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Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

June 6, 2018 2 comments

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

©by Leo Adam Biga,

Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

It should come as no surprise that a writer who chronicled a year in the life of a Nebraska farm family, exposed the dangers of a broken American food system and is now researching Mexico’s tequila industry has always marched to the beat of a different drummer.

Growing up, Ted Genoways was encouraged to read books well beyond his years by his natural museum administrator father, Hugh H. Genoways. That was okay with the youngster because he liked reading, even though it took his dad makiing a bargain with him to replace comic books with classics.

The great American interpreter of the common man’s struggles, author John Steinbeck, became an inspiration for Genoways and remains so today. The exposes of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair further lit a fire in him – that still burns – to stand up for the underdog.

“I just recently got fascinated by the work done by the ‘Stunt Girls,’ the forerunners of the muckrakers and the first undercover investigators. Their whole notion was to get into spaces hidden from public view and write about what was going on there in order to bring public pressure to bear and change conditions.”

Following in the footsteps of these socially conscious writers, Genoways has documented the hardships facing small farmers, migrants and immigrants and he’s explored the effects of big ag on towns and families.

Storytelling has captivated him for as long as he can remember. “Strangely fascinated” by the stories others told him, Genoways developed a habit of writing them down and illustrating them, a precursor to the student journalism he practiced in high school and college and to his career today as journalist and author.

Some of the stories he heard as a boy that most captured his imagination concerned his paternal grandfather’s experiences working on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants. Though Genoways hails from an urban background, this city boy has repeatedly turned to rural reaches for his work. After all his travels, including a short stint in Minnesota and a decade-plus back east as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lincoln, Nebraska is where he now calls home.

His father’s work meant a nomadic life for Genoways. He was born in Lubbock, Texas and grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, where the family stood out both for lack of want and for the title, Dr., his Ph.D. father carried. Most of his friends and schoolmates were the sons and daughters of blue-collar working parents, some of whom were laid off by the mills and struggling to get by. By contrast, his father was curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

When the elder Genoways accepted the directorship of the Nebraska State Museum, the family moved to Lincoln in 1986. At Lincoln East High School, Genoways found in Jim Schaffer the first of two crucial mentors in his foundational years as an aspiring published writer.

“Jim was our journalism teacher and the publications advisor,” said Genoways, who with some fellow students and the encouragement of Schaffer founded a school magazine, Muse. Only three years after its launch the Columbia School of Journalism named it the nation’s best high school publication.

“That whole experience of working on that magazine was really formative. It was also a case where because we were all so new to that stuff, we didn’t think a lot about genre distinctions. We were all writing fiction and poetry and descriptive pieces and to whatever extent a high school student can we were trying to report on things that seemed to be of broader significance national issues and things relevant to the school.”

Muse getting singled-out resulted in Genoways and his classmates going to New York to accept the Columbia recognition. By virtue of Schaffer working on a dissertation about baseball columnist Roger Angell, the Nebraska group got entree to visit the legend at his New Yorker magazine office during their Manhattan trip.

“It was quite an experience. We went also to Spy Magazine, which we were interested in because one of the editors, Kurt Andersen, was from Omaha.”

Three decades later, Genoways is now the established professional emerging young writers seek out.

All in all, he said Muse proved “definitely an important beginning point for me.”

It worked out that Genoways and Schaffer matriculated to Nebraska Wesleyan University at the same time – to study and teach, respectively. Again, with Schaffer’s blessing, Genoways founded a magazine, Coyote.

“It was more ambitious and probably more openly irreverent,” Genoways said. “It was something we really enjoyed. it was a great incubator for just trying out all kinds of ideas and really seeing what a magazine could be.”

At Wesleyan, Genoways found another key influence in the late state poet William Kloefkorn.

“To have an interest as I did in both the literary side and the journalistic side and then getting to work with Bill Kloefkorn at Nebraska Wesleyan while also working with Jim there was really ideal. I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the years, but I think it would be pretty impossible to match the kind of wisdom and knowledge Bill had with that incredible generosity. He was always teaching and always glad to share his thoughts with young people who were wanting to know more. I feel really lucky to have had somebody like that at a point when I was just getting started.”

Genoways soaked it all in.

“I was an English major with a creative writing-poetry emphasis and thesis but was a journalism minor. I would say over time my interests and my work have moved back and forth between those things. But I don’t see them as all that different. I mean, my first book of poems, Bullroarer, was kind of a reimagining of the life of my grandfather, who worked in a meatpacking plant in Omaha when he was young, and that definitely was part of what got me interested in investigating the meatpacking industry and writing the book The Chain (Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food).”

A particular story oft-told by the author’s father influenced Genoways eventually writing The Chain.

