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Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner Series and Circle Theatre

April 24, 2018 1 comment

Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner series and Circle Theatre

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in June 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

NOTE: THIS IS A 2017 STORY

 

In June, things come full circle for one of Omaha’s longest-lived stage companies, the Circle Theatre, in support of recovering resident playwright Doug Marr.

Doug and wife Laura Marr were among 12 founding members of the Circle, created in 1983 by a cohort of UNO theater grads and professors. The group enlisted Doug, then a poet, into writing an original work to perform. That play, Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner, became an unexpected sensation early in 1984 at Benson’s Joe & Judy’s Cafe. It spawned a successful series of 11 Phil’s Diner plays Marr wrote and the Circle produced, even as the cafe changed hands.

Marr went on to write many plays outside the Phil’s series, including Starkweather for the Omaha Community Playhouse. As Circle members dropped out owing to job and family commitments, the Marrs carried on, eventually moving the theater to Central Presbyterian Church and more recently, Urban Abbey. In 2016 the Marrs handed off operations to Fran Sillau, who joined the company in the late 1990s.

Now, Sillau and the Circle are reviving the play that started it all, with many of the original cast, for six scheduled performances at Harold’s Koffee House in Florence. Only this revival isn’t purely about nostalgia. It’s for a purpose. Show proceeds will help offset major medical expenses incurred by Doug after undergoing multiple surgeries the last two years. Omaha’s most prolific playwright is in need of a serious rewrite.

Most recently, a pressure wound got infected to the bone. That  necessitated surgery followed by weeks of rehab at a care center. In an interview at the Marrs’ midtown home, Doug sat at the kitchen table surrounded by medical bills. One alone totals $85,000. Medicare pays some but finding the rest on Laura’s teaching salary and what he makes writing is rough.

The costs extend to a regimen of eight prescription drugs he’s on. It’s all on top of being a paraplegic (he’s been paralyzed from the waist down since undergoing risky spinal surgery at age 22). Since then, he’s only been able to walk with the aid of crutches. The pressure on arms and shoulders bearing his full body weight blew out both rotator cuffs.

He’s never wanted pity, but to entertain us through his craft. He’s done it over and over again. Now that he needs a little help, he’s touched that his old theater gang is rejoining for the cause. They, in turn, are happy to do so. Reliving the most intense theater experience of their lives makes it all the better.

“Fundraiser aside, I think it’s amazing,” Marr said. “We’re hoping people in the Florence area will kind of glom onto this new experience.”

M. Michele Phillips. who’s directing the revival, said, “To bring it full circle is something that never happens because theater’s so ephemeral and when it’s done, it’s done, so this is totally cool. What was always nice about the Circle Theatre was the ensemble. The ensemble was always full of great people you loved working with.”

Michael Markey, who’s reprising the role of the mensch diner proprietor Phil he originated, said in rehearsals it doesn’t seem decades have passed.

“It’s just like we finished yesterday – the interplay, the shortcuts. You know what the other person’s going to say or how they’re going to react. All that’s there after 30 years. Bill Lacey (he plays Al the grouchy short order cook) I haven’t seen in 30 years let alone act with, and we’re right there.”

“It doesn’t take time to catch up and reconnect to people you were that close to, even though it was a long time ago,” Lacey said.

Then there’s the added benefit of everyone bringing more life experience to the material.

“I think the fact everybody’s a little bit older makes the acting more intuitive,” Phillips said. “It seems like second nature.”

“This experience was very embedded in who I was as an actor,” Markey said. “I tend to believe it was probably that way because it was so different. It was so organic as environmental theater that it all came rushing back as soon as we started doing it again.”

Markey said there’s nothing like the intensity of creating theater together for imprinting things in you.

“There’s a trust factor that comes about from working with people over and over again. When we started this we were 12 people who had worked together in UNO and in other community theater who had built that trust, and we spent the first six months of the Circle just working on developing that truth and the improvisation and all that. So that ensemble was part and parcel of who we were.”

