Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.




Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”


Tim Christian: Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Tim Christian may not look the part of a revolutionary figure in his three-piece suit and with his button-down manner, but what he’s doing in the film space in his hometown of Omaha is provocative enough to be considered far on the fringe stuff.  Well, at least it’s breaking new ground and shaking things up in this relative film financing wasteland.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of Christian and what he’s doing that’s getting people’s attention follows.  Watch for a future story about Christian and his film endeavors on this blog. I have a distinct feeling I will be writing about him and his film projects for years to come.



Tim Christian

Tim Christian

Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska


September 9, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing a music industry and new media career, he’s returned to base his feature film financing and production company, Night Fox Entertainment, here.

Where most local film ventures are micro-sized with no-name talent, Christian backs real projects with $10 million-plus budgets boasting recognizable cast and crew. Case in point, Z for Zachariah. Shot in New Zealand, the post-apocalyptic drama stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. It’s directed by Craig Zobel, whose 2012 Compliance made waves. Z netted strong reviews at Sundance and will get a 2015 theatrical release.

In post-production now is the thriller Headlock starring Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha, and Dianna Agron.

Night Fox further limits investor exposure by only financing pictures with strong pre-foreign sales, capping individual contributions, and spreading capital around several projects. That model is securing local movers and shakers to buy into projects, including Tenaska’s recently retired Paul Smith, also a Night Fox partner.

Christian says film financing can be a “tough sell to people who are of a conservative investment nature,” adding, “They need to see kind of black and white what you have, what you’re doing, how the money looks, so we have to make sure the approach is right.” Once it “makes sense,” he says investors “are all interested in being part of growing a business not prominent in Omaha.”

Besides, having a piece of a project with stars, premieres, awards, trailers, and posters has a “cool” factor other opportunities don’t offer.

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

“People have to like you. Even if they don’t like the other people involved, they have to like you. If they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work with you or give you their money.”

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

“They like to deal with someone away from that Hollywood mindset. They want a straight shooter, someone who they deem as honest and down-home who has Midwest values. That goes a long way.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, some folks reveal surprise that he’s African-American.

“Once they understand I know the business, I know what I’m talking about, I know how to protect their money, then all that goes out the window.”

As a Nebraska film financier, he’s already an outlier. As an African-American doing it, he’s pushing new boundaries.

“From a cultural standpoint I think it’s really significant because it gives some hope to other young African-Americans in terms of what they can do. That means a lot.”

Christian, married with one child, mentors at Jesuit Middle School in North Omaha.

An advantage to being in Nebraska (Night Fox also has an office in L.A.) is giving investors first shots at projects otherwise being shopped only on the coasts.

His next step in making the state a film player is East Texas Hot Links adapted from the Eugene Lee play. Omaha’s own John Beasley is a producer and actor in it. Samuel L. Jackson is an executive producer. The film may shoot in-state. If not, Christian’s committed to bringing future projects here as he believes film production can be an economic engine that employs people and boosts tourism.

Tim Christian 2

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Omaha has institutional-type theaters and grassroots-type theaters.  For most of its life the Blue Barn Theatre has been of the grassroots variety but now that a major capital campaign has allowed it to build its first permanent home, the Blue Barn is suddenly in a far more secure position than ever before.  Of course, that “suddenly” only came after decades of passion, struggle, invention and equity in building community capital.  And once the theater called in its chips and started rasing funds for the project, great pains were taken to retain its edgy, independent, homemade spirit in the beautiful new digs.  On a personal note, fate decreed that I write three stories about the Blue Barn’s momentous move into this new space, and for three separate publications no less, and all this after years of not writing about Blue Barn.  This is the second of those pieces and it appears in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

Past, present, future converge in new space

Appeaing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

Until now the Blue Barn Theatre has been like Omaha’s many other small stage companies by operating on a shoestring in makeshift spaces. This grassroots passion project was born of a band of New York drama school transplants afire with the idea of starting their own troupe. Relying more on creativity, charity, thriftiness and ingenuity than real budgets, they mounted plays in rented and borrowed spaces.

Suddenly, Blue Barn’s done the unthinkable for such a by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor by parlaying years of scommunity equity and creative capital to build its own space. It’s Omaha’s first purpose-build independent theater to go up in decades. The arresting new digs at 10th and Pacific are the result of Blue Barn staying the course, remaining true to itself and letting philanthropists catch up to the edgy aesthetic that’s gained it a loyal following.

The theater occupied several improvised spaces from its start in 1988, never really securing a place to call its own. It did find stability at the 11th and Jackson Old Market warehouse site where it was housed the last several years. Though hamstrung by cramped quarters not really suited for theater and lacking amenities, Blue Barn made the intimate environment – exposed vents and all – work. Blue Barn personalized it with help from artists designing original posters and custom fixtures.

The new theater – part of a mixed used site with residential units, a restaurant and a public garden – features enlarged, upgraded facilities and a flex indoor-outdoor space opening onto the garden. As an ode to its name, the exterior evokes a hand-raised barn via weathered steel walls framed by rebar poles and the roof’s pitched gables. The interior captures the old Blue Barn in hand-crafted floor and wall elements. The theater seats are from the former site. The way the audience enters the auditorium follows the flow of the old space. Splashes of blue recur throughout.

The new theater is the culmination of a vision shared by original Blue Barners’ Kevin Lawler, Hughston Walkinshaw, Nils Haaland and Mary Theresa Green. Some took turns at the helm. Each moved on, though never breaking ties. All but Green attended the SUNY-Purchase theater school. Her then-marriage to Lawler brought her into the fold. As the legend goes, Lawler was visiting Omaha when Old Market denizens embraced his theater dream and offered space to realize it in. He got Walkinshaw and Haaland to come join him. Clement-Toberer arrived a year later. She’s now led Blue Barn longer than anyone.

Kevin Lawler

The group’s deep, familiar kinship was evident one August morning at the new space. Emotions ran high during a tour and roundtable discussion. All agree the site fulfills what they once only dared imagine.

“Yes, it is the embodiment of a dream,” Lawler said.. “It’s just glorious to see. When we were in school in New York we’d go to these small off-Broadway places and see incredible theater and I grew up in Minneapolis where there are a lot of small incredible theaters just like this. So that was always a dream and to see Susan be able to make that happen for the Blue Barn in Omaha is amazing.”

“Every dream we’ve had in our entire existence is embodied in this building and we can keep dreaming,” Walkinshaw said.

Realizing that dream has been replete with challenges, including one space that burned down and people who burned-out.

“It’s been a road,” Clement-Toberer said.

Keeping it going meant digging into personal finances.

“A lot of sacrifices, big life sacrifices,” Lawler said. “There’s blood, sweat and tears in here. Nobody at this table has a retirement account. Nobody at this table probably has a savings account. We’ve all given our adult lives into making this art. The rewards have been with each other and the people we’ve been able to share stories with, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. So, yeah, there’s a lot invested.”

Susan Clement-Toberer

Susan Clement-Toberer

They say it’s all been worth it, given how far Blue Barn’s come.

