky Horror” that we’re going to be producing in October, and there’s such excitement and buzz about the auditions for that. … Also, as part of our growing education programming, we’re producing a newer musical called “Ranked,” with our high school actors, that’s going to be going up in October. The show was written right after the standardized test score college admission scandal. It really kind of creates this world where all that matters is your test scores and the competitiveness of it, and it’s a real timely, but also fun show. So it’s a great variety of stuff going on this year, which is really exciting.
LT: What’s it like producing in a theater that was designed to be a theater, as opposed to putting on shows in an auto and motorcycle repair shop?
JAMIE ULMER: (laughs) This is such a tremendous facility, and it is such an asset to the community. It’s been great, adapting to a larger space, but also it’s been great for me creatively to remember how to direct on a thrust stage again, because it’s been a while since I’ve worked in a thrust. So that was great to be able to do when I directed “Something Rotten” to end last season. That was actually a great opportunity, that I was able to direct so soon, a month and a half into my tenure here. … That was a really great opportunity for me to be able to work hands-on with our volunteers, with our production teams, in that capacity, as opposed to the executive director capacity. … And it was a fun experience. That kind of show is in my wheelhouse.
LT: What are some of your favorite theater shows? Playwrights? Composers?
JAMIE ULMER: I don’t know that I necessarily have a favorite show. What it really comes down to is how the show is executed. I love a tightly staged comedy or farce, same with a well-polished musical comedy. At the same time, “Les Miserables” always holds a special place for me, as it was the first national touring show I ever saw and it just blew me away. As far as writers and composers go, you have to respect the work of Stephen Soundheim, but my favorite has to be Cole Porter. From complicated patter/list songs, to beautiful ballads like “Night and Day,” there is just something about the style and sophistication of a good Cole Porter tune that I’ve always enjoyed.
LT: Thinking ahead to the 2024-2025 season, which will be the first one you plan, how do you start putting your mark on that season?
JAMIE ULMER: This is the thing that civilians don’t realize, that the planning process for a season starts now for next season. I’m already compiling lists, and seeing shows all over the area, reading scripts, thinking about what ’24-‘25 is going to look like here. But one of the things that I’m also doing is engaging it with the community. I’m listening to “Oh, this is what we want to do, or this is what we want to see,” or observing, “Oh, these are some issues that are going on right now. Is there a show that can maybe address that or tie into those?” So it’s a lot of factors to play into. And then of course, not least of which is, will it sell? Because I’ve taught theater management over the years, and the very first thing I say, on the first day of class, is, “It’s called show business for a reason.” Not “show hope-I-can-make-it.” That’s why a lot of theaters fail after four to seven years, because they’re not business people. They’re concentrating fully on the art, which is great, but it is called show business.
LT: Will you still be standing up and promoting drinks and milkshakes before the shows?
JAMIE ULMER: Yes, absolutely. Funnily enough, one of the first things that I was asked, within the first month and a half that I was here, people would come up to me (and say), “Well, are you still going to do a drink speech? And you’re still going to have goofy names for the drinks?” Yes, we are. Because that’s one of those traditions. It’s one of those unique things for Theatre Lawrence that people expect. They come to the show not just to hear what the goofy drink names are, but that’s part of that comfort in the tradition of this organization. We absolutely respect that. And if it can sell some drinks, I am all in favor of doing more bar business.
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Mark Potts (he/him) is a former reporter and editor for the Associated Press, San Francisco Examiner, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.