Doug Marr, Diner Theater and Keeping the Faith
Omaha playwright Doug Marr first made a name for himself when he and some drama cohorts created Diner Theater, the blue collar, workingman’s version of dinner theater. It was an offshoot of the Circle Theatre he helped found. The concept of Diner Theater was just quirky and fun enough and Marr’s plays more than entertaining enough to develop a loyal following. Diner Theater is no more, but Doug’s gone on to write, produce and direct many more plays for many more venues. His wife Laura, a fine actress, has appeared in many of his works. The fact that Doug’s made a living at his art in his hometown speaks to his persistence, talent and imagination. I loved going to his Diner Theater plays in Benson, just a short drive from my then-home, and I somehow always knew I would write about him. I finally did and this profile is the result. It appeared in a short-lived paper called the Omaha Weekly. At the time I did this piece Doug’s Circe Theatre operated out of a church basement in mid-town. Today, it shares space with First United Methodist Church and Urban Abbey.
Doug Marr, Diner Theater and Keeping the Faith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
“One reason why I’m not intrigued by a lot of theater and literature being written today is because the dreams die too early on the page. The writing today is faithless, hopeless and destitute of any soul, and I can’t live in that world. I can’t.”
The words and sentiments belong to Omaha writer Doug Marr, whose life and work have put him on intimate terms with keeping the faith despite steep odds.
His best known creation, Diner Theater, encompasses a body of funny and poignant plays about a gallery of misfits who find surrogate homes in greasy spoon denizens of our collective imaginations. In 1983 Marr was the lone writer among a bunch of dramatic arts acolytes from the University of Nebraska at Omaha longing to bring theater “to the people.” Led by their guru, UNO dramatic arts professor Doug Paterson, the idealistic group planted the seed for what became the Circle Theater company at the wedding reception of Doug and his wife Laura, who had fallen head-over-heels for each other during a UNO production of Marat/Sade, a drama of lunatic asylum inmates enacting a play.
Crazy is what some called Marr when, desperate for a performing space, he and his cohorts settled on Joe & Judy’s Cafe, a real working diner smack dab in the heart of the Benson business district. Inspired is what they called him after he penned the first in a series of plays set in Phil’s, a place where life lessons are dished-up along with the blue plate special. The play launched the Circle in 1984. From the start, a genuine diner meal preceded each show, and thus was born Diner Theater, a charming and inspired concept that attracted a fiercely loyal following among new and veteran theatergoers alike.
More Phil’s plays followed, along with others set in assorted bars, cafes and road houses. Marr, who spent his share of time in working-class dives like the ones he wrote about, found a winning formula with his diner counter dramas, really morality plays infused with his loony humor, heartfelt sentimentality, deep social consciousness and abiding faith.
Back to the Future
Today, with all but the Marrs departed from the Circle, Doug and Laura have gone back to the future by relocating the theater from its diner home the past 17 years to Central Presbyterian Church, 55th and Leavenworth Streets, an unlikely venue until you learn the couple are active members (Doug teaches Sunday School) and the associate pastor, Dwight Williams, is a veteran Circle performer. Instead of Chapel Theater, though, the couple opted to resurrect the Circle name. Why move from the spot where the magic first happened? “It just didn’t feel right there anymore — creatively, spiritually, emotionally. We were ready for a change. We needed to be in a new place. To have a rebirth,” Marr, 47, said from the mid-town brick home he, Laura and their two young children, Dylan and Emma, share.
Publicity still from his play Starkweather
It may surprise some to learn Marr, that wild and crazy theater guy, is a devout Christian but then again he is all about defying expectations. For example, while best know for the Diner Theater cycle, his wide-ranging work includes the acclaimed stage drama Starkweather, whimsical stage adaptations of Mother Goose and Curious George, an historically-based Civil War dramatic feature film script, Ball Hill (which has been optioned) and a pair of mystery novels he’s now writing. He’s done a fair amount of directing for the stage. He’s encouraged new theater talent through a playwrighting competition. There is also his outreach work with special needs groups, school residencies and a new for-profit venture, Dramatic Results.
