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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.

Great Plains Theatre Conference grows in new directions

May 28, 2011 23 comments

No, my usually eclectic blog has not suddenly changed focus to become a theater blog – it just seems that way because of the Great Plains Theatre Conference happening in my proverbial backyard, Omaha, and my wanting to emphasize a theater theme during at least the initial run of the event, which goes on May 28-June 4.  Therefore, in the span of a few days here I am posting various articles I’ve written about the conference and about other theater goings on and figures here.  My blog is replete with stagecraft stories, along with stories about filmmakers, musicians, artists, authors, and other creatives,  The article below is from a couple years ago and charts a somewhat new course for the conference, then entering its fourth year and now in its sixth, and new leadership for the event.

 

Great Plains Theatre Conference grows in new directions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

Year four of the Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 23-30, is less about the past and more about the present and future.

This tweaked emphasis comes from two leading Omaha theater figures, Kevin Lawler and Scott Working, new to the GPTC staff since last summer. Each is a playwright and director who’s started theaters from scratch. Lawler helped launch the Blue Barn Theatre. Working birthed the Shelterbelt. They’ve been artistic directors.

GPTC founder Jo Ann McDowell enlisted them for their new roles. The former Metropolitan Community College president oversees special projects for Metro, host of the city-wide event since its 2006 inception. The conference is still her baby. Looking for fresh ideas and more sustainability she brought in Lawler and Working as creative director and Writer’s Workshop coordinator, respectively.

“They founded two of the most important theater companies in Omaha and have great respect from the local arts community,” McDowell said. “Their involvement with local theater goes back many years, which has been very valuable to the conference. Scott and Kevin have moved the play selection and labs to a new level. Their professionalism and theater knowledge is a huge asset.”

Lawler’s a Minneapolis resident who considers Omaha his second home. Working is Metro’s theater program coordinator and a full-time faculty member. The pair worked the conference before in more limited capacities. Already sold on it as a vehicle for theater synergy, they embraced the idea of taking on expanded duties.

 

 

Kevin Lawler

 

 

The mission of celebrating playwrights has shifted from what Working calls “an old boy network” of name-above-the-title scribes to “emerging” artists.” Witness 2009 honored playwright Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer finalist with widely performed work. Accomplished, yes, but theater grunts can more easily identify with her than past honoree gods Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare.

“What makes this conference unique is that it caters or appeals to several tiers of playwrights at different stages of their career — master playwrights with well-established careers, emerging playwrights in mid-career and beginners who’ve only written one or two scripts,” said Working. “The interaction, networking and fellowship between those tiers is really valuable and educational.”

The Masters Performance Series features productions of works by Rebeck and fellow bigger-than-life playwrights Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. New this year is the Mainstage Series, a competitive showcase for more life-sized artists. The series presents five finalist scripts in staged readings by local directors-casts that master playwrights respond to. The winning author earns $1,000. Lawler credits the series with more than doubling script submissions (170 to 423). He said the large script pool (from several states) made “a huge difference” in the overall quality of work. A criticism of past conferences was the dearth of quality scripts.

“We definitely always want to have space for the beginning playwrights, so there’s always going to be plays that aren’t ready for Broadway or off-Broadway, and that’s OK,” said Lawler. “But the great addition is we’re bringing this group of people in who are just about to break into the big time. They’ve been writing for awhile, they’ve had a number of productions, they’re getting very skilled at their craft.”

McDowell said the Mainstage Series “adds a new dimension.” “There’s a big local side to this, too,” said Lawler, “which is that our local theater companies get to meet these playwrights, to work with them on scripts, to become friends.”

Master playwrights also work with less experienced counterparts in workshop sessions covering various craft issues. Besides exposing Omaha theater talents and audiences to new artists and works, there’s no telling where relationships developed here may lead. For example, Lawler said, “there’s a number of scripts this year that very well may get New York productions in the coming years.” He said a play with Omaha ties breaking big in NYC would have ripple effects here.

“The hope is that if one or two of these scripts worked on here go big in a large market that will bring just much more energy back to the conference for people to get involved, and that becomes sort of a centrifugal force itself. That kind of synergy is really great for the local Omaha theater community, too.”

“That’s already really starting to happen. We’ve had major playwrights work with our local companies putting on their productions,” he said.

Lawler envisions a playwright mounting a locally produced show that a national producer then stages with that same Omaha talent. “Imagine that happening for Brigit Saint Brigit or the Blue Barn or Baby D (Productions) or for one of our local playwrights,” said Lawler.

