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Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors 


Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Phil Kenny resembles the starstruck dentist with songwriting ambitions in the stage classic The Bells are Ringing. Growing up in Omaha, Kenny played the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma! and appeared in a Ralston Community Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to the Les Miserables cast album became a ritual. He wrote plays through college with the ambition of penning a Broadway musical, The technology law attorney still pursues that dream today.

He and collaborator Reston Williams, formerly of The Blue Man group, hope one day to get their own four-years-in-the-making musical on its legs in New York.

Far from a frustrated wannabe, Kenny’s made himself a theater insider co-producing major musicals through his 42nd Club investors group. As unlikely as it sounds, this married, devout Mormon father of seven living in Utah has co-produced some of Broadway’s most successful musicals the past few years, including Anastasia and Sunset Boulevard.

In 2018 he even copped a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical with Once on This Island. On a side note, one of its stars, Merle Dandridge, shares a hometown connection: Both she and Kenny are Papillion LaVista High School graduates, though not classmates.

Odds are Kenny will take home another statuette at the June 7 Tonys since three of the five Best Musical nominees are 42nd Club co-produced shows: Hadestown, Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Kenny and Co. also co-produced King Kong – nominated for three Tonys and receiving a special Tony for puppetry.

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

Meanwhile, the 42nd Club co-production Be More Chill enjoyed breakout off-Broadway success that’s transitioned into a Broadway run still going strong. The show led all nominees for the 2019 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards nominations.

For Kenny, crashing the Broadway world as a producer never occurred to him as a thing until two people suggested he try it.

“A number of friends and I have been able to participate in Broadway musicals by investing in and co-producing, which we didn’t even know was an available option,” Kenny said.

The investing opportunity was first broached by Greg Franklin, a veteran investor and co-producer. Then again by Jay Kuo, himself an attorney who ended up co-writing the Broadway musical Allegiance.

“I told them both no initially,” Kenny said. “They didn’t pressure me at all. But after I called Greg (Franklin) to grab lunch and get answers to my questions, I decided to get into it. I found out Broadway investing is less like throwing money away and a donation, and more like a high risk investment where there actually is the potential to make money – and possibly a lot of money if you pick the right shows. That excited and interested me because I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what people like in a Broadway show.

“My first investment was a play called Living on Love starring opera star Renee Fleming. It ended up closing early and didn’t return any of our investment.  We didn’t have nearly the same type of access to the best shows then as we do now.  We were just excited lead producers were talking to us.”

Then Kenny got more connected.

“When you invest in a Broadway show you frequently get opening night tickets and after-show party passes,” he said. “Those parties are filled with other people who invest $25,000 or more in shows. I made it my business to meet everybody I could.”

With Greg Franklin, he said, “I came up with the idea that if we all grouped together we could then co-produce a musical rather than just be an investor. By co-producing we get a bigger say and might be invited as the table when lead producers are talking about various marketing initiatives or having creative discussions.”

This let’s-put-on-a-show economic model has paid off well enough that the club’s grown to 100 members.

“Most of our investors tend to be outside of New York. The interesting thing about we do is that we have the opportunity to invest in the very best and highest level of commercial theater – shows like Waitress, Matilda and An American in Paris – where the buy-in to invest in big Hollywood projects is cost prohibitive.

“Our members are all accredited investors who’ve invested in Broadway shows in the past. We are very selective about the shows we invest in.”

Scripts are read. Staged readings and workshops viewed. At a minimum, Kenny said, there must be “a great story and memorable music.” “And this isn’t a hard and fast rule,” he added, “but I do like to have some sort of commercial hook in the plot or title.”

 

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Once On This Island

 

He often bets on proven track records, such as an adaptation of a popular movie or a project featuring music that already has a built-in following.

His metrics also include analyzing the slated budget and calculating how many seats must be filled weekly to turn a profit. He prefers shows play in smaller houses of about 1,000 seats where demand exceeds supply, thereby creating extra urgency and buzz.

“Because we’re now at the co-producer level,” he said, “a lot of opportunities now come to us rather than us having to seek them out. Hadestown is one one them, Tootsie is another. A co-producer credit means the lead producer shares producing billing with you if you help with a variety of things, chief among them fundraising by bringing in an investment amount of a certain level – perhaps a half-million or a million dollars.”