“There were times we were homeless and there were times where there was a real chance the theater wasn’t even going to survive.,” Walkinshaw said. “Now it has, and I’ll tell you what, I breathe a lot easier, I don’t have to worry about the Blue Barn sustaining. I feel relieved now – like the Blue Barn way will continue now permanentlyand all the sacrifices we made and the passion we gave now will live.

“We survived long enough that the town made this happen. It made Film Streams happen, it made Saddle Creek (Records) happen. It found those art forms a little bit earlier. Now it’s made this happen.”

For Clement-Toberer it means, “now we know we have a home that we can create in where we can dream big, we can dream in ways and forms of storytelling we were never able to do before.”

Walkinshaw said the new building is “the final stage” of Blue Barn’s evolution “in terms of having a permanent place to live, but this permanent place to live also has endless possibilities for what the Blue Barn can do in terms of storytelling and play production.”

“To have your own space is pretty phenomenal,” said Haaland, who acts there. “There’s a long list of people that have definitely helped us out. I can’t help but have tremendous respect for all those who have sort of paved the way. Mary and Kevin saved it a number of times out of their own pocket. Hughston stood up and was the leader for a long time. Kevin led for a very long time. And then I’m truly just humbled by what Susan has done. It does take one person to lead and she has done just an exemplary job. I mean, we are very fortunate to have her.”

Hughston Walkinshaw

Green said, “I’m very moved just by the generosity of everybody coming together to put this together. It’s breathtaking, really, the scope of how beautiful it is. It’s gorgeous. It’s a testament to the community’s support for the theater all of these years.”

The Blue Barn’s long been a darling of Omaha tastemakers, with the likes of Alexander Payne among its fan-support base. But it only recently got corporate sponsors such as Omaha Steaks and donors such as developer-philanthropist Nancy Mammel to buy in.

Despite many lean years the theater gained enough credibility to launch a capital campaign to fund construction of the new site as well as raise funds for an operating budget and endowment.

Clement-Toberer said that in the process of Blue Barn gaining its first permanent home her main concern was maintaining the theater’s funky, grassroots identity and intimate relationship with patrons.

“The biggest struggle for this building in creating our home has been to keep the Blue Barn voice clear and pure to who we are and to how we create theater. Everybody thinks they know what a theater should be and how we should produce theater. Even with this major transition of moving into our own space there have been times where people say, ‘But that’s not how you do that in theater, you need to do it this way.’ Well, we don’t have to do it that way.

“If we want to change something after we’ve opened, we change it because it’s not instinctually, organically right for the story.”

Cover Photo

Mary Theresa Green said the Blue Barn way is a process born of freedom, exploration and seizing inspiration where you find it, whether repurposing materials or calling in favors for props and set pieces.

“To me, it means producing something very organically and from a place of love and hope,” Green said. “Like the found objects and somebody who just happens to know somebody who has free things we can use and put together. Because everyone is so creative and imaginative and free and almost very childlike in creating the pieces, they become these deeply beautiful shows that really affect and touch people, way beyond just basic entertainment.

“I mean, a Blue Barn show to me is something where each audience member will take their own personal journey inside of themselves and connect with it on a really deep level personally.”

“A lot of times we are still scrapping, getting what we can to put up last minute stuff,” Haaland said. “But I think it’s really evolved now in that it’s much more methodical. With age there’s so much more experience, wisdom and maturity.”

Nils Haaland

 Nils Haaland

Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference producing artistic director, described Blue Barn’s guiding ethos.

“There’s a certain type of show I think we all just loved when we saw it and if I had to put it into words, it’s like what any great work of art will do when you see it or partake in it, you walk away from it being cracked open as a person and looking at and feeling the world differently. Even if it’s an incremental amount of growth, it happens, and it’s very distinct. You can ask all of us and we all knew then this is what we wanted to facilitate with every show we put up.

“It’s like, we don’t have any money, all we have is ourselves, but somehow we’re going to get to the heart of this story so deeply it will facilitate this experience of opening up a compassion, and the people who come and share in the story will have that experience. That to me has been the seed of the whole thing from the beginning.

“And then all this has happened around it,” Lawler said.

Clement-Toberer, who with managing director Shannon Walenta built the theater’s business side to balance the artistic side, believes she knows why the community’s repeatedly come through with support.

“I think it’s pretty simple – it’s our mission. What we do on stage has not changed over the years. Matured a little bit, which I think is good. But I think it’s the stories we tell and the way we produce theater. And the way we built this theater is the way we also produce theater – the Blue Barn way, which is found objects that become magnificent and sets we build at cost but create a great vessel to tell a story. Our budget’s a little higher but I’m still digging through dumpsters.

“I think this building is a great manifestation of the history all of our work over the ears and of our training at Purchase. It’s been the common thread and people have connected to that. We know how to tell a great story and how to produce a show without forgetting the heart of the piece.”

She found the right interpreters to articulate these things in the building in Joshua Dachs from New York-based international theater space planning and consulting firm Fisher Dachs and in architect Jeff Day of the Omaha and San Francisco-based architectural firm MinDay.

Jeff Day

“I think she sensed I would understand where she was coming from, which I did,” Dachs said. “When I visited the Blue Barn it was clear it’s a kind of artisanal handmade theater company. The old space had amazing show posters designed by artist friends – beautiful woodcuts and lino-prints – as well as handmade ceramics by Susan’s husband (Dan Toberer) and a hand-carved wood counter by an artist friend.

“The whole place had this wonderful, very specific spirit. And the biggest fear she had and that I wanted to help her avoid is that in moving to a new building it would somehow get sterilized and become generic and no longer reflect the spirit of the company and the character of the place it’s built up over many years.”

The very things bound up in Blue Barn drew Dachs to the project.

“What captured my imagination was the special quality and character of the Blue Barn,” he said. “It’s incredibly unique. The sort of mythology of how it was born and all of the artists that have played a role in making it what it is. The idea that this kind of artisanal theater company was going to make itself a home and fight the urge to become grand and formal and all of the things that happen a lot.”

Dachs admires the uncompromising stand Clement-Toberer’s taken to stay true to Blue Barn and not go for the slick or the inflated, like the 300-seat theater some pressured her to pursue. The new theater accommodates about the same number of patrons, 96, as before.

“It takes a really strong leader to fight that inclination and to stay within your means and to build something that’s right-sized, so that it can endure and sustain itself into the future. That’s really hard to do. But she’s really smart.”

Architect Jeff Day said, “There was a very strict sense of budget, so we knew from the very beginning how much they could spend on the building, and Susan was really on top of things to make sure this was achievable. We had to cut things out here and there. She was willing to make sacrifices on things they don’t really need.

“It’s not a showy building in the sense of being super-refined. It’s really a place for improvisation. We’re trying to leave a certain amount of open-endedness to it. The intention is that the building will allow them to grow into it and modify it over time. It’s really an evolving space. We thought of it as a framework for them.”

Mary Theresa Green

Just as Dachs did, Day found the project appealing because of how the theater does things.