“When my dad was a kid. the family came to Fort Calhoun for Easter. And for whatever reason, his father thought it would be a good idea to show him where the Easter ham comes from. The story is that my grandfather worked in the Swift packinghouse, He took him into the kill floor there. My father said he didn’t know exactly what his dad was thinking taking an 8 or 10 year old kid to see the hogs being slaughtered, but it made a real impression on him.”

As an adult, Genoways sees an interconnected tood system full of health hazards that span the planting, fertilizing and harvesting of the grain that feeds livestock to the ways animals are housed, killed and processed.

The Chain was this whole idea of wanting to see this go from seed to slaughter.”

More family lore has spurred his work.

“My grandfather’s upbringing during the Great Depression and landing out in western Nebraska on a farm and raising my dad out there was a big part of what was behind writing This Blessed Earth (A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm). That’s the reason there’s kind of a coda at the end, where I go back to some of those places I remember from my childhood with my dad – but now with a new understanding of all the pressures my grandfather had been under and all the factors that had helped shape my dad’s childhood.

“So to me it’s all part of the same work – it’s just different ways of approaching it and reaching different audiences. But also I suppose kind of testing out what medium and what approach works best for different kinds of material.”

 

The Chain

He has used literary journalistic prose and straight investigative reporting for examinations of unsafe, unsanitary conditions at Hormel hog plants in Austin, Minnesota and Fremont, Nebraska and animal abuse in Iowa and for his delineation of challenges facing small family farmers. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, OnEarth, Harpers and other national magazines.

“As much as I love the pure activity of the research and writing, my hope always is it does more than just entertain and inform. I would hope it’s also shining a light on issues people hadn’t thought about before and making them see the world in a different way and maybe moves them to want to do something about injustices of the world. There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. It’s one of the reasons magazine journalism, which traditionally is more forgiving on those sorts of things, feels like the right place for me.”

Genoways doesn’t shy away from showing his sympathies for the average Joe or Jill who get the shaft from big money forces beyond their control.

“I’m always starting by seeing a complex of issues or events I think are worth investigation. I always feel like what i can contribute to the conversation is constantly saying it’s not simple – here’s another complex dimension of that. I’m interested in exposing the mechanisms of systems to show how things are stacked against the little guy. So my interest is in leveling the playing field and making sure everybody gets a fair shake. But that’s really as far as my philosophy extends. I don’t have a big political agenda.”

His reporting in meatpacking company towns revealed sped-up productions lines whose workers. many illegal. suffer more injuries and illnesses. He also shed light on predominantly white Fremont’s racially-charged stands and measures to make life inhospitable for undocumented workers and their families.

Finding packers willing to talk to him can be a challenge, but he said he’s hit upon a reliable strategy of reaching out to “whoever in the community is advocating on behalf of the workers,” adding, “There’s all these nonprofits providing interpretive services or medical help or helping navigate the immigration process.” In Austin, Minnesota, where workers suffered a neurological disorder from exposure to an aerosolized mist created from liquifying hog brains, he developed enough rapport with the afflicted that he got several to sign waivers.

“That waiver allowed the state-appointed social worker for this case to turn over her records and the release of their medical records. Having these monthly reports on their progress created a timeline, a kind of verifiable trajectory for their symptoms and illness. It also then allowed me to have this record of dates to go back to the workers themselves and jog their memories. It also opened up other kinds of conversations.”

Since paranoid management makes on-site journalist observations at any plant next to impossible, Genoways finds other ways to recreate what goes on there.

“The central problem of working on anything with meatpacking is you’re almost certainly not going to see the workplace, and so you have to kind of reconstruct it from what the workers can describe but then also try to find whatever you can in the way of documentary evidence to go with that.

“in addition to second-hand accounts from line workers and supervisors,” he said “ideally I try to get applicable government inspection records and reports of problems documented at those places. so it’s a lot of triangulation rather than direct access. To me, the process is interesting. Anytime someone tries to drop the curtain to conceal what’s going on somewhere, it feels like the place we should be going and trying to see what is behind the curtain. It’s an indicator there’s          something going on we should be paying attention to.”

He suggests instead of companies investing in mega security to keep prying eyes out “money might be better spent changing processes and policies so you don’t have to worry about public scrutiny.”

He and photographer wife Mary Anne Andrei have worked on magazine and book projects together.

“I love working with Mary Anne. We seem to have some kind of built-in radar that allows us to be focused on our part of the project while remaining attuned to what the other person needs. That communication means Mary Anne is asking questions in interviews and I’m sharing what I see as she’s getting shots. It’s a true collaboration.”

this blessed earth cover

In the Hammonds, they found a tight-knit, fifth-generation farm clan now growing soybeans who defied a proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline route to have cut right through their property.

