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NEW BLUE: Blue Barn Theatre Putting Down New Roots

August 4, 2015 1 comment

I do not write about theater a lot, but often enough to keep me in the game and I’m always eager to do it because there is nothing else like good live theater, and Omaha has more than its share of solid stage offerings. The Blue Barn Theater is one I’ve written about only from time to time. It is especially fulfilling to write about this well regarded institution again on the occasion of its soon to open new facility. Here is my new piece about the Blue Barn for Metro Magazine  (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/). It looks backwards and forwards. As fate has it, I will soon be writing more on the Blue Barn.

Ironically, I recently did another theater piece for the same magazine a few months ago, only that time on the Omaha Community Playhouse and its 90th anniversary. My opus on the Omaha Community Playhouse is at:

http://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/03/omaha-community-playhouse-takes-seriously-its-community-theater-mission/

Cover Photo

Blue Barn Theatre Omaha

NEW BLUE: Blue Barn Theatre Putting Down New Roots

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the August-September-October issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

Edgy material and intimate work have always defined “the Blue Barn way” and now this once nomadic theater finally gets a home of its own but remains committed to staying true to its rebel image.

When the Blue Barn Theatre celebrated 25 years in 2014, it joined the select ranks of Omaha’s longest-lived playmaking companies.

Now BB is putting down serious roots by moving into a new home at 10th and Pacific. A $7 million capital campaign is underwriting the newly constructed building ($5 million) with the imprint of a renowned theater consultant on it. Unusual for a theater this size, funding is to cover a $1 million operating endowment and a $1 million endowment.

Upon opening the 2015-2016 season there, BB will have in place what’s needed for another enduring run.

Stronger through the struggle
The cutting-edge theater’s founders never imagined this. They were fresh out of college diehards from New York City when they launched BB with little more than enthusiasm. Its first two decades saw consistently high quality theater tinged by crisis. The low points included a fire gutting one space, losing the lease on another, a homeless period, serious debt issues and a revolving door of leaders.

Kevin Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference director, began the migration from the State University of New York in Purchase. He recalls building BB’s former Old Market space “on personal credit cards…then watching from across the street as it was destroyed by a giant fire before the first season there was completed.”

BB artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s led the theater longer than anyone else, feels it’s stronger for the struggles.

“These times when we were in financial stress and maybe made not such smart business decisions really I think strengthened the drive to create Blue Barn-style theater in this town and became a catalyst for needed growth within us. We wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t gone through those tough times.”

Shared approach and consistent mission
BB’s found a niche doing provocative work. Its small but loyal following has stayed true through all the reversals of fortune.

A theater doesn’t survive on passion alone. Clement-Toberer says the BB’s made it by sticking to principles and finally growing up.

“Our mission statement from the beginning has been to produce theater that provokes thought, emotion, action and change. I think the reason we’re in the position we are now of putting down permanent roots is because we have always stayed true to our mission.”

From the start, BB set itself apart as a tight-knit cohort sharing the same ethos. Soon after Lawler’s arrival, SUNY-Purchase classmates Hughston Walkinshaw and Nils Haaland came. Mary Therese Green of Neb. joined this merry band of founders. Clement-Toberer followed.

“The voice of the Blue Barn was born through our training, individual talents, perspectives and passion for our art form,” Clement-Toberer says. “Our coming to Omaha really couldn’t be stopped whether we had one audience member or a hundred. We were kids and we were fired up, and still are, to tell stories.

“I think the play choices in the beginning were very unique and those voices were not being heard in Omaha at the time.”

“The whole endeavor was born of our deep longing to share exceptionally vibrant and surprising stories and to explore life together that way,” Lawler recalls. “When we began we had nothing more than that dream. That passion, free from any other agendas, is a big part of what makes the work at the Blue Barn so special.”

Omaha theater stalwart Jill Anderson is among several local stage artists who found something new there worth following, first as a fan, then as an actress and jill-of-all-trades. She describes how the “singular magic” of the work and “the unfettered, unconventional creativity” transfixed her and still does. “The things that set the Blue Barn apart are the consistent interest in pushing limits, exploring challenging subject matter, aiming really high in terms of talent and production values but keeping things at an intimate level so the audience feels they are a part of the story.”

For most of its history BB thrived aesthetically but lagged when it came to management.

“Artistically we’ve always been strong and we finally built our business side to kind of keep up with our artistic side,” Clement-Toberer says. “We’ve always run the Blue Barn on a shoestring budget. We’ve gone through a lot of different challenges. We’ve been through the ringer.

“But we’ve built from the very beginning the mentality of you don’t have to spend more to do great art and that’s still how the business is run.”

Resources or not, she says, BB’s always been “artistically driven.”

“It’s very unusual in its structure where the board does have say but the artistic director and the work we do is what drives our growth. It’s a very big gift that we’ve been able to retain the core values we began with 26 years ago.”

Along the way, she says, “our voice has matured in a wonderful way,” adding, “It’s still speaking the same language and feeling, just a little more fluently. Sometimes now we do a show more ‘commercially’-based, like 33 Variations. But our process remains intimate and story-driven.” The same with BB’s Our Town production to close last season.