Among the perks that go with getting your name above the title is being eligible to win a Tony Award

“Our first nomination was when we co-produced a new musical called The Visit by (John) Kander and (Fred)Ebb – the same composers of Chicago and Cabaret – with a book by Terrence McNally. Our second nominated show was Waitress – a huge commercial success. It’s been the most profitable investment we’ve been a part of. That show was nominated in the same year as Hamilton, so we knew we had zero chance of winning.”

Then came Once on This Island’s upset win. The odds-on favorite was My Fair Lady, which swept all the pre-Tony awards shows.

“Our winning was really a surprise to a lot of people, including us producing partners. I was in the back of the house pacing back and forth with my wife when they read Once on This Island as the winner. That single moment was probably the most exciting of my life – and vie had some pretty exciting moments.I looked at my wife and took her by the hand and we ran down the aisle with our other partners and we got to be up on stage for something we have such great passion for.

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

Another perk: “Each of us was able to bring home our own Tony statuette.”

Kenny’s already joined a select list of Tony winners from Nebraska in Henry Fonda, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz and John Lloyd Young. A second win would put Kenny and Kurtz in select company as multiple winners.

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

“We’re both huge musical theater fans,” he said. “Our whole family’s really into it.”

The couple met when he saw her in the chorus of a Utah community theater production of, you guessed it, a musical, and he complimented her backstage. Two weeks later he got her pone number and asked her out. Ten months later, they were married.

Even though Kenny’s met stars like Matthew Broderick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he said, “A lot of the people I look up to in the Broadway world are people most folks haven’t heard of. They’re lead producers like Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy, They’re bringing incredible art to the stage and taking huge risks. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the people dedicating their lives to the performance aspect of it.”

Kenny concedes he’s “not the normal, every day co-producer” but added, “I’ve found the Broadway community very accepting of me and my faith and our big family.”

He said he doesn’t currently aspire to be a lead producer. “Part of the reason I don’t have that on my bucket list is the fact that I live in Utah. It would be really difficult to launch a whole production from beginning to end not living in New York.”

Among the shows 42nd Club is backing next season is Jagged Little Pill. The musical opens on Broadway in December. It features music from Alanis Morissette’s best-selling album of the same name.

To date, only one show he’s co-produced has made it to Omaha on tour – Waitress – but Anastasia arrives in June 2020.

Visit 42nd.club.

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

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From bowling alley to Broadway and back

August 27, 2016 2 comments

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba

From bowling alley to Broadway and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com.

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 10 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics — Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

June 2, 2011 5 comments

Here’s another of my past Great Plains Theater Conference pieces, this time a Q & A with noted director Marshall Mason. In keeping with the theme and subject of several recent posts, I am repurposing theater stories and interviews I’ve done about that event and some of its guest artists as well as about other aspects of Omaha theater, all in celebration of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference (through June 4) in Omaha.

 

 

Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

Based on an interview Leo Adam Biga did with Marshall Mason for The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Though not a household name outside theater circles, director Marshall Mason owns the kind of credits that befit a luminary. He’s a five-time Tony nominee, a five-time Obie winner and a co-founder of the famed Circle Repertory Company in New York. He’s also been recognized with several lifetime achievement awards for his directing. The veteran artist brings his expertise to Omaha for the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, where he’ll conduct directing workshops.

In the early 1960s the Texas native was a directing prodigy at Northwestern University. Soon after graduating he left for New York to work off-off-Broadway. He soon established himself a consummate director at the experimental theaters Cafe Cino and Cafe LaMama. Those venues introduced him to playwright Lanford Wilson (The Hot L BaltimoreFifth of JulyTalley’s Folly), whose work Mason would become the primary interpreter of. In ‘69 Wilson and Mason, then only 29, formed the Circle Rep, where they made their legends the next two decades.

Mason has directed extensively for Broadway, regional theater and theaters around the world, including a 1985 revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo. He’s also directed television adaptations of some of his greatest stage successes. He’s also a noted teacher. Now semi-retired, he divides his time between Mazatlan, Mexico and New York, only taking an occasional directing gig. These days, he said, “I’ve now put all my energies really into writing.” His book Creating Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors was recently published. He’s writing two new books, one on the Circle Rep’s founding and another on the many icons with whom he’s worked.

