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Arts Patron and Philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver Gives Where Her Heart is


This is the second time I’ve profiled Omaha arts patron and philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver, who makes a habit of giving to things she enjoys.  This piece for Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com) tries to convey in very few words her lifetime of giving back to what feeds her heart and soul. After my first profile of her appeared she sent me a beautiful card with a hand-written note expressing her appreciation for what I had written. I certainly don’t expect another card, though I would love one, but I mention what she did as an example of how caring and generous she is.

 

 

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Anne Thorne Weaver

Arts Patron and Philanthropist Anne Thorne Weaver Gives Where Her Heart is

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the January/February issue of Omaha Magazine

 

National Society of Colonial Dames diva Anne Thorne Weaver is at an age when she says and does what she wants. Fortunately for Omaha, this patron puts her MONEY where her mouth is in supporting the arts.

When the new Blue Barn Theater opens this spring, the box office will be named in her honor for a major gift she made to the company. She admires the Blue Barn’s edgy work.

“I’m just very impressed with what they do,” says Weaver. “There’s something about the intimacy of the smaller theater. I think they’ve done some wonderful productions. I think their new facility will be wonderful, and there won’t be any bats,” she adds in referring to a past production when an winged intruder darted overhead.

“I thought, that’s an interesting prop,” she quips, “and then realized it was a bat.Suddenly there was this thundering of shoes coming down in a mass exodus.”

Weaver likes that the theater’s new site on South 10th Street will be more visible than its Old Market digs. “I think it’s an exciting move and one of the things that’s really going to add to the Omaha scene.”

Her gift to Omaha Performing Arts made possible the Orpheum Theater’s Anne Thorne Weaver Lounge. The dedicated private space is a chic oasis for post-show receptions.

“I think it really puts a little wow into Omaha,” says its namesake, “and really adds a lot to any attraction you’re doing in the Orpheum.”

Outside the metro, her generosity’s recognized in the gift shop named after her at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney and the lobby gallery named for her at the Lake Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa. She also donated the center’s stained glass ceiling created by Bogenrief Studios.

She not only gives money but time to venues she believes in, serving on boards for Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Community Playhouse, and MONA. She served on the Western Heritage Museum (now Durham Museum) board and was active in the Joslyn Women’s Association.

Weaver, whose civic volunteering includes the Nebraska Humane Society and the Junior League of Omaha, only gives to things she enjoys. “Life is too short, so why fuss around with something I don’t enjoy or work with people I don’t like. When you give, everything is given back.”

She traces her aesthetic appreciation to her late artist grandmother, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, renowned for her miniature rooms, dioramas, and shadow boxes. Some of her grandmother’s handiwork is displayed in framed cases hanging on the walls of Weaver’s exquisitely designed home, whose expansive sun room features two Bogenrief WINDOWS.

Surrounding herself with beauty comes naturally to Weaver, who grew up in the historic Terrace Hill home in Des Moines. The restored structure is now the Iowa governor’s mansion.

The well-traveled Weaver considers the vibrant arts scene here a cultural and economic asset that makes the city a more attractive place to live and visit. She takes pleasure helping the arts thrive and sampling all the region’s offerings.

“We all need music and art in our lives,” Weaver says.

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Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

February 7, 2015 1 comment

The Reader  The Reader

Max Sparber channeling his inner Buffalo Bill, ©photos by Debra S. Kaplan

Playwright-journalist-blogger-historian Max Sparber has a knack for reinventing himself borne from a lifelong search for identiity, though he’s recently found more clarity where his family roots are concerned. He’s always known he was an adoptee but it’s only in the last year or so he’s discovered specifics about his biological parents. Long before he began searching out his biological mother’s and father’s stories, he was intrigued by history and heritage and much of his writing for publications and for the stage has dealt with matters of cultural inheritance or perception. It’s no wonder he find himself in the day job he works today as research specialist with the Douglas County (Neb.) Historical Society. The very tools he uses there to help people search their family history are the ones he utilizes in his own personal family search. Sparber is Irish and English but he was raised Jewish and he is steeped in that culture. He has written about Africa-Americans and race in his plays “Minstrel Show” and “Walking Behind to Freedom” and he’s the author of a blog, “The Happy Hooligan,” devoted to what it means to be Irish-American. In truth, he’s written about a wide range of people and subjects and always with same incisive and sensitive eye of the outsider. His new play, Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band, deals with a historical figure, William Cody, who simiarly dealt with issues of identity and reinvention. My profile of Max for The Reader (www.thereader.com) follows below.