“Blue Barn likes to think of itself as experimental and challenging,” Day said. “They’re not afraid of doing edgier things that might shock people or cause people to think. Obviously for an architect that’s exciting because it sort of gives us justification to do things that are unfamiliar as well, which we love to do.

“From a planning standpoint probably the most unique feature is that the back of the stage can open up to the covered outdoor space – we call it a porch yard. Then that opens up to the garden, so you really get continuity from theater to city. They can close the doors and have an acoustically-sealed space that will work like a black box or studio theater or they can open it up and have these events with really unique stagings.”

Many ways were found to give the new site the handmade qualities that distinguished the previous venue.

“There’s a lot of character in that theater which draws directly from the Blue Barn’s old space,” Day said. “It was really an attempt to break away from the neutrality of the black box theater type. For example, the old Blue Barn had this warehouse column structure and without replicating we brought some large timbers into the space to help create a framed area around the seating.”

Clement-Toberer calls it “the nest.”

Blue Barn Theatre Omaha's photo.

“It brings the scale down to just slightly bigger than the old Blue Barn,” Day said. “It gives the sense of intimacy they’ve had while creating a sense of texture and character.”

Since collaboration is a hallmark of the company, the theater commissioned artists in different media to contribute their talents. The heavy timbers used in the new theater’s eight columns were salvaged and milled by Dan Toberer, a ceramist who collects felled trees and sawmill scraps he variously repurposes or uses in his wood-fired kiln.

“We identified different elements that could be turned over to artists and they weren’t working necessarily under our direction,” Day said.

Toberer also created original ceramic pieces and built the sinks in the bathrooms. He also sourced scrap wood that contractors used to clad the theater box in.

Omaha artist Michael Morgan did a piece of the lobby and vestibule in dark grey bricks with blue glazing.

Kris Kemp from the Hot Shops fabricated the enormous rear door that opens onto the green space.

Jim Woodhill of Kansas City, Mo. did lighting elements and furniture.

For Day, everything works together to create a mystique.

“I think of it as it almost being a character in a play. You can’t escape the fact this is the Blue Barn Theatre when you’re in there.”

Joshua Dachs

He said the theater’s been designed with the eclectic character of its delightfully messy residential-commercial surroundings in mind.

“It does replicate sort of in a way some of the forms you might find in this neighborhood, which is really mixed up. So the idea was to make this complex of buildings feel like it’s part of that.”

Much thought was put into the theater’s setting since it’s now part of a robust South 10th Corridor with the Old Market, the Durham Museum, the House of Loom, KETV, Little Italy, Cascio’s. No More Empty Cups and the Bancroft Street Market. Vic Gutman’s coming Omaha Market will be just to the south of the Blue Barn-Boxcar complex.

“It’s a site in the city that’s very prominent,” Day said. “It could be a demonstration for other ways Omaha could think about development. The fact that we essentially have three projects on one site all working together is quite unique. We’re thinking of this as a microcosm of the city that has public space, nonprofit cultural space and private space. We sought to design this as kind of an urban arts hub.”

Even with the new theater, Clement-Toberer’s wish list is not quite complete where the Blue Barn’s concerned. She said the family-like dynamic she and the founders used to fire their work together is something she’d like to recapture there.

“It makes me wish for an underwriter to underwrite something here like the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky, where we all could be under this roof daily, creating. I’m waiting for the corporation in Omaha progressive enough to realize their connection with art will make whatever it is they do grow as well. I’m waiting – they’re out there.”

Blue Barn opens its 27th season on Sept. 24 with The Grown-Up. For details and tickets, visit


Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises: Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

I don’t know if thinking about food a good deal of the time and preparing things from scratch once or twice a week qualifies me as a foodie, but in truth I am somewhere between the eating to live and living to eat camps.  Wherever I fall on the spectrum, I do know enough about good food to know when I see it and taste it.  And while my resources don’t allow me to dine out nearly as much as my curiosity and palate would have me, I try enough of the local culinary scene and read enough about it too to have a fair appreciation for what’s happening in terms of the players, the cuisines, the menus, and the venues that are trending hot.  Anyone with a pulse who’s paid attention and sampled even a small portion of Omaha’s culinary culture the past decade knows that the city is in the midst of a food renaissance of sorts that’s seeing more and more highly trained chef owners taking the farm to table movement seriously and serving up diverse offerings that highlight local, fresh, seasonal ingredients and products.   In that spirit, here is a new Reader ( feature story I did that explores some of what’s making the Omaha culinary culture a much discussed topic.  I sounded out some chef movers and shakers making it happen as well as others with a perspective on this fluid, dynamic scene.

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

If you’re an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.

Not coincidentally, many of these places are steeped in the locally-sourced, organic, farm-to-table, artisan, and made-from-scratch movements. Classically trained culinary artists have built relationships with area growers and producers, in some cases designing seasonal and even daily menus around what’s at its peak of freshness and flavor.

Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman, a strong adherent and leader of the sustainable model, says there are about 50 grower-producers he works with on a regular basis.

“It’s a good healthy number. Some folks grow seasonally, some grow year-round. Some are local, some are in western Nebraska, and some are in Iowa. We work with a few as far as Jefferson, SD and Caledonia, Minn. I feel like our list is vast and it continues to grow.”

The Omaha research and design collaborative, Emerging Terrain, helped bring chefs and purveyors together at two events; 2010’s Stored Potential’s Harvest Dinner and 2011’s Elevate, which some point to as tipping points.

“Those events were so ambitious, so crucial in interconnecting the community,” says Chef Paul Kulik, the driving force behind the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. “I know we were introduced to a bunch of new suppliers and growers that were extremely helpful. That’s when I really saw through the looking glass.”

 Emerging Terrain dinner

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society holds similar events, including the annual Producers Choice and monthly Sustainability Happy Hour.

Metropolitan Community College’s marriage of its well-ranked Institute for Culinary Arts with its Horticulture Department is considered cutting-edge. MCC instructor chefs like Brian O’Malley champion a local foods infrastructure. ICA graduates permeate the local restaurant scene.

Chapman took things to the next level with his Grey Plume Provisions store which opened last summer.

“It only increases our network of farmers because of the volume we’re purchasing. We really wanted to be able to provide the Grey Plume quality of food – the marmalades, the jams, the preserves, our house-roasted coffees, our series of hand-crafted chocolate, the charcuterie – but in an every-day accessible retail format for the home consumer.”

The sustainable, farm-to-table culinary ethos is nothing new. It’s been around since the time of Escoffier, but largely dissolved in America, only to be rediscovered by Alice Waters in California in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In Omaha the trend never quite took hold until recently. Now local chefs such as Chapman, Kulik, and Bryce Coulton of the French Bulldog, are earning national attention for their rigorous and creative applications of old and new philosophies.

“It’s really supply and demand,” Chapman says. “It’s the demand of chefs because we want the best ingredients available. We want to know where our ingredients are coming from. We want to know the farmers, ranchers, and growers raising these products. I think there’s a lot of guest requests for us to procure these items. They want to see them on the menus, too, and it’s because the dining public has never been as educated into what they’re eating, and the health benefits of eating organic, local, or seasonal as they are now .

