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Polishing Gem: Behind the Scenes of the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s Staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean ‘


My concept for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.como) was deceptively simple – embed myself with a community theater group as they rehearsed and mounted a play over the course of several weeks. Practical realities dictated that I be there off and on, for a few hours there or few minutes here, in observing and reporting the experience, but I think I managed a compelling behind the scenes glimpse at some of what goes into the development of a theater production from first table reading to opening night. My theater of choice was the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  The theater’s namesake, John Beasley, is a fine stage, film, and television actor and his small theater is a good showcase for African American-themed stagework, particularly the work of August Wilson. And it was a Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, that the theater prepared and performed during my time covering the company.  On this blog you’ll find more of my stories about John Beasley and his theater, including many more pieces related to other Omaha theaters and theater figures, as well as authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers.  I am posting lots of of my  theater stories now to coincide with the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, and you’ll find several of my stories about that event and some of its leading participants.

Polishing Gem: Behind the Scenes of the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s Staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean ‘

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting a production has its own dynamic. Discoveries happen incrementally over weeks. This creative process occurs not before a paid house but among a theater family in the privileged moments of readings-rehearsals.

It means late nights, running lines, working scenes. Over and over. Until truth emerges. Developing a play is by turns grueling, moving, satisfying. It’s all about exposing and confronting your fears — in service of emotionally honest expression.

It’s not all inspiration. More like a grind. Adrenalin feeds anxiety. Caffeine fights exhaustion. An edge cuts the air. Making a fool of yourself is a distinct possibility. Doubts creep in. Anticipation awaits resolution. Tension seeks release.

The process unfolds hundreds of times each theater season. In big state-of-the-art facilities, in intimate black box spaces, in church basements. Fully realized performances spring from coaching, encouragement, cajoling, berating, freaking, experimentation, work and prayer.

Over several nights at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop a fly on the wall observed this company developing their production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The two-act drama is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience. The JBT’s produced seven works in the cycle. Set amidst 1904 Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem’s a story of redemption.

Like most community theaters the JBT uses largely unpaid, untrained people who fit the work around busy lives-careers. There’s scant time to get things right. Much can go wrong. Chronic tardiness, family crises. Recasting a major part 10 days before opening. As a veteran JBT actor put it, “It seems there’s always something but in the end it all comes together.” Until opening night, the process, not the play, is the thing. In classic show-must-go-on tradition the troupe pulled Gem off. Getting there was heaven and hell.

Jan. 7 – “It’s a lot of work”

The first reading convenes. It’s like Bible study. Actors explore the sacred text — the script — under director Tyrone Beasley’s sober guidance. Hallejuah!

John Beasley, journeyman film-TV-stage character actor, headlines as Solly Two Kings, a loquacious drifter and former underground railroad conductor-turned- pure (dog manure) merchant. John arrives late, brimming with excitement about a new gig — acting in an August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

Joining him in Gem are three regular JBT ensemble players. Retired electrician Charles Galloway is Eli, gatekeeper for Aunt Ester, a sage and spiritual adviser. Eli, also an ex-freedom fighter, is Solly’s best bud.

Andre McGraw, owner of Red Hot Barbershop, is Citizen Barlow, a fugitive come far to get his soul washed by Ester. Carl Brooks, Union Pacific systems analyst, is Caesar, a big, belligerent cop enforcing the white man’s law. Carl has an excused absence tonight. Ty reads his part.

JBT newcomers fill out the cast. Lovely Lakeisha Cox, grad student, plays Black Mary, Caesar’s sister and Ester’s successor-in-grooming. Tom Pensabene, dean of information technology and e-learning at Metropolitan Community College, debuts as Selig, slave finder-turned-slave runner-turned-peddler. Enigmatic Yvette Coleman is Ester. She’s a no-show. Stage manager Cheryl Bowles reads her part.

Everyone’s seated around a wooden table on the bare stage. The auditorium floor is stripped to the studs, awaiting new carpet-seats. Cast-crew wear street clothes. Introductions are made. When it comes his turn Andre jokes, “I’m born and raised in the John Beasley Theater.” Its namesake discusses the play’s musical language.

“It’s tough at first picking up the rhythm August writes in. I think August gives you enough that you won’t have to try to force it. It’ll be there.”

John commands respect. It’s he, as much as Ty, the ranks look to please.

Ty shares a JBT philosophy:

“We believe acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Being yourself is the first thing we’re looking for. Being in the moment. Being present.”

He suggests the players use personal experiences to make their characters extensions of themselves. “Be as specific as possible.” All to better ground one in the reality of the situation. That’s what “brings a character to life.”

He assigns homework. Actors are to flesh out character objectives, backgrounds and relationships, plus research facets of early Pittsburgh.

Ty impresses upon the cast what’s expected. “It’s a lot of work. It’s important to be here on time. It’s a long play and there’s relatively little time to do it in. If you’re here, you should always be working.”

“Let’s get started.”

The reading, opened scripts in hand, proceeds. Even dry, the drama’s inherent power is felt. In-character John tests Lakeisha by making direct eye contact with her. She rises to the occasion, By reading’s end the energy lags and lines suffer. John officially welcomes newbies Keisha and Tom with hugs and handshakes. He and Ty discuss a Plan B should their Ester prove unreliable.

Jan. 8 – “We’ll turn Omaha on its head”

Before rehearsal John covers a pivotal Act II scene with Andre. Ester puts Citizen in a trance that transports him to the City of Bones. Citizen imagines himself in a boat at sea. John says Andre must visualize it.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“You’re going to have to take us to the City of Bones. We see it through your eyes. If you do this right, we’ll turn Omaha on its head –and we’re going to do it right.”

Citizen’s killed a man and the death of another haunts him. He needs to make himself right with the Lord. His inward journey to be justified drives the story.