 

 

Scott Working
Scott Working

 

 

Working said the young conference continues “evolving” its niche. Lawler agrees, saying, “The conference in a sense is in its infancy still. There’s a growth process it’s going through.” Lawler knows where he’d like to take the event. “I think the conference should be benefiting local playwrights, actors, directors and theater companies — artistically, financially and also with their connection to the national theater scene — and will be much more exponentially each year.”

Lawler said outreach with the local theater community, who volunteer to direct and act in conference labs and staged readings, is improving. “At a couple sessions we just sat down with them and said, ‘Alright, tell us what can we do better — how can we change things?,’ and we got some great feedback on things,” said Lawler, who hopes one day the conference can reimburse local artists for their time.

For Lawler, the GPTC is a microcosm of Omaha theater.

“Nobody’s doing theater here for money, for fame or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody’s doing it because they actually love doing it and they love the other people involved with it, which is the essence of any good theater. It was illustrated beautifully by the community meeting that happened when the Omaha (Community) Playhouse went through its troubles. That (passion) makes this theater scene one of the most vibrant, exciting. It’s why I keep coming back.”

Where can the GPTC go from here? He points to the Humana theater festival in Louisville, KY that runs several weeks, does full stage productions of major new works and draws huge audiences. It’s a world-class theater happening.

“Maybe we don’t get as big as the Humana but maybe our focus gets stronger and it still brings in this great energy to the city that totally invigorates the theater scene. I think we can eventually create that.”

For registration, ticket, schedule details visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu or call 457-2618.


Great Plains Theatre Conference ushers in new era of Omaha theater

May 28, 2011 27 comments

From the moment I learned of the Great Plains Theatre Conference being launched in 2006 in my hometown of Omaha, I knew it was something significant for the local arts scene and a must story for me to write about.  In one fashion or another I have written about various aspects of each of the six conferences, with the exception of one I believe.  That first conference or two drew much attention for the obvious reason that attached to the event were a half-dozen or more theater legends, including Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, Marshall Mason, Mark Lamos, Tammy Grimes, and Patricia Neal.  These luminaries followed, in a sense, the conference’s founder and Pied Piper driving force, Jo Ann McDowell, who came to Omaha as president of Metropolitan Community College and brought with her a track record of spearheading major theater festivals. Albee was closely associated with the first couple Great Plains conferences but then disassociated himself from the event, as did a couple more of the big names, which cost the conference some lustre and momentum.  Then, McDowell came under fire in her role as Metro’s president, and eventually resigned. In the midst of her embattled presidency, the newspaper I was mainly covering the conference for, The Reader (www.thereader.com), wrote a series of unfriendly pieces directed at her.  The paper also seemed to lose interest in the conference by its third, fourth, and fifth seasons, even though by then the event had rebounded and become stronger in some ways than before, even though it was missing the old lions of the American theater. The story below is the first piece I did on the event and was part of a Reader cover story previewing the inaugural conference. In the spirit of the conference becoming an established event, and the 2011 edition taking place May 28-June 4, I am posting my Great Plains Theatre Conference work as a journalist. You’ll find pieces related to the event itself and to McDowell, Kopit, Guare, Glyn O’Malley, and Caridad Svich, one of this year’s featured playwrights.  You’ll also find on this blog pieces about Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, Billy McGuigian, the John Beasley Theatre, the Theatre of the Oppressed, Diner Theater, Omaha Magic Theatre. Not to mention, profiles of some of Omaha’s own theater  legends: Megan Terry, John Beasley, Elaine Jabenis, Charles Jones, Dick Boyd, Doug Marr, Quiana Smith, Billy McGuigan,  And soon to come: pieces on the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre and Shakespeare on the Green.  Yes, it’s a vibrant theater scene here.
Great Plains Theatre Conference ushers in new era of Omaha theater 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It may not be a stretch to say Omaha theater will not be the same after the first Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 27 through June 3, as organizers and presenters expect the occasion to invigorate the theater culture here. The basis for such optimism rests in the convergence of talent coming for a public assembly that is part rendezvous, jamboree, seminar and Chautauqua. Prominent figures in American theater, among them Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Lloyd Richards, Mark Lamos, Emily Mann and Kathleen Chalfant, will join other established playwrights, directors, actors, instructors and scholars from around the U.S., along with new playwrights and Nebraska’s top theater artists, for a communal focus on craft.

