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Omaha Magazine

London Calling: John Foley Found Inspiration Across the Pond in Nebraska

Oct 29, 2020 03:48PM ● By Sarah Wengert
actor John Foley sitting in pub

Photography contributed by Richenda Carey

Omahans treasure the Omaha Community Playhouse and its professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Local theater fans can also include at least one native Londoner to that tally.  

John Foley has written and voiced more than 600 programs for the BBC World Service and BBC English. He has produced more than 100 audiobooks for Random House, Macmillan, and Naxos Audio Books. This prolific, creative man, who considers himself an actor first and foremost, once called Nebraska home.

Foley toured and performed with Nebraska Theatre Caravan for several seasons in the early 1980s. He’s performed widely, including in London’s West End, England’s equivalent of Broadway. Foley was working in the West End when he befriended some theater folks from Memphis, Tennessee, leading him to work in Nebraska.    

“I was very interested in the way theater works in America, particularly community theater, which is not something we have so much [in London],” Foley said.  

 That curiosity led Foley to work a year in the Memphis theater scene, then work in summer stock—a theatre that presents stage productions only in the summer—in New Mexico, before ultimately landing in Nebraska for several seasons. As he worked in various states in the U.S., he ping-ponged between America and Europe—England, Denmark, and elsewhere. 

“I was invited to return to Memphis for two shows, one of which was playing Scrooge in Charles Jones’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Then I got an invitation to join the Nebraska Theatre Caravan,” said Foley, referencing Playhouse legend Jones, who directed the OCP from 1974-1997.

After returning to Europe for a couple shows, Foley came to Omaha to join the Nebraska Theatre Caravan tour.

Foley said. “At the same time, I did some work with Dick Mueller at the Firehouse Dinner Theater, which was a wonderful time. It might have continued, but I got a call one night on tour from the BBC offering me work. So, I had to get out of my contract, which Dick Mueller was very kind about, and we’ve remained friends ever since.”

Mueller fondly recalled Foley’s creative flair in the British comedy Key For Two, Foley’s first Firehouse role. Mueller said Foley skillfully expanded the possibilities in what was originally written as a minor character. 

“His character was an inebriated veterinarian which, in itself, would have offered any good actor a lot to work with. John, however, wanted to add something more to the character—a companion," Mueller said. "This figment of John’s imagination turned out to be a badgering little sheep with whom John carried on running side conversations, as he played the role…Those hilarious scenes turned out to be jewels of creativity, the high points of the whole production.”

Foley spoke highly of the Nebraskans he encountered as talented colleagues and hospitable audiences. With Nebraska Theatre Caravan, he toured widely throughout the U.S. and some in Canada. He said there are a lot of places he hasn’t seen, but it is possible he saw more of the United States than a lot of Americans. However, he said the places blur when living out of a suitcase.

“What was so great about the caravan, for example, it wasn’t just the acting. It was the traveling and being in a company. It’s a very close-knit community, and it’s a wonderful thing to have, so I miss that,” Foley said.

He continued, “The Omaha Community Playhouse is such a wonderful success story. It was a most wonderful experience for me. We’d sometimes do three shows in a day at different locations—maybe a morning children's show, then an afternoon Shakespeare play, and an evening musical. It was an incredibly rich experience. It’s the sort of thing I wish could happen more all over the world, because it's just great for an actor to have that sort of experience and to meet so many different communities.”

It was on these tours that Foley began writing, something he’d aspired to since childhood. A fascination with Hans Christian Andersen, sparked by visiting Denmark, paired with inspiration from other travels, led him to start writing children’s stories.  

“It wasn’t really until I was on tour with the Caravan that I started writing these stories,” Foley said. “It was actually on the road—because you know, you're driving 100 miles through Nebraska on these long journeys … those long journeys were a great deal of inspiration.”

Foley’s penned three children’s books to date: Seven Simple and Slightly Silly Stories, The Bear in the Fifth Floor Flat, and Another Seven Simple and Slightly Silly Stories. Foley is currently working on a novel and preparing another book of stories.  Read one of his early 2021 stories here. 

Since returning to London in 1986 to work for the BBC, Foley’s continued to focus on writing, while also voicing and producing ebooks, and creating word puzzles. He was also accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a prestigious organization founded in 1754.

Of all his passions and creative endeavors, Foley said he’s cherished acting the most.  

“I started working at a cinema very young—running errands, making tea, that sort of thing. It was also a major venue for the Royal Ballet and pop concerts, so I started working backstage and found it very exciting,” Foley said. “I used to stand in the wings and watch the performers, and I think that’s when I got really hooked. ‘The roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint,’ as they say. It’s no accident that the word ‘play’—like to play and being in a play—are the same word. We’re all players in the theater.” 

Learn more about John Foley and his work at quizzicalworks.com.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.