This night’s about working the prologue, when the agitated Citizen appears at Ester’s house demanding his soul be washed. There’s many takes of a tussle he has with Eli (Charles). The commotion awakens Ester, whose serene bearing calms Citizen. The movements, pacing, blocking require much attention.

“Take it again,” Ty repeats. “Good work,” he says after another.

Our missing Ester’s here. Yvette strains finding the right beat. Ty wants her moving slowly, not feebly. Exuding an aura. He contextualizes Ester in the Wilson canon.

“Aunt Ester is someone that’s talked about in several of August Wilson’s plays. She’s a powerful, spiritual woman and her power comes from her faith. This is the first time she’s seen…People are anticipating her, so when you come out there has to be a powerful, spiritual presence.”

After false starts, Yvette hits her stride.

For the reading actors have underlined or highlighted their lines in their scripts.

Ty demands more from his players. “What I want you guys to do is look each other in the eye as you’re saying your lines. Try to lift the words off the page and really talk to the person…Really communicate. Really work on seeing the images.”

“Let’s take it from the top.”

He looks and listens hard as they work. Cheryl gives stage directions, feeding lines as needed. Ty has comments for everyone. Keisha needs to find Mary’s stubbornness, Charles must avoid indicating his actions, et cetera.

“Good, that’s better, let’s do it again,” Ty says. After a bit he declares, “OK, good, let’s get this on its feet.”

Before walking through the scene he takes Keisha aside, reminding her the words she speaks must be anchored in thoughts-images.

Minimal props are introduced. Blocking addressed. The scene plays disjointed, stilted, lifeless. Ty has actors try different things. “See how that feels,” he says.

 

Jan. 10 – “Let the words do it”

Scene one pits Solly and Mary in a dispute over the pure he peddles. Ty’s been on Keisha to be ornery: “Black Mary has an attitude.” Keisha shoots back, “You want some real attitude? Put some real pure in there.” Laughter.

The action’s fuller, tighter than two nights ago. When Ester enters she asks Mary for the pure. Yvette, realizing what Ester’s supposed to examine, asks, “So that’s what I’m looking at? Is it real dog poop?” She’s teased. “It’s going to be dry. All you gotta do is break it up,” John quips, trading smirks with Ty. They begin again, but Yvette’s still thrown by the doo-doo.

Lakeisha Cox

 

 

While not the director per se John freely instructs, careful not to overstep Ty’s bounds. John goes over movements with Charles, who, as Eli, responds to loud knocking at Ester’s door. “The urgency will determine how fast you walk,” John says. He shows him. “Does that make sense?”

“OK, let’s sit at the table,” Ty says. All the principals gather round. They read scene three. It flows well. The intensity builds. The volume so high John gestures for them to tamp it down. Carl’s feeling Caesar. In a long speech his bellowing voice rises in anger. After he’s done John comments, “You don’t really have to be that forceful. You’re a big man. It’s all there in the words. Let the words do it.” Carl says, “Yeah, I don’t have to make him a caricature.”

“OK, top of the scene,” Ty says. They read it again. Carl’s quieter yet still formidable. John can be overpowering, too. It’s why he works hard “to bring everybody up to my level of energy.”

John confers with Andre, who’s concerned about finding the right note for Citizen. “He’s a full man. He’s carrying that burden with him,” John says. “You working it. Don’t be afraid to try anything because Tyrone will pull you back.”

 

Jan. 14 – “Being here, being now”

John helps Keisha modulate her delivery. Her thin voice pitches up to make  statements into questions. “Try it again,” he says. “Down on the inflection. Keep going…One more time…Better.” “I’ll work on it” she promises.

The Gem set, which Tyrone builds by day, is more filled out. It’s basically a kitchen, dining room, parlor and staircase.

Ty and John discuss replacing Yvette. She’s missed rehearsals. She’s late for this one. “If she’s not here tonight,” John says, “then that’s it.”

John puts the cast through warm ups. “Get yourself loose. Focus on the breath. Slowly breath in and slowly breath out. It relaxes you. It keeps you focused in the moment and that’s what we need. Being here, being now.”

“One of the worst enemies of an actor is tension,” Ty says. He works with Keisha on a yoga position. He’s cast her and the others for qualities they share with their characters. Expressing that means letting go. “She has the power of Black Mary, but she’s shy to let it out on stage.”

Yvette finally arrives. She flounders with her lines.

John and Ty work with the actors on their characters’ motivations.

 

Jan. 15 – “It’s gotta be in your voice”                                                                                                                                                        

Yvette and John work one-on-one. He presses her to make it real.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks him. “Talk to me,” he says. “Make me hear it. Make me hear what you have to say. It’s gotta be in your voice because I don’t believe those other voices.” She tries again. “There it is. Did you feel the difference?”

 

Jan. 18 – “I want to get my soul washed”
The set’s now dressed with furniture-fixtures. The stage speckled with paint and sawdust. Ladders lean against walls, electrical cord snakes across the floor.

Per usual Carl’s arrived early to work his lines. He studies at a chair in the lobby. Others find sanctuary in the overstuffed theater tech booth or back stage amid the flats, costumes and props or in the cramped wings. Tonight, Carl and Keisha animatedly share the back stories they’ve concocted.

As actors straggle in, they run lines, scrounge for eats or just kick it. Charles is distracted. His Navy Lt. Commander son has gotten orders for Iraq.

Ty asks Andre why, as Citizen, he’s timid with Ester. “I’m feeling her out. I’m kind of like hesitant because I don’t know her. I’ve got this picture of her that’s she’s a scary looking lady,” he explains. “No, she’s not,” Ty says. “Why are you in her house?” “Because I want to get my soul washed.”

“Just remember you know that she’s the reason you’re there.”

“Lights up.”