As a side note, Max has been a longtime contributor to The Reader as I have. At one point he became the arts editor there and for a brief time served as managing editor. Another superb Omaha writer I’ve written about, Timothy Schaffert, had a similar experience at The Reader.

Oh, and by the way, I wish I had thought of it when I wrote the story, because I would have included it in the piece, but it occurs to me that Max bears an uncanny resemblance to silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.

 

Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward

New play about Buffalo Bill explores similar reinvention issues as his own

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

As an adoptee whose identity quest has shaped his life and as a research specialist investigating people’s family trees, Max Sparber perfectly embodies his “history detective” tagline.

His Douglas Country Historical Society fact-finding duties feed his work as journalist-blogger-playwright of wide-ranging interests, from Irish-American culture-history to early Omaha infamy to social justice. Then there’s his thing for singing cowboys, the Old West and everything theatrical. All of which makes him the ideal dramatist for Buffalo Bill.

Sparber’s whimsical new play Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band, showing through February 8 at the Rose Theater, is a Victorian era-inspired  musical revue-meets-chautauqua whose identity themes resonate with his own Who-am-I-this-time? life story.

“I definitely think this has a lot to do with my own search for my identity and how identities are often a sort of collective invention.”
William Cody was a scout and buffalo hunter turned entertainer. His Wild West show, first mounted in North Platte, Neb., forever changed perceptions and portrayals of the frontier.

“I think he is in some ways the basis for all contemporary cowboy stories,” says Sparber, who just as Cody cultivated a look with fancy regalia, is seldom without a vintage fedora and tinted glasses

He says the story “is really about how William Cody invented a character called Buffalo Bill as a way of telling tall tales about the West inspired by the actual history of the West.” The play, which uses Cody’s daughter Irma as fan and foil, depicts his conflict over being authentic whole taking dramatic license.

 

 

When the Rose commissioned Sparber they didn’t know about his identity search or fixation with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They didn’t know he’d done a children’s play, The Ukulele King’s Sunday Family Roundup, featuring his peculiar talents for twirling guns, yodeling and playing the ukulele.

That’s folderol though compared to how the skills of his trade, along with DNA testing, recently aided him, at age 46, in discovering his late birth mother’s identity.

“When I found out who my biological family was, I had exactly the tools needed to churn through that information. It would have been completely overwhelming otherwise.”

The woman who gave him life, Patricia Monaghan, followed pursuits strikingly aligned with his own. She was a journalist and author who often wrote about her large Irish-Catholic family and Celtic mythology. She wrote about and studied theater, just as Max has. He once owned one of her books.

Knowing they were kindred spirits seemed an “astonishing coincidence” he now ascribes to genetic inheritance.

“I do regret not meeting her. I’m just very glad she left behind the wealth of writing and information about herself she did. There’s a lot of people for whom there’s no record of them. Yet she’s unknowable in the sense I’ll never be able to meet her.”

He knows less about his biological father, except he studied art, as Max did.

As best Max can tell he was the unintended result of a fling.

“It turned out the circumstances of my birth were not tragic as I feared. Probably mostly I was just terribly inconvenient and I’d rather be inconvenient than the product of tragedy.”

Now that he’s gleaned things about his mother’s family from her widower and a first cousin, it’s allayed his worst-case-scenario thinking.

“There was a real concern I’d find my biological family and they’d all have tattoos of tears on their cheeks and swastikas on their arms.

Thank goodness it’s nothing like that. They’re very lovely people.”

Most of his Irish clan lives in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, though some reside in Ireland. His birth mother gained Irish citizenship and even though he’s never been there, he may be entitled to citizenship, too. He intends visiting his ancestral homeland of County Mayo.

 

 

Above three images from Max’s “The Happy Hooligan,” http://happy-hooligan.blogspot.com/

 

 

He always knew he was not Jewish like his adoptive parents but likely Irish and English. He especially steeped himself in all things Irish, from devouring its literature to learning to play the penny-whistle. His The Happy Hooligan blog explores what it means to be Irish-American.

What he did with his heritage is not unlike what Cody did with his past.

“Being Irish is something I had to invent because I wasn’t raised with that. It was so weird for me for a long time because it felt fabricated and then I realized it’s all fabricated, We all just make up culture. We’re Irish-American because we say we are. We do Irish-American things because we’ve decided that’s what Irish-Americans do.”

He calls a year in Bath, England for a sabbatical his adoptive father made “the defining year of my childhood.”

“It was all very fascinating to me. England is a very old country with a lot of very strange old traditions. One of the things they do is ritualize and reenact history through these pageants. At school I played a Moor battling King George.”