This will be his first visit to Nebraska, home to two figures from his New York heyday. Playwright Megan Terry is a longtime Omaha resident who was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Her Hot House was produced at the Circle Rep. Actress Swoosie Kurtz is an Omaha native. She won a Tony in Mason’s production ofFifth of July.

Mason, speaking by phone from his New York apartment, exuded a youthful voice and gracious manner.

LAB: Theater is a living, breathing experience that communicates the human condition with an audience. Is a director’s ultimate task to bring the text to life?

MM: “That couldn’t have been a more perfect question because Heinemann (Press) has just published my first book…in which I make that exact point. That a director’s main job is to bring the text of a play to spontaneous life on stage so that the audience experiences the play.”

LAB: Did the process of writing the book help you coalesce your own ideas/theories on directing and, in a sense, reinvigorate your approach to your craft?

MM: “Absolutely, yes. It was a long process. I started writing the book around 1990 or so when I was living in Los Angeles. Then in 1994 I moved to Tempe, Arz., where I became a professor of theater at Arizona State University…I taught both acting and directing and as a result had to find a way to communicate my ideas about these subjects to the students. It was tremendously instructive to me in terms of clarifying my thoughts and giving me the ability to systemize in away what I was talking about. The big breakthrough for me, however, came when I wrote theater criticism for a weekly newspaper there called the Phoenix New Times.

“I had an editor who was very exacting about the use of words…and I learned so much in terms of being simple and direct and clear. That was a step that was so tremendously important in terms of my being able to take what is a difficult thing to describe — the creative process — and find a way to make it clear and simple enough to understand.

“My mentor Harold Clurman, who was a great director and teacher, was of course a critic. When I was first in New York…I became a participant at the Actors Studio directing unit. Lanford Wilson also was participating — in the playwriting unit. We both studied there with Clurman and (Lee) Strasberg…Clurman was our regular playwrighting teacher and I attended all his sessions.

“Then of course later after I started the Circle Repertory Company Clurman became one of our really, really good friends. He was a critic who loved our work and wrote about it in glowing terms and was the person to whom we could turn and actually ask advice. He had been with the Group Theatre and we were coming along sort of in the footsteps of the Group and trying to create our own living theater in New York.”

 

Circle Rep production of Julie Bovasso play, Angelo’s Wedding

 

LAB: Do you have a sense for why you felt pulled to be a director?

MM: “When I directed my first play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at Northwestern when I was 19, I discovered I had been a director all my life. I’d just not really known it. Back in the 3rd grade I wrote a Halloween play that I ‘put on,’ The Night the Witches Rode. That’s what you call it in 3rd grade — putting on a play. Later you understand putting on a play is what a director does.”

LAB: How old were you when you first went to New York?

MM: “I was 21. I was the youngest member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers when I joined the SSDC in 1963 when I was 23 and became essentially a professional director. And then many years later I became the president of that union.”

LAB: You really were a prodigy breaking new ground.

MM “As a matter of fact when I started directing in New York young people didn’t direct. It was something only middle-aged people did. I was the only director of my age and when I would have auditions actors twice my age would come in the room, look around and say, ‘Where’s the director?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s me!’ It was strange.

“Of course since then there’s been a profusion of (young) directors, in film particularly. People now go to school and get an MFA in directing and come out and try to start a career. When I was in school people became directors from some other position. Usually they were stage managers first…and then they would eventually take over directing. It was not common practice when I was at Northwestern to study directing as a profession. Now it’s very common.”

LAB: Did your real education in theater commence once you got to New York?

MM: “I would say both yes and no. Certainly I continued to learn a great deal in New York, but the basis of my work really had been laid in firmly by the great teacher Alvina Krause at Northwestern. So I had a firm grip of my techniques when I came to New York; what I learned is how to apply them in professional situations.”

NOTE: Krause was a legendary figure in Northwestern’s fine theater department. Besides Mason, other Krause-trained notables include Oscar-winning actors Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones and Patricia Neal. Neal will join Mason in Omaha.

MM: “I was trained in the classics. I would call Ms. Krause from New York and say, “I really want to do the classics. When do you think I’ll be ready?’ And she said, ‘You’re ready now.’ But when I got to New York, especially at the Cafe Cino, I began to meet young American writers.”

