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Anyone for classics? Brigit Saint Brigit Theater stages the canon

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Omaha has an unusually strong theater community considering the fact it has few, if any, full-time professional companies.  What it does have is several committed theaters doing quality work despite meager resources.  One of these is the Brigit Saint Brigit Theater, the focus of this story from about eight years ago. BSM has an ever harder task than most theaters because it is dedicated to staging classics, which means it puts on plays that most audiences have little familiarity with except perhaps the title or the name of the playwright or their reputation.  But BSM has been faithful to its mission and always finds a way to survive another season.   A long-stated goal of founder Cathy Kurz has been to establish the BSB as a full-fledged professional regional theater, and I’m happy to say that since this article appeared in the Omaha Weekly it’s taken some major steps toward that goal. Other things have changed since then as well, including the theater’s location. But one thing hasn’t — its focus on the classics and its high standards.


Anyone for classics? Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre stages the canon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly


The forte of Omaha’s Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre is its productions of classic plays. Whether Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, Becket, O’Casey or Williams, you get the genuine article rather than some diluted, spoon-fed, pabulum version. There is such faithfulness to the text that, despite a makeshift theater in Gross Auditorium on the College of St. Mary campus, you are completely transported to the period and context of the piece. This pure, rigorous attention to themes, tones, details, is a tribute to founder and artistic director, Cathy Kurz, who directs most productions, and to technical director, Scott Kurz, her husband, and a dynamic player in what’s become a regular stock company of actors with the theater.

Another key member of the troupe is Amy Kunz, the leading tragedienne among Omaha actresses, who’s essayed such “roles to die for” as Maggie the Cat, Nora in A Doll’s House, Medea, Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, Cassandra in The Trojen Women, Hedda Gabler and Blanche Dubois. Kunz, who serves as Brigit’s education director for its many outreach programs, has also directed and created one-woman shows at the theater.

Rounding out the core company is John Durbin (known off-stage as John Jackson), a founding board member and veteran player. Durbin, an Equity stage actor, has, in recent years, lived and worked out of Los Angeles, where he is also a busy film and television actor. For Brigit’s current production of Robert Bolt’s critically-acclaimed A Man for All Seasons — running weekends through September 29 — Durbin has returned to Omaha to play the fetching role of The Common Man. As part of an Equity Artist-in-Residency, he will be commuting here from Los Angeles this fall to appear in and direct a series of Brigit productions.

After years directing plays at nearly every theater venue in Omaha, Cathy Kurz, formerly Wells, formed the Brigit Saint. Brigit  — in 1993 — out of frustration. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, with masters degrees in English and drama, had always been nourished by classic literature and had carved out a niche for herself directing such material, particularly at the Norton Theater, whose namesake, Rudyard Norton, was a classically-trained actor and contemporary of Henry Fonda’s. When the Norton closed, Omaha was left without a venue devoted to the classics and Kurz without a steady employer. She thought for sure another theater would fill the void, but when none did she plunged ahead and formed a new playhouse dedicated to the very material she felt most deeply about.

“I founded the theater in order to be able to work on the kind of material we do — the classics,” she said. “This isn’t a snobbish thing — it’s just my taste — but, to me, if you’re willing to work as hard at this as we do, and most of us do have full-time jobs and come to the theater after work, than it should be more satisfying in terms of challenging one’s self.” And, with that, she gathered around her a group of fellow thespians sharing the same sensibility, including Durbin and Kunz, and launched the Brigit with a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gablerat Joslyn Art Museum, where the theater was housed its first two years.

“Trepidation perhaps” is how Kurz described her gut feeling going into that inaugural show. “We didn’t know if anybody would come.” Come they did, first in small numbers, particularly for a first-season rendering of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but slowly and surely a sufficient audience and contributor base took hold. As Kurz likes to put it, “Once we got rolling, people saw that it’s (classic work) not boring or dusty but that in fact it’s more blooded than watered-down TV or box-office conscious cinema.” Still, arts funding being what it is in Nebraska, the theater is never completely on sure financial footing and is still far away from its goal of having a paid company of actors.