That experience and summers in New York introduced him to the idea of history behind every door or corner.

“I realized the whole world is these little pockets of often undiscovered history. All of a sudden these places around you aren’t just houses people live in but have these entire stories behind them that you can mentally pop into. I really like that.”

Then there’s the Jewish experience he absorbed. “I’m not religious but I do feel I am culturally Jewish, I was raised in that milieu. Jews have a very complex diaspora identity, so they have all these tools for understanding what it means to be Jewish when you’re not in Israel. Irish-Americans have almost none of that.”

 

As a sign of things to come, the very first play he wrote was inspired by historical events – the Salem witch trials.

Ever since first coming to Omaha from his native Minneapolis, where he wrote about forgotten Minn. history, he’s drawn on Omaha’s past in his writing. His play Minstrel Show examines the infamous 1919 courthouse riot and the lynching of William Brown.

“As a dramatist I’m not interested in when people behaved well in the past, I’m interested in when they misbehaved, and this may be the greatest town in America for that.”

His blogs unearth colorful stories of Omaha’s disreputable past, including Ramcat Alley’s rough trade denizens, the Burnt District’s madams and striptease joints passing as theaters.

He similarly immersed himself in the history of Hollywood and New Orleans when he lived in those places.

He acknowledges his job with DCHS is “a perfect match.”

“I never expected I would wind-up being a professional historian and it’s so hard for me to think of myself that way but that is at the moment the road I’m on. It’s not a surprise to be here but it wasn’t planned.”

His historical writing is a treasure trove for the organization.

“I’m like this steady machine providing content they can make use of.”

He often makes DCHS presentations related to his findings and he teaches a genealogy class for folks searching their family histories.

Now that he can finally wrap his arms around his patchwork identity, he can look back, as Buffalo Bill did, and see where myth ends and reality begins. His journey’s not unlike Omaha’s own self-image problem.

“There’s a sociological concept called a sense of place – knowing where you come from and what it means to come from there – and this is what I’ve been wrestling with my entire life.”

Omaha’s bland present obscures a debauched legacy as wild frontier town and corrupt machine politics city.

“When people find out about it it’s exciting and interesting. It gives you something to connect to. It’s a very different narrative from the one Omahans are taught in schools, and it’s a shame because towns that embrace their own wild history often do very well with it.”

Follow his ever expanding family via social media, including http://happy-hooligan.blogspot.com. For play details, visit http://www.roseheater.org.

Faith, Friends and Facebook: The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten

December 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.

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Faith, Friends and Facebook

The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten

When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook

January 7, 2015
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.

That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I am healed.” Anyone unfamiliar with her spiritual side before discovered it once she began posting positive, faith-filled Facebook messages about her odyssey and ultimate healing, which she attributes to a Higher Power.

Her frequent “Fabulous Cancer-Free Babe” posts gained a loyal following. Many “Facebook Prayer Warriors” commented on her at-once intimate, inspirational, and humorous musings. One follower quipped, “Your posts are like going to church at the Funny Bone.”

Metoyer Moten decided cancer was an experience she couldn’t deny.

“When you perform, your whole thing is pulling people into this artistic moment with you,” she says. “When I got the cancer and started posting about it I thought, ‘Well, this is my song, this is the song I have right now and I want people to feel everything I’m feeling, the good parts and the bad parts.’ And at the end I want them to see the glory of God in it.”

The humor, too. She described the asymmetry of her reconstructed breasts. While losing and regaining hair she called her bald head “Nicki MiNoggin.” Once patches of growth came back it was “Chia Rivera.” She’s since dubbed her swept-back scraggle, “Frederick Douglass.”

“I wrote it as I saw it, Metoyer Moten adds. “If it struck me funny, that’s what it was. I will talk about anything, I just will. I’m just like this open book.”

That extended to shares about weight gain and radiation burns.

Mainly, she was a vehicle for loving affirmations in a communal space.

What support most touched her?

“Probably just the amount of prayer,” says Metoyer Moten, whose husband, Michael Moten, heads One Way Ministry. “Every time I said, ‘Please pray,’ there were people right there, and sometimes they would put their prayer right on the post, which was awesome. Some of the encouraging things they would say were really special. The Facebook people really did help to keep me lifted and encouraged and they said I did the same for them.

“It almost never failed that there were things I read I needed to hear. We had this beautiful circle going of building each other up.”

The sharing didn’t stop at social media exchanges.

“The thing I loved were the personal notes I got from people asking me to write to loved ones going through something, and I wrote to them just to encourage them because that was the whole purpose—to tell people who you go to in time of trouble.”