Jan. 25  – “Come take the circle”

Nitty-gritty time. The Beasleys grow more direct. Ty announces, “Come take the circle,” a cue for players to form a tight circle in chairs. “Remember the exercise,” he says. Working in close quarters the actors call each other out on whatever rings false. Ty makes sure no one gets away with anything. In this intimate, in-your-face interaction there’s no where to hide. The extreme scrutiny bares all. It’s a living tableaux of pure concentration and naked emotion.

“I don’t believe you,” Ty tells Keisha, who’s plays opposite Carl. “Do you believe her?” he asks Carl, who nods no. “Then why are you letting her go?” “I’m just asking you to believe what you’re saying,” Ty tells all. Keisha goes again, but stops in frustration, saying, “I didn’t feel it.” Ty chastises her for breaking character.

Keisha’s under extra strain these days as her mother and aunt battle illnesses. She says the play provides a needed vehicle to channel her feelings.

Yvette’s AWOL again. And so it goes…

Jan. 29 – “We’ve all got to be in this”

There’s a new Ester. JBT favorite TammyRa Jackson has replaced Yvette with the opening less than two weeks off. A cosmetologist and mother of five, she concedes she’s anxious joining the cast so late but is warmed by how supported she’s made to feel. John won’t push back the run — not with the house sold out opening night. Besides, he’s confident his new Ester will “put the work in.”

“We brought TammyRa in because we felt she was the only that could do this in this short of time. She’s a tremendous talent. As she commits the words she’s bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, which I figured she would.”

 

 

TammyRa Jackson

 

 

Fresh carpet’s been laid down. A noxious chemical smell permeates the auditorium.

With “C’mon y’all” John beckons cast to work the crucial City of Bones scene at the table. The scene’s not jelled. The time’s short, the stakes high, the nerves raw. Music director Leon Adams hovers over the group to consult on song verses.

“We need to find this thing,” John tells the pensive cast, “so I need you to do as much work as you can.”

They begin. “Feel it, feel it,” he says. “See the stars, Andre,” who rocks in Citizen’s trance. TammyRa’s spot-on with the sing-song spell that puts Citizen under. John and Charles take up the chant. When Keisha and Cheryl speak out of character the chant’s broken, making John upset.

“Wait a minute, what’s going on there? Don’t talk during the exercise. You’ve got to stay in this, Keisha. We’ve all got to be in this. This is a very difficult scene. You’ve got to stay focused…This is a chant, and if you focus in on this you can feel a rhythm come up…If you find that, we’ll be half-way home.”

She’s taken aback. He holds her hand to show he’s not mad.

Next he turns to Andre to say he’s unconvinced by Citizen’s born-again epiphany.

“You’re still acting, Andre. You’re not there yet. You gotta go deeper, man. You gotta believe it. Just like in any ritual, any spiritual thing, you gotta be listening and open…in order for it to really take over, and I think you’ll find it in the rhythm. You’ll feel it. You’ll hook up into it.”

They take it again and again. Leo advises more “embellishment” here, more “swung” there. John reminds TammyRa to “keep the contemporary” out of her voice. She asks lots of questions. A good sign. Her young daughter Nadia hangs by her side as she guides Citizen on his way. John’s pleased after another take. “Just paint those beautiful pictures with those beautiful words. That’s nice, nice work.” He wants TammyRa to do more with the title line and cautions Keisha “not to throw away” a strong line about Satan.

A work in progress.

Feb. 6  – “I think we’ll be ready for Friday”                                                                                                                                          

It’s tech week and 48 hours until show time. The stress shows on people’s faces. The tense actors get costumed.

The seats are in. So are Ty’s notes from the staged run through two nights before.

The company lost yesterday to a snowstorm. “I was confident enough to give them that time to study their script and do their work,” John tells a visitor. “They’re finding their characters. We’ve come a long ways. I think we’ll be ready for Friday.”

A key player’s missing, however. Carl’s father died a few days earlier and he’s still in his native St. Louis for the services. Ty’s assumes the role tonight and may open in it Friday. He’s told Carl to take as much time as he needs.

As cast filter in crew clean up the freshly painted set.

“Actors to the stage please,” Ty says. They gather round and he reads aloud their notes — hand-written critiques, refinements. As is his penchant he works from general to specific. He directs packing Caesar’s gun in a waist holster.

“Overall, it was low energy…The audience is not going to be feeling the show. So keep your energy up everybody.”

His individual notes cover stage positions, cues, intonations, intentions. He demonstrates various actions. His most telling comments concern Andre. “If you don’t have that urgency of why you’re there…then it’s a tough show.”

Before the run-through John reiterates “it’s important we keep up the energy. Just keep the story moving along…”

They work late into the night. No preview tomorrow. Another rehearsal. Then it’s on with the show the next night.

Feb. 8 – “It’s finally here”                                                                                                                                                                    

Opening night.

6:30. An hour to curtain and jitters abound. On stage John runs lines with Carl, who got back last night. John presses him to emphasize each subject. Ty, unhappy the way Carl handles a speech to win over Mary, gets up in his face with, “You got to try to get her on your side. That’s what you’re trying to do here.” “Let me start over,” Carl says. He nails it. “Good, good,” John says.

 

 

 

 

Carl, hours removed from his dad’s funeral, never considered not performing. He says the play’s “a pretty good distraction.” He frets having “missed some valuable time” but is risking it anyway. “Something’s going to happen — stick around.”

John, wife Judy, Ty, Cheryl and production staff scurry to place props. Tom and Charles, already costumed, work lines backstage. The other actors get made up and change in the dressing room.

Past 7 the lobby fills with patrons. “We’re getting ready to open the house,” John announces. “Hold on, man, I need two minutes,” says Mark O’Leary, who hangs a picture and touches up a faucet. “You got it.”

Andre runs over lines to himself in the wings, pacing in a circle. He and Keisha share a tender moment. “A lot of different emotions,” Keisha says. “It’s finally here, so no matter what you’ve just got to go out there and have fun at this point.”

As insurance, TammyRa’s wearing an earpiece that Cheryl will feed lines into.