“This stands to be a defining moment for Omaha. Not only will we have the opportunity to meet and work with distinguished theater artists, but we will form relationships with new playwrights and further strengthen local ties. Every theater in Omaha will benefit from this conference in ways not yet imagined,” said Blue Barn Theatre founding member Hughston Walkinshaw, who will act and direct at the fest. “I am delighted to see an event of this magnitude here. I can only assume positive things will result from such a gathering of famous and aspiring playwrights,” said Creighton University drama teacher Alan Klem, a playwright and panelist. “I can tell you from personal experience how hard it is to get feedback of any kind on a new play. So, to have a play read in the presence of such esteemed playwrights, directors and theater practitioners is total nirvana for an aspiring playwright.”

Aside from feedback, the event’s play labs, master classes, panel discussions and staged readings will provide forums for visiting-resident artists to interact. It’s these crosscurrents that hold promise for: area theaters to find new works to produce; collaborations to form between companies; and new stage ventures to arise or existing ones to expand. Much of the shop talk/networking may occur after hours.

The woman who brought the model for the event here, Metropolitan Community College President Jo Ann C. McDowell, saw such developments grow out of the prestigious Last Frontier Theatre Conference she and Albee formed in Valdez, Alaska, her last stop before assuming the Metro post 10 months ago. The New York Times’ arts section featured it in 1999. National press will cover the Omaha event.

“When we started the theater conference in Valdez there was a large (theater) program in Juno and an emerging theater department in Anchorage and then when we ended up at the end of that run I believe there were like 20 that came out of it. The arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News said we renewed theater in Alaska and I know we did,” said McDowell, who led the Last Frontier event for 12 years.

She assumes what happened in Valdez will happen in Omaha, as “all these new playwrights coming here will get to know” Omaha theater artists. “They’ll all hang around after working together and these theater companies will see new work they’ll want to do and so they’ll invite those playwrights back here. And every year we’ll see these same folks get together. You will see collaborations and growth.”

She designed Last Frontier with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Edward Albee and the two have fashioned the Omaha conference after it. When she left Valdez the theater giants she “built relationships” with, led by Albee, threw their support behind her and the Great Plains event, just as they did when she left Independence, Kan. and its William Inge Festival for Alaska 13 years ago.

Wherever McDowell goes, her celebration of theater follows the “vision” of Albee, whom conference participant Joel Vig, a Broadway actor, describes as “a nurturing force for playwrights.” “It’s a week for leading theater artists to get together and to immerse themselves in their craft. Harvard would be proud to have this event.” she said. The host site is Metro’s Fort Omaha campus, where guests will stay in Victorian-era dorms she calls “cozy” and the June 3 gala, emceed by Oscar and Tony winning diva Patricia Neal, will be held under a giant tent on the great lawn, all to further the theater “family” and “community” that Kopit, and others refer to.

“There’s a lot of synergy with all these scholars and academics from all over the country coming together, plus the luminaries, plus the new playwrights, plus the actors and directors,” McDowell said. “It’s an educational event. It’s all about
educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright. It’s all about craft.”

“These sorts of conferences can be enormously exciting and inspiring. As an artist they are a great opportunity for people to make contacts, see new work, get useful comments and direction,” said Minneapolis playwright Max Sparber, whose Buddy Bentley will get a staged reading at the event. “The enrichment that happens and the long-term effects are amazing, and you can see them from year to year in the friendships and connections. There’s any number of things that can happen from having this kind of confluence of good forces,” said Vig, who will introduce Neal for her May 31 “As I Am” speech about her life in and out of acting.

The conference encourages work by new writers and showcases that of veterans.

“A theater that does not nourish new plays and doesn’t do new work is moribund. You have to have a mix. You have to have tested plays and you have to have new work and an audience that participates in it. The healthiest theater community builds up a loyal audience to various theaters,” said noted playwright Arthur Kopit, the conference’s Edward Albee Award recipient, whose works Nine and Wings will get staged readings. “American theater is not New York theater. It’s all around the country and that’s the truth of it. It’s very important to connect with the rest of the country and so it’s important plays emerge from different regions of the country that are reflective of those people’s aspirations and dreams and fears and hopes.” “What I want to do is have a venue where we create a whole other generation of artists,” McDowell said.

More than new works, new perspectives will be in the offing.