“There’s so much more attention to it in the media that it’s really kind of come full circle from consumer to chef to farmer, and it’s really kind of putting us all on the same playing field, which is neat.”

 Clayton Chapman

Whether Omaha truly has a signature culinary culture is debatable, but what’s not is that a city long pegged as a steakhouse town, albeit with some continental fine dining spots thrown in, has changed its profile. It’s hard imagining Omaha has ever boasted this depth of culinary talent and diversity of highly executed cuisines before. This critical mass of good food, served in settings that range from fine dining to ultra-casual, and found in virtually every part of the metro, comes just as customers are more discerning and demanding.

“There are a lot of wealthy Omahans who travel domestically and abroad and they see these things happening everywhere and they want it here,” says Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef owner Nick Strawhecker, an evangelist for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. “We have so many regulars, they’ve seen the light and they will not go back to the dark again, and it’s fantastic.”

Omaha is developing distinct dining districts to complement its one holdover, the Old Market. A local food tourism industry is in sight as Downtown, Midtown, Dundee, Benson, South Omaha and West Omaha roll out ever more interesting restaurants and food stores.

It’s a happy convergence of trends for diners, who have far more good options today than even five years ago. There is promise of more to come as some sous chefs and line cooks working at top end places invariably launch their own concepts.

“Because you are seeing more and more Omaha restaurants worthy of that type of apprenticeship or up to that sort of training challenge, it really creates a kind of self-sustaining circle of chefs,” Chapman says.

 Paul Kulik

Kulik agrees, saying, “They’re going to take these work habits into their take on a new place. This is why I think it’s not a flash in the pan but a durable change. You have enough people realizing that as an investor, you can probably make money in a restaurant that cares.”

Kulik has a long history on the Omaha culinary scene, and like many of his peers he left here to hone his craft under top chefs across America and Europe. He may best sum up the state of then and now with, “It’s really tough to say 10 years ago there was anything relevant to the national food conversation coming out of Omaha at all. The kind of dynamism and enthusiasm happening now is a trend I expect will continue. It’s just about as significant a turnaround as you can imagine.”

He suggests the culinary evolution has caught up with the arts-cultural-entrepreneurial growth that’s witnessed a more confident, vibrant city.

“About 20 years ago the conversation around town amongst people who cared about cooking and restaurants was whether Omaha was ready for this or for that. Fifteen years later we opened the Boiler Room and that conversation hadn’t changed one iota. The reality is, much like any professional field, it is incumbent on the professionals to maintain the highest level of continuing education, curiosity, development, enrichment, energy, focus and drive to keep the conversation moving forward.

“The food scene cannot simply wait for the sea of change to happen from the customer first, it has to be driven by professionals.”

His declaration of principles, or food manifesto, is shared by many.

“We’re trying to update the dining culture to make it so that it’s kind of entered into the 21st century and in some ways returned to the 19th century, which is to say going back to real products,” Kulik says.

He believes it didn’t happen earlier here because of “a prevailing sentiment in the market to simply continue on and customers settling for what they were accustomed to getting. I think that lethargy of curiosity bled over to the culinary, professional side, where any white table cloth, continental cuisine kitchen was essentially serving the same dish, buying product from the same two or three vendors, with almost no thought about the distinguishing traits of regionalism, of raw products, of raw food techniques, which is taking food that came of the earth that day and maximizing its potential on the plate.”

Life many of his contemporaries, he’s excited by the sophisticated beverage and craft cocktail programs to have emerged in Omaha. He says until now “beverage programs tailored to menus didn’t exist here,” adding, “So now what’s really thrilling is you have determined, in some cases courageous or stubborn cooks and chefs offering the food and the menus they feel most passionate about and are most excited to offer their guests.”

“You don’t go to every restaurant and expect to receive an identical menu,” Kulik says. “Restaurants now can be distinguishable from each other. When that happens you have specialization of labor. Someone can do a particular brand or type of food enough times to become a true expert at that skill set. This is what’s happening now and it’s happening to such a degree that you’re not only getting the chefs doing this but the rest of the kitchen staff. It’s having the ability to do a product thousands and thousands of times, whether it’s the right kind of bread or pizza crust or house made pasta or charcuterie or butchering whole animals or working with farmers.”

Bryce Coulton

Bryce Coulton, whose French Bulldog has won awards for its charcuterie, brought authentic influences here from training he did abroad. He’s bullish on the quality of diverse culinary traditions available.

“We now have Omakase (style of sushi) in Benson. Charcuterie is quite commonplace and has more options than just old-school butcher options African cuisine is now within reach. Pastas are handmade and dishes are just as would be found in Italy, and I lived in Puglia for five years. The whole animal concept is a matter-of-course and it’s not just ribeye, New York strip, et cetera as our steak options. This diversity is part of what has made the culinary scene better. That we’re focusing on local products is another aspect that forces cooks to be more aware of the seasons and prepare a menu and dishes accordingly.”

Bosnian native Dario Schicke, chef-owner of Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria, has seen a big difference since moving to Omaha in 2002.

“You’d have a really hard time even finding fresh mozzarella on the market. Now restaurants are serving more fresh ingredients we can get from either coast shipped overnight and utilize them in our menu as soon as the next day. That’s a huge improvement in the aspect of all ingredients being available to us. More farmers are being more restaurant-oriented and it’s kind of pushing local chefs, including myself, to use better, fresher local ingredients.”

Dario Schicke


Kukik describes the benefits a diner like himself experiences at a place featuring this considered, well-articulated approach.

“I’m someone who loves to get taken care of at a restaurant, and I love to be able to have a conversation with the sommelier or the bartender about what beverage makes sense with this, what’s on their bar back, why are they pouring this, why are they into sour beer or cider. These are all parts of the conversation I get to have now because they cared enough, they spent enough time

and energy and money to educate themselves for my benefit.”

“For me, as a diner I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than going to a place and understanding that the people working there care more about my experience than I do. Now there are all these people who are so committed to their craft that it matters deeply and personally if they haven’t given the experience the guest wanted. This is such a huge change compared to before, when after service everyone was partying until 4 in the morning and dragging themselves back to work the next day to deal with the rigors of service or being in the industry, throwing around those terms like a badge of courage – when the challenge is to be excellent despite all the pressures not to be.”

It’s not that Omaha’s past food scene was bereft of quality or care. The now defunct French Cafe, Cafe de Paris, Old Vienna Cafe and Marino’s Italian Restaurant, for example, delivered countless great meals. Mainstays like M’s Pub continue long traditions of excellence. Overall, though, it was a spotty scene and in some instances things began slipping as cooks or owners turned to “shortcuts.”

“A lot of Italian restaurants got away from using real, authentic, high quality ingredients,” says Schicke.

Kulik says, “A lot of white table cloth places became sort of really derivative and unmotivated and there was almost no room for thoughtful casual places.”

Fine dining can be found at select steakhouses, French and Italian restaurants and Asian spots. High concept casual places, especially those doing killer fresh, from-scratch comfort food, abound.