The house opens and folks stream in, unaware of the activity on set moments before and the beehive backstage.

Cast members squeeze into the small dressing room. They flit in and out. John, bandana wrapped around his head and big ass walking stick held in his hand, offers final notes to Charles and Keisha. There’s the usual “break-a-leg” well-wishes.

“What’s our time like?” Charles asks. “Not much — like five minutes,” says John, who asks Cheryl to round up the others. All the players cram inside. They clasp hands as Cheryl leads a fervent prayer. She refers to how “we’ve come up against everything” on this show. “We thank you God for this time we’ve been able to work together and join hearts and become friends and even family. We thank you for John Beasley and all of his hard work…He struggles to keep this going…but he hangs in there because he believes in us. He could walk away, but he doesn’t.”

“We pray you God that you will give us victory. Amen.”

A chorus of Amens goes up. John cracks, “Anybody got a collection plate here?”

The full house gets their money’s worth. The rich, naturalistic performances the JBT’s noted for are evident. TammyRa’s imbued with Aunt Ester’s old soul spirit. Keisha’s found Black Mary’s stubborn streak. Andre’s got Citizen’s raw yearning down pat. Carl strikes the right balance as Caesar. John shines as Solly. Charles and Tom believably inhabit their parts. Aside from a few awkward pauses, it’s fine theater. Few glitches or flubs. All the hard work’s paid off.

“I was proud of them.” Ty says afterwards.

Just another opening, another show.

Gem continues through March 2.

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference Playwright Caridad Svich Explores Bicultural Themes

May 29, 2011 8 comments

UPDATE: I attended a production of playwright Caridad Svich’s Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Theater as part of the ongoing Great Plains Theatre Conference, and the performance did what any good  theater should do – it transported me to another place emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.  It’s a strong work with deeply resonant themes of loss, grief, war, dislocation, transformation, community, and many more touchstones. Because it is so rich on the page, it would be hard not to mount a production that engages and moves audiences, but I thought director Cindy Melby Phaneuf and her UNO production team, combined with a dynamic cast of actors-singers and two excellent musicians, conceived and executed a visually and aurally stirring dramatic experience that would have captured any audience, anywhere.  It was the kind of night out at the theater that makes me hunger for more live theater.  I will definitely see Svich’s Twelve Ophelias when UNO produces it in the fall, eager to experience more of her multi-layered work. I will definitely catch at least one more play in the Great Plains conference, which runs through June 4. And, who knows, this just might be the motivational or inspirational spark I needed to tackle a serious rewrite of the play I wrote a few years ago and that I’ve left languishing in the proverbial drawer despite some helpful notes and encouraging words from a local theater professional whose opinion I respect.

Continuing my posts in celebration of the Great Plains Theater Conference, here is a very recent piece I wrote for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper published in South Omaha, about Caridad Svich, a featured playwright at the 2011 conference. I did a very long phone interview with Svich and had enough material for a full blown feature profile of her, but my assignment called for a short  700-word piece and that’s what I delivered.  I still think I managed to get some sense for who she is and how she views things in the article, though I would have preferred to have more space in order to flesh some points out and to include other elements of her life and story.

 

 

Caridad Svich

 

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference Playwright Caridad Svich Explores Bicultural Themes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Caridad Svich, a leading figure of the American stage, is a featured playwright at the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College.

As a playwright, songwriter, editor and translator, Svich explores themes of wanderlust, biculturalism and dislocation. Her experience as the American-born child of an itinerant Argentine father and Cuban mother informs her work.

Her journey as an artist has paralleled her identification with “being a first generation American, trying to sort that out, and living bilingually,” she said by phone from her home in New York City.

“It took me a long time to come to terms with any sense of Latinidad. I think that’s something that came rather late for me, especially as an artist. I really didn’t write my first play that had anything remotely to do with Latino or Latina characters until my last year of graduate school.”

It was only then, she says, she acknowledged “I need to start figuring this out for myself.” Where before she viewed it as something to wrestle with privately, she realized it was permissible, even necessary to explore her identity crisis on the page and the stage. Nudging her in this direction were plays she read by Hispanics. It’s then, she says, she recognized “this is a world I’m attracted to and is a part of me…and I feel a kinship with.”

Participating in the first Latino playwriting workshop of the formidable Maria Irene Fornes (Saritia) became a turning point.

“I wanted to be part of a community of writing that could help me sort that out,” Svich says, adding it helped being around bilingual writers with their own hybrid identities.

Fornes became her “primary mentor.”

Though Svich doesn’t go out of her way to write Latino plays, those cultural themes are inescapably part of her.

“Ultimately I’m a writer, and when I look at the page I don’t prescribe what’s going to happen. I feel like a landscape, a story, a voice, a character will come to me and I’ll follow it wherever it leads, and whether the characters are Latino or not I sort of just take the story where it goes.

“But I feel the fact I am Latino. I am a first generation American that lives with the memories my parents brought with them from their home countries.”

Her work is known, among other things, for its critique of the American Dream.

“Because I am a child of immigrants I’ve always had this double point of view — I see what my parents went through not being from here, subtle levels of discrimination. Even though I was born here, I was treated sometimes as an immigrant myself.

“I feel like there’s always embedded in the work what is the promise that America as a concept holds and what is the reality. I have a couple plays that deal specifically with immigrant characters, but I also have plays that deal with characters who are elsewhere, in unnamed countries outside the U.S., who are thinking about what their America is and the image of America that’s exported to them.”

 

 

 

 

Svich says her critiques are meant to be constructive. Besides, she says, critical examination is “part of the job,” adding, “Part of the position of being an artist is to stand outside — it’s your duty to be able to reflect back.”

She also takes seriously her role as an established playwright. At the Great Plains conference she’ll be lending her expertise to emerging playwrights at panel discussions and workshops.

One of her plays, Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues, will be performed May 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s main campus.