Seeing things through
Relatively few local theater companies have enjoyed its longevity. There were periods when it wasn’t assured of making it another season, much less reaching the quarter-century mark.

“Hughston (Walkinshaw) and I took it over in 2001. Some programming choices that were big and bold ended up not getting underwritten. Then Hughston ended up leaving. I took over leadership fully.”

Looming debt threatened to dim the lights for good.

“I thought, what the hell, the worst thing I can do is close the doors. But I didn’t want the Blue Barn to close on my watch. I was like, ‘Uh-uh, not going to happen.’ It was a grow or go mentality,” Clement-Toberer says. “I think it was my time to run it. I surrounded myself with people i trusted and knew, like Shannon Walenta, my managing director. From 2008 on we started to build it. A fundraiser got us out of debt. From that point on with Shannon as my right-hand woman and the business aesthetic I learned from my father we have steered the Blue Barn to a great artistic and business balance that is fairly equal for the first time.

“I’ve learned to trust my instincts over what anybody else says. Not that I don’t take input but I’ve learned having my own voice is crucial to succeeding and growing. The same with hiring the right people.”

Production manager Amy Reiner and associate artistic director Randall Stevens are other members of her team.

Philanthropist Nancy Mammel says long before joining the BB board “I saw tremendous potential and ongoing growth for the company.” She champions its “dynamic vision” and “track record of excellence” and she feels its repaid “the generous community” support shown it.

Jill Anderson speaks for many in saluting Clement-Toberer.

“Susan has been a great steward of the theater. I think the power of her positive thinking has brought about great things for the Blue Barn. She keeps a strong and steadfast ‘can do’ attitude about the very difficult task of helming the theater. Her persistence is inspiring to me.”

Right place at the right time
There’s wide agreement, too, the theater should prosper at its new site, where it will neighbor with the Durham Museum, House of Loom, the restored Burlington Station, the booming Little Italy district and the coming Omaha Market.

“It’ll be a destination place. I love the area. It’s the perfect place for our home. I couldn’t see it anywhere else,” Clement-Toberer says.

Board member Ariel Roblin, president-general manager of KETV, which occupies the Burlington catty-corner from the new theater, says, “The Blue Barn is the perfect addition to the revitalization of South 10th Street.” She admires BB for “filling the space with great art born from a process that starts and ends with integrity and heart. This wonderful building is just a reflection of the art you will find going on inside the building.”

With the theater’s west wall opening onto green space, BB has an alfresco presence it’s never had before.

“Our indoor-outdoor convertible space is just outrageous and rife for great parties and great theater,” Clement-Toberer says. “It’s a unique set up that I believe will be limitless for opportunities to create our art.”

She says the expanded new digs and deeper resources will help BB to “stretch our wings and go to Chicago and and New York to bring in professional actors,” adding, “Our goal from the beginning has been to make the Blue Barn a regional theater.” BB also has a residence to house out-of-town actors and other artists.

She says the new theater space will retain the BB mystique.

“We’ve realized we are Blue Barn no matter where we are. Many people thought we should build a 250-seat black box and I said, ‘That’s not who we are, that’s not who we’ve ever been.’ We knew we wanted to keep the intimate quality between our audience and the stage.”

Noted project consultant Joshua Dachas suggested the new auditorium repeat the pillars that wrap around the old site’s seating area to create that same “nest-like feeling.” The pillars at the new site are fashioned from fallen trees. Area artists used reclaimed materials to fabricate various architectural features in the theater.

“All these are handmade and very Blue Barn in that nature,” Clement-Toberer says.

Reflections and appreciations
Kevin Lawler, who admires the “beautiful” new space, says, “I feel immense gratitude for having been able to be a part of the Blue Barn.”

“When we started the Blue Barn we just wanted to do theater that thrilled us. No knowledge of how to attract an audience. Just hoped they would show up,” Walkinshaw recalls. “In one of the early years we did a performance for one person. Now Blue Barn is part of Omaha’s cultural landscape and the new building totally seals that deal. To start a theater with only a dream and know it is set up now to thrive for years to come, well, being part of that legacy is profoundly gratifying.”

Clement-Toberer, too, is grateful to be there for its blooming.

“It’s an amazing adventure and opportunity for us to actually be putting down permanent roots in our own space and to do it really the Blue Barn way. It still sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s really real. But I do see an incredible stage light at the end of the tunnel as we create something that will be here long after we’re gone.”

For season details. visit http://www.bluebarn.org.

South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side


Omaha’s various geographic segments feature distinct charecteristics all their own. South Omaha has a stockyards-packing plant heritage that lives on to this day and it continues its legacy as home to new arrivals, whether immigrants or refugees. The free May 27 Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest show South Omaha Stories at the Livestock Exchange Building is a collaboration between playwrights and residents that shares stories reflective of that district and the people who comprise it. What follows are two articles I did about the event. The first and most recent article is for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it looks at South O through the prism of two young people interviewed by playwrights for the project. The second article looks at South O through the lens of three older people interviewed by playwrights for the same project. Together, my articles and participants’ stores provide a fair approximation of what makes South O, well, South O. Or in the vernacular (think South Side Chicago), Sou’d O.