“Our interest really got ramped up when the neighbor to the south of them who had been renting them two quarters of ground for many years said, ‘I don’t agree with this stance you’ve taken and I’m not going to allow you to farm this ground anymore.’ The Hammonds took a real financial hit from having expressed this strong opposition to the pipeline and that was the point at which we said we’d like to spend a year as your family works to deal with struggling to make ends meet when you’ve taken a stand like that.”

Genoways saw the family as a symbol for thousands jlike them.

“They embodied so many of the challenges of modern farming as well as struggles that all family farms are up against — how big to get, how much risk to assume.

Things just kept stacking up, Prices bottomed out

There were all sorts of new pressures. And to their great credit Rick Hammond and his daughter Meghan and her fiance Kyle all said, ‘We’ve committed to doing this, we’ll stick it out. We want people to see what it’s really like here – what the stresses are.’ So they let us follow them around for that year, It was a tremendous commitment on their part and they really hung in there with us, even in times that were incredibly stressful for them.

“I hope that openness they exhibited translates into something that allows people to see just what that life is really like.”

Genoways recently returned from a trip south of the border for research on his new book, Tequila Wars: The Bloody Struggle for the Spirit of Mexico.

Visit http://www.tedgenoways.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

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Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

June 6, 2018 1 comment

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

The Mill Lady is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

 

 

 

Ever since she and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997. Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience.. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound  pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails is certainly a significant historical  passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and i do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors. Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

 

 

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they wont come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and    outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork and Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get its a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say its our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupy the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions,p ottos,  cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tillie Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

 

 

New plays are discovered at Omaha’s own Great Plains Theatre Conference

June 6, 2018 1 comment

New plays are discovered at Omaha’s own Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Great Plains Theatre Conference is more than a collaborative around craft. It’s also a source of plays for theaters, whose productions give GPTC playwrights a platform for their words to take shape.

The May 27-June 2 2018 GPTC included a Blue Barn Theatre mounting of Matthew Capodicasa’s In the City, In the City, In the City. Artistic director Susan C. Toberer booked it after a 2017 PlayLab reading. The piece opened a regular run May 17, Then came a PlayFest performance. The show continues through June 17 to cap Blue Barn’s 29th season.

Toberer said the conference is “a good source” for new material, adding, “I wouldn’t have been aware of City if not for GPTC and it became perhaps the show we most looked forward to this season.”

 

Susan C. Toberer, ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

Staging new works from the conference expands the relationship between theaters and playwrights.

“The incredible openness of the process is one of the many joys of working with a script and a playwright with such generosity of spirit. Not only were we able to bring Matthew into the process early and often to offer guidance and support,” she said, “but he invited the artists involved to imagine almost infinite possibilities. We are thrilled to bring his play to life for the first time.”

GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is part of my dream. It’s not really a dream anymore, it’s reality, that local theaters can garner and grab productions, including premiere productions of plays from the scripts that come here to Great Plains. City is a great example of that,” he said.

“Another example is UNO now designating the third slot in their season to fully produce a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayLab from the previous year.”

“The GPTC-UNO connection goes way back,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor Cindy Phaneuf. She’s developed alliances with conference guests, even bringing some back to produce their work or to give workshops.

Since conference founder and former Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell shared her vision with community and academia theater professionals in 2006, It’s been a cooperative venture, Theater pros serve as directors, stage managers, actors, dramaturges and respondents. Students attend free and fill various roles onstage and off.

The Young Dramatists Fellowship Program is a guided experiential ed immersion for high school students during the conference. It affords opportunities to interact with theater pros.

“The participation of our local theater artists and students is a key sustaining factor of the conference,” Lawler said. “Our national and international guest artists are won over by the talent, generosity and insight of our local theater community and that helps the conference rise to a higher level of engagement and creativity.”

Besides honing craft at the MCC-based conference, programming extends to mainstage and PlayFest works produced around town. Then there are those GPTC plays local theaters incorporate into their seasons.

“We’ve always done plays touched by Great Plains.” Phaneuf said. “Now it’s taking another step up where we’re committing sight unseen to do one of the plays selected for play reading in our season next year. That happens to be a season of all women, so we’re reading the plays by women to decide what fits into our season.”

It will happen as part of UNO’s new Connections series.

“The idea is that UNO will connect with another organization to do work that matters to both of us. This coming year that connection is with the Great Plains.”

Phaneuf added, “We’re also doing The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe. It also started at Great Plains and has gotten wonderful national exposure.”

Additional GPTC works account for some graduate student studio productions in the spring.

This fall Creighton University is producing the world premiere of Handled by CU alum Shayne Kennedy, who’s had previous works read at GPTC.