She describes this early, bluesy work as “still a touchstone play for me.” Set in the bayou, it’s about a woman mourning the loss of her military husband in a desert war. Haunted by the ghost of her man, the young widow is befriended by a community of women who try helping her through this passage of life.

It’s a love story with songs, influenced by the blues and call-and-response traditions.

A later Svich play, Twelve Ophelias, will be performed in the fall by UNO Theater. She calls this bluegrass oratorio an elemental play set in a primal landscape with the resurrected Ophelia visiting the ghosts of her past for some reckoning.

“I wanted to free her from her destiny in the original Shakespeare and give her new life by like getting over a really bad love affair and moving on.”

For conference schedule, artist and ticket information, call 402-457-2618 or visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu.

Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work

May 29, 2011 9 comments

With the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference going on May 28-June 4 in Omaha, I am posting a variety of stories I’ve written directly related to the event and others having to do with other aspects of Omaha theater. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is based on an interview I did with the playwright Arthur Kopit. It’s a lively, insightful discussion of the playwriting craft and of how events like the conference help nurture emerging playwrights.

 

 

Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

New York playwright Arthur Kopit (IndiansWings, the books for the musicals Nine and Phantom of the Opera) sees “many values” in the Great Plains Theatre Conference going on now through June 3 at various sites in Omaha. But none more than the vital forum it provides new playwrights.

“One is, it connects them with a community of playwrights,” he said. “Playwrighting is a very lonely profession, particularly if you’re not in New York. And even if you are…you work so often in isolation. Meeting with other playwrights enables the writers to see the problems they are dealing with are not theirs alone. It’s very hard to write a good play, so it’s kind of a bucking-up…a strengthening. And it’s nice for playwrights to be welcomed and honored and to realize they’re doing something important, because the development of new plays is a difficult task in American theater.”

The collegial spirit of such a conference has a palliative effect on playwrights.

“It’s an odd profession,” Kopit said. “It’s very hard to figure out why you want to be a playwright. Screenwriters and television writers can say they expect to get a lot of money or to get steady employment, but when you’re a playwright it’s much chancier. So there’s an emotional support from seeing other playwrights and finding out you’re not the only one who has this passion…Second, you’re going to get some very good feedback on your work from other professional playwrights and that’s important. You’re going to see the work of other playwrights — new work — and that is invigorating. Even when the pieces don’t work…you’re learning something. So you’re learning things professionally, you’re making contacts with other writers, directors, actors that may be helpful. ”

The benefits of this community extend to veteran writers as well. “For writers who are more established it’s an opportunity to meet with other writers, and that’s exciting, and hear their work and get comments on their work,” he said. Regardless of how accomplished a playwright is, no one’s immune from creative-craft issues. “Problems with the second or third act, or the first,” he said, happen to everyone. “Yes, absolutely. And each play is different. As Moss Hart (legendary Broadway playwright) once said, ‘You only learn to write THIS particular play.’ It doesn’t necessarily help you with the next play. So, it’s hard.”

A successful playwright, he said, is made not born. “You have to have discipline. You have to work at it. And some days go well and some days don’t. You can’t tell before you begin.” The process, he said, is all “in the crafting of the play,” which he said is why “so much of conversations” at the conference “will be about the crafting. How you get something, how you make it better. The architecture, the structure of the play.” A conference like this, he said, can be instructive to general audiences. “They will learn this is not an abstract situation where someone sits and waits for inspiration. If inspiration comes by, you grab it” but unless you’re “logging the hours” at work on your play, you’ll miss out on your muse.

Letting the public in on the formative process is healthy. “How extraordinary it is for audiences to understand how a play is put together — the complexity of it, particularly in the development of new plays,” he said. He sees the conference as an ideal vehicle for approaching theater from multiple angles. “What is it like to write a new play? What is it like to see a play in progress that’s not been seen before? How do you evaluate it? It’s very hard to do new plays because they have problems and audiences usually like to feel secure…to see something that is good and that has been tested. Audiences too often depend on critics.”

At its best theater reflects the aspirations of people and the times they live in. But great plays resist pat solutions or analysis. “They can’t be editorials. They can’t be propaganda. Really good plays are not easy to define, like all great art,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons theater is important because great plays are open to interpretation. Weak plays are very obvious on the surface as to what they’re about. They’re like sit coms. Great plays explore the gray areas. They don’t look at black and white…good and evil. They’re about human contradiction…the intermingling” of values. “Plays can be unsettling when they don’t give you easy answers, but the purpose of a play is to raise questions, not provide answers.”

 

 

 

 

Classic plays can be revisited again and again, he said, for the very reason “they’re open to different interpretations” by the artists and audiences who tackle them over time.  With each staging, he said, “other aspects of the play come out.”

What makes theater “very different” from film, he said, is that it’s “a collective, group experience. There’s a ritual involved in theater. There’s no ritual in film. And the audience receives the play from actors. That’s why when there’s been a great audience and a great performance actors will applaud the audience because the audience performed too by giving them their serious attention. The actors will feed on what audiences give them. That shared experience is part of what’s powerful about theater. It’s a communion and it’s a community. It’s a love affair.”

Theater has deep reverberations in the collective consciousness, he suggests. “It’s an ancient art. It has an inherent significance to it we instinctively understand,” he said. Like storytelling, plays cut across cultures to express the human experience. All the more reason to celebrate new stories and new plays at a gathering of the cognoscenti. “It brings attention to new plays, it brings attention to the theater in that community and it adds some fire, some sparkle, some new awareness. You know, “attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller says (in Death of a Salesman).

The sympoisum’s built around the New Voices play labs series that reads/performs the work of emerging playwrights from around the nation for critical appraisal by distinguished panelists like Kopit and Edward Albee (A Delicate BalanceWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?). Albee is co-organizer of the conference with Jo Ann C. McDowell, president of Metropolitan Community College, the event’s host.