The late Matt Kamprath is the stock company’s lone member who’s gone.

In a gender twist, Stan, the homeless philosopher has changed to Stella. Laura Marr, one of Omaha’s most distinguished actresses, plays her. Other characters include Daryl the savant dishwasher, Grace the sharp-tongued waitress and Rudy the jeweler.

Then as now, the players are an extension of the Phil’s Diner universe of neighborhood dreamers, schemers, working stiffs and misfits whose stories Marr explored.

“It had that feeling of an extended family where Phil kind of took in all these different characters over the years,” Marr said. “He was kind of their father in a way.”

The verisimilitude increased placing the actors of these archetypal diner denizens in an actual eatery.

“Because I think part of what the whole experience was with diner theater was to be surrounded by the play in this natural found space,” Laura said. “It gave a really interesting feel as an audience member and as a performer. You can produce the play just as a play but to actually mount it in a setting like this opens a new generation up to what found space theater is and to the possibilities of it. It’s very different doing it that way then doing it on a stage. It requires a different type of style, awareness of the audience and a whole lot of things as a performer.”

When Phil’s Diner debuted, it was a first for area theater.

“It was an experiment the first time we did it,” Markey said. “We only planned on doing it one night. We’d see if anybody came and what they thought because it hadn’t been done before, and the response was so electric it was like, ‘OK, this will work.'”

Until, then, Lacey said, “We didn’t know it would work – we really didn’t.”

What made it a must-see?

“It was so unique to go to a diner and see a play, so there was the novelty aspect of it,” Phillips said.

“Doug created a wonderful slice of life of people you run into, talking the way they talk, being who they are, and you’re just sitting in amongst this group of people you can completely relate to,” Markey said. “Doug’s writing is so earnest – it’s who he is. He causes us to look at the people around us and embrace what’s good about them. What’s good in us comes out because of them.”

Putting on the plays created lasting bonds for this cadre of University of Nebraska at Omaha thespians.

“A group of us from UNO had decided that after we graduated we really wanted to work where we live, instead of live where we work,” Laura Marr said. “We didn’t want to necessarily go off to New York or L.A. if we could try something here and it could be successful.”

The Circle was formed at the Marrs’ wedding reception. To everyone’s surprise, Laura recalled, the theater was a hit right out of the gate. “We had no idea it would so quickly become self-sustaining and a viable medium for us.”

Years of staging work coincided with troupe members getting married, starting families, moving on.

“We really went through a lot of things together,” she said. “Even if we don’t see each other for a long period, anytime we get together we just pick up where we left off because we’ve shared so many experiences. That includes our college years when you really start to figure out who you are and what you want to do and what you believe in. When you have a core group of people that comes together with those very strong themes and you create something together, I don’t think that ever goes away.”

Doug Marr, who only penned that first play because he was the group’s lone writer, said he soon discovered his calling. “I found my voice – I found the way I could express myself.” The sold-out shows, he said, “really blew me away.”

The Circle eventually drew deeply from the American theater canon and became known for casting disabled persons and staging signed shows.

“Before the word inclusive was even a thing, they lived it, they embodied it,” said Fran Sillau, who himself has a disability, “and that didn’t happen everywhere. It was a very special place with very special people.”

It was Sillau’s idea to revive the first Phil’s Diner. Marr was to write a new one but got sick. He intends finishing it yet. “It’s going to be years later – with a lot of the same characters,” he said.

Michael Markey feels there’s an advantage to doing Phil Contemplates first because it gives the ensemble a chance to rediscover the characters with a piece they know and introduce new audiences to diner theater.

“Now we have the foundation for the reunion piece.”

Marr has no problems reengaging with his Phil creations. “They were such a part of my life. They’re attached to my soul. They’re like real people to me.”