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South Omaha Tree of Life

 

 

South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show

Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Perhaps more than any geographic quadrant of the city, South Omaha owns the richest legacy as a livestock-meatpacking industry hub and historic home to new arrivals fixated on the American Dream.

Everyone with South O ties has a story. When some playwrights sat down to interview four such folks, tales flowed. Using the subjects’ own words and drawing from research, the playwrights, together with New York director Josh Hecht, have crafted a night of theater for this year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries.

Omaha’s M. Michele Phillips directs this collaborative patchwork of South Omaha Stories. The 7:30 p.m. show May 27 at the Livestock Exchange Building ballroom is part of GPTC’s free PlayFest slate celebrating different facets of Neb. history and culture. In the case of South O, each generation has distinct experiences but recurring themes of diversity and aspiration appear across eras.

Lucy Aguilar and Batula Hilowle are part of recent migration waves to bring immigrants and refugees here. Aguilar came as a child from Mexico with her undocumented mother and siblings in pursuit of a better life. Hilowle and her siblings were born and raised in a Kenya refugee camp. They relocated here with their Somali mother via humanitarian sponsors. In America, Batula and her family enjoy new found safety and stability.

Aguilar, 20, is a South High graduate attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha. GPTC associate artistic director and veteran Omaha playwright Scott Working interviewed her. Hilowle, 19, is a senior at South weighing her college options. Harlem playwright Kia Corthron interviewed her.

A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit recipient, Aguilar is tired of living with a conditional status hanging over head. She feels she and fellow Dreamers should be treated as full citizens. State law has made it illegal for Dreamers to obtain drivers licenses.

“I’m here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals, in my case trying to open a business,” and be successful in that,” Aguilar says.

She’s active in Young Nebraskans for Action that advocates restrictions be lifted for Dreamers. She follows her heart in social justice matters.

“Community service is something I’m really passionate about.”

She embraces South O as a landing spot for many peoples.

“There’s so much diversity and nobody has a problem with it.”

Hilowle appreciates the diversity, too.

“You see Africans like me, you see African Americans,, Asians, Latinos, whites all together. It’s something you don’t see when you go west.”

Both young women find it a friendly environment.

“It’s a very open, helpful community,” Aguilar says. “There are so many organizations that advocate to help people. If I’m having difficulties at home or school or work, I know I’ll have backup. I like that.”

“It’s definitely warm and welcoming,” Hilowle says. “It feels like we’re family. There’s no room for hate.”

Hilowle says playwright Kia Corthon was particularly curious about the transition from living in a refuge camp to living in America.

“She wanted to know what was different and what was familiar. I can tell you there was plenty of differences.”

Hilowle has found most people receptive to her story of struggle in Africa and somewhat surprised by her gratitude for the experience.

“Rather than try to make fun of me I think they want to get to know me. I’m not ashamed to say I grew up in a refugee camp or that we didn’t have our own place. It made me better, it made me who I am today. Being in America won’t change who I am. My kids are going to be just like me because I am just like my mom.”

She says the same fierce determination that drove her mother to save the family from war in Somalia is in her.

About the vast differences between life there and here, she says, “Sometimes different isn’t so bad.” She welcomes opportunities “to share something about where I come from or about my religion (Muslim) and why I cover my body with so many clothes.”

Aguilar, a business major seeking to open a South O juice shop, likes that her and Hilowle’s stories will be featured in the same program.

“We have very different backgrounds but I’m pretty sure our future goals are the same. We’re very motivated about what we want to do.”

Similar to Lucy, Batula likes helping people. She’s planning a pre-med track in college.

The young women think it’s important their stories will be presented alongside those of much older residents with a longer perspective.

Virgil Armendariz, 68, who wrote his own story, can attest South O has long been a melting pot. He recalls as a youth the international flavors and aromas coming from homes of different ethnicities he delivered papers to and his learning to say “collect” in several languages.

“You could travel the world by walking down 36th street on Sunday afternoon. From Q Street to just past Harrison you could smell those dinners cooking. The Irish lived up around Q Street, Czechs, Poles, and Lithuanians were mixed along the way. Then Bohemians’ with a scattering of Mexicans.”

He remembers the stockyards and Big Four packing plants and all the ancillary businesses that dominated a square mile right in the heart of the community. The stink of animal refuse permeating the Magic City was called the Smell of Money. Rough trade bars and whorehouses served a sea of men. The sheer volume of livestock meant cows and pigs occasionally broke loose to cause havoc. He recalls unionized packers striking for better wages and safer conditions.

Joseph Ramirez, 89, worked at Armour and Co. 15 years. He became a local union leader there and that work led him into a human services career. New York playwright Michael Garces interviewed Ramirez.

Ramirez and Armendariz both faced discrimination. They dealt with bias by either confronting it or shrugging it off. Both men found pathways to better themselves – Ramirez as a company man and Armendariz as an entrepreneur.

While their parents came from Mexico, South Omaha Stories participant, Dorothy Patach, 91, traces her ancestry to the former Czechoslovakia region. Like her contemporaries of a certain age, she recalls South O as a once booming place, then declining with the closure of the Big Four plants, before its redevelopment and immigrant-led business revival the last few decades.