“I have often felt Omaha would benefit greatly from being exposed to theater from elsewhere in America. But for occasional touring productions of Broadway plays, Omaha sees precious little of what goes on in theater communities outside Nebraska,” said Sparber, a former Omaha resident whose work has been performed extensively here. “The Omaha theater community is a very active, engaged, wonderful community, with a few world class small theaters, an exceptional community theater, some magnificent actors, some terrific writers, and an avid audience, but it has been waiting for a kick in the butt like this one.

“It just hasn’t been able to take the next necessary steps — toward developing semi-professional theaters, toward bringing in touring productions, toward developing a base of audience member/donor patrons. I think the community is eager to take the next steps, if uncertain about what those steps might be. This conference is an excellent opportunity to begin discussing and exploring possibilities for Omaha’s development as a theater community. More so, Omaha now has the chance to explore what its theater community means in the broader context of the American theater community.”

 

 

 

 

Theater doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Neither will the conference. Its open-to-the-public programs will add an audience dynamic to the “collective experience” Kopit said distinguishes theater. “There’s another outcome of this Edward (Albee) and I have spoken about — we’re growing audiences for theater,” McDowell said. “That’s one of our missions. What we do is teach people to be real theater enthusiasts.”

Vig said the arts depend on angels like McDowell, especially in an era of low federal funding. “It takes an enormous amount of dedication to bring off something like this and Jodie is a great force at bringing together people.” “It takes people with passion like Jodie McDowell who see the need for these kinds of gatherings,” Kopit said. “If I have any skills it’s making things happen and being committed. I’m very passionate. My only talent’s going out and trying to get people to buy into this mission and to make it available to people who really can’t afford it — students and artists,” McDowell said. “As a country we have to support our arts and I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them. It’s been a gift in my life.”

She also sees this as a great marketing tool for Metro. “I hope the conference will get people to change their image of us and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy. I think it will put Omaha-Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way.” In her perfect dream the college will build a theater of its own and form a theater arts department around its current theater technical degree program. “I think as Metro grows over the years there will be a theater,” she said. “Give me a little time.” She diffuses speculation about the conference’s future should she move on. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade. This is a perfect home for this conference and I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”

Ultimately, she said the event is much larger than Metro, emphasizing the college “could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, artists. Twenty area theater companies are participating. “It’s about all of us coming together. Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community in Omaha having a family reunion.”

Jo Ann McDowell’s theater passion leads to adventure of her life as friend, confidante, champion of leading stage artists and organizer of festivals-conferences

May 24, 2011 16 comments

It’s late spring, and that means the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is nearly upon us. The annual playwriting festival is hosted by Metropolitan Community College, whose former president, Jo Ann McDowell launched the event. The mercurial McDowell is the focus of the following story I did for the New Horizons newspaper on the eve of the 2007 fest. She is the epitome of the subjects I gravitate to as a writer because she has followed her passion and magnificent obsession for theater to some amazing places and into the company of some amazing personalities. There’s no question that the week-long conference, which runs May 28-June 4 2011, is one of the artistic high marks each year in Nebraska.  Some of theater’s best established and emerging talents descend on Omaha for the event, and as compelling as they and their work are, McDowell has a story in her own right and she is a formidable figure in her own way.  Her life in theater, never on stage, but always as a facilitator and advocate, is one she wants to tell in book form, and I do hope does commit it to the page one day.  I would be honored to be the storyteller.

 

Jo Ann McDowell’s theater passion leads to adventure of her life as friend, confidante, champion of top stage artists and organizer of major festivals-conferences

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

If the mood strikes her, Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell need only glance out the north windows of her expansive office to look upon earth laden with history. McDowell, who became the school’s first female president when appointed in 2005, works out of a stately two-story, brick and stone, wood-trimmed, columned building on the historic Fort Omaha campus.

History permeates Metro’s 70-acre, maple tree-studded grounds in north Omaha. Her administrative suite is housed in one of several restored Victorian structures that date back to when Fort Omaha operated as a U.S. Army supply center in the late 19th century. Fort Omaha was abandoned in 1896 and reactivated in 1905 as the Signal Corps School before closing again in 1913. In 1916 it reopened as the American military’s first balloon school, training aerial observers who served in World War I. During World War II, Fort Omaha became the support installation for the Seventh Service Command and doubled as a work camp for Italian war prisoners. It later became a U.S. Navy and Marine personnel center.