Luminaries like Kopit and Albee “waive their speaker’s fee,” said McDowell. Before this, she and Albee lured top talent to The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, the model for the first time Great Plains. Kopit never made it north,  “but I know all the writers who’ve been there and they’ve always loved it,” he said.

Kopit said playwrights couldn’t ask for a more nurturing mentor than Albee. “Edward has been extremely generous to other playwrights. He established a foundation for playwrights early on in his career and believes very deeply, thoroughly in the importance of theater and new plays, and this conference is an example of that.” He said it’s “unusual” a playwright of Albee’s stature is so supportive, adding “other playwrights come here because they respect Edward and the great amount of passion he’s put into this.”

As an honored playwright, Kopit’s own work is featured in panel discussions, readings and staged performances. Selections from his Nine (Tony Award for best musical) were presented May 28. Albee led a May 29 Kopit panel. Kopit arrived early to prep local artists performing two of his plays — “making sure the pieces are done properly.” He’s conducted a master class, read from his work, been a respondent in labs and interacted with visiting/resident artists and enthusiasts at social gigs.

After a lab reading of Max Sparber’s Buddy Bentley (presented by current/former Blue Barn Theatre members), Kopit and fellow playwright respondents Albee and Glyn O’Malley questioned Sparber about the work’s character development, motivation, tonal issues, etc. Several fine points were addressed. Far from an inquisition, it felt more like a grad student having his thesis gently challenged. Kopit, who enjoys teaching and directs the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, said, “Oh, yes, many playwrights teach. We love to do this.”

Scenes by Kopit, Albee and fellow playwrights Emily Mann and Mac Wellman will be staged June 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center. A reading of Kopit’sWings (Tony nominee/Pulitzer finalist) is set for June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland. On June 3, Kopit receives the Edward Albee Great Plains Playwright Award at the fest’s closing Gala at 7 p.m. on Metro’s Fort Omaha parade grounds. On the Albee Award, Kopit said, “I’m honored and it’s exciting. Wonderful writers have been honored by this. But you don’t write for that. You write for the piece itself.”

A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights

May 29, 2011 12 comments

This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne-Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 5 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

 Anne-Marie Kenny

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in the New Horizons

 

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

Singer Anne-Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself —  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

 

 

 

 

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

 

Janine Reiss

 

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

 

 

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions

May 28, 2011 23 comments

No, my usually eclectic blog has not suddenly changed focus to become a theater blog – it just seems that way because of the Great Plains Theatre Conference happening in my proverbial backyard, Omaha, and my wanting to emphasize a theater theme during at least the initial run of the event, which goes on May 28-June 4.  Therefore, in the span of a few days here I am posting various articles I’ve written about the conference and about other theater goings on and figures here.  My blog is replete with stagecraft stories, along with stories about filmmakers, musicians, artists, authors, and other creatives,  The article below is from a couple years ago and charts a somewhat new course for the conference, then entering its fourth year and now in its sixth, and new leadership for the event.

 

 

 

 

Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

Year four of the Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 23-30, is less about the past and more about the present and future.

This tweaked emphasis comes from two leading Omaha theater figures, Kevin Lawler and Scott Working, new to the GPTC staff since last summer. Each is a playwright and director who’s started theaters from scratch. Lawler helped launch the Blue Barn Theatre. Working birthed the Shelterbelt. They’ve been artistic directors.

GPTC founder Jo Ann McDowell enlisted them for their new roles. The former Metropolitan Community College president oversees special projects for Metro, host of the city-wide event since its 2006 inception. The conference is still her baby. Looking for fresh ideas and more sustainability she brought in Lawler and Working as creative director and Writer’s Workshop coordinator, respectively.

“They founded two of the most important theater companies in Omaha and have great respect from the local arts community,” McDowell said. “Their involvement with local theater goes back many years, which has been very valuable to the conference. Scott and Kevin have moved the play selection and labs to a new level. Their professionalism and theater knowledge is a huge asset.”

Lawler’s a Minneapolis resident who considers Omaha his second home. Working is Metro’s theater program coordinator and a full-time faculty member. The pair worked the conference before in more limited capacities. Already sold on it as a vehicle for theater synergy, they embraced the idea of taking on expanded duties.

 

 

Kevin Lawler

 

 

The mission of celebrating playwrights has shifted from what Working calls “an old boy network” of name-above-the-title scribes to “emerging” artists.” Witness 2009 honored playwright Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer finalist with widely performed work. Accomplished, yes, but theater grunts can more easily identify with her than past honoree gods Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare.

“What makes this conference unique is that it caters or appeals to several tiers of playwrights at different stages of their career — master playwrights with well-established careers, emerging playwrights in mid-career and beginners who’ve only written one or two scripts,” said Working. “The interaction, networking and fellowship between those tiers is really valuable and educational.”

The Masters Performance Series features productions of works by Rebeck and fellow bigger-than-life playwrights Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. New this year is the Mainstage Series, a competitive showcase for more life-sized artists. The series presents five finalist scripts in staged readings by local directors-casts that master playwrights respond to. The winning author earns $1,000. Lawler credits the series with more than doubling script submissions (170 to 423). He said the large script pool (from several states) made “a huge difference” in the overall quality of work. A criticism of past conferences was the dearth of quality scripts.

“We definitely always want to have space for the beginning playwrights, so there’s always going to be plays that aren’t ready for Broadway or off-Broadway, and that’s OK,” said Lawler. “But the great addition is we’re bringing this group of people in who are just about to break into the big time. They’ve been writing for awhile, they’ve had a number of productions, they’re getting very skilled at their craft.”

McDowell said the Mainstage Series “adds a new dimension.” “There’s a big local side to this, too,” said Lawler, “which is that our local theater companies get to meet these playwrights, to work with them on scripts, to become friends.”