Patach says people of varied backgrounds generally found ways to co-exist though she acknowledges illegal aliens were not always welcome.

New York playwright Ruth Margraff interviewed her.

She and the men agree what united people was a shared desire to get ahead. How families and individuals went about it differed, but hard work was the common denominator.

Scott Working says the details in the South O stories are where universal truths lay.
“It is in the specifics we recognize ourselves, our parents, our grandparents,” he says, “and we see they have similar dreams that we share. It’s a great experience.”

He says the district’s tradition of diversity “has kept it such a vibrant place.” He suspects the show will be “a reaffirmation for the people that live there and maybe an introduction to people from West Omaha or North Omaha.” He adds, “My hope is it will make people curious about where they’re from, too. It’s kind of what theater does – it gives us a connection to humanity and tells us stories we find value in and maybe we learn something and feel something.”

The Livestock Exchange Building is at 4920 South 30th Street.

Next year’s Neighborhood Tapestries event returns to North Omaha.

For PlayFest and conference details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

 

South Omaha stories to be basis for new theater piece at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Historically, South Omaha is a melting pot where newcomers settle to claim a stake of the American Dream.

This hurly burly area’s blue-collar labor force was once largely Eastern European. The rich commerce of packing plants and stockyards filled brothels, bars and boardinghouses. The local economy flourished until the plants closed and the yards dwindled. Old-line residents and businesses moved out or died off. New arrivals from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa have spurred a new boon. Repurposed industrial sites serve today’s community needs.

As a microcosm of the urban American experience it’s a ready-made tableaux for dramatists to explore. That’s what a stage director and playwrights will do in a Metropolitan Community College-Great Plains Theatre Conference project. The artists will interview residents to cultivate anecdotes. That material will inform short plays the artists develop for performance at the GPTC PlayFest’s community-based South Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries event in May.

Director Josh Hecht and two playwrights, Kia Corthron and Ruth Margraff, will discuss their process and preview what audiences can expect at a free Writing Workshop on Saturday, January 24 at 3 p.m. in MCC’s South Campus (24th and Q) Connector Building.

Participants Virgil Armendariz and Joseph Ramirez hail from Mexican immigrant clans that settled here when Hispanics were so few Armendariz says practically everybody knew each other. Their presence grew thanks to a few large families. Similarly, the Emma Early Bryant family grew a small but strong African-American enclave.

Each ethnic group “built their own little communities,” says Armendariz, who left school to join the Navy before working construction. “There were communities of Polish, Mexicans, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Italians, Irish. Those neighborhoods were like family and became kind of territorial. But it was interesting to see how they blended together because they all shared one thing – how hard they worked to make life better for themselves and their families. I still see that even now. A lot of people in South Omaha have inherited that entrepreneurial energy and inner strength. I feel like the blood, sweat and tears of generations of immigrants is in the soil of South Omaha.”

Armendariz, whose grandmother escaped the Mexican revolution and opened a popular pool hall here, became an entrepreneur himself. He says biases toward minorities and newcomers can’t be denied “but again there’s a common denominator everybody understands and that is people come here to build a future for their families, and that we can’t escape, no matter how invasive it might seem.”

 

 

He says recent immigrants and refugees practice more cultural traditions than he knew growing up. He and his wife, long active in the South Omaha Business Association, enjoy connecting to their own heritage through the Xiotal Ballet Folklorico troupe they support.

“These talented people present beautiful, colorful dance and music. When you put that face on the immigrant you see they are a rich part of our American past and a big contributor to our American future.”

Ramirez, whose parents fled the Cristero Revolt in Mexico, says he and his wife faced discrimination as a young working-class couple integrating an all-white neighborhood. But overall they found much opportunity. He became a bilingual notary public and union official while working at Armour and Co. He later served roles with the Urban League of Nebraska and the City of Omaha and directed the Chicano Awareness Center (now Latino Center of the Midlands). His activist-advocacy work included getting more construction contracts for minorities and summer jobs for youths. The devout Catholic lobbied the Omaha Archdiocese to offer its first Spanish-speaking Mass.

He’s still bullish about South Omaha, saying, “It’s a good place to live.”

Dorothy Patach came up in a white-collar middle-class Bohemian family, graduated South High, then college, and went on to a long career as a nursing care professional and educator. Later, she became Spring Lake Neighborhood Association president and activist, helping raise funds for Omaha’s first graffiti abatement wagon and filling in ravines used as dumping grounds. She says the South O neighborhood she lived in for seven decades was a mix of ethnicities and religions that found ways to coexist.

“Basically we lived by the Golden Rule – do unto others as you want them to do unto you – and we had no problems.”

She, too, is proud of her South O legacy and eager to share its rich history with artists and audiences.

MCC Theatre Program Coordinator Scott Working says, “The specifics of people’s lives can be universal and resonate with a wide audience. The South Omaha stories I’ve heard so far have been wonderful, and I can’t wait to help share them.”

Josh Hecht finds it fascinating South O’s “weathered the rise and fall of various industries” and absorbed “waves of different demographic populations.” “In both of these ways” he says, “the neighborhood seems archetypally American.” Hecht and Co. are working with local historian Gary Kastrick to mine more tidbits.