Chefs, along with veteran area food writers Nichole Aksamit and Summer Miller, say the real difference from then to now are the new chef-driven and chef-owned places that display an enthusiastic, even obsessive embrace of well-prepared fresh foods that don’t skimp on technique or flavor. Free of corporate pressures, these chefs truly are the masters of their own kitchens as well as the front of their houses and therefore they can stay absolutely true to their vision and passion, including working closely with purveyors to get the best ingredients for their in-house creations.

Brian O’Malley

Brian O’Malley says rather than a culinary culture, there is an identifiable Omaha culinary school.

“If I were to give it four words to define its primary tenets, they would be: Rustic, honest, beholden and Brave. Omaha’s food is getting better because Omaha’s craftsmen are getting better. We are growing from the knowledge and skills handed to us, and beat into us, by the craftsmen that came before us. We are not magic. We hold no newer, grander philosophical approaches to food than did our predecessors. We are stewards of the craftsmanship we cherish.”

“We have more and more people that care a great deal about their food. This pushes the producers, chefs, and restaurateurs in a loving way to be more respectful of the ingredients and how they are prepared.”

Some local culinary stars are leading the way, and nearly all have come up through the ranks of Omaha’s finer dining establishments.

“Five years ago Paul Kulik down at the Boiler Room was kind of a lone wolf in regards to his sourcing and his menu practices,” Chapman says. “Then we opened and a lot of other people opened after we did, but the availability and the accessibility of those ingredients when we first opened was far less significant than it is now.”

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society executive director William Powers says, “Numerous chefs have really gotten behind this idea of an Omaha food culture that works hand-in-hand with local farmers who embody the idea of community and culture. Clayton Chapman at Grey Plume, Nick Strawhecker at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Joel Mahr at Lot 2 and Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room are leaders in this good food revolution.

“OverEasy, Kitchen Table, and Block 16 are all great examples of new restaurants embracing this food culture. At the root of this is a sustainable agriculture predicated on supporting local and craft ideals. Farmers and chefs continue to cultivate the relationships through conversations that, in too many restaurants. never happen because the sourcing unfortunately is not as important. But a good chef, like a good farmer, knows the value of creating and growing a product representative of the ideals and culture they’re trying to create.”

Kulik says, “If it’s not the Boiler Room at the tip of the spear then it’s Dante. It’s people coming back in the midst of the economic downturn or Grey Plume opening and offering another white table cloth experience with an overt and extremely full-throated support for local purchasing and sustainable farming practices. It’s Bryce (Coulton) at the French Bulldog with his charcuterie program. Or it’s (chef) Joel Mahr and (owners and sommeliers) Brad and Johanna Marr at Lot 2 being a little bit fresher and more progressive in a revived Benson. Or it’s the Duggans (Colin and Jessica) moving back from San Francisco and opening Kitchen Table.

“All these things coincide with each other but it starts when somebody says, “I’m not going to dilute the message of my product.'”

Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.

“Due to the collaborative nature of the culinary environment here, we share experiences, knowledge-technique and farmer-rancher contacts,” Coulton says. “Unless we’re resistant to new ideas, we’re bound to take input from other cooks and further develop ourselves professionally, which leads to dishes that possess a bold creativity, yet with a Midwestern reserve.”

Chapman says, “We’re all kind of rooted in some type of approach. A lot of what we do is rooted in French technique but we combine New American type flavors or presentations. I think it’s allowed everybody to develop their own styles but it’s also created a universal thread. It’s helped build the expectation for the guest, which is probably the most important thing. When we say Contemporary American or New American it just help gives the guest insight into what we do.

“A lot of it is diner or guest awareness. The more educated the home consumer, even the more they cook meals from scratch themselves at home, the more they’re going to appreciate meals from scratch when they go out to eat and the more they’re going to look for it. I think that’s huge and I definitely think that’s where the market is headed.”

“But really what drives it is the reward, the satisfaction you get for giving a value-added experience that’s appreciated,” Kulik says. “When enough guests say, ‘I had no idea it could ever be like this,’ boy are you ever emboldened and want to step it up. It’s like a drug and you so desperately want to offer that experience all the time.

That’s how it really pushes the expectations higher.”

Nick Strawhecker, ©photos by Dana Damwood from the book New Prairie Kitchen by author Summer Miller

The recognition some Omaha chefs have received, including James Beard nominations, can rub off on others.

“I’m a firm believer in a high tide raising all ships,” Chapman says.

“As one chef gains acknowledgment for a job well done, it forces the rest of the chefs to want to step up their game as well,” Coulton says.

Kulik says where only a few years ago he struggled naming even a few places to steer big city visitors to, he has a ready list today.

“What’s awesome now is I can say, ‘You need to go here for brunch, here for lunch, here for dinner, here for this kind of meal, there for that kind of meal, this place is great for this or the other thing.’ There’s like 12 to 18 places I can recommend, from rehabilitated places like V Mertz that’s turned this corner and become a really interesting and inspiring restaurant, or Taita, the best restaurant in town nobody’s heard of, Lot 2, Kitchen Table, Block 16, the French Bulldog, Avoli, Dario’s, the Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, the Grey Plume, Dante…”

Other spots getting love include Mark’s Bistro. DixieQuicks, Le Voltaire, Laos Thai, China Garden, Taqueria Tijuana and Metro’s Sage Student Bistro. Enzo’s and Mouth of the South are new players in underserved North Omaha (Florence).

“What are you in for? Where are you staying? That’s the whole point right? That there’s food to be had all over town that’s going to stay with you,” Kulik says.

Strawhecker says, “I’m definitely a lot more proud about our culinary scene than before. When I was in Chicago I balked at moving back because I was like, ‘There’s no place for me to eat’. It was kind of bleak. Now there’s like 10 joints I go to on a regular basis that are fantastic. That’s just from a personal standpoint but that overlaps professionally because of the discerning guests who have to have certain things we now have in Omaha to offer.”

Omaha may be an emerging regional food destination but everyone agrees it has room to grow in terms of more markets and eateries that feature fresh products and authentic ethnic choices.

“If there’s food tourism coming then that’s because we’re not only participating in the national conversation about food but in fact we’re also directing a portion of that conversation,” says Kulik. “That’s where I hope we can take what we do here.”

Vic Gutman, the man behind the metro’s largest farmers markets, is planning what may be the next big catalyst on the local food scene – the Omaha Market, an under-one-roof fresh foods hub.

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, ‘Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,’ officially releases today – August 26, 2015

August 26, 2015 1 comment

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

Releases today, August 26, 2015

Order your copies at-

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, officially releases today, August 26, 2015, in conjunction with the birthday of Mother Teresa. He variously knew the late nun and humanitarian now in line to become a saint in the Catholic Church as his inspiration, boss, colleague and friend.

Before going overseas to do missionary work the Clarkson, Neb. native served various parishes in the state, including Sacred Heart and Holy Family in Omaha. After years away serving the poorest of the poor, he returned home and served at St. Richard and St. Benedict the Moor.