 

 

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus

 

Fort Omaha is perhaps most famous as the site where Ponca chief Standing Bear was imprisoned and stood trial in a landmark 1879 civil rights case that first established Native Americans as persons under the law. The residence of the fort’s then-commander, General George C. Crook, a Civil War and Indian Conflicts hero, is preserved on campus as a museum called the Crook House. Fort Omaha’s designation as a National Register District helps ensure its preservation.

The surrounding area is filled with history, too — from the Mormon camp grounds and cemetery to the birthplace of Malcolm X.

McDowell appreciates this rich past. “Fort Omaha is a jewel. The history of this fort is so breathtaking and wonderful. It has such beauty,” she said. She can’t help but be steeped in it as she resides in one of the Victorian homes on campus, a former officers quarters that is reputedly haunted. “I love that house,” she said. But she’s more interested in making new history, a process begun as soon as the Kansas native assumed Metro’s presidency. In her brief tenure she’s moved forward the school’s facilities and programs, including: expansion of its noted Institute of Culinary Arts; acquisition/renovation of old buildings and construction of new ones; development of the college’s first dorms; and creation of a theater arts degree.

Closest to her heart is her and her team’s organization-presentation of the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), now in its second year. The conference is modeled after similar events she was associated with in Independence, Kan. and Valdez, Alaska, where she previously headed up community colleges.

The changes at Metro coincide with a sharp increase in school enrollment, up 10 percent (in terms of head count) since her arrival. Its enrollment is now second only to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln among state higher ed schools. Metro has three Neb. campuses, four learning centers and 100-plus off-site locations.

From a second-story verandah her office opens onto, she can see the fort’s old parade ground spread out across a wide field that gently sweeps upward at its edges. During the theater conference a giant tent erected on the great lawn is home to programs/activities. Atop a hill on the west side set a row of tall Victorian dwellings, some converted to dorms, others used as guest houses for visiting artists and one serving as McDowell’s personal residence. “They’re like grand Victorian ladies,” she said. “All of them have been redone. They’re beautiful.”

For one week each spring the green spaces and vintage structures host some of the American theater’s finest writers and directors. Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Obie winners, led by conference artistic director Edward Albee, mix with emerging playwrights and the best from Omaha’s vibrant theater community, for play labs, workshops, panel discussions and performances. It’s a theater gathering and forum.

How apt that a site once rich with the pageantry and ceremony of the military should now accommodate the pomp and circumstance of higher education and serious stage craft.

She did much the same at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference (Valdez) and William Inge Theatre Festival (Independence). Her advocacy put her in close contact with established greats, including the late Arthur Miller and August Wilson, and rising young talents, some of whom, like Will Eno, have now made their mark.

Playwrights from 25 states and one foreign nation are expected in Omaha. Major media outlets, from the New York Times to National Public Radio, are slated to come. “We’ll have people from all over the country here,” McDowell said.

Twenty-five area theater companies are scheduled to participate in this year’s conference — doing readings, staged performances — which is why McDowell likes to describe it as “bringing together a community of theater. Theater is collaboration and partnering,” she said, but never before, she’s told, have so many local theaters joined forces to work cooperatively on such a large scale. “It’s about all of us joining together to celebrate the amazing magic that goes on in theater,” she said.

The 2007 Great Plains event runs May 26 through June 4. Most programs and activities are open to the general public. In addition to Metro, the conference unfolds at other venues, among them the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha Community Playhouse, Creighton University and Holland Performing Arts Center.

McDowell, who places great value on the arts, views the GPTC as a growth opportunity for all who attend.

“There are not enough events/places like this that nurture artists. We nurture playwrights, but we also nurture actors and directors and creative spirits. It’s an educational event. It’s all about educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright,” said McDowell, adding that whoever comes, whether theater professional or devotee, will be “learning.”

“There’s another outcome of this Edward [Albee] and I have spoken about — we’re growing audiences for theater,” McDowell said. “That’s one of our missions. What we do is teach people to be real theater enthusiasts. I believe we’re enhancing all the arts by enhancing an audience.”

 

 

 

 

She believes the arts touch something deep in us as human beings.

“Every time we go to the theater or to the opera or to an exhibit,” she said, “it’s a journey. It nurses our soul.”

She said she’s a perfect example of how the arts can help one blossom.

“My whole adult life I’ve been an educational administrator and that’s my career, but what has made me grow and watered my roots is the arts. I love the arts — all the arts. I love creativity. I think it’s made me a better administrator because…I think education has to be balanced. To be a well rounded person you have to have other interests. My passion is education, the arts and public service and those three things have always driven me. I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them.”