Hecht conceived the project when local residents put on “a kind of variety show ” for he and other visiting artists at South High in 2013.

“They performed everything from spoken word to dance to storytelling. They told stories about their lives and it was very clear how important it was for the community to share these stories with us.”

Hecht says he began “thinking of an interactive way where they share their lives and stories with us and we transform them into pieces of theater that we then reflect back to them.”

Working says, “This project will be a deeper exploration and more intimate exchange between members of the community and dramatic artists” than previous Tapestries.

The production is aptly slated for the Stockyards Exchange Building, the last existing remnant of South O’s vast packing-livestock empire.

Celebrating 90 years, the Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

May 3, 2015 1 comment

When it comes to the arts in Omaha there are maybe a dozen artists and arts organizations with national reputations (Jun Kaneko, Thomas Wilkins, Therman Statom, Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore, John Beasley, Timothy Schaffert, Opera Omaha, Omaha Theater Company, Film Streams, et cetera) and the Omaha Community Playhouse is the longest lived of these.  Its celebration of 90 years concludes in 2015 and what a nine decade ride its been for this theater from the community, for the community.  Two of the biggest acting names to ever come out of the city, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both got their start there.  But the theater’s legacy is far richer and expansive than these two.  Read my Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) retrospective about this pillar of community theater still going strong today and find out what makes it one of the city’s cultural gems whose reputation extends far beyond the confines of Nebraska.

Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

Theater from the community, for the community celebrates 90 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July issue of Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

Omaha’s love affair with its Playhouse nears a century

During its 2014-2015 season the Omaha Community Playhouse has celebrated nine decades of stage productions and theater arts education. On June 27 the venerable theater is throwing itself a grand Birthday Bash on its east lawn. The free 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, organized by the theater’s support group, Act II, will feature live entertainment, headlined by Playhouse favorite Billy McGuigan, a convoy of food trucks and Broadway bingo. All of Omaha is invited to party like it’s 1925.

When the Playhouse put on its first season 90 years ago the theater brought some much needed culture to a wild and woolly city still shaking the dust off its frontier origins. From a humble start motivated by a desire to just put on plays, it became an Omaha institution. Along the way it changed locations, survived a natural disaster, added a professional touring company, expanded facilities and welcomed many unforgettable characters. Hundreds of productions have been performed before millions of patrons.

Bound up in the Playhouse story is an aspiration to bring people together for a common goal of producing entertainment that engages and fosters community. Civic pride has made it Omaha’s theater. Ambition, determination and generosity has taken it to undreamed of heights as America’s largest community theater.

 Charles Jones

“The key figure in the rise of the Playhouse to the top, Charles Jones, arrived in 1974,” says Warren Francke, author of the new book, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph. “The simplest reasons the Playhouse became number one were the things Charles Jones accomplished.” Jones penned a wildly popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol and created the professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Under his leadership the Playhouse’s audience, budget and staff eventually exceeded any community theater in the nation. “His adaptation of A Christmas Carol became, pardon the expression, the cash cow for decades.” That show’s a tradition 39 years and counting now.

Francke says the Caravan brought talent to the Playhouse and carried the theater’s brand nationwide. Several standouts came to Omaha via the troupe. Jerry Longe succeeded Dick Boyd as Scrooge in Carol. Bill Hutson headed the Creighton University drama department and won multiple Fonda-McGuire acting awards.

Jones was also adept at getting donors on board. “Everyone describes him as the most charming Southern gentleman they ever met and he charmed people, not just performers, but the business community and Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben leaders,” says Francke. He says Jones’ ability to get people like Marge Durham, Barbara Ford, Ed Owen and Howard Drew to see philanthropy as crucial to the future of the Playhouse was critical for the ascendancy that took place from 1975 through the mid-1990s.

He says the Playhouse’s stable of memorable personalities is led by the charismatic Jones and the flamboyant director, Bernard Szold, “an ex-football All-American opera cape-wearing character.” Dodie Brando, actor Marlon Brando’s mother, was a passionate if troubled enthusiast.

Early players and echoes of the past

Long woven into the community fabric, the Playhouse developed as the city did. Omaha was a wide open cow town when the Playhouse gave it its only legitimate theater. As Omaha grew, so did the arts. The Playhouse mirrored that evolution. In the span of a decade that saw the Jazz Age give way to the Great Depression, the Playhouse joined two other significant arts organizations in maturing the cultural landscape: the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and the Joslyn Art Museum. All made their mark and remain strong presences today. Of the three, the Playhouse has perhaps been the least stuffy.

Founded as part of a movement to democratize the arts, the Playhouse formed from the community for the community. Even with a professional staff, its grassroots volunteers have always filled out the casts and crews and supported the theater in myriad other ways. Among those figuring prominently in its early success were two families who, against all odds, produced stage and screen icons. Dodie Brando played the lead in the first play, The Enchanted Cottage. Her husband, Marlon Brando Sr., was theater manager. Their son Marlon, who changed the face of acting in New York and Hollywood, was 5 when he and his family moved away, otherwise he would likely have been pulled into the Playhouse orbit the way another future star was, Henry Fonda. Dodie recruited young Hank into the Playhouse fold. He served as a jack-of-all-trades assistant director and as an actor. His sisters Jayne and Harriet were regular players on the fledging theater’s stage.