He’s ministered to many diverse communities in his time, including Native American reservations, Hispanic parishes and inner city African-American congregations. He is a long-time social justice champion and an outspoken equal rights advocate. He’s also served divese populations around the world, including long stints in Yemen, India and Liberia.

The book is the story of this beloved priest’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him and places that astonished him. Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services, first in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India, and then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

The book features a beautiful full-color album with Father Vavrina’s photo collection. Crossing Bridges is available online for single copy or bulk purchase at-

It is also available in black and white and Kindle ebook formats on

Soon to be available in select bookstores. Watch for announcements about signings.

After the costs of publishing are subtracted, all proceeds from this book will be donated to Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha. It is Father’s sincere hope that others will read the stories and be inspired to serve their fellow man, either right next door or somewhere across the world.

From the book:
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

From Father Ken:
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”



©2015 Kenneth Vavrina

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NOTE: Father Vavrina contracted malaria in Yemen and he’s dealt with malaria attacks ever since. He describes one in the book that ;anded him in the  hospital

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Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

August 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Like any city of any size Omaha’s had all manner of presenting arts organizations, some small, some large, some financially well-endowed, some financially-strapped.  There have been organizations with sizable staff and there have been one-man bands.  Some have cast a wide net across the performing arts spectrum and others have been more narrowly focused on a particular niche or segment.  Most presenters have come and gone, never to be seen or heard from again, and a few disappear for a time, only to resurface again.  The following story for Metro Magazine  ( is about today’s major Omaha Player in this arena, Omaha Performing Arts, the organization that both books and maintains the two principal performing arts venues in the city, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre.  Befitting its well-heeled status, the organization is celebrating 10 years in a big way this fall with an October 16 gala and an October 17 Holland Stages festival.  These will be boffo, bring-the-house-down blow-outs that are as much a recognition of the rich programming that enhances the cultural fabric here as they are opportunities for OPA to say thank you to its patrons for the community to return the gratitude for all the great shows that come here on a year-round basis.

Omaha Performing Arts at 10: Rhapsody

Presenting organization serves as steward of major halls and brings Broadway and other world-class shows to town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (

What a difference a decade makes.

In that relatively short period the Omaha arts and entertainment scene has blown up thanks to a critical mass of new organizations, venues and events. Together with the treasures already here, this cultural synergy’s transformed Omaha from sleepy flyover spot into dynamic destination place.

Leading the new arrivals is Omaha Performing Arts. The organization books world-class artists at the venerable Orpheum Theater and its state-of-the-art companion, the Holland Performing Arts Center. As the steward of these spaces, OPA’s charged with caring for them and filling their halls with high quality events that appeal to all demographics.

Growing the performing arts scene
Great halls are only truly alive when people inhabit them. OPA schedules year-round offerings that keep its spaces hopping to the tune of 3 million-plus patrons since 2005. All those folks, many from out of town, pump $40 million into the local economy each year.

By bringing the best of performing arts to town, OPA adds to the rich stew of the Blue Barn Theatre, the Rose, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Great Plains Theatre Conference, the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha – all of which are thriving.

OPA president Joan Squires says, “Across the board the arts community has elevated attention and we’re seeing a lot of our colleagues doing well at the same time. So there’s been renewed energy downtown and in our community for people wanting to come to performances and there’s more options to select from than ever before. I do believe we contributed to had a lot to do with that sea change.”

Dick Holland, who with his late wife Mary made the lead gift for the Holland, has no doubt of OPA’s impact. “It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”

That’s on top of popular attractions such as the Old Market, College World Series, Omaha Storm Chasers, Joslyn Art Museum, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.


Celebrating a decade but looking ahead
OPA board chairman John Gottschalk says the public’s reception to the programming has “vastly” exceeded expectations and quelled any doubts Omaha could sustain two major performing arts centers.

This organization that never rests is pausing long enough this fall to commemorate its boffo first decade run. The October 16 Celebrate 10 Gala will feature Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in a Holland spectacular. The October 17 Holland Stages will be a free daylong festival highlighted by diverse performing artists at the Holland.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones in a short period of time,” Squires says, “and we really want to use our anniversary to celebrate what everybody has done for the institution and to start looking forward to the next decade. I think it’s something Omaha as a community should really celebrate. It’s an extraordinary story and opportunity for us.”

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways,” Gottschalk says. “We’re a very healthy arts organization.”

OPA grew out of an initiative Gottschalk, Dick Holland, Walter Scott and others led to renovate the Orpheum and build the Holland. Gottschalk says much effort was made recruiting Squires from the Phoenix Symphony to oversee the Omaha facilities and “she’s done a wonderful job,'” Holland says, “I don’t think we’d have the same success without her. Joan is a perpetual motion machine looking after every single detail you can think of. She’s just plain marvelous.”

Investing in the community
Squires deflects accolades to others.

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.

“The people involved in this organization are highly committed and passionate and that starts with our board of directors. John Gottschalk, who’s been our chairman since inception, certainly Dick Holland, and the entire board have been tremendously committed, generous and great stewards. Their leadership has been everything.”

The public’s done its share, too.

“The response by the Omaha community buying tickets and showing up at performances has been incredible. We can continue to get better and better shows because producers look at our ticket sales and results. Broadway shows come in here and report this is one of the best opening night audiences they have.”

She says the fall anniversary events are “our way to say thank you to everybody who’s a part of this,” adding, “The folks that started this institution made an extraordinary investment and you just have to stand back for a moment and say, ‘Bravo.'”

Getting to this point required a remarkable growth spurt for an organization that began with Squires, an assistant production manager, a desk and a computer in 2002. The Orpheum renovation was underway. The Holland was still in the planning stages. Heritage Services raised more than $100 million in private giving to complete the two projects and to help get OPA up and running.

That level of community buy-in is what attracted Squires to take the job and she continues to be impressed by the ongoing support that feeds her organization and to make enhancements at its venues.

“Omaha is known for the deep roots of its philanthropic community. The leadership behind this project was extraordinary. They were invested in its success.”

Then there’s the fact OPA filled a void left by arts impresarios and presenting organizations no longer around.

“There were no other major presenters in town, so I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

She says the support that coalesced around all this “is really about
a commitment to quality of life and making Omaha better for current and future generations.” She adds, “We couldn’t have done this without the partnership of Heritage Services raising the money to get the Holland up and open at the same time we were getting things started here. It’s another key why we were successful from the beginning. That partnership gave us an advantage coming out of the chute.”

Gottschalk says donors made substantial gifts “because they thought it would be good for Omaha and it was, and that’s really been the legacy of the community – we’ve been able to sustain that view – if it’s good for our community, let’s do it.”

Scaling up
The Orpheum renovations have allowed the theater to host the biggest Broadway touring shows (The Lion King, Wicked, Once) whose wildly popular runs make the venue one of America’s best draws. The Holland is home to the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and to a diverse slate of jazz, dance and specials that range from the Omaha Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam to the Hear Nebraska indie music showcase to the Salem Baptist Church holiday concert to Film Streams’ annual Feature event.