A Cheyenne, Wyo. native, he grew up in a middle class family (his father was a high school music teacher and a professional jazz player and his mother worked office jobs) and at age 12 moved with his folks to Omaha. It was at Ralston High School where the avid reader, weaned on the rebellious ‘60s literature of Kerouac, Vonnegut and Heller, first dabbled in writing.
“I had always been in love with the written word. Literature spoke to me on a really deep level. I just liked what writers were telling me and the fact you could take away from literature whatever you wanted,” he said.
He wrote a well-received one-act play as a failing undergrad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When UNL officials urged him not to return in 1971, he dropped-out. His plan was to earn some money before giving college another try. He went to work for Wilson Meatpacking Co., where he got a gritty education no college could provide. His first job, on the night cleanup crew, found him “catching blood” in the blood pit. After a shackled cow was stunned and its throat slit, it was his task to prop a bucket under the thrashing animal’s head to catch the fountain of blood spurting out. By morning, he stood knee deep amid a river of red. Later, he was “promoted” to cleaning the chitlin machine and its tub full of intestinal worms from butchered hogs. “It was very surreal and very nightmarish at times,” he said of his three-year Wilson ordeal. It was there too he was indoctrinated to union machinations. “I was a young guy brought up with a strong work ethic but there, if you worked too hard, people pulled you aside and threatened you to slow down. So, I basically worked four hours and sat around the other four reading and hiding from the foreman.”
At the end of his shift Marr obeyed tradition by unwinding at South O watering holes, usually Mel’s or the Pork Chop Bar. The idea was to get numb. “The Pork Chop was a scary establishment. It was built sometime around the turn of the century and that was the last time it was cleaned too,” he said. “I remember the day they condemned the moose head over the bar. It was like the place the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life describes, ‘We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.’ That was it. You didn’t take your wife or date there. It’s where I had my first experience getting drunk at six in the morning, which was odd. Mel’s was a little nicer.”
It was at these joints Marr was exposed to some of the dreamers, schemers, drifters, losers, lushes and flophouse philosophers who would populate his fiction.
“Some of these guys, when they died, left behind stacks of uncashed checks in their little roominghouses because basically they lived to work and drink,” he said.
In his plays he purposely evokes a more romantic, less dreary image of those blue collar haunts. His lost souls seek not just oblivion but redemption. And, in the person of Phil, unlike real-life bartenders, they find a friend, a confessor, a soulmate. Long before Cheers, Marr portrayed a place where hope springs eternal for patrons and barkeeps who form an extended family. Phil is the head of that family, dysfunctional as it is. “Phil’s a guy who had dreams of having more. Of having a fuller life through material wealth. But what he ends up finding out, as do the people in his diner, is that they have real wealth in their connection to one another. In their friendship and love. They support their dreams even though they realize their dreams are maybe never going to come to fruition,” Marr said.
The allegorical stories have resonated for many. “Doug writes about the common man in a common language. You see a real caring for his fellow man in his plays and he does it with humor and insight” said Nebraska Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Mike Markey, a Circle co-founder and the originator of the character Phil.
Marr’s humanist bordering-on Honeymooners style is evident in this exchange between the whimsical Phil and the pragmatic Rudy regarding the joint’s dreamer of a dish washer, Daryl, from Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner:
“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of those comic books in
“He’s 28 years old for God’s sake. His phases should have
been over with a long time ago. He’s going to turn into a
comic book character.”
“He’ll see the world as it really is soon enough, my friend.
Let him have his odd fantasy or two. Let him escape for
awhile. It never hurt nobody.”
