Connie Lee: "Our Stories Need to Be Told"Jul 01, 2022 11:01AM ● By Jeff Lacey
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When she was in fifth grade, Connie Lee was cast as Gretl Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
The production was being staged by Thomas Jefferson High School, and it was Lee’s first role. She had taken tap and ballet classes in a local studio with Marsha Tiessen (then Marsha Bigham), who would become her dance mentor for many years to come; however, she hadn’t had any acting classes. She tried it anyway.
That, as they say, was that.
“I was hooked, and have been hooked ever since,” Lee explained.
The flame that ignited in 11-year-old Lee during that production of The Sound of Music stayed lit. Decades later, Lee, 66 and approaching 100 total performances, is considered by many to be a gift to the Omaha theater community. She recently acted as Mrs. Helen Hubbard in the Omaha Community Theater’s production of Murder on the Orient Express, but the tracks of her story don’t stop there.
Lee’s first professional show was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, staged at the Talk of the Town Dinner Theater in 1974, located in what is now the Shriners Temple on 84th and Center streets. From that point on (apart from a period of about 10 years from 1975 to 1986, in which her private life demanded most of her time), Lee has been steadily active in theater in and around Omaha.
In 1987, Lee hit her stride. She had danced in a couple of operettas in the Norton Theater, and it was then she realized the direction she wanted to take regarding her stage life.
“I figured out then that I liked doing scene work,” she explains. “I was falling in love with it. I did some shows at the Upstairs Theater, and The Firehouse, and I saw a production of a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Norton.” That is the production that Lee said really amplified the call to acting. “I saw that, and thought, ‘That. That is what I want to do.’”
One of her first memorable leading roles was in the play After the Fall by Arthur Miller, in 1989. During that production, she met Cathy Kurz, who then ran Brigit St. Brigit Theater. Lee cited Kurz as someone who really fanned her passion for the craft of acting.
The joy of learning the craft has become one of her central motivations. Lee loves to learn, and tries to see each role with fresh eyes. “I still don’t really know how to prepare for a role,” she said. “I go in thinking, ‘I have something to offer, but I need to find out what it is.’ I find it by working with the actors, the directors, the script. A lot of times, it just comes with thinking about the script.”
Lee continued, “I learned by doing it. By doing and doing and doing, and working with good people.”
Susan Baer Collins, a former director at Omaha Community Playhouse, can attest to Lee’s incredible work ethic and enthusiasm for theater. Collins said Lee is a gem in the Omaha theater community. They first worked together in 1993 when Collins directed Lee in The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. “She played an interesting character named Sabina,” Collins said. “She took it so seriously. Outside of rehearsal, Connie would find time during the day to get together and work on ideas. She always wants to get it right, and is always interested in hearing what the director says. She loves new ideas.”
Collins has worked with Lee several times throughout the years, and said that Lee’s willingness to experiment and work with lots of different people is another characteristic that makes her special. “Connie is one of the few actors in town that moves easily from one theater to another, and has the kind of personality and ability…to do that,” Collins explained. Along with OCP and Brigit St. Brigit, Lee has performed at Shelterbelt, Bellevue Little Theatre, and more.
“Omaha is a good area to be in theater,” Lee said. "There are so many groups around here doing really fine theater, and if you want to be involved, you can be. It doesn’t mean you will be cast, but you can be involved here. It’s also small enough that if you do it for a while, you get to know people. And more and more theaters are paying actors, too.”
She also thinks live theater is essential in today’s world. “Stories need to be told,” she said with urgency. “Everyone’s stories need to be told. More and more, we’re getting a wider array of stories, and stories by local playwrights, that are being well received.” Lee doesn’t see theater as frivolous. She makes a convincing argument that it’s not only fun, but a human necessity. “It’s a human need to tell stories, and to identify with characters,” Lee said. “The communal world that the actors and audience share, and will never be repeated again, is powerful. In an age of all this technological immersion, it is a truly human connection.”
“It especially teaches empathy,” she believes. “Empathy grows from those theater experiences. It deepens our world.” One of the shows that embodies this for Lee was A Piece of My Heart at the Blue Barn Theatre, directed by Susan Clement, staged in 2002. The show was about women who served in the Vietnam War, and the experience culminated in a trip to Washington, D.C., in a performance for the 10th anniversary of the Women’s Vietnam Memorial, where the show was seen by an array of military personnel. “We wanted to get it right, and those vets just opened their arms,” Lee said. “That was just the most amazing experience. It changed my life.”
That isn't to say that life in the theater is a constant stream of epiphanies and beautiful moments. There are also struggles. Lee faces a lack of roles for women her age, and the statistics suggest that the struggle for female actors, in general, is real. According to a 2022 report by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, “In 2021, male characters outnumbered females by almost 2 to 1.” While this is a celluloid statistic, Actors like Lee still wrestle with issues of equity and representation.
This doesn’t discourage Lee terribly. She is well respected, a master of her craft, and willing to explore new ideas. The recently retired administrative assistant shows no signs of theatrical slowing: currently, Lee is working on costuming for a SNAP! theater production, has just been asked to do a play reading for the Great Plains Theater Conference, and, of course, has been looking for potential shows to audition for. Lee is a wonderful example of what poet Maya Angelou suggested life’s mission should be; that is, “not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style."
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.