The buildings are rich in patron and guest amenities, the latest being the addition of Zinc restaurant just off the Holland courtyard.

Squires spent her first three years putting in place OPA’s infrastructure and branding, including the Ticket Omaha service it operates. She now has a full-time staff of 50 with another 50 part-time staff, plus a volunteer corps of more than 500.

“I’m really delighted with the administrative team here. They are passionate, committed, and talented. They drive so much of this business. We’re lucky to have our volunteer Ambassadors and Presenters. There are hundreds of people involved who are passionate and committed about Omaha Performing Arts.”

With its $18 million operating budget OPA is the state’s largest arts organization. It’s growth, even programmatically, has been gradual.

“You can’t be everything to everybody the day you open the doors,
so you phase it in in stages,” Squires says. “Also by the nature of presenting we’re continuously experimenting in what works or what doesn’t. One of the challenges our very first year is that the Orpheum schedule didn’t allow for much touring Broadway productions. When the symphony moved to the Holland the schedule opened up to allow us to build that Broadway market. That took time and now we’re having tremendous success. This next year is probably going to be our most successful yet. We’re having a wonderful response with subscriptions.”

The mixing and matching OPA does to serve different tastes is always a work in progress but Squires says, “We really have hit our stride in the series we offer. Broadway is one of the biggest draws but we get great responses to our jazz, dance, family and showcase series. New last year was the National Geographic Live Series. The 1200 Club has a following.

“Our mission is to bring in breadth, so we want to really provide a good cross-section to reach lots of segments and to grow audiences.”

The search for new headliners never ends.

“We always have opportunities to bring new shows in but sometimes when they’re touring we may not have availability, so we’re always juggling the schedule. It’s a complex and complicated process to book every year. It’s one of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you can imagine. It takes a lot of coordination to get it all put together.”

More than numbers
She says while OPA depends on earned revenue for 75 percent of its budget, ticket sales are not the only barometer for success.

“For some types of performances, a thousand people is just great because that’s what we expected and budgeted.”

The experience people have is more important than anything.

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience,” she says. “You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.

“The arts have that capacity to move people in ways I think nothing else does.”

In addition to the performances it books OPA has a growing education and community engagement mission piece that brings school-age students together with visiting artists and recognizes area youth arts.

“It’s a real important initiative for us,” Squires says. “It’s a chance to reach the community in new ways and have them connect to the arts in ways they may not have a chance to otherwise.”

OPA’s implemented anti-bullying and social justice programs around certain shows and organized master classes with top artists. Its Nebraska High School Theater Awards program is going statewide.

She appreciates how OPA is increasingly seen as an arts leader.

“We’re becoming more and more respected nationally because of the success we’ve had, the quality of the programs and the quality of the buildings. Omaha’s on the map for the kind of work we’re doing.
Artist management companies recognize this is an important tour stop. We’ve been asked to be on some national symposiums and organizations, where we didn’t have that seat at the table in the past.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), says, “Running a large arts program and arts center is extremely challenging. The best nationally recognized arts organizations have the equally daunting tasks of presenting the very best artists available and truly engaging with their respective communities. These endeavors take years of dedicated commitment and experience. Kudos to Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center for their well-deserved success.”

A solid foundation and a bright future
Squires says OPA will continue building on what it’s done.

“There’s always more to do and more money to raise. That never stops. We never rest on our laurels. There’s always new opportunities for people to make a difference by giving to our institution. The philanthropic side, we’re always working. Nothing is ever a given.

“For the future we have set up the planned giving Marquee Society. Those gifts will go into a permanent endowment.”

She feels OPA’s proven itself a worthy recipient of planned gifts.

“We had to attract people in large numbers and financially we had to show we’re responsible by meeting our budget numbers every year, which we have done. If people have confidence in the organization then you can start to talk about the future so they can leave legacies that will continue to sustain these programs and facilities. These legacy gifts will ensure the longer term future of this institution.”

“We’ve started down that road and I think it’s going to be well-supported,” Gottschalk says of the endowment.

With a decade under its belt, Squires says OPA is squarely focused now on “where do we go from here, how do we build on our success and how do we continue to evolve and grow to continue to touch the community.”

Gottschalk says, “I think there’s more growth ahead for us in terms of amenities and facilities and programming.”

For event or ticket info, visit or

“The generosity of the donors here has made this possible. We can have all the vision and passion we want but without that support none of this would have happened. Their continued commitment and philanthropy behind all this has been absolutely key.”

“…I felt there was an opportunity to bring to the community some of these great art forms and artists that didn’t have a place to perform or anybody to take charge of that. It felt like the puzzle pieces were all here to really make this organization a success. Everybody wanted this to succeed and I felt if we could put this together the right way we really could give Omaha something pretty special.”

“My favorite thing is to stand in the back of the theater and to watch a performance both for the quality of what’s happening on the stage and for the response of the audience. You do all this work behind the scenes, booking the shows, selling the tickets and raising the money to make that happen and then you get the satisfaction of seeing those performances touch people.”
-Joan Squires

“For a very young center we’re really advanced in terms of audience, finances, facilities and other ways. We’re a very healthy arts organization.
-John Gottschalk

“It’s added enormously to the luster that this is a great city through new events, new opportunities, new shows that bring in a pile of people from out of town.”
-Dick Holland

Omaha Fashion Week & SAC Federal Credit Union: Building the fashion eco-system via business focus

August 5, 2015 Leave a comment

One look at me and my duds and you instantly know I am no fashion plate, at least where my own apparel is concerned.  However, I do feel I have a good enough fashion sense where others are concerned.  None of which means a hoot when it comes to the fashion stories I write, and I’ve written a whole bunch of them, mostly in connection with Omaha Fashion Week, because I go the experts who know fashion for my information.  This story for Metro Magazine ( is the latest OFW piece I’ve done and where in the past I’ve focused on designers and shows and trends, looking sometimes back and other times forward, this story examines a burgeoning business relationship between emerging designers and a local lending-financial institution, SAC Federal Credit Union.  The idea being explored by this pilot program and thus by the story is the importance of desginers having access to capital to grow their lines, their brands, their businesses if Omaha is to ever foster a true design community and industry.

The next Omaah Fashion Week is August 17-22.

ecosystem: Omaha Fashion Week & SACFCU
Building the fashion eco-system via business focus


Originally published in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (

Hooton Images

When Nick and Brook Hudson aren’t caring for their new-born girl they nurture their other baby, Omaha Fashion Week (OFW). The couple cultivate the local fashion eco-system through a multitude of showcase events, educational experiences like Omaha Fashion Camp and fashion sales organizations such as Design Parliament LLC. They were the inspiration and catalyst for the developmental organizations Fashion Institute Midwest and Omaha Fashion Guild.

This infrastructure gives area designers venues to show their work, experts to advise them on aesthetic and market matters and a support system for resources and professional development opportunities.

