Tall banks of snow were piled up alongside the road after a late-October blizzard through much of Colorado and Nebraska when Jamie Ulmer made his way to Beatrice.
Fresh out of college and on his way to what would become his new home, Ulmer was about to change the path ahead for Community Players in Beatrice.
Now, Ulmer is celebrating 20 years as the managing artistic director at Community Players, and things have changed--both for himself and for the theater.
In his time at Community Players, Ulmer has been a part of 135 shows—more than half of the shows ever produced at Community Players. Ulmer has participated by directing, designing and acting over the years, and he’s seen the number of shows produced increase from four a year to 10. He has also brought in three more employees and turned what used to be a drab auto shop into a well-lit downtown destination.
Ulmer graduated from Doane University with a degree in theater in 1997 and moved to Colorado to work as a newspaper reporter in a small town called Lamar. A friend of his mentioned that there was a job opening for an artistic director in Beatrice. It’s part of what he called his “radioactive spider bite origin story.”
“I saw the job listing for that and the job listing for a reporter at the Daily Sun,” Ulmer said. “I applied for and interviewed for both jobs on the same day. I was back in Nebraska for a family thing. That same Saturday afternoon, I interviewed at the Daily Sun then an hour later, I interviewed here for the theater job.”
He had some trouble finding the theater and drove up and down Ella Street twice before locating it. This was the era before GPS and cell phones, so he was relying on Mapquest directions he had printed out at home.
He ended up getting the job. Both of them, actually. The theater brought him on as managing artistic director and then-Daily-Sun-editor Diane Vicars hired him as a reporter.
He worked out a deal where he could be a newspaper reporter in the mornings and head to the theater every afternoon and evening.
“He's one of my great finds,” said Vicars, who is now the director of public relations at Beatrice Community Hospital. “I had just taken over as managing editor at the Daily Sun and I hired him. So, I'm very proud to say that I got him to Beatrice.”
While she was thrilled to have had Ulmer working for her at the Daily Sun, she said she’d never forget how disappointed she was when he told her he was going to leave the paper to work full-time at Community Players. She said Beatrice is lucky to have him in the role and she’s glad he found his passion and his niche.
The very first show Ulmer directed was an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that only had five actors.
The schedule for that season was already picked out when Ulmer came aboard. He stepped in when his predecessor left after the first show of the season.
“There was a lot of fence-mending and organization-rebuilding that needed to happen,” Ulmer said. “I joke a little bit, but had I known then what I know now, I don't know if I would have taken the job.”
When he started, there wasn’t even a computer on his desk, he said, just an old manual typewriter. The desk he uses now in his office is the same, but it now houses a dual-monitor computer, more suited to the job.
Ulmer now wears several hats he didn’t before, when he started at Community Players. He said he still does the production, designing and directing that he did when he began, but in the 20 years since he started, he’s added more responsibilities.
It’s all about learning, Ulmer said. He’s now a social media manager, interacting with the public on Facebook and other social media platforms. He works with donors, takes charge of marketing and fundraising and manages the theater’s employees.
“I have a theater degree,” Ulmer said. “It was a fairly well-rounded theater degree, but I've learned so much more since then, and it's all been on-the-job training. And it's an opportunity that not a lot of people in my career would ever have.”
In the past 20 years, the job has changed substantially. In the first year, Ulmer was responsible for directing four shows for the theater, with a $40,000 budget for the season. Now, he manages a stable of employees, works with the board of directors and has a budget of just under $200,000 for ten shows each year. And it’s been amazing to be able to go through all the stages of organization and growth with the theater, he said.
For the past several years, Ulmer has been teaching a theater management class at Doane University, which has been helping him grow, he said.
“It’s great to go back and revisit all this stuff,” he said. “I think I learn just as much when I teach the class as the students do, because I go back and I reread all those materials and those texts.”
He didn’t originally plan to stay in Beatrice as long as he has, he said, but he’s a big believer in supporting the arts in smaller communities. That passion was instilled in him in Sutton, Neb. where he grew up, a town where the choir had more members than the football team, he said.
Morgan Tunink is the president of the Community Players board of directors. She got her start working with Ulmer about seven years ago when she auditioned for “Annie Get Your Gun.”
She’d been looking for a way to get out of the house after moving to Beatrice with her husband, Jeff Tunink, and their first daughter. It took her a year to work up the courage to try out for the musical, she said. You might not know it by looking at her, she said, but she’s very shy.
She hadn’t sung in public since elementary school, she said, just in the car. She brought a friend with her to the audition, just in case she got sick. As it turned out, she didn’t get sick, and ended up getting the part.
Tunink has been playing an active part in Community Players ever since.
"We have a really great bond,” Tunink said. “We work well together. Jamie is a really fun person to work with, and he’s extremely knowledgeable.”
The Community Players theater does offer some unique challenges, however, as the building isn't large enough for a two-story set. But even with a relatively small stage, the theater was able to produce the notoriously complex “Les Miserables.”
“Sometimes you can overcome with creative design and creative staging,” Ulmer said. “Sometimes you just can't.”
But making things that seem impossible work on stage is just one challenge. Keeping the audience coming back and making sure there are enough volunteers to act in the shows is another hurdle facing Community Players.
Actors, who all participate as volunteers, give up six weeks of evenings for rehearsals, plus another two weekends for performances, which, Ulmer said, can be a big sacrifice.
“It is a lot harder to keep people's attention and get them to come to the shows, but also to participate,” he said. “There's just so much going on all the time for everyone. People say all the time, 'Oh, it's a busy time of year,' but I've had someone say that to me for 12 months.”
Making sure the theater isn’t taken for granted is also a big issue, Ulmer said. People come to expect the kind of quality the theater strives for, he said, but it doesn’t just happen. They’re reliant on ongoing and continuous donations of both money and time to keep the theater at the level it has reached, he said.
“Sometimes, it's hard for us to appreciate what we have in our own backyards,” he said. “Make it better in your backyard. Buy some fertilizer, kill the dandelions and mow the lawn.”
Ulmer’s work with the theater has changed the community of Beatrice for the better, Vicars said, and, even though she lost him as a reporter, he’s done an incredible job in the role of managing artistic director.
“To have a live theater with the skill and success that our theater has had is just tremendous,” Vicars said. “Jamie is the key to that. I'm very proud to have had a little bit of an impact on bringing him.”