Not long after Henry went East to pursue an acting career he returned to star opposite a promising ingenue, Dorothy McGuire, in A Kiss for Cinderella (1930). McGuire herself went onto stage and screen stardom. In 1955 she and Fonda, long established names above the title by then, came back to play opposite each other in a benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s then 17-year-old daughter, Jane, the future two-time Oscar-winner, made her stage debut. Jane’s brother, Peter, who also became a screen star, continued the Fonda family’s Playhouse legacy – acting there while a University of Omaha student. A cousin, Matt Fonda, later acted there.

The Fondas and McGuire are not the only Playhouse “graduates” who moved onto Broadway, film, television success. Current Playhouse president Tim Schmad’s uncle Howard Fischer used the venue as a stepping-stone to a career as a Broadway stage manager and actor.

The Fonda-McGuire heritage lives on at the Playhouse. Artistic director Hilary Adams says, “Having a pedigree is very beneficial for us. I think anything founded and initiated by people of that caliber and passion – it really is the passion in their work – has a continuing legacy here.”

Adams heard of the Playhouse while working in New York City as a much-in-demand freelance director, but she only learned about its distinguished past once she started researching it. She appreciates being part of an organization so intertwined with its community and one that boasts such a long, colorful history. “Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater. That’s huge. Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts . That immediately stood out for me – its history and the way it was founded as part of a desire for a community-based organization to bring culture to Omaha as part of the Little Theater Movement.”

“Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater…Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts… –Hilary Adams

 Dodie Brando

The only show in town

Ex-associate artistic director Susie Baer Collins says the Playhouse parlayed that pedigree into a reputation as “the premiere place for local theatrical entertainment.” She says it’s remained a considerable force even as other theatre companies have put down roots and professional touring productions now regularly come to town. “It was a little scary for all of us the first time The Lion King came to the Orpheum Theater and stayed for more than a month. I wasn’t sure if the Playhouse could survive that kind of stellar competition and still find its audience, but somehow we did. We tried to remain relevant.”

She says the theater’s knack for putting on stellar shows, particularly musicals. grew “in the heyday of Charles Jones,” adding, “He was extremely committed to strong production values and the Playhouse gained a reputation for wonderful scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced every production.”

Doing a Playhouse show meant you’d arrived. “It was like if you got on at the Playhouse then that meant you were doing something theatrically in the city,” says Playhouse veteran Camille Metoyer Moten. “I mean, even now it’s still a big deal.” “It’s definitely a big deal,” says fellow stage veteran Elaine Jabenis. “It opened up a whole new world for me. I met people I ordinarily would not have met,” including Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Dorothy McGuire when Jabenis worked backstage for The Country Girl. “There’s a lot of people I met and worked with who helped pull me up because of their talent.”

Jabenis says it’s no accident the Playhouse has held the community enthralled for going on a century. “Audiences just keep coming back for that magic, for that moment to escape their own life and to see what happens in other lives. It is absolutely magic.” The Playhouse annually nets more local Theatre Arts Guild awards than all its competition combined.

All for one, one for all

Year after year, generation after generation, the Playhouse, no matter the need or challenge, has always found the necessary community backing because it’s a vital, touchstone place for people. “You know, it’s a funny thing about feeling vital,” says Jabenis, whose first Playhouse role in a 1952 production of Father of the Bride was in the old 40th and Davenport site. “When they announced plans to build the present theater I was on the committee to help raise money. I went house to house. I was never that bold a person. I was really pretty shy. But I believed in it, I really did. I was so anxious for it to happen.”

Jabenis says her eagerness to pitch-in reflects a communal desire “to make Omaha the best in everything we do,” adding, “It’s kind of a hunger and it’s something we’ve pushed for.” She also starred in the first production, Say Darling, at the current site in 1959, taking the stage mere minutes after hosting a live remote for local television.

“It’s like the perfect storm or something,” says Metoyer Moten, whose first role there was as the title character in Evita (1986). “You had the people who started it off that had this dream and these high expectations. Somehow they were able to impart that to the next generation, who had that same passion. I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry for culture. We don’t have mountains or the ocean, so we turn to ourselves to give that thing we can bring, which is artistic. “It’s a good common cause.”

This sense of getting behind something is not so different than Omaha’s embrace of the College World Series. It’s what happens when something springs from the community and is nurtured by it. The community theater model, dependent as it is on amateurs or volunteers, leads to misconceptions the Playhouse fights against.

“There’s been times over the years where there’s been debate whether community should be in our name,” says president Tim Schmad. “We hear that newcomers to town see community in our name and they immediately think of a renovated 70-seat church space with productions not the quality we think ours are.”

But Schamd points out community is part of the theater’s DNA and its volunteers work side by side with professionals to create work that he and artistic director Hilary Adams, a veteran of New York City theater, say compares favorably with Broadway. “We feel community definitely needs to be in our name because of the status we have in Omaha and the fact we rely on Omahans to put on our product for the most part,” Schmad says. “Our job then is to get those newcomers here just once. If we can’t get them back that’s our fault but we think if we expose them to our product they’ll understand why community definitely is a part of who we are.”