Laura’s grateful the work and theater have a new life. “I think that’s the whole purpose of starting something – to see it continue. It’s so interesting to see it from a different perspective because when you’re in the day to day workings of something it’s very hard to be objective about it. With Doug’s health issues over the past two years, it’s really been a relief to us to have someone as competent as Fran (Sillau). He’s got very good vision and some great people supporting that vision. He’ll move the organization in new and exciting ways.”

For the Marrs, it’s nice having a finished script and someone else put up the show.

“It’s not like the old days where Doug was producing so much work and the work was so popular we would start rehearsal on a new one while we were still in production on on,” Laura said.

She feels the Circle’s endurance might explain why other grassroots theaters appeared here.

“We had a big influence in the emergence of all of these little theaters,” she surmised. “They began to pop up and stay and do very interesting original work.”

“It gave everybody the courage to try it,” Michele Phillips said. “These guys actually accomplished it. That was exciting for everybody in the theater community.”

Giving back to a local theater icon, Phillips, said, “gives everybody impetus to do a really good job because there’s no more dedicated theater practitioner than Doug. Just getting around is such a struggle for him,nbut he’s never late, he’s always on top of it.”

“He’s an inspiration –  that’s why we do it,” Sillau said. “Thanks to him I learned that someone with a disability could make what you want out of your life.”

“It’s a great opportunity to say thank you to Doug and Laura for keeping the theater alive,” Markey said.

Doug Marr appreciates it all, even though some days the pain is just too much. Like Phil and the bunch, he remains hopeful.

“I mean, there’s going to be a point in my life when it all crashes down … cause it’s just going to be too difficult, but right now I can’t not keep going. There’s still challenges out there, there’s films to watch, books to read, and also it’s a good time to start working on getting things published, like Starkweather and some of the other pieces I’ve written. Even the Phil’s Diner series. They have to be totally rewritten on the computer, but I’ve got time.”

Shows are Friday and Saturday nights, June 2 to 17, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Harold’s, 8327 North 30th Street. Tickets are $25 and include a cup of coffee and slice of pie. Visit circletheatreomaha.org.

MUST-SEE THEATER “Starkweather” by Doug Marr, March 8-11, Florence City Hall


MUST-SEE THEATER

“Starkweather” by Doug Marr, March 8-11, Florence City Hall

The Florence Community Theater proudly presents: The FCT Studio Series production of “Starkweather”

“Starkweather” is based on the shoclomg real-life events of December 1957 thrpugh early January 1958 when 19-year-old Charles Raymond Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, engaged in a killing spree which ended with 11 people murdered in Nebraska and Wyoming. This was the first serial massacre to capture the nation’s attention. It happened some years before the Boston Strangler, Richard “Dick” Hickock-Perry Smith, Richard Benjamin Speck and Charles Manson murder sprees. After the initial killings. a massive manhunt ensued in pursuit of the suspects, neither of whom had shown any obvious signs of such depravity. Until Starkweather and Fugate were apprehended by authorities, much of the American Midwest and West was on high alert because of the seeming randomness of the killings and the fact that they happened over a several hundred mile span. The fear was intensified by the pack media coverage of the killings and the sheer size of the manhunt. There was also the uneasy feeling that something unhinged had been released in the placid late 1950s. No one could understand how two teenagers could seemingly just snap and act with such unadulterated evil. Residents of rural communities armed themselves to the teeth. Written by Omaha playwright Doug Marr (of Diner Theater fame), “Starkweather” is a riveting dramatic evocation of the fear Heartland residents felt and of the surreal and sensational trial that followed of the two teenagers accused and found guilty of these heinous crimes. Orignally staged at the Omaha Community Playhouse to great acclaim, this work has rarely been mounted in recent decades and is now being revived in the 60th anniversay year of Starkweather’s capture.

Disclaimer: This show contains adult language or situations. Children under 17 will not be admitted.

Show Dates and times: March 8 – 11, 2018; Thursday – Saturday 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m.

Tickets: Reservations can be made by calling (402) 455-6341 or online at http://florencetheater.org/tickets/. Single General Admission tickets are $10; TAG Members $8; Patrons Aged 60+ $8; Or Groups of 8 or more $8.

