In the summer before first grade, Andy Park discovered he was a natural ventriloquist. Intrigued by his newfound talent, he started saving tin cans so that he could raise enough money to buy his own puppet. Three years, 364 dollars and 95 cents later, Park purchased a classic ventriloquist dummy named Scottie, which he still has today.
While his puppetry passion may simply seem like a fun anecdote from Park’s youth, it turned out to be the first inkling of an over 20-year-long career in entertainment. Park is now the artistic director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the professional theater company in residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in theater and English at Indiana State University, Park was hired to be the master of ceremonies as a ventriloquist at Ohio Showboat Drama Inc. in 1998. Park said that after the artistic director of the company fell ill and had to step down, Park was hired as the interim director, holding that position for two years.
He parlayed his experience there into grad school, studying directing at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Park stayed busy while in grad school, writing and directing a play called “Seashore” about, as Park describes it, “a mouse that wants to go to the seashore even though everyone tells him not to.” The production was nominated for three Jeff Awards — the Chicago equivalent of the Tony Awards. Park also co-founded Quest Theatre Ensemble, a non-equity theater company that presented free productions until it closed in 2018, while he was in Chicago.
Park continued as the artistic director of Quest after grad school while dabbling in directing for other entertainment groups. From 2006-08, he worked for Cirque Shanghai, producing shows in China that would tour the United States. In 2007, he was hired at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as the director for the multi-species aquatic shows.
By 2017, Park had been working at the aquarium for 10 years, putting his primary focus into his job there while still involved with Quest. Although Park said he enjoyed his work for the aquarium and Quest, he began looking for a change in his life and career.
“The public sentiment [during] the time that I was at Shedd sort of shifted about animals in captivity, and [then] the movie ‘Blackfish’ came out,” Park said. “I started to realize that I could probably work there for another 10 years, and then I would be 10 years older, and I would be a professional animal show guy, and there would be no place to do animal shows.”
Consequently, Park said he decided to shift his career back toward theater. He found his opportunity at the Nebraska Rep in 2017, starting his role as the artistic director that January. He also was drawn to Nebraska because of his friendship with Jeff O’Brien, the current director of technology at the Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, who Park has known since their undergraduate days at ISU. O’Brien estimated that he and Park have collaborated on 40-50 different projects, as O’Brien has done sound design for many of Park’s productions at Ohio Showboat Drama Inc., Cirque Shanghai and the Shedd Aquarium.
O’Brien said Park’s two decades of experience in entertainment have prepared him well for his current role at the Rep, juggling countless jobs such as show selecting, auditioning, fundraising and representing the Nebraska theater community.
“He’s not just a good human being, but he's also an amazing director who really just wants to work collaboratively with people who are professional designers,” O’Brien said. “It's one of the reasons why he does so well here, because he has a professional standard.”
Park has overseen major changes to the Rep in his three years on the job. Founded in 1968, the Rep joined the Actor’s Equity Association in 1988, allowing cast members to earn equity membership candidacy points that would help them eventually receive their official actor’s equity card.
However, up until Park arrived, the Rep only operated in the summer, so few UNL students could take advantage of this benefit. Under Park, the Rep relaunched as a year-round theater company, allowing more UNL students the opportunity to participate. It’s currently the only professional equity regional theater in Nebraska.
“We're one of the only schools in the country that has a professional theater [company] in residence where students can earn EMC [points],” Park said. “It's a really big deal for our students.”
Park has also strived to bring more ambitious shows to the area through the Rep’s seasons, such as “Avenue Q” and “Hair.” Through his experience with Cirque Shanghai and the Shedd Aquarium, Park said he has developed a focus on using visual spectacles in his theatrical works.
“I like the challenge of it, and I like that there's no way to do it on your own,” he said. “If it's going to happen, it's going to take everyone as the community of artists that we are here in the theater school … working together to pull it off. These projects are way bigger than one person. And so I think that's what I like about big ambitious projects, is that it pushes you to the point where it's either gonna work or it's going to break you in two.”
In his two most recent productions, February’s “A Thousand Words” and April’s upcoming “Pippin,” Park has followed that commitment to push the envelope of what the Rep can bring to Lincolnites.
“A Thousand Words” was an example of devised theater, where Park and his cast and crew worked together to create a show entirely from scratch during the rehearsal process, while “Pippin” is a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz that incorporates many circus-esque stunts and effects. Park is bringing in Melissa Zaremba, a former Radio City Rockette, to direct the Rep’s production of “Pippin.”
Park cited “A Thousand Words” as an example of the type of ambitious theater he wants the Rep to be known for. With an entirely original story and over 100 handmade puppets, the show is one Park said he is immensely proud of, and he knows it will stick with him for a long time after its closing.
“Whenever I see [the cast and crew] even 10 years from now … I think that we'll have a look in our eye, we'll know what we did and what we created together,” he said. “It will just be something that will always be with me. It's not every show that does that.”
With the wide variety of shows Park has brought to the Rep, O’Brien said Park has shown the ability to curate diverse yet appealing seasons for Lincoln audiences.
“If you look at the seasons, as they've sat, they're pretty consumable and they're pretty enjoyable as a collection,” O’Brien said. “They give you a range of experiences. And he's definitely always kept that mentality of making sure that the community would want to watch it and want to come to it. And audiences have responded, which I think is really good.”
Park, along with his sidekick Scottie, took a diverse journey in a wide variety of entertainment that would eventually bring him to Nebraska. As Park continues to develop the Rep, he said he hopes it will one day hold the same weight as famous theater companies such as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis or the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“This region deserves a theater of that magnitude, and I believe that the Rep can step into that,” Park said. “And that's what I'm here to try to make happen.”