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Firmly Rooted, the Story of Husker Brothers

September 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Yes, I am the guy who writes about art, film, theater, literature, journalism, culture, African-American Omaha, a hundred and one other subjects, and, oh yeah, sports, too. Here is the promo for my new Hail Varsity cover story about brothers who have excelled in football at Nebraska. That’s followed by an excerpt from the piece. To read the whole thing now, you’ll need to be a subscriber of the magazine or purchase this issue at a newsstand. I will be posting the entire story be the end of the weekend.
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Brotherly Bond Highlights New Issue of Hail Varsity

on September 28, 2015 at 10:22 am

The bond between teammates is strong. The bond between brothers is even stronger and the Huskers have had a number of them wear the scarlet and cream over the years.

Writer Leo Adam Biga shares some of those brothers’ stories in the cover story from Volume 4 Issue 10 of Hail Varsity. The cover features a cut-paper illustration by our design director, Quentin Lueninghoener. The latest issue of Hail Varsity ships this week.

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Other highlights from the issue:

>>In a new feature that will appear in each issue during volleyball season, Nebraska defensive specialist Sydney Townsend gives us an inside look at the Huskers’ volleyball season with her first player journal.

>>He’s a punter now, but if everything goes according to plan Sam Foltz will get his pilot’s license and be a crop duster some day. He explains why in our Q&A.

>>Which former Husker quarterback had to run a timed 40-yard dash through the hallway of his high school to impress the Nebraska coaches? That player is the subject of our latest Legends of the Fall.

>>Columnist Chuck Sinclair tells the story of returning a Nebraska jersey — the jersey Sinclair got as a walk-on in 1969 — to its rightful owner.

>>Editor Mike Babcock provides some context for the one-game resurgence (so far) of the the fullback at Nebraska.

The latest issue of Hail Varsity will be arriving on newsstands and in mailboxes soon. Not a subscriber? You can remedy that here.

EXCERPT FROM-

Firmly Rooted, the Story of Husker Brothers

or

When Husker Football Sometimes Truly Becomes a Band of Brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Hail Varsity Magazine.
Nebraska recruits football players where it finds them. sometimes even in the same family. Several brother combos have played for NU. Once in a while they’re part of the same recruiting class but usually they arrive a few years apart.

Once in a great while a set of twins plays for the Huskers, including Josh and Daniel Bullocks (2001-2004). The 2015 recruit class includes another pair in Khalil and Carlos Davis, whose uncle is former Husker Lorenzo Hicks. The two freshmen are redshirting this year.

More than a few uncles, nephews and cousins have shared a familial Nebraska football lineage. There’ve been some father-son sets as well as father-son-grandson combos.

Some Husker brother duos have achieved fame on different sides of the ball (Grant and Tracey Wistrom) but most left their mark on the same side of the field, usually defense. Clete and Jim Pillen, Toby and Jimmy Williams, Christian and Jason Pete were all defensive stalwarts as were the Craver, Shanle and Booker brothers. In most cases, brother sets have been solid contributors rather than stars. That’s true of the Cottons, only that clan added a generational element. The patriarch, Barney, played at NU and sons Jake, Ben and now Sam have suited up for the Big Red. He coached two of them.

Waves of brothers come and go. The 1998 through 2003 classes saw a bumper crop. There was a dry spell until Jake and Spencer Long and the Cotton boys came long. More than a decade passed between Kris Brown and his much younger brother Drew playing for NU.

Saturday’s gridiron warriors are the subject of intense scrutiny at a Nebraska. When siblings wear the scarlet and cream, one’s success creates expectations for the other. It doesn’t always happen but more often than not success does carry over.

Four sets of siblings emblematic of this family heritage tradition are the Craigs (Curtis and Roger), the Makovickas (Jeff and Joel), the Ruuds (Barrett and Bo) and the Kelsays (Chad and Chris) Standout players, all. The Craigs and Makovickas did their thing on offense, while the Ruuds and Kelsays did theirs on defense. In each case, a younger brother followed an older brother’s lead. Their stories reveal genetics play a role, as do shared traits and values. Having a brother precede you or be there helps, but you still have to earn it yourself.

Curtis Craig was a Big Deal at Davenport (Iowa) Central High in the early 1970s. The all-everything back selected NU over other powerhouse programs. Bothered by a nagging high ankle sprain suffered at the end of his prep career, he never played I-back in Lincoln but found his niche at wingback.

By his senior year, his little brother Roger was making hay back in Davenport playing for the same coaches, Jim Fox and Jack Leabo, who mentored him. Separated by almost five years, Curtis was conscious of being a model for those behind him.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids,” he says. “The younger ones were watching me because they looked up to me, so I felt I had to step up and set the example. All I was doing was giving back what was given to me. That’s kind of how the tradition is. Whatever you learn in your time you look to give back to those trying to follow your footsteps.”

Roger took careful note of his big brother.

“I always followed him. He was kind of like my hero as a kid growing up. He was a great role model for me. He did all the right things. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Roger, who starred at I-back and fullback at NU before a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.

Roger credits hanging around and playing pickup games with Curtis and his buddies for helping mature him beyond his years.

“I watched how he trained and practiced and I got in there and did things with him.”

Curtis says he was motivated to earn a college scholarship because his folks couldn’t afford to pay for school. His experience exposed Roger to NU coaches and provided an inside look at the program.