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith


Inside Edward Hopper's Nighthawks

Image by mistress_f via Flickr

Omaha playwright Doug Marr first made a name for himself when he and some drama cohorts created Diner Theater, the blue collar, workingman’s version of dinner theater. It was an offshoot of the Circle Theatre he helped found. The concept of Diner Theater was just quirky and fun enough and Marr’s plays more than entertaining enough to develop a loyal following. Diner Theater is no more, but Doug’s gone on to write, produce and direct many more plays for many more venues. His wife Laura, a fine actress, has appeared in many of his works. The fact that Doug’s made a living at his art in his hometown speaks to his persistence, talent and imagination. I loved going to his Diner Theater plays in Benson, just a short drive from my then-home, and I somehow always knew I would write about him. I finally did and this profile is the result. It appeared in a short-lived paper called the Omaha Weekly. At the time I did this piece Doug’s Circe Theatre operated out of a church basement in mid-town. Today, it shares space with First United Methodist Church and Urban Abbey.

 

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

“One reason why I’m not intrigued by a lot of theater and literature being written today is because the dreams die too early on the page. The writing today is faithless, hopeless and destitute of any soul, and I can’t live in that world. I can’t.”

The words and sentiments belong to Omaha writer Doug Marr, whose life and work have put him on intimate terms with keeping the faith despite steep odds.

His best known creation, Diner Theater, encompasses a body of funny and poignant plays about a gallery of misfits who find surrogate homes in greasy spoon denizens of our collective imaginations. In 1983 Marr was the lone writer among a bunch of dramatic arts acolytes from the University of Nebraska at Omaha longing to bring theater “to the people.” Led by their guru, UNO dramatic arts professor Doug Paterson, the idealistic group planted the seed for what became the Circle Theater company at the wedding reception of Doug and his wife Laura, who had fallen head-over-heels for each other during a UNO production of Marat/Sade, a drama of lunatic asylum inmates enacting a play.

Crazy is what some called Marr when, desperate for a performing space, he and his cohorts settled on Joe & Judy’s Cafe, a real working diner smack dab in the heart of the Benson business district. Inspired is what they called him after he penned the first in a series of plays set in Phil’s, a place where life lessons are dished-up along with the blue plate special. The play launched the Circle in 1984. From the start, a genuine diner meal preceded each show, and thus was born Diner Theater, a charming and inspired concept that attracted a fiercely loyal following among new and veteran theatergoers alike.

More Phil’s plays followed, along with others set in assorted bars, cafes and road houses. Marr, who spent his share of time in working-class dives like the ones he wrote about, found a winning formula with his diner counter dramas, really morality plays infused with his loony humor, heartfelt sentimentality, deep social consciousness and abiding faith.

Back to the Future
Today, with all but the Marrs departed from the Circle, Doug and Laura have gone back to the future by relocating the theater from its diner home the past 17 years to Central Presbyterian Church, 55th and Leavenworth Streets, an unlikely venue until you learn the couple are active members (Doug teaches Sunday School) and the associate pastor, Dwight Williams, is a veteran Circle performer. Instead of Chapel Theater, though, the couple opted to resurrect the Circle name. Why move from the spot where the magic first happened? “It just didn’t feel right there anymore — creatively, spiritually, emotionally. We were ready for a change. We needed to be in a new place. To have a rebirth,” Marr, 47, said from the mid-town brick home he, Laura and their two young children, Dylan and Emma, share.

 

 

 

 

Publicity still from his play Starkweather

 

It may surprise some to learn Marr, that wild and crazy theater guy, is a devout Christian but then again he is all about defying expectations. For example, while best know for the Diner Theater cycle, his wide-ranging work includes the acclaimed stage drama Starkweather, whimsical stage adaptations of Mother Goose and Curious George, an historically-based Civil War dramatic feature film scriptBall Hill (which has been optioned) and a pair of mystery novels he’s now writing. He’s done a fair amount of directing for the stage. He’s encouraged new theater talent through a playwrighting competition. There is also his outreach work with special needs groups, school residencies and a new for-profit venture, Dramatic Results.

