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Artist facing life-altering disease makes “Dracula” subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision

October 17, 2014 2 comments

A not-so-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to Jill Anderson organizing the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival this year: strange, unsettling, and often debilitating symptoms began appearing out of nowhere and after many tests, a mis-diagnosis and many more tests she found out the culprit: multiple sclerosis. In true trouper fashion she has carried on and “the show” is indeed going on in her capable hands. It is ironic perhaps that her life-altering disease should come in the year the festival explores the permutations of Bram Stoker’s classic transmutation novel Dracula.  Her festival, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 and uses art, music, drama, film, literature, and more to explore the themes bound up in the Stoker work and the superstitions and cultural traditions that influenced his creation.  Read about Jill, her perseverance, and her festival in this story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/).

 

 

Cover Story


 

 

 

Artist facing life-altering disease makes “Dracula” subject of literary festival

Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.

In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she’s dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.

“My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It’s weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker,” she says.

Her indefatigable spirit’s hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie’s because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.

The emergence of her disease is still so new that she’s far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.

“It hits everybody differently, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there’s no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.

“I’ve heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can’t have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there’s no one around to help me? I’ve had blue days with those kind of thoughts.”

Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.

“Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research,” she says. “I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece.”

“There’s really no group in town doing exactly this,” she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says “Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they’re doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets.” What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of “what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people’s imaginations.” That niche, she adds, has found “a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature.”

Then there’s the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you’ll find in the metro.

“The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it’s really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building.”

Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.

“It’s been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.

 

 

 

Cover Photo

 

Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn’t afford.

“I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.

My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, ‘It will never work for Dracula,’ and the clerk said, ‘I am related to him.’ My friend said, ‘Van Helsing?’ ‘No.’ With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.

“I leaped on him,” she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.

“What are the chances?” asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.

Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?

“I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it.”

For 2014 she sought “something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public.” With fellow creatives she’s concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:

•October 17

Movie Night, 7 p.m.

Nosferatu on the Green

F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle’s north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula’s rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. “Isn’t that fun?” Anderson says.

•October 23 through November 1

Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily

Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians

Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham’s permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai’s family artifacts go back many generations.

•October 23-26 and 29-30

Drama Duet, 7 p.m.

Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who’s directing, says, “This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He’s young but sort of timeless and ageless. He’s transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be.”

Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.

The two shows take place in the castle’s atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.

•October 27-28

Double Lecture, 6 p.m.

The Man Behind the Monster

and

Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology

Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author’s life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England’s preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.

Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as “absolutely fascinating stories” about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area’s deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.

•October 31

Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.

This “big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.

•November 1

Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.

Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.

Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.

“My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I’ve gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I’ve gotten thank you letters from people who’ve seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn’t seen him smile since his wife died. That’s the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that.”

Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music’s transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.

“On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ straight to my face.”

“It was totally surprising and wonderful,” Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of “Stardust,” “Amazing Grace,” “Softly” and Tenderly” and “How Great Thou Art,” no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.

She posted:

“Music is and always has been the great healer. I’ve usually been on the providing side of that equation. It’s interesting to be on the receiving end as well.”

The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an “all-consuming feat” she values now more than ever.

“It’s easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It’s something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward.”

She’s having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.

The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she’s looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.

“This Dracula I’m directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It’s a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another.”

Directing is something she expects to do more of.

“I’ve done more performing than directing but I’ve been directing for years and now I’m feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more,” says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.

She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She’s left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she’s always returned home.

She’s grateful for the outpouring of care she’s received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the “incredible love and loyalty” she’s received has meant a lot to her as she’s navigated this “scary stuff.”

She’s grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.

“This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you.”

 

 Jill Anderson, right, with fellow beloved Omaha entertainer, Camille Metoyer Moten, who survived breast cancer (my story on Camille is on this blog)

 

 

She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.

These experiences, she says, have given her “new insight” into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.

“I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they’re facing scary illness. When you’re sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you’re hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.

As an actress, Anderson’s called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.

“Oh God it’s hard to do. I think people’s ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now.”

There’s nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now

“All the weird stuff that’s happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I’m actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn’t able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before.”

In an April 5 post she shared, “Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents’ house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds.”

That ability to be in the moment, she says, “is the best thing that’s come out of it (her health crisis).” It’s why when people ask how she’s doing she can honestly say, “I’m taking it one day at a time.”