 

Elizabeth Thompson, ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

The Shelterbelt’ Theater has produced a dozen GPTC-sourced plays since 2006, including three since 2014: Mickey and Sage by Sara Farrington, The Singularity by Crystal Jackson and The Feast by Celine Song. It will present another in 2018-2019.

As artistic director since 2014, Elizabeth Thompson said she’s nurtured “a stronger bond with Great Plains, especially since GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working is one of our founders – it’s a no-brainer.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has seen several of her works find productions, including three at Shelterbelt, thanks to Great Plains exposure and networking.

“Some of the greatest advocates of my work have been other writers at GPTC. I’ve helped get GPTC writers productions and they’ve helped me get productions. We are always fighting on behalf of each other’s work,” Struve said. “My first play Mrs Jennings’ Sitter was selected as a mainstage reading in 2008. (Director) Marshall Mason asked me to send the play to companies he worked with on the east coast. Frequent GPTC playwright Kenley Smith helped secure a production in his home theater in West Virginia.

“When my play Mountain Lion was selected (in 2009), Shelterbelt offered to produce the plays together in a summer festival. Then in 2010, (playwright) Kari Mote remembered Mrs. Jennings’ Sitter and asked if she could produce it in New York City.”

In 2011, Struve’s Recommended Reading for Girls was championed to go to the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Amy Lane directed it.

“This kind of peer promotion-support happens every year at Great Plains,” Struve said. “It has been a transformative partner for me.”

Kevin Lawler confirms “a strong history” of “artists supporting each other’s work well beyond the conference.”

Plays come to theaters’ attention in various ways.

“A lot of directors will send me the piece they’re working on at Great Plains and say, ‘I see this at the Shelterbelt and I would love to stay involved if possible.’ That’s definitely something we look at,” Thompson said. “The writer already has a relationship with them and that can make the process a little easier.

“Actors involved in a reading of a script we produce often want to come audition for it. They’re excited about seeing something they were involved with in a small way get fully realized.”

Capodicasa’s City was brought to Blue Barn by actress Kim Gambino, who was in its GPTC reading. She studied theater in New York with Toberer.

Capodicasa is glad “the script made its way to the folks at Blue Barn,” adding, “I’m so honored the Blue Barn is doing the play.” He’s enjoyed collaborating with the team for his play’s first full production and is happy “to “share it with the Omaha community.”

“When I served on the Shelterbelt’s reading committee, I was charged with helping find scripts that could possibly fill a gap in the season,” said playwright-director Noah Diaz. “I remembered The Feast – its humor and beauty and terror – and suggested it. Frankly, I didn’t think it would win anyone over. To my surprise, Beth Thompson decided to program it — something I still consider to be deeply courageous. An even bigger surprise came when Beth suggested I direct it.

“The GPTC is providing an opportunity for the community at large to develop relationships with new plays from the ground up. My hope is by having direct connection to these writers, Omaha-based companies will begin shepherding new works onto their stages.”

“Because we’re a theater that only produces new work,” Thompson said, “these plays have a much better chance of being produced with us than they do with anyone else in Omaha.”

Doing new work is risky business since its unfamiliar to audiences, but Thompson said an advantage to GPTC scripts is that some Shelterbelt patrons “already know about them a little bit because they’re developed with Omaha actors and directors – that helps.”

Twenty plays are selected for GPTC from a blind draw of 1,000 submissions. Thus, local theaters have a rich list of finely curated works to draw from.

“These playwrights are going places,” UNO’s Phaneuf said. “You can be in the room with some of the best playwrights in the country and beyond and you can get to know those writers and their work. It’s wonderful to see them when they’re just ready to be discovered by a lot of people and to feel a part of what they’re doing.”

Whether plays are scouted by GPTC insiders or submitted by playwrights themselves, it means more quality options.

“It just opens up our gate as to what we consider local, and while we have amazing writers that are local, they’re not writing all the time, so it gives us a bigger pool to pick from,” Thompson said.

When theaters elect to produce the work of GPTC playwrights, a collaboration ensues. “They’re definitely involved,” Thompson said. The GPTC playwrights she’s produced at Shelterbelt all reside outside Nebraska.

“Their input is just as valuable as if they were living here and able to come to every rehearsal. We Face-time, Skype, text, email because they do have the opportunity to make some changes throughout the process.”

For Lawler, it’s about growing the theater culture.

“I love that our local theaters are being able to take different scripts from the conference and throw them into their seasons – many times giving a premiere for the play. A lot of productions and relationships are born at the conference.”

Ellen Struve has been a beneficiary of both.

“GPTC has given me access to some of the greatest playwrights alive. It’s a community. Local, national and international. It has invigorated the Omaha writing scene. Every year we get to see what’s possible and imagine what we’ll do next.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

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