Escaping never earned anybody a living. It won’t bring home
Well, he has a little while before he needs to start worrying
Archetypes — from wisecracking waitresses to gruff old codgers to homeless vets to beleaguered laborers — abound in Marr’s work. “It’s a real skill to create a true, honest character that is a unique personality as an individual but that also represents a broad range of social type. Doug is really good at that,” said UNO’s Paterson, a Circle co-founder.
Marr acknowledges his work bears the influence of writers who plumbed the depths and eternal hopes of fringe dwellers. The clearest reverberation is with Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and its saloon-full of wash-outs awaiting a deliverance that may never come. The same types abound in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, two of Marr’s favorite reads. “Even though they’re dreamers, the guys still have hope and faith. And that’s why these beautiful tragedies are so compelling and touching,” Marr said.
Marr’s grasp of life-on-the-brink despair and coming-out-of-the-dark hope comes from personal experience. After undergoing a risky operation for the removal of a tumor from his spine at a Denver hospital in 1975, he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He was 22. Confined to a wheelchair at first, he worked hard to make himself mobile again and, with the aid of crutches and leg braces, he has since gotten around with surprising facility. Ask him how his disability has impacted him and he’s apt to deflect the question by quipping, “What disability?” or “Nobody wants me to be on their bowling team” or “I get better parking.” After some prodding, he replies, “I think it’s helped me see the world in a truer light, as it really is, with all of its afflictions.” And with all its dreams, he might have added.
“Given what he’s had to deal with in losing the use of his legs, his ability to renegotiate his life in a way that is entirely creative is just extraordinary. Doug can be grim in his work, but he is such a fun and hopeful person,” Paterson said.
The Artist’s Path
After reordering his life Marr gave college a second try at UNO in the mid-70s. He enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop, where he fancied himself more a poet (he got his poetry degree in 1979) than a dramatist. “I was kind of taking the easy way out. I didn’t want to write novels or plays. I thought they were these impossible tasks. I really didn’t start writing plays again until we formed the Circle Theater in 1983, when the other members said, ‘Well, you’re the writer — write us some plays.’ So, I started writing, and I found it wasn’t so impossible. It was very fun. And in writing dialogue between characters I found my voice. It felt right.”
The voice he hit upon is nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, happier time but, in spite of deep lament, an ultimately sanguine expression of the Capraesque kind that views all people, even the discontented, as members of a larger community. Marr, who views theater as a healing process, believes his characters represent the void many people feel today. “I think sometimes people fight for things they don’t have instead of being satisfied with what they do have — human touch, conversation, interaction. They’re part of the integral pattern of the world but they don’t recognize it.” In Back at the Blue Dolphin Saloon an alienated young man cannot face the real demon haunting him. When the man finally breaks down, his sister and saloon friends are there for him.
UNO’s Paterson speculates these very themes are what struck a deep chord with Diner Theater audiences. “My theory is the Diner Theater space was an alternative community for folks hard hit by the recession then. And just like Phil’s provided a family for these alienated characters, I think the audience bought into a feeling of being part of this extended family that found meaning in being together. There’s something about sitting down and eating a meal together that’s a hopeful act, and so I think it was a great metaphor. And I think to this day the whole notion of the Diner Theater remains one of the really fresh inventions in the American theater,” said Paterson, a veteran Diner actor-director.
In Paterson’s view, Marr’s plots also “inventively broke the bounds of where theater is taking place.” In one play, a radio announcer is broadcasting a live on-air talent show from Phil’s when a fire erupts down the block and the announcer, corded mike in hand, rushes out to the street to report on the inferno as real passersby rubberneck to see what the commotion is all about. “That was great fun and it displayed Doug’s really wonderful dramatic imagination,” he said.
For Marr, the whole diner theater experience was “profoundly interesting.” He added, “Early on, when it was a real diner and there were no theater trappings, people got really caught up in it because they were almost like patrons in a cafe watching a real drama unfold. They were an integral part of it. The audience is very important in the collaborative process of theater but even more so when they’re two feet away from what’s going on. It was really unique.”