Master playwrights also work with less experienced counterparts in workshop sessions covering various craft issues. Besides exposing Omaha theater talents and audiences to new artists and works, there’s no telling where relationships developed here may lead. For example, Lawler said, “there’s a number of scripts this year that very well may get New York productions in the coming years.” He said a play with Omaha ties breaking big in NYC would have ripple effects here.

“The hope is that if one or two of these scripts worked on here go big in a large market that will bring just much more energy back to the conference for people to get involved, and that becomes sort of a centrifugal force itself. That kind of synergy is really great for the local Omaha theater community, too.”

“That’s already really starting to happen. We’ve had major playwrights work with our local companies putting on their productions,” he said.

Lawler envisions a playwright mounting a locally produced show that a national producer then stages with that same Omaha talent. “Imagine that happening for Brigit Saint Brigit or the Blue Barn or Baby D (Productions) or for one of our local playwrights,” said Lawler.

 

 

Scott Working
Scott Working

 

 

Working said the young conference continues “evolving” its niche. Lawler agrees, saying, “The conference in a sense is in its infancy still. There’s a growth process it’s going through.” Lawler knows where he’d like to take the event. “I think the conference should be benefiting local playwrights, actors, directors and theater companies — artistically, financially and also with their connection to the national theater scene — and will be much more exponentially each year.”

Lawler said outreach with the local theater community, who volunteer to direct and act in conference labs and staged readings, is improving. “At a couple sessions we just sat down with them and said, ‘Alright, tell us what can we do better — how can we change things?,’ and we got some great feedback on things,” said Lawler, who hopes one day the conference can reimburse local artists for their time.

For Lawler, the GPTC is a microcosm of Omaha theater.

“Nobody’s doing theater here for money, for fame or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody’s doing it because they actually love doing it and they love the other people involved with it, which is the essence of any good theater. It was illustrated beautifully by the community meeting that happened when the Omaha (Community) Playhouse went through its troubles. That (passion) makes this theater scene one of the most vibrant, exciting. It’s why I keep coming back.”

Where can the GPTC go from here? He points to the Humana theater festival in Louisville, KY that runs several weeks, does full stage productions of major new works and draws huge audiences. It’s a world-class theater happening.

“Maybe we don’t get as big as the Humana but maybe our focus gets stronger and it still brings in this great energy to the city that totally invigorates the theater scene. I think we can eventually create that.”

For registration, ticket, schedule details visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu or call 457-2618.


Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater

May 28, 2011 27 comments

From the moment I learned of the Great Plains Theatre Conference being launched in 2006 in my hometown of Omaha, I knew it was something significant for the local arts scene and a must story for me to write about.  In one fashion or another I have written about various aspects of each of the six conferences, with the exception of one I believe.  That first conference or two drew much attention for the obvious reason that attached to the event were a half-dozen or more theater legends, including Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, Marshall Mason, Mark Lamos, Tammy Grimes, and Patricia Neal.  These luminaries followed, in a sense, the conference’s founder and Pied Piper driving force, Jo Ann McDowell, who came to Omaha as president of Metropolitan Community College and brought with her a track record of spearheading major theater festivals. Albee was closely associated with the first couple Great Plains conferences but then disassociated himself from the event, as did a couple more of the big names, which cost the conference some lustre and momentum.  Then, McDowell came under fire in her role as Metro’s president, and eventually resigned. In the midst of her embattled presidency, the newspaper I was mainly covering the conference for, The Reader (www.thereader.com), wrote a series of unfriendly pieces directed at her.  The paper also seemed to lose interest in the conference by its third, fourth, and fifth seasons, even though by then the event had rebounded and become stronger in some ways than before, even though it was missing the old lions of the American theater. The story below is the first piece I did on the event and was part of a Reader cover story previewing the inaugural conference. In the spirit of the conference becoming an established event, and the 2011 edition taking place May 28-June 4, I am posting my Great Plains Theatre Conference work as a journalist. You’ll find pieces related to the event itself and to McDowell, Kopit, Guare, Glyn O’Malley, and Caridad Svich, one of this year’s featured playwrights.  You’ll also find on this blog pieces about Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, Billy McGuigian, the John Beasley Theatre, the Theatre of the Oppressed, Diner Theater, Omaha Magic Theatre. Not to mention, profiles of some of Omaha’s own theater  legends: Megan Terry, John Beasley, Elaine Jabenis, Charles Jones, Dick Boyd, Doug Marr, Quiana Smith, Billy McGuigan,  And soon to come: pieces on the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre and Shakespeare on the Green.  Yes, it’s a vibrant theater scene here.
Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

It may not be a stretch to say Omaha theater will not be the same after the first Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 27 through June 3, as organizers and presenters expect the occasion to invigorate the theater culture here. The basis for such optimism rests in the convergence of talent coming for a public assembly that is part rendezvous, jamboree, seminar and Chautauqua. Prominent figures in American theater, among them Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Lloyd Richards, Mark Lamos, Emily Mann and Kathleen Chalfant, will join other established playwrights, directors, actors, instructors and scholars from around the U.S., along with new playwrights and Nebraska’s top theater artists, for a communal focus on craft.

“This stands to be a defining moment for Omaha. Not only will we have the opportunity to meet and work with distinguished theater artists, but we will form relationships with new playwrights and further strengthen local ties. Every theater in Omaha will benefit from this conference in ways not yet imagined,” said Blue Barn Theatre founding member Hughston Walkinshaw, who will act and direct at the fest. “I am delighted to see an event of this magnitude here. I can only assume positive things will result from such a gathering of famous and aspiring playwrights,” said Creighton University drama teacher Alan Klem, a playwright and panelist. “I can tell you from personal experience how hard it is to get feedback of any kind on a new play. So, to have a play read in the presence of such esteemed playwrights, directors and theater practitioners is total nirvana for an aspiring playwright.”

