Years ago, local director Kathy Page-Hauptman faced a dilemma.
She had cast local actress Barb Schoenhofer in so many of her productions that Page-Hauptman was concerned she was featuring her too much. She was preparing to let Schoenhofer know she was going to have to offer her fewer roles for a while.
Then, the phone rang.
The caller wanted to make sure Schoenhofer was going to be in the next production before committing to his ticket purchase.
“Barb is a really big sell,” said Page-Hauptman, now artistic director at The Forum Theatre on South Hillside. “People love to see her. She just shines on stage.”
Now, however, Schoenhofer will do her shining on stages outside Wichita.
The 45-year-old actress, arguably the most recognizable face in local theater, is taking her talent on the road, halting a Wichita stage career that has spanned 39 years and has included roles on nearly every theater stage in Wichita.
The timing of her departure is no coincidence.
Schoenhofer’s 19-year-old son, Aaron, graduated from Kapaun Mount Carmel in May and is attending college. She would have become a traveling actress years ago, she said, except that she wanted a stable, in-one-place life for her son.
But staying in Wichita isn’t easy for serious actors. They don’t make enough money to support themselves on acting alone. Most have day jobs as well.
Schoenhofer didn’t want a typical day job. She wanted to be on stage.
To make ends meet, she always worked at least three jobs.
“It’s not a secret,” Schoenhofer said. “Everyone in the theater community knows that no one does it for a living but me. No one performs for a living but me. And the only way I’ve been able to survive doing it is choreographing stuff and doing two or three other theater jobs so I could support myself and Aaron.”
Schoenhofer always had planned to move on once Aaron was old enough, and she recently realized it was time. Aaron, who is studying psychology on a scholarship at Butler Community College, also is the lead singer of a band. He’s been urging his mother to move on for years.
She remembers a conversation with 15-year-old Aaron after he saw her perform in “Swing” at the Lyric at the Plaza Theatre in Oklahoma City, where Schoenhofer has been taking roles off and on for the past 13 years.
“The next day, we’re at lunch, and he said, ‘Mom, you’re a star. You need to get out of town. I’m going to be 16 this year, and you need to start taking jobs.’ ”
Schoenhofer got her start in Wichita theater at age 6. Her mother signed her and her siblings up for Music Theatre of Wichita, and, in 1974, Schoenhofer was cast in a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” The director imagined the witch shrinking into a tiny version of herself rather than melting completely.
Schoenhofer was the tiny witch.
And she hated it.
“I couldn’t stand being in front of people,” she said. “I was incredibly shy, and no one believes me. I had no natural talent to speak of.”
But her mother wouldn’t allow her to quit, and, over time, Schoenhofer grew more comfortable, especially enjoying the camaraderie that developed with fellow cast members backstage.
When she was 14 and still with Music Theatre, she realized that acting would be her career. She enrolled at Wichita State University “for about five minutes,” she said, before realizing that college wasn’t her thing. She belonged on the stage.
Her first steady gig was at the Crown Uptown, where she landed a role in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1985.
Schoenhofer said she can’t even begin to guess how many roles she’s played on Wichita stages. She’s been a street urchin in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Cabaret Oldtown, one of the Church Basement Ladies at the Crown Uptown and a member of “A Chorus Line” at Music Theatre of Wichita.
She’s hammed her way through season after season of Mosley Street Melodramas, portrayed characters ranging from Goldilocks to Little Red Riding Hood for Wichita Children’s Theatre, and has starred in more on-stage Christmas extravaganzas than Santa himself.
Among her favorite roles during her Wichita career was that of Roxie Hart in Crown Uptown’s 2009 production of “Chicago.”
Schoenhofer will leave Wichita next week, headed for the Lyric, where she’ll work as a dresser on a production of “Irma Vep.” (She can make more money working backstage in Oklahoma City than she can on stage in Wichita.)
In November, she’ll head to Austin, Texas, where she has a job playing Martha in “White Christmas” at the ZACH Theatre.
Her plan is to continue lining up theater jobs and tours that will take her across the country, though she’ll maintain Wichita as a home base.
On her Facebook wall last week, Schoenhofer announced her plans to leave with a post expressing her gratitude for all the people who have helped her make a living in Wichita. Though she’s excited to move on, she’s sad to leave such a supportive community.
“I just wanted everyone here to know that I appreciated it and that I couldn’t have done it without all the producers here and all the audience members who never got sick of me,” she said.
Schoenhofer hasn’t ruled out future roles in Wichita, either.
“The main thing for me is that I need to make more money and I want to travel,” she said. “Of course I would come back here and do a show, but that can’t be in my immediate future because I’ve got to do this. I have to get off the hamster wheel.”
Wichita theater won’t be the same without Schoenhofer, Page-Hauptman said. Many local directors plan their seasons with Schoenhofer in mind.
She can play any role, Page-Hauptman said, and it will be exciting to see how Schoenhofer is able to stretch herself on the road.
“She is so attractive and so beautiful that it’s very easy to just cast her in roles that require that,” Hauptman said. “But she has so much more ability than that.”