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do.”–Hilary Adams

Community engagement

Before Adams ever started working at the Playhouse she was impressed by what she found on visits there during the search process to replace longtime artistic director Carl Beck.

“It was really about community engagement – that’s what I immediately saw. And then I discovered not only do they support the Playhouse in Omaha but they support the arts in Omaha.”

Since joining the staff in mid-2014 Adams, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, has been bowled over by the Playhouse’s singular approach to community theater.

“The quality of work is astonishing. I think it’s a real hybrid situation that’s unique to community theaters in that we have a paid staff and everything we do supports our volunteer actors, with the exception of the Caravan. What we do have here is really high quality and high support for volunteer actors, and the staff here is incredibly talented and experienced. We treat the people who walk in our doors the same or better as Equity actors or people who do this for a living get treated.

“Volunteers are at the heart of the Playhouse. We have more than 1,000 in a season. They’re involved onstage, backstage, in the box office, as ushers, answering phones, on the board, in Act II. The public is everywhere in this building.”

Her first exposure to the Playhouse in action was at a performance of Les Miserables. The seamless blending of community she witnessed that night is what she’s come to expect. “I saw all that in operation backstage, And in the front of the house at intermission for Les Mis the entire audience stood up and cheered and I still get like goose bumps thinking about this because almost the entire cast was fellow community members.” The outpouring of love happened again at curtain call and once again at the meet-and-greet in the lobby, as community members in the audience, the cast and crew expressed appreciation for each other. This mutual admiration happens nearly every show.

Schmad grew up with this sense of community. His aunt Margaret Fischer saw every production from the theater’s start until her death. Many of her friends acted on stage there and she and the rest of the family were always in the audience to encourage them. Schmad says many Omaha families claim similar Playhouse legacies. Whether attending shows and classes or volunteering onstage or backstage, the Playhouse becomes a multi-generational tradition. He says it’s not uncommon for someone to start there as a child and to either continue or resume ties in adulthood, often getting their own children involved. “That’s really symbolic of what the Playhouse is,” he says. It goes back to community being the basis for everything there.

“That is very unique. It’s all part of this cycle of “bringing theater with and for communities,” says Adams. It jives with her own theater interests, which is why she left New York for here. “I was looking for a place where I could combine the professional theater experience I had with the skills and focus of my master’s program, which is in applied theater – using theater for social change, transformation and education. I really wanted to merge those two parts of theater. I also came from a community theater background as a young person. From the time I was really small I was also going to New York and seeing shows. So I’ve always sort of been in that hybrid.”

“We learned that this place is bigger than all of us.” –Tim Schmad

Camille Metoyer Moten

Training ground and professional environment

Baer Collins says “The performers may be volunteers, but they’re surrounded by professionalism. A great number of the designers and directors, along with the music director, choreographer, technicians, carpenters, costumers, et cetera. are employees of the Playhouse and all are committed to making each show the very best it can be.” That expertise and care shows up on stage.”The Playhouse’s professionalism continues to have a reputation among the theatre community,” she says.

“Actors who may have significant experience or training are often interested in performing at the Playhouse as a volunteer because it strives for such high-quality and its shows have such a professional look. “It was always a thrill when an audience member would say they thought the actors were professional.”

Metoyer Moten, who starred in last spring’s production of the musical Little Women, says it’s a regular occurrence, “You hear it all the time at the (post-show) meet-and-greets where people say, ‘I saw the same show on Broadway and this is way better.’ Ot they ask, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s such a professional performance they don’t think it could be local. They think it’s a cast that’s been brought in from someplace else, when the truth is I may live around the corner from them.”

Metoyer Moten says the professionals employed in key positions at the Playhouse “guide mentor” volunteers to do professional-level work. “They have high expectations. It’s all about expectations. I’ve worked in quite a few theaters and I still feel like when I’m there I have the most professional treatment.”

“You feel more secure because you know they’re really pulling out the very best in you and you’re making it the very best you can,” Jabenis says.

Amid the bright lights and standing ovations, its easy to forget the Playhouse is a training ground for people of any age and experience level to get a top-notch theater immersion and education.

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do,” Adams says. “We have a very strong education and outreach program that includes adult and youth classes, youth summer camp intensives, in-school workshops and residencies, after-school programs, a Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program, an alternative programming series and go-beyond the show programming.”

She’s proud of the two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with Metropolitan Community College and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our apprentices run a lot of the shows backstage. They are supervised, supported and mentored by our paid staff every step of the way. So here you have a professional house that looks like what you’d have on Broadway or high off-Broadway or high regional theater, with all the accoutrements, bells and whistles, and the people working that are this really unique combination, from teens on up, of people really new at it and people really experienced. “It’s an incredible program. It’s the only one like it in the country.”

Apprentice grads have gone on to work for big-time theatrical troupes, theater festivals and network television. The Playhouse is also where young talent gets its start.