Her immersion in theater is so deep, whether attending a local show or a New York premiere or hosting a Whos-Who of artists, she calls her position at Metro “my day job. I do my job during the day and then the weekend I do this,” she said, meaning indulging her theater appetite. “It’s passion for me. It’s my down time. It’s missionary work. I’m preaching now, aren’t I?” she said in the emotive, effusive manner of a Tennessee Williamsesque Southern belle.

“I have five college degrees and none in the arts, but I think I’m an arts scholar. You know, it comes out of my love for the arts. I’ve spent a lot of time studying, going to the theater. I was on the state arts commission in Kansas and Alaska. But I have no talent in the arts. My only talent’s going out and trying to grow audiences for theater and to get benefactors to buy into this mission to make it available to people who really can’t afford it.”

When she gets on a roll, McDowell speaks rapidly. Dressed in a blue and white power suit, her light, reddish brown locks flowing to her shoulders, she is at once a take-charge executive and a cool culturist, equally at ease with the macro visioning, micro managing, board wrangling and personal glad handing that go with the territory. Brokering deals and building coalitions are old hat to McDowell, who began her professional career as a lobbyist and public relations expert.

Besides bringing the theater conference to Omaha, McDowell’s succeeded in adding a general theater major at the college, where a new performance space is under construction. She credits the positive response the conference has netted with helping her convince the Metro board that a school once identified with its technical-trade programs, should offer an associate theater degree. One day she envisions a two-plus-two program in cooperation with the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University. She sees Metro’s theater offerings as complements to those at UNO and Creighton.

“We’re getting to be an arts school,” she said. “We’re rooted in the trades, but we’re certainly a comprehensive school and I think theater and the arts are part of who we are.”

She envisions Metro as a year-round “artist colony” whose resources/facilities are made available to theater companies and community organizations. She’s already opened the Victorian homes on campus to visiting artists.

Her passion for theater and for the arts is a legacy she carries from a key teacher in her life who introduced her to the wonders of the imagination.

“I had a great teacher that taught me to love the theater. Her picture’s right up there…” said McDowell, gesturing to a framed photo of an elderly woman in a red suit, the late Margaret Goheen. It’s among dozens of images on the walls of McDowell’s office that capture her beside family, friends and theater legends.

 

Margaret Goheen

 

Goheen was an English-speech instructor of McDowell’s at Independence (Kan.) Community College. “She loved the theater,” said McDowell, who fondly recalls attending New York excursions Goheen led. They were McDowell’s first glimpse of Broadway, Off-Broadway and the whole New York theater world. It was heady stuff for a girl who grew up on a dairy farm outside Cherryvale. Prior to college, McDowell’s interests revolved around 4-H. Her folks owned race horses and the family came to Omaha when the thoroughbreds ran at Ak-Sar-Ben.

The elder Goheen opened new possibilities for McDowell.

“She gave me an A in my first speech and she didn’t give As easily. She saw it in me,” McDowell said. “I think about Margaret. How we used to sell brownies forever to get to go to a play in Kansas City or Tulsa. I’ll never forget when she took me to New York for the first time. We’d stand in the back row” of a Broadway house “and afterwards she’d give me like a test. Who directed the play? Who did the sets? She would explain everything about the theater to me. She taught me to love theater.”

Years before, Goheen’s fire was sparked by the same instructor who taught famed playwright William Inge (PicnicSplendor in the Grass), a native of Independence. Goheen later founded the William Inge Festival in the late playwright’s hometown. “She also saw in me that I could make things happen — I could organize,” McDowell said of her mentor. Thanks to Goheen, the first Broadway show McDowell saw was Inherit the Wind at the Palace Theatre. She later honored its playwright, Jerome Lawrence, at the Inge Festival. Goheen asked McDowell to help with the festival.

Goheen’s confidence was well justified as the Inge Fest proved a success. It also introduced McDowell to Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the preeminent American playwright with whom she founded the Last Frontier in Valdez. After a successful 12-year run in the far northwest, she and Albee now co-direct the Great Plains conference in Omaha.

McDowell feels none of it would have occurred without Goheen taking an interest in her. “She had the same theater teacher William Inge had,” McDowell said. “That torch — a torch for a love of theater — was passed to Margaret. Margaret passed that torch to me. I’m passing that torch on. She was great. I was shaped by her. She died…but she’s still very close to me. She’d be proud of her old student, I tell you, because I’ve taken that mission she was on” to new heights.