Life Lessons
A Cheyenne, Wyo. native, he grew up in a middle class family (his father was a high school music teacher and a professional jazz player and his mother worked office jobs) and at age 12 moved with his folks to Omaha. It was at Ralston High School where the avid reader, weaned on the rebellious ‘60s literature of Kerouac, Vonnegut and Heller, first dabbled in writing.

“I had always been in love with the written word. Literature spoke to me on a really deep level. I just liked what writers were telling me and the fact you could take away from literature whatever you wanted,” he said.

He wrote a well-received one-act play as a failing undergrad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When UNL officials urged him not to return in 1971, he dropped-out. His plan was to earn some money before giving college another try. He went to work for Wilson Meatpacking Co., where he got a gritty education no college could provide. His first job, on the night cleanup crew, found him “catching blood” in the blood pit. After a shackled cow was stunned and its throat slit, it was his task to prop a bucket under the thrashing animal’s head to catch the fountain of blood spurting out. By morning, he stood knee deep amid a river of red.  Later, he was “promoted” to cleaning the chitlin machine and its tub full of intestinal worms from butchered hogs. “It was very surreal and very nightmarish at times,” he said of his three-year Wilson ordeal. It was there too he was indoctrinated to union machinations. “I was a young guy brought up with a strong work ethic but there, if you worked too hard, people pulled you aside and threatened you to slow down. So, I basically worked four hours and sat around the other four reading and hiding from the foreman.”

At the end of his shift Marr obeyed tradition by unwinding at South O watering holes, usually Mel’s or the Pork Chop Bar. The idea was to get numb. “The Pork Chop was a scary establishment. It was built sometime around the turn of the century and that was the last time it was cleaned too,” he said. “I remember the day they condemned the moose head over the bar. It was like the place the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life describes, ‘We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.’ That was it. You didn’t take your wife or date there. It’s where I had my first experience getting drunk at six in the morning, which was odd. Mel’s was a little nicer.”

It was at these joints Marr was exposed to some of the dreamers, schemers, drifters, losers, lushes and flophouse philosophers who would populate his fiction.

“Some of these guys, when they died, left behind stacks of uncashed checks in their little roominghouses because basically they lived to work and drink,” he said.

In his plays he purposely evokes a more romantic, less dreary image of those blue collar haunts. His lost souls seek not just oblivion but redemption. And, in the person of Phil, unlike real-life bartenders, they find a friend, a confessor, a soulmate. Long before Cheers, Marr portrayed a place where hope springs eternal for patrons and barkeeps who form an extended family. Phil is the head of that family, dysfunctional as it is. “Phil’s a guy who had dreams of having more. Of having a fuller life through material wealth. But what he ends up finding out, as do the people in his diner, is that they have real wealth in their connection to one another. In their friendship and love. They support their dreams even though they realize their dreams are maybe never going to come to fruition,” Marr said.

The allegorical stories have resonated for many. “Doug writes about the common man in a common language. You see a real caring for his fellow man in his plays and he does it with humor and insight” said Nebraska Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Mike Markey, a Circle co-founder and the originator of the character Phil.

Marr’s humanist bordering-on Honeymooners style is evident in this exchange between the whimsical Phil and the pragmatic Rudy regarding the joint’s dreamer of a dish washer, Daryl, from Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner:

Phil:
“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of those comic books in
time.”
Rudy
“He’s 28 years old for God’s sake. His phases should have
been over with a long time ago. He’s going to turn into a
comic book character.”
Phil
“He’ll see the world as it really is soon enough, my friend.
Let him have his odd fantasy or two. Let him escape for
awhile. It never hurt nobody.”
Rudy
Escaping never earned anybody a living. It won’t bring home
the bacon.
Phil
Well, he has a little while before he needs to start worrying
about that.