Baer Collins says, “We worked very hard to bring young people into our shows, in particular A Christmas Carol. That yearly production became an amazing training ground for children to learn about the discipline and art of performing onstage. I worked with some amazing young people who grew into outstanding performers. They start with learning to smile onstage and to hang up their costumes and end up playing amazing roles like Annie in Annie or Wendy in Peter Pan.” John Lloyd Young made it all the way to Broadway, where he headlined the cast of Jersey Boys, winning a Tony for his efforts. Others who’ve gone onto stardom include Terry Kiser and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.

Two Caravan alums who found fame returned in triumphant roles: Kevyn Morrow, a veteran of the Broadway and London stage, headlined the cast of Ragtime in 2006; and opera star Greg Ryerson anchored South Pacific in 2008. Some Omaha natives who made it big before acting at the Playhouse have returned to play there, including Equity performer John Beasley, who starred opposite Elaine Jabenis in 1996’s Driving Miss Daisy. Former Omaha mayor and congressman Glenn Cunningham and film-TV producer William Dozier are among the notables who acted there.

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The show must go on

Hilary Adams is impressed the Playhouse has consistently dared to do provocative work. “They really came out of the gate very strong with innovative productions even in the ’20s. They were doing wonderful work here.”

Historian Warren Francke says, “Almost from the start the Playhouse was willing to tackle Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie about a prostitute. When they did controversial plays then they were defended by two board members who were clergymen, one a rabbi and the other a Unitarian minister.” Francke discovered a “wonderful story nearly lost to history” that illustrates the pressure the Playhouse sometimes felt. “A man wrote a play about Brigham Young and Bernard Szold, the then-Playhouse director, knew him and together they conspired to pick up the play. Szold went to his artist friend Grant Wood, who’d just done “American Gothic,” to do the scenic design. That’s overshadowed by the fact the night before opening the Mormon Church got the president of Union Pacific Railroad and their general counsel to convince the Playhouse board to drop 14 of Young’s 17 wives in the cast.”

Adams says community theater serves so many tastes that devising a slate of plays “is about finding the right balance and challenging people but not so far that they get upset with us. For 2015-2016 we’ve created a diverse season of offerings from new American playwrights rising in prominence as well as better known pieces. The season mixes genres and styles and includes two experimentations in form.”

Controversy over content still happens. In the 2003-2004 season profane language in the main stage production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife elicited such negative feedback that Schmad says “it showed us how we shouldn’t mess with their Playhouse.” “We learned a lesson from that,” he says, namely that the main stage Hawks Theatre is better suited to tamer shows. “We did lose a lot of memberships because of it. Hopefully. we got some back. They sent a message. It was kind of ironic that our first show in the Hawks the next year was Hair,” the nudie musical about free love. “It did fine.”

Playhouse leadership has come under fire, too. ‘When we had some public issues in the past I learned just how important the Playhouse is to the community,” Schmad says. In 2009 friction between the administrative and artistic sides made news. “It was something at that time that needed to be discussed and it was and we came out much better because of that. We learned that this place is bigger than all of us. We all came to that conclusion.” Schmad says the upshot of that has been better communication and a clearer division of responsibilities. “The way we’ve structured it now, which is different than a lot of community theaters, is that I’m here to do the administrative things. though I do also oversee the artistic side. But I leave the management of the artistic up to them. I have confidence and trust in what they do.”

“When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” –Tim Schmad

Tim Schmad

Omaha’s theater

Schmad views himself as the steward of a valued community resource. “When I first came here I said i want to be the caretaker of this place but I also want to move it forward. I feel responsible for this place. I know how important it is to people. In my decision-making I certainly have to take care of my staff and the people who come to the shows, the donors, the board members. There are many nights where I’m awake at three in the morning, but that comes with the territory.”

As for what’s next, he says, “We’re looking at the future, we’re looking at strategic planning, and that’s very important to us. It’s a combination of what we need to do administratively and artistically. There’s no question that selling tickets, donor support and remaining relevant to the community is extremely important. “Right now I think we’re in good hands. Our board is good, our foundation is strong. I’m really proud of our staff. We’ve got some real go-getters that know what they’re doing and are very talented and that love theater and love the Playhouse. “It’s not all roses but I’m kind of proud of where we are.”

A clear indication of the theater’s continued popularity is that some hit shows in the last decade broke all box-office records. Through all the Playhouse’s needs – realizing a new home in 1959, repairing structural damage from a 1975 tornado, supporting a major addition in 1986, building the endowment – Omaha’s responded. “We’ve been very fortunate the community’s come forward to support any special needs,” he says. “We are always trying to improve ourselves. Our facility looks nice but we’ve got 50-some years in this building and so we definitely have some improvements that need to be made, especially in staging and equipment that’s pretty old. So we’re in that mode right now in trying to really improve what we have.”

He expects, not takes for granted, the community will respond again. “They’ve always been there.” Everyone from philanthropists like Howard and Rhonda Hawks to season subscribers and casual theatergoers. “That’s what makes Omaha what it is. The community is proud of the arts and culture in Omaha. When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” They’ve given their time, talent and treasure, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership that comes with that.” That’s why it’s called the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.

 
 
 

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.’”

 

 

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.

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 2 comments

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

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

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

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