Now, with SAC Federal Credit Union as a partner, the Hudsons are bringing designers together with bankers to maximize commercial potential. Thus, the new financial support program gives designers the financial acumen and services to put their creative pursuits on a business basis. As SACFCU members, designers have access to credit lines for purchasing materials or equipment, for expanding into new spaces or for doing anything else to enhance and grow their business.

Banking on potential

The test program may eventually work with other kinds of designers as well as visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, playwrights, et cetera.

SACFCU president-CEO Gail DeBoer opted to work with fashion designers to initiate the program since her institution already had a sponsor relationship with OFW. She shares the Hudsons’ vision for building a sustainable fashion community.

“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region,” she says. “We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”

DeBoer says her credit union is well-positioned to work with the micro-size businesses most local designers operate.

“They’re small and so there’s not a lot of profit at the beginning for a financial institution and that’s probably the difference between a credit union and another financial. I don’t have shareholders to satisfy, so I don’t have to show necessarily a return on every deal we make. The return on the relationship isn’t our motivation.

“Our mission is people helping people, so we have a passion for helping them reach their goals and hopefully someday they will grow. But that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is just to help our members. This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”

The Hudsons see close alignment between OFW’s goals and SAC’s.

“One of the things the team at SAC is very passionate about is helping people get started. They’ve got that mission,” Nick says. “And we have that, too,” Brook says. “We’re a social enterprise.”

Nick says, “I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”

Getting up to speed

A typical designer who shows at OFW requires assistance with everything from establishing a business checking account to devising a business plan. But there’s much more they need to learn, including
understanding finance, buying, pricing, sales tax and various legalities.

“There’s a whole set of skills around doing those things,” Hudson says. “You might have it all worked out but then you need access to money – you need some money to make some money. Designers might have an opportunity to sell $10,000 worth of clothing but they don’t have the money to buy the $1,000 or $2,000 of fabric they need.

“We still have a lot of designers we deal with who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.”

The Hudsons regard the financial literacy entrepreneurs have to gain as empowering and critical to their success.

Nick says OFW and SAC are committed to “help people turn their passions into businesses or to help their existing businesses go further to make them self-sustaining. We’ve got wonderfully talented people having to fund their passion by working in a coffee shop during the day and then spending all night doing their passion.

“We’re trying to help them get to the next stage.”

He says with the skills development that goes on now informally through OFW and formally through Fashion Institute Midwest “more and more are now making a living – some are even employing people.”

Brook Hudson says it’s all about giving designers the tools required to reach more customers and find financial stability.

“In this day and age it’s a lot easier for an artist to turn their passion into dollars because of the Internet. They have a worldwide community they could potentially be selling to. So part of our challenge is helping them unlock that opportunity,” she says.

It’s important designers have the right mindset by being, what Nick calls, “more commercially-minded and thinking what customers want.”

“It”s a totally different ballgame to go from custom pieces to something designed from the beginning to be mass-produced,” Brook says.

Tailoring financial services to designer needs

The Hudsons introduce designers to SAC they consider ready to take the next step.

“Not every designer is ready for that,” notes Brook, who adds that some are intimidated by the prospect of working with a lender.

Bryan Frost and Erica Cardenas, owners of vintage-inspired boutique Wallflower Artisan Collective and designers of their own Wallflower apparel line, are excited to see how SAC can help them expand their apparel production capabilities. They say money’s critical if they’re to grow their business and if Omaha’s to grow a fashion hub. They’re encouraged that designers and lenders are finding alignment.

Samone Davis, owner-designer of the luxury streetwear brand Legalized Rebellion says she’s worked “diligently” with the SAC team to establish a line of credit for her label. She adds, “I definitely feel financial help is key to growth as long as there’s a solid plan and execution behind it. As designers we tend to get lost in our own minds. Sometimes we have to make sure we are focused and know exactly who we want to market to, otherwise there won’t be any progression.”

For designers like these, Gail DeBoer says, “we’re offering a kind of a concierge service,” adding, “We’re walking them through this journey. That begins by really developing a relationship with them to know what each one needs because they all have different needs depending on their business stage. We do look them in the eye to gauge how serious they are, how committed they are. We do talk with them in order to understand the uniqueness of their business and their challenges.”

SACFCU vice president of operations Keli Wragge is that concierge figure working with designers.

“Some are ready to take their designs to the marketplace and others are just getting started and wondering what they need to do in order to be ready for financing down the road,” Wragge says. “One client needs to expand and is looking at buying a commercial building. Another is about to open their first business checking account. Prior to this they transacted in all cash. There is a big gap between what the first member needs and what the second member needs.”

There are also many common issues designers face.

“Supplies and the cost of production are large expenses, especially if the designer isn’t a seamstress and has to hire outside talent,” Wragge says. “One of the big issues faced by designers is irregular cash flow and finding a way to live a comfortable life while trying to perfect their craft, innovate new designs and get a collection ready. Many designers have to have another income or job in order to support themselves.”

DeBoer says, “Just getting started and getting them to think about things they’re not even thinking about – often you don’t know what you don’t know – is huge. We bring in the right person at the right time from the credit union to help them through that next decision or that next product they might need. We want to make sure they have a business partner holding their hand, walking them through the process.”

There’s no guarantee any designers will make it.

“Whether they will all be successful, that’s up to them,” DeBoer says. “But we can certainly help them by taking away the challenge of writing a business plan or getting some early money to realize their dreams.”

Growing a design community and fashion industry
Nick Hudson is heartened by the way the metro’s fashion eco-system has evolved in less than a decade.

“There’s just so many more people and organizations involved and that’s what makes it grow,” he says.

The Hudsons have been planting seeds to see what takes root.

DeBoer says if a true fashion industry is to emerge here it must take the same intentional, step-by-step path that OFW has followed.

“You don’t start out with everything all at once. It has a life cycle and I think this is an exciting next step for Omaha Fashion Week and for us. I think everybody’s excited about taking it to that next level.”

Nick says, “The next stage is going to be helping with marketing and bringing the customers and sellers together.”

Increasingly, he says, designers sell their wares before and after OFW events.

He and Brook envision a brick and mortar base to anchor a dedicated design district. Having a critical mass of designers in close proximity to each other would provide access to shared spaces, facilities and services for sample making or material production and to economies of scale, efficiencies of operation and synergies of creativity.

“We’ve got to have everybody together working in one place and all that collaboration going on in order to reap some of those other benefits,” Brook says.

Ultimately, the Hudsons say if enough capacity is built a factory would be needed to manufacture the garments and accessories of not just local designers but of some select national and international designers.

Brook notes several major designers already have or are looking to move manufacturing from overseas to America, but many U.S. cities make that cost prohibitive. She says Omaha offers certain advantages, such as “great work ethic” and “low cost of doing business and living.”

Should fashion manufacturing ever happen here at scale, she says, “it would be powerful because that positions Omaha on a whole different level as a national player on the fashion scene, plus it’s creating jobs.”

Meanwhile, the creatives behind Wallflower and Legalized Rebellion say they appreciate the financial support system SAC offers as it propels their dreams and strengthens the design community.

The next OFW designer showcase is August 17-22. For details, visit

“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region. We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”
“I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”
“This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”

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