A Baby Boomer, McDowell found strong women role models in not only Goheen, but her grandmother Anna and aunt Wilma, both long-time educators, and her mother, Lucille, who ran the family farm in wartime. McDowell’s grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse for 38 years. The school is still in use today.

She admires the matriarchs she learned from. “We ‘60s women were the daughters of women who ran the country during the ‘40s,” she said. “Those women went to work. They ran factories, they ran farms, they ran their own homes. They had personal power for the first time. They made money.” When the war ended, she said, women grudgingly went back into the home. “They raised kids like me who were never told we couldn’t do something. I was never told by my parents, ‘You cannot do that because you’re a girl.’ In fact, if anything, I was encouraged.”

Family is the foundation for McDowell’s life. She married her childhood sweetheart while in college and moved to California. The union quickly dissolved, but not before her only child, Suzann, was born. Adrift, McDowell moved back home, where, she said, “I had my family. What a gift to have somebody always there to cheerlead you.” She resumed school and never looked back.

She raised her daughter alone while working, studying and starting her career. Her academic pursuits took her from Independence CC to Pittsburg State to Kansas State, earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate along the way.

“I was so disciplined,” she said.

McDowell, who’s never remarried, has four grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces. She likes having family close by. A grandson lives with her in Omaha. He attends UNO and accompanied her to New York for a theater vacation over Christmas. A granddaughter stayed with her over the summer. A third grandchild is considering Creighton University’s med school.

“I’m crazy about them,” she said of her grandkids. “I’m glad I’m able to help them.”

So tied is McDowell to the region that she still owns the homes she and her mother lived in down in Kansas. The farm she grew up on is still held by the family. Her fierce devotion to family and her warm, nurturing qualities may be why noted theater artists from disparate places feel drawn to her.

How else to explain a farm girl clicking with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee? She said, “What I think it is is he knows I’m committed. And he knows I’ve taken a lot of heat over doing a theater conference.” Swelling with pride, she said “ours is the only event he’s put his name on. One of the greatest honors of my life has been my relationship with Edward Albee. I’m invited to all his openings. His inner circle is very small. I mean, he’s the greatest living playwright. He’s brilliant, but what people don’t know…is he’s a great and loyal friend, and he cares so deeply.”

Being close to her childhood home is a big reason why McDowell left Alaska for Nebraska. Not long before she died, McDowell’s mother made a request — that Jody relocate to the Midwest. The good daughter fulfilled her mother’s death-bed wish when she opted to leave Valdez for Metro in Omaha.

“Mother was the glue. I miss her every moment,” McDowell said. “When she was dying she told me, ‘You’re going to be the oldest generation in our family. You need to come home…’ Well, I am a Midwesterner through and through. The reason I’ve been able to hit the ground running was this was no transition for me. This was coming home. Going to Alaska was a huge, huge transition, but this has been easy. I had never lived but a hundred miles from my mother until I moved to Alaska.”

When she was ready to leave Alaska, she said she told headhunters, “‘I want to get back to the Midwest. I want to go home. I need to go home. My family needs me.’”

Besides losing her mother, McDowell had lost her only sister, whose children had “become like my own kids.”

Omaha wasn’t McDowell’s first choice, but after researching the vital cultural-arts scene here and checking her gut, her coming here was never in question.

“When I started looking into Omaha I went, ‘Wow.’ When I came, everything wowed me. The Joslyn and the Holland…and all these theater companies, the galleries, the Old Market, two medical centers, two universities, the zoo, Lauritzen Gardens, the golf courses. There’s something for everyone here.”

Striking too was the generous philanthropic climate that supports the arts.

The mission she’s made theater in her life is not unlike the zeal she’s devoted to education and to women’s rights. She is, after all, a child of “that magic time of Kennedy and Camelot,” she said. “I’m one of those ‘60s children that wanted to go out and make a difference. I testified before Congress on women having equality and on women’s issues. When I started out women did not get equal pay for equal work…We didn’t have athletic scholarships. Those are things we really fought for. We were trying to get people to think differently about women’s roles.”

She wanted to be a lawyer as a young woman, but at the time, she said, “only three percent of the law school seats at KU (Kansas University) were taken up by women. I’ve lived through a lot of that — those wonderful changes and challenges. I was on the state (Kansas) board for the women’s political caucus. I taught women’s studies. I had my own little television show on women’s issues. I was also invited twice to the White House when Carter was there — once on the Salt II talks and once on the status of women. I was really active. You couldn’t be in that generation and want a career and not be involved.”