As the very mention of classic theater connotes elitist, dull-as-dirt assumptions, the Brigit is constantly working to overturn such stereotypes. Its reputation for doing heavy drama is something even Cathy Kurz jokes about it when she says, “I’ve tried to bring myself to do The Three Penny Opera, but it’s too grim even for me.” In her role as artistic director, Kurz is smart enough to program a rousing, crowd-pleasing Shakespeare comedy like Much Ado About Nothing — held over to close the 2001-2002 season — because it makes patrons “more likely to come back and try something else” more demanding. This season, her teaser is Beth Henley’s black comedy Crimes of the Heart. One avenue the theater uses to develop a classical following is the Literacy Touring Program in which Amy Kunz and Scott Kurz do residencies and workshops for schools and community groups. The two artists say  young people are easily won over. “The first thing to get across is that the classics are fun and interesting,” Kunz said. “We rarely talk at kids. We involve them in learning in an active way. When we present a Shakespeare play they not only study the text, but the class system of the time, the politics, the food, the customs and just things kids find neat like the fact the white-leaded makeup actors wore then slowly ate their skin away.” Scott Kurz, who includes sword-fighting demonstrations in his lessons, said any reservations are soon overcome. “A group of seniors can be a little standoffish when we walk in, but then we do a scene right to them — saying Shakespeare’s words just like we’re talking to them — and we see them get it. By the end, they’re so into it. It’s just the biggest rush. A lot of times we’re fortunate enough to get teachers who integrate the material into their curriculum and bring the kids to see the play, and then they see how cool this stuff is.” At the other end of the spectrum, he said, the theater’s “older patrons often thank us for doing this material. It’s gratifying to know we’re giving them something that maybe they thought they had lost and would never get to see again. We’re giving them a link to the classic literature and quality theater” of their youth.

John Durbin said the Brigit shows courage by presenting work other theaters shy away from and by staying true to playwrights’ vision without taking shortcuts or condescending to the masses. Now 10 years old, the theater has never wavered from its purpose to, as its mission statement reads, “revitalize classic literature by making it come alive through professional quality performance and related educationally-focused programming.”

For Durbin, the theater’s survival, given its lofty pedigree, is an example of just how dogged its leaders have been. “What’s remarkable to me is the tenacity of Cathy in…not letting it die. She never let go of that dream, ever, and it’s really a testament not only to the men and women who have volunteered, but also to her,” he said. “The challenge for that theater is two-fold. It’s not only to mount the plays physically and financially, considering they have so many obstacles in their way, but to make this kind of material accessible to and enjoyable to a contemporary audience in the Midwest. How do you reach out to a community that is fed on football and South Pacific? I think the reason they succeed is they never talk down to their audience… never. It’s almost like they draw a line in the sand with the audience and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. And you trust us and you believe in us, because you’ve been around, and we’re going to take you that much further. We’re going to challenge ourselves and we’re going to challenge you. I would say that at its core the Brigit has a passion for literature and a pure love for live theater. I mean, who else but Brigit St. Brigit is going to do Juno and the Paycock? But — you know what? — the amazing thing is, it’s as timely now as when it was written.”

He said the work done there and the integrity brought to it, is what draws him back to perform. “This is really the kind of stuff that interests me…plays that are not done that often in a community theater setting…that have something more to say…and that have stood the test of time. I mean, all hats off to Neal Simon, but I just don’t see The Star-Spangled Girl lasting for the next 200 years. We’re going to mount a production of The Rivals in the spring, and that play is like 500 years old, and it’ll be done in another 500 years.”

Another thing the Brigit is known for is its penchant for Irish plays, which is a natural given the fact founder Cathy Kurz has a deep affinity for Irish literature (“I love the Irish’s gift for humor and turns-of-phrase”), one so deep she named the theater for the mythological St. Brigit of County Kildaire. Each spring the Brigit celebrates its cultural heritage with Irish productions. This season, the selections are, in repertory, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and The Freedom of the City.
Because the Brigit creative team is cut from the same classical cloth and has worked together so intensively for so long, there is a symbiosis among its members in the way they approach rehearsals and the overall creative process. According to Amy Kunz, the working relationship she has with Cathy Kurz, who’s directed her in dozens of productions, and with Scott Kurz, whom she’s often played opposite, “is almost a second language, literally. Cathy can just give me a look and say, ‘Well, you know, if you move to the right, then your interpretation…’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ It doesn’t take much for all three of us — we’re really all so attuned to each other.” Scott Kurz said one reason he’s worked almost exclusively with the theater since joining it in 1993 is “because of that rapport” the close-knit company cultivates. That kind of intimacy, not to mention the dynamics of a husband and wife working together, could cause problems in some companies, but not the Brigit.

Said Kurz, “I can’t ever remember a time when there was this turbulent production. We all look at the work the same way — that you need to come prepared and that you need to listen. We all agree on these certain things and it makes it easier for new people to jump in. They can see we have a comfort level with each other and share a certain philosophy when it comes to the work.”