LAB: Like Megan Terry…

MM: “Like Megan Terry and many others. But it was Lanford Wilson who basically said to me, ‘You should really concentrate on new plays because these old dead guys like Shakespeare don’t need you. We need you — to put our reflection of our contemporary world on stage.’”

 

Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson

 

LAB: What accounts for you and Wilson enjoying this long, simpatico relationship?

MM: “It’s because of trust Lanford has had in me as a director. We first worked together on his Balm in Giliad. He felt I understood his play. I told him the fact his play is set among drug addicts and prostitutes is incidental because what his play is really about is the commerce between people, and it could happen just as well on Wall Street as it could on the streets. He was tremendously impressed by that because that’s exactly what he had in mind.

“The first thing I did in my first rehearsal was to break the play down into beats of action for the actors to mark in their scripts. Lanford was sort of fascinated by this because he’d never seen a director do this before.

“That first production was enormously successful and after that, sort of as a self-preservation thing, he said, ‘If you’ve got something that really works, why would you take a risk and try some other director?’ He’s worked with many directors of course over time, but the two of us found a compatibility with the way we thought about theater. He valued acting that didn’t look like acting and I was able to deliver performances that didn’t seem like acting.”

LAB: Is it true you and Wilson got off to a rocky start?

MM: “Yes. It was our very first meeting. Joe Cino introduced us. Lanford had already done four productions at the Cino. I had seen all four. The current one was Home Free. I’d seen an earlier production of it, too. The play is about an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. In the original production you didn’t discover they were brother and sister until the last moment of the play, which was tremendously powerful. But Lanford changed the play and the brother-sister thing came in right in the first line of the play.

“When we met he said, ‘Haven’t I done a really wonderful job of revising it?” and I said, ‘No, I think you’ve ruined it’  — starting our relationship off with a disagreement right up front. I think the good thing about that was he recognized right away I was going to deal honestly and tell him what I thought, no matter what.

“I’ve now come around to feeling he was probably right to do it that way (reveal the bombshell at the start).”

LAB: You two developed this phenomenon known as the Circle Rep.

MM: “Balm in Giliad was such a remarkable ensemble of a living play that Lanford said, ‘My God, we’ve got to keep these people together…’ He was a very important influence in terms of insisting we at some point form a company. It was actually four years later that I bit the bullet and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” At first I thought, I’m too young to do this. But by the time I was 29 I didn’t feel so young anymore. The first production I did at the Circle Rep was Chekhov’s Three Sisters in two contrasting productions that played in rotating rep. One was a traditional approach like Stanislavsky (the Russian actor/director/theoretician who developed an influential system of dramatic training) and everybody had always used with Chekhov. The other was a truly experimental Chekhov.”

 

 

LAB: The Circle Rep became known for its lyric realism style.

MM: “In a way I regret the phrase because the critics picked up on it and it sort of became our tag, The thing is the Circle Rep did many, many plays of all different kinds of styles. But we got tagged with this thing of lyric realism, probably because it’s what we did best.”

LAB: How do you define lyric realism?

“What is it? It has a surface of realism. As the New York Times put it, ‘Real plays about real people’ with a rather linear plot you can follow. However unlike let’s say (William) Inge, who wrote realism but was never able to lift the experience above the mundane, lyric realism elevates the realistic experience to a poetic experience  through things like eloquent language.

“Lanford was recognized…as being the next voice of lyrical writing in America since Tennessee Williams. Their writing is in the same vein, only Lanford’s is less florid. Tennessee’s first play, Battle of Angels, had its first New York production under my direction. It was 30 years from the time he wrote it until if came to New York. Tennessee and I were just planning to begin work on a new production of Night of the Iguana with William Hurt when he died.”

LAB: What kind of shape was Williams in when you worked with him?

MM: “He was in great shape. It was after his druggie days. I was terribly afraid of meeting Tennessee. I admired his work so much and I heard such terrible things about his personal life that I didn’t want my idol to have feet of clay…The New York Times did a big spread on the Circle Rep and me and I mentioned Tennessee had been my inspiration from high school on up, so he called up and asked me to come to dinner. If he actually invites you to dinner you can’t say, ‘No’…So I went to dinner and it was an amazing experience.”