McDowell achieved pioneer status at her alma mater, Independence CC, when named president — making her one of the first women college presidents in the nation then. It was a radical thing, she said, “in a town where there were no women in any positions of power.” Her rise up the ranks was legendary — from dean to vice president to executive vice president to president in ’88. She was appointed by the governor to the Kansas Board of Regents, becoming the first community college rep on that august body. “That was a big deal for me,” she said.

She then went to work for Kansas governor Joan Finney, who put McDowell “over all education in the state, K through 12, community colleges and universities. I liked it, but I didn’t like being in government,” she said. ‘I was an educator.” In 1992 she left Kansas, for Alaska of all places, in part because she felt Kansas was too restrictive. “It was very conservative,” she said. And in part because a major corporate funder of the Inge Festival, ARCO, had moved to Alaska and was courting her to come there. “That’s why I ended up in Valdez. I was at Prince William Sound Community College for 13 years.”

The current discontent over the Iraq war and the disconnect between a hard line administration and a wary nation takes her back to her activist era. She said, “This war is reminding me of” Vietnam in “the ‘60s. I just see a lot of deja vu right now.” “Conservative southeastern Kansas” was “not exactly a hotbed” of activism,” she said, as her political and arts involvement ran against the tide there. She said the Inge Festival was considered by some locals “a little avant garde.”

She found a more accepting environment in Valdez, where she and Albee made the Last Frontier a major happening in American theater. “I loved my time there,” she said. So did her did mother, who went every summer as long her health allowed. “She caught a silver salmon that won the salmon derby.”

McDowell’s activism these days centers around the arts and education.

She’s proud to be part of a movement of people of “a certain age who are,” she said, “going to change retirement drastically. One of my board members asked, ‘How long do you plan to work?’ and I said, ‘As long as I’m able.’ As long as I’m healthy and I’m so inspired and I have passion for what I do. Burnout is a word our generation has a hard time understanding. I see people that are just doing amazing things. We’re a generation that wants to contribute.”

 

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

 

 

Her lasting contribution to the Midwest may be the Great Plains conference. She hopes it “will put Omaha and Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way” — the same way the theater fests in Valdez and Independence have brought attention. She hopes to endow the conference, something she did with the Inge, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. A video salute honored her part in the festival. Seeing the video “was so emotional for me,” she said.

As the Great Plains conference and Metro theater program grow she envisions inviting prominent playwrights to be in residence there.

Private/public funding, including ARCO oil money, helped underwrite the Inge and Last Frontier. The same way she sold those — as engines for “economic development” that “fills hotels” — she’s selling the Great Plains. Last year she said she hoped “the conference will get people to change their image of us (Metro) and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy.” It’s already happened, as she’s lined up some of the area’s largest donors/organizations to support the event, including honorary chairs Fred Simon and Dick Holland, and sponsors Creighton University, Cox Communications and the Cooper Foundation. She plans to seek foundation grant funding to secure the event’s future.

She looks to leave her mark at Metro with the Great Plains. Ultimately she said the event is larger than any one institution: “The college could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “has reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, volunteers. “They’re very generous, arts people. It’s about all of us coming together,” she said. “Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community having a family reunion.”

Wherever McDowell’s gone, her arts passion has flowered. Her efforts have earned her much recognition. She was presented the Alaska Governor’s Arts for Distinguished Cultural Service Award in 2003. The Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell Theatre Scholarship is given annually to a University of Alaska, Anchorage student majoring in theater. Twice she’s been honored nationally by Phi Theta Kappa, including receipt of the sorority’s Michael Bennett Lifetime Achievement Award. Pitt State and KSU have accorded her their highest alumni awards.

Now back in the Midwest, McDowell’s not only come home, but her precious conference — a continuation of the Inge and Last Frontier — has found a home too. “I’ve been dragging this thing around with me for 26 years and this is where it’s staying,” she said. “I finally found a home. This conference deserves Omaha and Omaha deserves this conference, because it’s a marriage. It works.” Putting down roots for herself and the conference should ensure its place here. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade,” she said. “I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”

All of it — from the great artists she’s come to know to the magic moments in the theater she’s enjoyed to the young talent nurtured in the process — gives her joy.

“It’s been a gift in my life. As long as I’m breathing, I’m going to be doing this.”

For Great Plains Theatre Conference details, call 402-457-2618 or visit www.mccneb.edu/theatreconference.

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