“I told him this is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.”

Curtis didn’t have that luxury when he arrived at NU.

“I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to do when I got there. I had to just kind of figure it out and then go from there.”

When Curtis was a senior he was still putting Roger through his paces

“He worked with me. He was like a coach,” Roger says.

Big brother touted his little brother to Husker coaches.

Curtis recalls, “I knew he was going to have the possibility to do more than what I did. I said to the staff, ‘ You need to go look at my brother, he’s going to be a good one,’ They did and the rest is history. When you come from a family that has a scholarship athlete the coaches always go back to try and recruit your siblings who are good athletes, too.”

As a tribute to Curtis, whose No. 33 was retired at Davenport Central, Roger wore that number with the San Francisco 49rs.

“I carried Curt with me in the NFL,” Roger says. “I have a lot of respect for my brother.”

NOTE The other brothers profiled in the piece are Chris and Chad Kelsay and Jeff and Joel Makovicka.

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Father Ken Vavrina CROSSING BRIDGES News

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

CB Interior Chapter 11 V SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

Father Ken Vavrina CROSSING BRIDGES News:

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” has been selling out at The Bookworm. It’s available there, at other select bookstores, on Amazon and Kindle and through Uplifting Publishing at www.upliftingpublishing.com.

The November issue of the New Horizons newspaper will carry my cover story about Father Vavrina.

Thanks to the pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Omaha, Father Mike Eckley, for referencing the book in the parish newsletter. I’ve copied Fr. Eckley’s message to the congregation below, He uses the book’s subject – Fr. Ken’s life serving the poorest of the poor as a missionary for Mother Teresa and for Catholic Relief Services – as a jumping off point to discuss matters of charity and poverty.

You can order the book at the link below.

“Before I started writing this on Labor Day afternoon, I went through the mail I received over the weekend. Among the mail there was a package with a book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden. It was a gift from Fr. Ken Vavrina, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, who is also the author of the book. Last week I was at the Priest Council Meeting in Schyuler. It was a 2 day meeting and on Monday night, we were sitting around telling stories. It was mentioned a few times to one of my brother priest who was telling some extraordinary stories that he should write a book. Fr. Ken has actually done it. He has had an extraordinary life working among the poor both here in this Diocese and throughout the world. I’ve heard some of his stories and look forward to reading his book. He has worked among Lepers and has worked hand in hand with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

“Blessed Teresa, Fr. Ken, Pope Francis and many others among us show us their faith not only in there model of prayer but in their actions. St. James in today’s Second Reading talks about the relationship of our faith to our works. He states, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Our faith must come forth in the way we choose to live our lives. It is not just about coming to celebrate the Eucharist or praying regularly but also how those things influence how we live and most importantly, how we reach out to those in need.

“The film, Mother Teresa, shows her looking over a house being prepared for the nuns in San Francisco. A priest narrates, “I was gently informed that the springs could go, the mattresses could go, the carpeting …” A workman then explained the workings of the building’s hot water heater, and the nun lightly tells him, “I don’t think we will be needing it. For us to be able to understand the poor, we must know what poverty is.”

“I know for myself I would not be able to live without hot water, especially during the winter months. As I write this I’ve been on the phone with Cox Communication because the new boxes they put into the rectory are not receiving ESPN and I wanted to watch the Ohio State Game tonight. I’m feeling very put out at the moment. Watching a football game on cable is definitely a luxury and I’m not happy. It is hard to imagine living without a necessity, which I consider hot water to be one of those necessities. I admire and am challenged by those who radically live their faith.

“I’m not suggesting we turn off the hot water heaters at home or throw out our beds. What I am suggesting though is if we are serious about living our faith, we should look at ways we can simplify our daily lives and be more attentive to the needs of others. As James says, “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” For those who would like to order Fr. Ken’s book, you can go to http://www.upliftingpublishing.com. All proceeds of the book will go to Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha.”

THANK YOU, FR. MIKE

Order your copy of Crossing Bridges at www.upliftingpublishing.com.

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

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

September 15, 2015 1 comment

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

 

 

Muhammads

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammads

Tim Christian: Changing the face of film in Nebraska

September 13, 2015 1 comment

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

 

 

Tim Christian

Tim Christian

Changing the face of film in Nebraska

 

September 9, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

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

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Christian 2

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

September 1, 2015 1 comment

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

The Reader September 2015

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

Past, present, future converge in new space

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Lawler

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping it going meant digging into personal finances.

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

Susan Clement-Toberer

Susan Clement-Toberer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hughston Walkinshaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

omahayp-news-bluebarn

 

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

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

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

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

 

Picture of Nils Haaland
Nils Haaland

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeff Day

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Blue Barn Theatre - Omaha, NE, United States

 

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

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

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

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

 

Mary Theresa Green

 

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

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

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

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

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

Clement-Toberer calls it “the nest.”

 

Blue Barn Theatre

The lobby of the new Blue Barn Theatre features thousands of pieces of recycled wood and its floor was reclaimed from a demolished building.

MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Day, everything works together to create a mystique.

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

 

Joshua Dachs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Barn opens its 27th season on Sept. 24 with The Grown-Up. For details and tickets, visit http://www.bluebarn.org.

 
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