Archetypes — from wisecracking waitresses to gruff old codgers to homeless vets to beleaguered laborers — abound in Marr’s work. “It’s a real skill to create a true, honest character that is a unique personality as an individual but that also represents a broad range of social type. Doug is really good at that,” said UNO’s Paterson, a Circle co-founder.

Marr acknowledges his work bears the influence of writers who plumbed the depths and eternal hopes of fringe dwellers. The clearest reverberation is with Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and its saloon-full of wash-outs awaiting a deliverance that may never come. The same types abound in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, two of Marr’s favorite reads. “Even though they’re dreamers, the guys still have hope and faith. And that’s why these beautiful tragedies are so compelling and touching,” Marr said.

Marr’s grasp of life-on-the-brink despair and coming-out-of-the-dark hope comes from personal experience. After undergoing a risky operation for the removal of a tumor from his spine at a Denver hospital in 1975, he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He was 22. Confined to a wheelchair at first, he worked hard to make himself mobile again and, with the aid of crutches and leg braces, he has since gotten around with surprising facility. Ask him how his disability has impacted him and he’s apt to deflect the question by quipping, “What disability?” or “Nobody wants me to be on their bowling team” or “I get better parking.” After some prodding, he replies, “I think it’s helped me see the world in a truer light, as it really is, with all of its afflictions.” And with all its dreams, he might have added.

“Given what he’s had to deal with in losing the use of his legs, his ability to renegotiate his life in a way that is entirely creative is just extraordinary. Doug can be grim in his work, but he is such a fun and hopeful person,” Paterson said.

The Artist’s Path
After reordering his life Marr gave college a second try at UNO in the mid-70s. He enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop, where he fancied himself more a poet (he got his poetry degree in 1979) than a dramatist. “I was kind of taking the easy way out. I didn’t want to write novels or plays. I thought they were these impossible tasks. I really didn’t start writing plays again until we formed the Circle Theater in 1983, when the other members said, ‘Well, you’re the writer — write us some plays.’ So, I started writing, and I found it wasn’t so impossible. It was very fun. And in writing dialogue between characters I found my voice. It felt right.”

The voice he hit upon is nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, happier time but, in spite of deep lament, an ultimately sanguine expression of the Capraesque kind that views all people, even the discontented, as members of a larger community. Marr, who views theater as a healing process, believes his characters represent the void many people feel today. “I think sometimes people fight for things they don’t have instead of being satisfied with what they do have — human touch, conversation, interaction. They’re part of the integral pattern of the world but they don’t recognize it.” In Back at the Blue Dolphin Saloon an alienated young man cannot face the real demon haunting him. When the man finally breaks down, his sister and saloon friends are there for him.

UNO’s Paterson speculates these very themes are what struck a deep chord with Diner Theater audiences. “My theory is the Diner Theater space was an alternative community for folks hard hit by the recession then. And just like Phil’s provided a family for these alienated characters, I think the audience bought into a feeling of being part of this extended family that found meaning in being together. There’s something about sitting down and eating a meal together that’s a hopeful act, and so I think it was a great metaphor. And I think to this day the whole notion of the Diner Theater remains one of the really fresh inventions in the American theater,” said Paterson, a veteran Diner actor-director.

In Paterson’s view, Marr’s plots also “inventively broke the bounds of where theater is taking place.” In one play, a radio announcer is broadcasting a live on-air talent show from Phil’s when a fire erupts down the block and the announcer, corded mike in hand, rushes out to the street to report on the inferno as real passersby rubberneck to see what the commotion is all about. “That was great fun and it displayed Doug’s really wonderful dramatic imagination,” he said.

For Marr, the whole diner theater experience was “profoundly interesting.” He added, “Early on, when it was a real diner and there were no theater trappings, people got really caught up in it because they were almost like patrons in a cafe watching a real drama unfold. They were an integral part of it. The audience is very important in the collaborative process of theater but even more so when they’re two feet away from what’s going on. It was really unique.”