LAB: Do you attend many gatherings like the Great Plains Theatre Conference?

MM: “I haven’t for a long time. Edward Albee and I went to Valdez, Alaska to help Jody (Metro Community College President Jo Ann McDowell) found her Last Frontier conference up there. She first met me, and Edward too, at the Inge Festival (in Independence, Kan.). Edward’s been a tremendous supporter of hers. This year I was persuaded it would be a good thing to go again. I’m really looking forward to it. I feel especially with the book I’ve got a lot of new ideas to share…”

LAB: Are forums like this vital for theater artists who live outside of New York?

MM: “It is really great because it decentralizes the theater and makes it available in the far reaches of the country. People can come to Omaha that would find it really difficult to come all the way to New York or, on the other hand, Alaska. So I think the Great Plains is a wonderful place to have a theater conference.”


Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights

May 29, 2011 10 comments

With the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference going on May 28-June 4 in Omaha, I am posting a variety of stories I’ve written directly related to the event and others having to do with other aspects of Omaha theater. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is based on an interview I did with the playwright Arthur Kopit. It’s a lively, insightful discussion of the playwriting craft and of how events like the conference help nurture emerging playwrights.

 

 

 

Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

New York playwright Arthur Kopit (IndiansWings, the books for the musicals Nine and Phantom of the Opera) sees “many values” in the Great Plains Theatre Conference going on now through June 3 at various sites in Omaha. But none more than the vital forum it provides new playwrights.

“One is, it connects them with a community of playwrights,” he said. “Playwrighting is a very lonely profession, particularly if you’re not in New York. And even if you are…you work so often in isolation. Meeting with other playwrights enables the writers to see the problems they are dealing with are not theirs alone. It’s very hard to write a good play, so it’s kind of a bucking-up…a strengthening. And it’s nice for playwrights to be welcomed and honored and to realize they’re doing something important, because the development of new plays is a difficult task in American theater.”

The collegial spirit of such a conference has a palliative effect on playwrights.

“It’s an odd profession,” Kopit said. “It’s very hard to figure out why you want to be a playwright. Screenwriters and television writers can say they expect to get a lot of money or to get steady employment, but when you’re a playwright it’s much chancier. So there’s an emotional support from seeing other playwrights and finding out you’re not the only one who has this passion…Second, you’re going to get some very good feedback on your work from other professional playwrights and that’s important. You’re going to see the work of other playwrights — new work — and that is invigorating. Even when the pieces don’t work…you’re learning something. So you’re learning things professionally, you’re making contacts with other writers, directors, actors that may be helpful. ”

The benefits of this community extend to veteran writers as well. “For writers who are more established it’s an opportunity to meet with other writers, and that’s exciting, and hear their work and get comments on their work,” he said. Regardless of how accomplished a playwright is, no one’s immune from creative-craft issues. “Problems with the second or third act, or the first,” he said, happen to everyone. “Yes, absolutely. And each play is different. As Moss Hart (legendary Broadway playwright) once said, ‘You only learn to write THIS particular play.’ It doesn’t necessarily help you with the next play. So, it’s hard.”

A successful playwright, he said, is made not born. “You have to have discipline. You have to work at it. And some days go well and some days don’t. You can’t tell before you begin.” The process, he said, is all “in the crafting of the play,” which he said is why “so much of conversations” at the conference “will be about the crafting. How you get something, how you make it better. The architecture, the structure of the play.” A conference like this, he said, can be instructive to general audiences. “They will learn this is not an abstract situation where someone sits and waits for inspiration. If inspiration comes by, you grab it” but unless you’re “logging the hours” at work on your play, you’ll miss out on your muse.

Letting the public in on the formative process is healthy. “How extraordinary it is for audiences to understand how a play is put together — the complexity of it, particularly in the development of new plays,” he said. He sees the conference as an ideal vehicle for approaching theater from multiple angles. “What is it like to write a new play? What is it like to see a play in progress that’s not been seen before? How do you evaluate it? It’s very hard to do new plays because they have problems and audiences usually like to feel secure…to see something that is good and that has been tested. Audiences too often depend on critics.”