Kunz said she forged a similar relationship with fellow artists when a member of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People. Ultimately, she said, it’s an exercise in collaboration. “That’s what the theater is about on any level, really. With each play you work with a group of people to try and honor the playwright and, together, you try to tell the story well. It’s a new experience every time and you don’t know if you’ll make it or not.” She said Cathy Kurz is “very open” to input from her and other actors. “I’m really opinionated, and so is Scott for that matter, about what we’re doing on stage. But it’s always done in the spirit of feeding each other.”

Scott Kurz said, “That’s how things get figured out — you can’t do it any other way, I think.” Cathy Kurz said she enjoys the “give and take” with her casts but she emphasizes the director must be the final arbiter. “You know what you need to have and you hope you can bring people around to seeing it the same way you see it, so you have to remain flexible on the one hand. On the other hand…you’re the interpreter and the voice of the playwright. You’re all the playwright’s got.”

Rehearsals are where, as Scott Kurz describes it, you “find the play” and it is in this process the Brigit’s legendary diligence elevates the company’s work from the merely ordinary to the finely nuanced, right down to the smallest bit or part. In fleshing out a scene during rehearsal, Cathy Kurz attempts to make her directions “as specific” and as rooted in the script as possible. “It all has to come from the text,” she said. “If I see a scene isn’t right, but I don’t know how to fix it, I’m going to keep watching the scene and thinking about it. I never give up on something.” A Man for All Seasons rehearsals stretched into the wee hours leading up to opening night as Kurz and company grappled with an unwieldy scene.

Kunz said she appreciates Kurz as a director because “she tells you exactly what she wants from your character early on. She’s very specific right away and then you have this groundwork to build on. She doesn’t make you stick within this structure. I think it’s a really productive way to work and it saves a lot of time. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who will wait…for weeks for you to ‘find it,’ and then will give you this nebulous kind of direction like, ‘Well, be more this’ or ‘Be more that.’ And then you maybe get it and maybe you don’t.”

Ten years. In that time the Brigit St. Brigit Theater has established a niche for itself. Cathy Kurz feels a paid acting company is still a “realistic” objective but for now she is satisfied the theater has achieved a “consistent level of quality” and “a good foundation.” As Scott Kurz sees it, the theater is on track to realize its goal of being “a professional company. There’s that sense that we’re getting to that point and being able to answer people when they ask ‘What do you do for a living?’ with — ‘I’m in theater.’ And that’s what it’s all about. I don’t know how many times my parents have told me ‘Get a real job.’ My family’s been incredibly supportive but they don’t always understand what I do. My dad says, ‘You work harder than anybody else in the family and you’ve got nothing to show for it.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not true — I do. I’m working towards something.’ And so it’s really nice to feel we’ve stepped up a notch and we’re getting closer. We just have to keep going and we’ll get there.”

After the 1994-1995 season, the theater moved to the Bellevue University campus, at the invitation of Bellevue drama professors who admired the company’s work. In  1997 the Brigit, searching for an Omaha site, relocated to its present home at the College of St. Mary. It was a case of good timing, as CSM, host of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival, was looking to renew its long dormant drama program. “We had a very popular theater major in the ‘60s, and as we worked toward reemphasizing the arts at College of St. Mary,” president Maryanne Stevens, RSM, said, “we wanted to have the presence of a theater company. The presence of a theater on campus makes a statement in terms of the college’s affirmation of the arts and the importance of arts in education. And having the Brigit St. Brigit here has meant a revival of theater studies at the college. A lot of our English classes have integrated the various works that have been performed by the Brigit St. Brigit into their semester’s curriculum and therefore assign reading the play or going to the play…Cathy Kurz actually teaches some classes in theater at the college and has developed a minor in theater.” The Brigit triumvirate of Kurz, husband Scott and Amy Kunz hold adjunct faculty positions at CSM.

But why did CSM feel the Brigit was a good fit there? “Well, because of the kinds of things they do,” Stevens said. “They do classical theater as well as what they call ‘intellectually-twisted theater,’ but it’s all rooted in classic playwrights and I think that brings a level of integrity to an understanding of theater here at the college. Anything in the arts invigorates the core curriculum of the college.”

As far as the Brigit’s continued presence at CSM, there is discussion of an expanded theater space on campus. “Cathy and I have both talked about that,” Stevens said, “because there’s not really a backstage — there aren’t any dressing rooms or things like that — and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that in the future.” And, as far as what’s in store for theatergoers at the Brigit, Kurz would like someday to tackle O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Chekhov’s The Seagull, two demanding plays rarely performed around here.

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