Aside from feedback, the event’s play labs, master classes, panel discussions and staged readings will provide forums for visiting-resident artists to interact. It’s these crosscurrents that hold promise for: area theaters to find new works to produce; collaborations to form between companies; and new stage ventures to arise or existing ones to expand. Much of the shop talk/networking may occur after hours.

The woman who brought the model for the event here, Metropolitan Community College President Jo Ann C. McDowell, saw such developments grow out of the prestigious Last Frontier Theatre Conference she and Albee formed in Valdez, Alaska, her last stop before assuming the Metro post 10 months ago. The New York Times’ arts section featured it in 1999. National press will cover the Omaha event.

“When we started the theater conference in Valdez there was a large (theater) program in Juno and an emerging theater department in Anchorage and then when we ended up at the end of that run I believe there were like 20 that came out of it. The arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News said we renewed theater in Alaska and I know we did,” said McDowell, who led the Last Frontier event for 12 years.

 

 

Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jo Ann McDowell

 

 

She assumes what happened in Valdez will happen in Omaha, as “all these new playwrights coming here will get to know” Omaha theater artists. “They’ll all hang around after working together and these theater companies will see new work they’ll want to do and so they’ll invite those playwrights back here. And every year we’ll see these same folks get together. You will see collaborations and growth.”

She designed Last Frontier with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Edward Albee and the two have fashioned the Omaha conference after it. When she left Valdez the theater giants she “built relationships” with, led by Albee, threw their support behind her and the Great Plains event, just as they did when she left Independence, Kan. and its William Inge Festival for Alaska 13 years ago.

Wherever McDowell goes, her celebration of theater follows the “vision” of Albee, whom conference participant Joel Vig, a Broadway actor, describes as “a nurturing force for playwrights.” “It’s a week for leading theater artists to get together and to immerse themselves in their craft. Harvard would be proud to have this event.” she said. The host site is Metro’s Fort Omaha campus, where guests will stay in Victorian-era dorms she calls “cozy” and the June 3 gala, emceed by Oscar and Tony winning diva Patricia Neal, will be held under a giant tent on the great lawn, all to further the theater “family” and “community” that Kopit, and others refer to.

“There’s a lot of synergy with all these scholars and academics from all over the country coming together, plus the luminaries, plus the new playwrights, plus the actors and directors,” McDowell said. “It’s an educational event. It’s all about
educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright. It’s all about craft.”

“These sorts of conferences can be enormously exciting and inspiring. As an artist they are a great opportunity for people to make contacts, see new work, get useful comments and direction,” said Minneapolis playwright Max Sparber, whose Buddy Bentley will get a staged reading at the event. “The enrichment that happens and the long-term effects are amazing, and you can see them from year to year in the friendships and connections. There’s any number of things that can happen from having this kind of confluence of good forces,” said Vig, who will introduce Neal for her May 31 “As I Am” speech about her life in and out of acting.

The conference encourages work by new writers and showcases that of veterans.

“A theater that does not nourish new plays and doesn’t do new work is moribund. You have to have a mix. You have to have tested plays and you have to have new work and an audience that participates in it. The healthiest theater community builds up a loyal audience to various theaters,” said noted playwright Arthur Kopit, the conference’s Edward Albee Award recipient, whose works Nine and Wings will get staged readings. “American theater is not New York theater. It’s all around the country and that’s the truth of it. It’s very important to connect with the rest of the country and so it’s important plays emerge from different regions of the country that are reflective of those people’s aspirations and dreams and fears and hopes.” “What I want to do is have a venue where we create a whole other generation of artists,” McDowell said.

More than new works, new perspectives will be in the offing.

“I have often felt Omaha would benefit greatly from being exposed to theater from elsewhere in America. But for occasional touring productions of Broadway plays, Omaha sees precious little of what goes on in theater communities outside Nebraska,” said Sparber, a former Omaha resident whose work has been performed extensively here. “The Omaha theater community is a very active, engaged, wonderful community, with a few world class small theaters, an exceptional community theater, some magnificent actors, some terrific writers, and an avid audience, but it has been waiting for a kick in the butt like this one.

“It just hasn’t been able to take the next necessary steps — toward developing semi-professional theaters, toward bringing in touring productions, toward developing a base of audience member/donor patrons. I think the community is eager to take the next steps, if uncertain about what those steps might be. This conference is an excellent opportunity to begin discussing and exploring possibilities for Omaha’s development as a theater community. More so, Omaha now has the chance to explore what its theater community means in the broader context of the American theater community.”

 

 

 

 

Theater doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Neither will the conference. Its open-to-the-public programs will add an audience dynamic to the “collective experience” Kopit said distinguishes theater. “There’s another outcome of this Edward (Albee) and I have spoken about — we’re growing audiences for theater,” McDowell said. “That’s one of our missions. What we do is teach people to be real theater enthusiasts.”

Vig said the arts depend on angels like McDowell, especially in an era of low federal funding. “It takes an enormous amount of dedication to bring off something like this and Jodie is a great force at bringing together people.” “It takes people with passion like Jodie McDowell who see the need for these kinds of gatherings,” Kopit said. “If I have any skills it’s making things happen and being committed. I’m very passionate. My only talent’s going out and trying to get people to buy into this mission and to make it available to people who really can’t afford it — students and artists,” McDowell said. “As a country we have to support our arts and I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them. It’s been a gift in my life.”

She also sees this as a great marketing tool for Metro. “I hope the conference will get people to change their image of us and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy. I think it will put Omaha-Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way.” In her perfect dream the college will build a theater of its own and form a theater arts department around its current theater technical degree program. “I think as Metro grows over the years there will be a theater,” she said. “Give me a little time.” She diffuses speculation about the conference’s future should she move on. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade. This is a perfect home for this conference and I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”

Ultimately, she said the event is much larger than Metro, emphasizing the college “could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, artists. Twenty area theater companies are participating. “It’s about all of us coming together. Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community in Omaha having a family reunion.”

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