At its best theater reflects the aspirations of people and the times they live in. But great plays resist pat solutions or analysis. “They can’t be editorials. They can’t be propaganda. Really good plays are not easy to define, like all great art,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons theater is important because great plays are open to interpretation. Weak plays are very obvious on the surface as to what they’re about. They’re like sit coms. Great plays explore the gray areas. They don’t look at black and white…good and evil. They’re about human contradiction…the intermingling” of values. “Plays can be unsettling when they don’t give you easy answers, but the purpose of a play is to raise questions, not provide answers.”

 

 

 

 

Classic plays can be revisited again and again, he said, for the very reason “they’re open to different interpretations” by the artists and audiences who tackle them over time.  With each staging, he said, “other aspects of the play come out.”

What makes theater “very different” from film, he said, is that it’s “a collective, group experience. There’s a ritual involved in theater. There’s no ritual in film. And the audience receives the play from actors. That’s why when there’s been a great audience and a great performance actors will applaud the audience because the audience performed too by giving them their serious attention. The actors will feed on what audiences give them. That shared experience is part of what’s powerful about theater. It’s a communion and it’s a community. It’s a love affair.”

Theater has deep reverberations in the collective consciousness, he suggests. “It’s an ancient art. It has an inherent significance to it we instinctively understand,” he said. Like storytelling, plays cut across cultures to express the human experience. All the more reason to celebrate new stories and new plays at a gathering of the cognoscenti. “It brings attention to new plays, it brings attention to the theater in that community and it adds some fire, some sparkle, some new awareness. You know, “attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller says (in Death of a Salesman).

The sympoisum’s built around the New Voices play labs series that reads/performs the work of emerging playwrights from around the nation for critical appraisal by distinguished panelists like Kopit and Edward Albee (A Delicate BalanceWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?). Albee is co-organizer of the conference with Jo Ann C. McDowell, president of Metropolitan Community College, the event’s host.

Luminaries like Kopit and Albee “waive their speaker’s fee,” said McDowell. Before this, she and Albee lured top talent to The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, the model for the first time Great Plains. Kopit never made it north,  “but I know all the writers who’ve been there and they’ve always loved it,” he said.

Kopit said playwrights couldn’t ask for a more nurturing mentor than Albee. “Edward has been extremely generous to other playwrights. He established a foundation for playwrights early on in his career and believes very deeply, thoroughly in the importance of theater and new plays, and this conference is an example of that.” He said it’s “unusual” a playwright of Albee’s stature is so supportive, adding “other playwrights come here because they respect Edward and the great amount of passion he’s put into this.”

As an honored playwright, Kopit’s own work is featured in panel discussions, readings and staged performances. Selections from his Nine (Tony Award for best musical) were presented May 28. Albee led a May 29 Kopit panel. Kopit arrived early to prep local artists performing two of his plays — “making sure the pieces are done properly.” He’s conducted a master class, read from his work, been a respondent in labs and interacted with visiting/resident artists and enthusiasts at social gigs.

After a lab reading of Max Sparber’s Buddy Bentley (presented by current/former Blue Barn Theatre members), Kopit and fellow playwright respondents Albee and Glyn O’Malley questioned Sparber about the work’s character development, motivation, tonal issues, etc. Several fine points were addressed. Far from an inquisition, it felt more like a grad student having his thesis gently challenged. Kopit, who enjoys teaching and directs the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, said, “Oh, yes, many playwrights teach. We love to do this.”

Scenes by Kopit, Albee and fellow playwrights Emily Mann and Mac Wellman will be staged June 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center. A reading of Kopit’sWings (Tony nominee/Pulitzer finalist) is set for June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland. On June 3, Kopit receives the Edward Albee Great Plains Playwright Award at the fest’s closing Gala at 7 p.m. on Metro’s Fort Omaha parade grounds. On the Albee Award, Kopit said, “I’m honored and it’s exciting. Wonderful writers have been honored by this. But you don’t write for that. You write for the piece itself.”

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights

May 29, 2011 13 comments

This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

 

Q & A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

 

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

 

Maggie Smith and David Hilder (center) and participants at the 2015 Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

January 23, 2011 7 comments

NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins.  Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on.  This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash:  she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions.  But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show.  Sweet.

Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith.  She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins

 

 

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

 

Q. Smith

Quiana Smith

 

 

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

 

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

Quiana Smith, ©photo by David Wells

 

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

 

 

 

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

 

 

Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

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