She’s now writing a book from her Facebook posts.

“My goal is to encourage people and to glorify God and to talk about how social media can be a meaningful thing.”

Camille, being Camille, went beyond virtual sharing to invite Facebook friends, all 2,000-plus of them, to “chemo parties” at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “I usually had about 12 to 15 people. The nurses were very sweet because sometimes we’d get too loud. Other patients sometimes joined the party, which was kind of my point, to liven it up. We just had a ball.”

It wasn’t all frivolity.

“We would pray on the chemo machine that the chemo would affect only the cancer cells and leave the good cells alone. Once, a woman rolled her machine over for us to lay hands on hers as well. It was just a beautiful testimony.”

Cancer didn’t stop Metoyer Moten from cabaret singing or acting

“Even though I had a little harder time every now and again,” she says, “it didn’t stop me from doing anything.”

She even believes she came out of it a better performer.

“I’m not a very emotional person,” she continues, “but sometimes to connect spiritually you have to have a little more emotion involved. I think now the stuff I’m doing on stage is better because I think I’ve connected to myself better emotionally. I think I had stuffed things down a long time ago. This made me realize it’s okay to have some emotions.”

Fellow performers David Murphy and Jill Anderson walked with her on her journey. Now that they’re battling their own health crises (Murphy’s vision problems and Anderson’s MS), Metoyer Moten is there for them.

She’s glad her saga helps others but doesn’t want cancer to define her.

“A long time ago I decided there’s no one thing that’s the sum total of your entire life,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about what God did for me during this experience, but I’m not going to dwell on the cancer bit forever. I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Cancer.’ I want them to look at me and say, ‘Healthy…healed.’”

 

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland: African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

December 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s the story I wrote for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the African Culture Connection and its founder-artistic director Charles Ahovissi in advance of their Dec. 8 production at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Pam and I went to that show expecting we would be thoroughly entertained having seen the company perform before and if anything our expectations were surpassed. There may be more positive energy and life-affirming love in a single ACC show than there is in a season’s worth of shows by other troupes. Combine that with the fact that there just isn’t anything else like what the ACC does in these parts and you have the makings for a singular experience that as my story tries to communicate is a rich cultural immersion not to be missed. It was a packed auditorium and those of us in the audience returned the energy and love received with our own warm, good vibes. By the way, the ACC show on the 8th was part of an alternative programming series the OCP offers. The programs are free and a welcome change of pace from the usual.

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi

 

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland

African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.

Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC’s dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series.

Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, “Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village’s purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.

Ahovissi says, “”There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I’m teaching a dance I’m also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.

“Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I’m teaching kids here the initiation dance I’m also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things.”

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit’s on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.

Ahovissi, ACC’s ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, “No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

In a real sense he’s carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that.”

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. “That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.

He conducts NAC residencies around the state.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I’m grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomes migrant populations from around the world “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Ahovissi’s still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. “I’m they’re hope,” he says. They’re his roots and inspiration.

Visit africancultureconnection.org.

 

 

Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Glimpses from the Dec. 8 performance of the Iroka legend dance

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.

“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”

An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.

“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”

With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”

Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.

“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.

Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.

“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.

“It was all about illusion.”

Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.

“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.

“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”

Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.

“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”

It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.

“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”

He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.

“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”

Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.

That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,

“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”

Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.

“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”

Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”

A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.

For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.

Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision

October 17, 2014 1 comment

A not-so-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to Jill Anderson organizing the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival this year: strange, unsettling, and often debilitating symptoms began appearing out of nowhere and after many tests, a mis-diagnosis and many more tests she found out the culprit: multiple sclerosis. In true trouper fashion she has carried on and “the show” is indeed going on in her capable hands. It is ironic perhaps that her life-altering disease should come in the year the festival explores the permutations of Bram Stoker’s classic transmutation novel Dracula.  Her festival, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 and uses art, music, drama, film, literature, and more to explore the themes bound up in the Stoker work and the superstitions and cultural traditions that influenced his creation.  Read about Jill, her perseverance, and her festival in this story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

 

 

Cover Story


 

 

 

Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival

Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.

In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she’s dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.

“My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It’s weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker,” she says.

Her indefatigable spirit’s hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie’s because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.

The emergence of her disease is still so new that she’s far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.

“It hits everybody differently, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there’s no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.

“I’ve heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can’t have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there’s no one around to help me? I’ve had blue days with those kind of thoughts.”

Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.

“Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research,” she says. “I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece.”

“There’s really no group in town doing exactly this,” she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says “Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they’re doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets.” What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of “what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people’s imaginations.” That niche, she adds, has found “a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature.”