 

 

 

 

The plays became a phenomenon here and even in steely New York, where productions were mounted at eateries like the Third Street Grill, the Silver Dollar Cafe and the Hudson Diner. Others were produced in California. The rest is history.

Those early years Marr was a writing machine, penning five or six original plays per season. He was often working on the second half of a play while the first half was in rehearsal. Laura, a distinguished local actress and a member of the professional staff at the Omaha Theater for Young People, starred in most of the early plays. The Marrs soon became Nebraska’s leading theatrical couple. Eventually, even their kids got in on the act — appearing in several plays. While the Circle produced many works outside the Phil’s Diner series, it officially changed names — to the Diner Theater — to make capital of its market niche. And so it remained through a change in ownership, as Joe & Judy’s morphed into Vidlak’s Cafe before the diner finally ceased operations and the theater simply rented space in the building.

Along the way, the founding Circle/Diner gang left to pursue other opportunities. Some, like Amy Kunz and Mike Markey, became leading lights on their own. Eventually, only Doug and Laura remained, as artistic director and executive director, respectively. It became their baby and burden. Ironically, the theater faced competition from a slew of new community theaters (the Blue Barn, the Brigit St. Brigit, the Shelterbelt) whose start was inspired in part by the success of the Circle. By the late-‘90s, with crowds thinning, funding sources eroding (United Arts Omaha’s demise hurt) and Marr’s creative juices flowing elsewhere, the couple sought a new home and mission for their theater. Enter Central Presbyterian Church. Well, actually, its basement.

In February the newly incarnated Circle Theater premiered its first offering at its new digs with 84 Charing Cross Road, co-starring Laura. They followed that play with a Deaf Theater Project production of Plaza Suite. The Circle’s next offering, You Can’t Take It With You, is set for a June 28 through July 15 run. True to its Diner Theater roots, a catered dinner precedes each show.

When invited to assist the Nebraska School for the Deaf with stage productions in the early-’90s Marr found the experience so satisfying he and Laura formed the Deaf Theater Project, which integrates deaf and hearing individuals in plays under the Circle banner. “The Deaf Theater Project literally brings two cultures together — hearing and deaf. We’ve run across many wonderfully talented deaf individuals who are actors and directors.”

The couple are also adherents of “creative dramatics,” a healing-through-arts concept they apply to physically and mentally ill patients, whom they interact with through dramatic skits. “We’ve experienced incredibly positive feedback working with hospital patients. I remember us visiting this one boy, age 8 or 9, who was hooked up to IVs. We were told by staff he might not be up to seeing anyone that day, but we went into his room and made finger puppets and told really silly jokes and he just had a great time. And while we were waiting in the hall to go to another room, this same boy was walking down the hall, rolling his IV-tree beside him, and his mom came up to me and said, ‘You’re the best thing that happened to him today.’ That makes you feel extraordinarily good.”

Asked if his own disability motivates him to work with special needs populations, he replied. “I don’t differentiate between ability and disability. I have not run across any person who was not able to do something. Why should people be excluded from the performing arts because of some cultural difference?” Added Laura, “Doug is great at working with people of different ages and abilities — many with little theater experience — and at making them feel comfortable. I think it’s really hard to do. We share a similar vision for what challenging theater should be, including giving voice and opportunity to people in theater who don’t usually have it.”

The Marrs are also believers in the educational benefits of theater and, with a partner, recently formed a company, Dramatic Results, that finds them applying dramatic techniques to workplace sensitivity-diversity-creativity training.

Even with multiple irons in the fire, Marr is unabashedly not success-driven. He said, “I realize writing is not the most important thing in my life. It’s certainly not as important as my family and my relationship with God.” Between raising kids, mounting plays, finding funding sources and doing volunteer projects, the Marrs are busier and happier than ever.

“We have different things that keep us sustained as artists. That’s what keeps us going. And it’s great fun doing it with someone you love dearly and have grown with over the years. It’s still interesting, It’s still fun. The magic is still there.”

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