The plays became a phenomenon here and even in steely New York, where productions were mounted at eateries like the Third Street Grill, the Silver Dollar Cafe and the Hudson Diner. Others were produced in California. The rest is history.
Those early years Marr was a writing machine, penning five or six original plays per season. He was often working on the second half of a play while the first half was in rehearsal. Laura, a distinguished local actress and a member of the professional staff at the Omaha Theater for Young People, starred in most of the early plays. The Marrs soon became Nebraska’s leading theatrical couple. Eventually, even their kids got in on the act — appearing in several plays. While the Circle produced many works outside the Phil’s Diner series, it officially changed names — to the Diner Theater — to make capital of its market niche. And so it remained through a change in ownership, as Joe & Judy’s morphed into Vidlak’s Cafe before the diner finally ceased operations and the theater simply rented space in the building.
Along the way, the founding Circle/Diner gang left to pursue other opportunities. Some, like Amy Kunz and Mike Markey, became leading lights on their own. Eventually, only Doug and Laura remained, as artistic director and executive director, respectively. It became their baby and burden. Ironically, the theater faced competition from a slew of new community theaters (the Blue Barn, the Brigit St. Brigit, the Shelterbelt) whose start was inspired in part by the success of the Circle. By the late-‘90s, with crowds thinning, funding sources eroding (United Arts Omaha’s demise hurt) and Marr’s creative juices flowing elsewhere, the couple sought a new home and mission for their theater. Enter Central Presbyterian Church. Well, actually, its basement.
In February the newly incarnated Circle Theater premiered its first offering at its new digs with 84 Charing Cross Road, co-starring Laura. They followed that play with a Deaf Theater Project production of Plaza Suite. The Circle’s next offering, You Can’t Take It With You, is set for a June 28 through July 15 run. True to its Diner Theater roots, a catered dinner precedes each show.
When invited to assist the Nebraska School for the Deaf with stage productions in the early-’90s Marr found the experience so satisfying he and Laura formed the Deaf Theater Project, which integrates deaf and hearing individuals in plays under the Circle banner. “The Deaf Theater Project literally brings two cultures together — hearing and deaf. We’ve run across many wonderfully talented deaf individuals who are actors and directors.”
The couple are also adherents of “creative dramatics,” a healing-through-arts concept they apply to physically and mentally ill patients, whom they interact with through dramatic skits. “We’ve experienced incredibly positive feedback working with hospital patients. I remember us visiting this one boy, age 8 or 9, who was hooked up to IVs. We were told by staff he might not be up to seeing anyone that day, but we went into his room and made finger puppets and told really silly jokes and he just had a great time. And while we were waiting in the hall to go to another room, this same boy was walking down the hall, rolling his IV-tree beside him, and his mom came up to me and said, ‘You’re the best thing that happened to him today.’ That makes you feel extraordinarily good.”
Asked if his own disability motivates him to work with special needs populations, he replied. “I don’t differentiate between ability and disability. I have not run across any person who was not able to do something. Why should people be excluded from the performing arts because of some cultural difference?” Added Laura, “Doug is great at working with people of different ages and abilities — many with little theater experience — and at making them feel comfortable. I think it’s really hard to do. We share a similar vision for what challenging theater should be, including giving voice and opportunity to people in theater who don’t usually have it.”
The Marrs are also believers in the educational benefits of theater and, with a partner, recently formed a company, Dramatic Results, that finds them applying dramatic techniques to workplace sensitivity-diversity-creativity training.
Even with multiple irons in the fire, Marr is unabashedly not success-driven. He said, “I realize writing is not the most important thing in my life. It’s certainly not as important as my family and my relationship with God.” Between raising kids, mounting plays, finding funding sources and doing volunteer projects, the Marrs are busier and happier than ever.
“We have different things that keep us sustained as artists. That’s what keeps us going. And it’s great fun doing it with someone you love dearly and have grown with over the years. It’s still interesting, It’s still fun. The magic is still there.”
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