Then there’s the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you’ll find in the metro.

“The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it’s really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building.”

Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.

“It’s been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 

Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn’t afford.

“I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.

My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, ‘It will never work for Dracula,’ and the clerk said, ‘I am related to him.’ My friend said, ‘Van Helsing?’ ‘No.’ With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.

“I leaped on him,” she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.

“What are the chances?” asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.

Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?

“I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it.”

For 2014 she sought “something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public.” With fellow creatives she’s concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:

•October 17

Movie Night, 7 p.m.

Nosferatu on the Green

F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle’s north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula’s rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. “Isn’t that fun?” Anderson says.

•October 23 through November 1

Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily

Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians

Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham’s permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai’s family artifacts go back many generations.

•October 23-26 and 29-30

Drama Duet, 7 p.m.

Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who’s directing, says, “This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He’s young but sort of timeless and ageless. He’s transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be.”

Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.

The two shows take place in the castle’s atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.

•October 27-28

Double Lecture, 6 p.m.

The Man Behind the Monster

and

Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology

Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author’s life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England’s preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.

Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as “absolutely fascinating stories” about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area’s deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.

•October 31

Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.

This “big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.

•November 1

Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.

Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.

Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.

“My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I’ve gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I’ve gotten thank you letters from people who’ve seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn’t seen him smile since his wife died. That’s the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that.”

Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music’s transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.

“On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ straight to my face.”

“It was totally surprising and wonderful,” Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of “Stardust,” “Amazing Grace,” “Softly” and Tenderly” and “How Great Thou Art,” no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.

She posted:

“Music is and always has been the great healer. I’ve usually been on the providing side of that equation. It’s interesting to be on the receiving end as well.”

The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an “all-consuming feat” she values now more than ever.

“It’s easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It’s something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward.”

She’s having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.

The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she’s looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.

“This Dracula I’m directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It’s a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another.”

Directing is something she expects to do more of.

“I’ve done more performing than directing but I’ve been directing for years and now I’m feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more,” says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.

She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She’s left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she’s always returned home.

She’s grateful for the outpouring of care she’s received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the “incredible love and loyalty” she’s received has meant a lot to her as she’s navigated this “scary stuff.”

She’s grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.

“This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you.”

 

 Jill Anderson, right, with fellow beloved Omaha entertainer, Camille Metoyer Moten, who survived breast cancer (my story on Camille is on this blog)

 

 

She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.

These experiences, she says, have given her “new insight” into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.

“I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they’re facing scary illness. When you’re sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you’re hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.

As an actress, Anderson’s called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.

“Oh God it’s hard to do. I think people’s ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now.”

There’s nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now

“All the weird stuff that’s happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I’m actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn’t able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before.”

In an April 5 post she shared, “Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents’ house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds.”

That ability to be in the moment, she says, “is the best thing that’s come out of it (her health crisis).” It’s why when people ask how she’s doing she can honestly say, “I’m taking it one day at a time.”

For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit http://www.joslyncastle.com.

 

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

September 29, 2014 1 comment

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.

Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

 

 

 
Two of a Kind

Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.

Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.

He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.

She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.

Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.

Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.

He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.

Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.

For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.

 

 

Vic Gutman

Idealist, Go-getter

Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.

“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.

He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.

“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,

At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.

“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”

He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.

“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”

Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.

“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”

The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”

Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.

He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.

In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.

“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”

Visionary, Dreamer
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.

“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. ”

Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.

“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”

She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.

In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.

 

 

 Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes

 

 

“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”

Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.

The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.

“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”

“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.

Serving Youth
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.

“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”

He despaired at what he found in that arena.

“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.

“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”

He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.

“Some of their stories broke my heart.”

The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.

“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”

Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.

“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”

All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.

He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”

 

Roberta Wilhelm on far right

 

 

Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.

“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”

This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .

“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”

At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.

After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.

“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”

She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.

“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”

She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.

Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”

Transformation
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”

Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”

The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”

Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.

“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.

Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.

Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.

“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”

The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.

Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.

“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”

“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.

Colleagues
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.

“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”

She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.

“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”

Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.

“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”

“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.

Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.

“We were ragtag,” she says.

“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”

“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.

As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”

“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.

When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.

“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.

By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”

Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.

“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”

The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.

Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”

Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.

“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”

He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.

Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.

Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.

“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.

“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”

When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”

Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.

“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”

She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.

“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.

“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”

When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.

Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

 

 

 

Dreams
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”

Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.

Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”

“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”

Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”

Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.

“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”

Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.

Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.

“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.

“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”

The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?

“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”

 

 

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