For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit http://www.joslyncastle.com.

 

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Beaty’s one-man dramatization of the diaspora considers what freedom looks like for African Americans

February 8, 2013 1 comment

In the theater few artists have what it takes to pull off a one-man or one-woman show that requires creating multiple characters of all different ages and persuasions and that are both believable and compelling.  Daniel Beaty is such a rare artist.  He’s performing his one-man show Emergency Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and it’s a must-see for its thought-provoking and entertaining take on what freedom means to African Americans in the context of the specter of slavery amidst the land of liberty.  My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Beaty’s one-man dramatization of the diaspora considers what freedom looks like for African Americans

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it’s well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life.

His award-winning play, which he performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, is a bold meditation on freedom. It imagines a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York City. When this worst symbol of slavery rears its ugly head before our greatest symbol of freedom it throws into relief the inconvenient truth that liberty still eludes many African Americans.

“This is a metaphor for what stands in front of our freedom,” Beaty says. “Emergency is an exploration of what it means to be free – free to love, free to have hope, free to find one’s purpose and to live a life that’s bold and fully expressed.”

He says the ideas behind the show come from his own growing up as well as observations he made as a former New York City public schools arts educator, where every day reality contradicted America’s promise of equal opportunity.

“Because of my own personal upbringing and life story I really saw myself reflected in the lives of so many of these young people dealing with similar issues of parents battling incarceration or addiction or poverty,” he says. “It really clarified my purpose as a writer and performer to ask the questions, Why are we here? How can things be better? What world are we leaving for our children? It became clear to me the unhealed legacy of slavery is still impacting the hearts and minds of so many people. It goes back to the breakdown of the family that happened during slavery and our children not being told the story of our history in this country and not understanding the roots of economic disparity.”

For Beaty, the cyclical, generational problems that hold many blacks back have their origins in the psychic shackles of slavery.

“Why do you think there are more black people who are poor and in prison than any other group? Because we’re inferior? No. The ghetto is a modern-day plantation. And don’t get it twisted, I’m not just talking about poor people. You can have a six-figure income, a Ph.D., and still be a slave in your mind.

“I don’t believe in telling the story as excuse-making. People overcome and do the extraordinary every day. But I do believe in telling the story for the sake of context  and saying, ‘You may have been born in the ghetto and your mom and your grandmother may have been in the ghetto and there’s a root for this economic disparity. But the same way there’s a root for that disparity there is a story of tremendous overcoming and possibility that can also inspire you to be greater than your circumstances may cause you to believe you can be.”

Beaty’s a case in point. The Dayton, Ohio native’s father became a career criminal and heroin addict. With his father in and out of prison Beaty and his older brother were raised by their social worker mother, Shirley Magee.

“My mother is a phenomenal woman. She grew up very poor in a small North Carolina town. She and her family participated in boycotts and sit-ins. She saw the  becoming and the challenges of that period in our history. She’s just a fighter by nature, so in the midst of my father’s incarceration and addiction she made sure we were provided for at the expense of her own rest. She worked long hours and took care of her children.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel’s prodigious writing and speaking skills set him on a path to higher education. The Yale University and American Conservatory Theater graduate has written a string of solo (Through the Night) and ensemble (Resurrection) plays that have garnered acclaim.

Dedicated to being an “artist activist,” he says his activism is “rooted in everything I write anyway but I’m more and more being asked to participate in causes, in conversations around social issues. I personally believe that with a platform of fame or celebrity comes the responsibility to be a participant in the social discourse. With the privilege of people saying we listen to you, we want to hear from you comes a responsibility to give voice to those who don’t have that voice. That’s a big lesson I was taught by some of my mentors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, who used the platform of their celebrity or performance to talk about important issues.”

He feels there’s also a healing and bridging his work offers audiences.

 

 

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“One of the main reasons I choose to perform and write solo plays is because I believe inherent in seeing one person portray dozens of characters in a truthful, three-dimensional manner is the message that we are all connected. I sincerely believe our greatest problems as a world are rooted in the illusion we are separate from one another and different from one another. Certainly there are points of difference but I sincerely believe we are more alike than we are unalike,” he says.

“I think it’s in the space of understanding our shared humanity that we have the best possibility of healing the social economic disparities and ending the violence that plague societies. We are responsible to each other and for each other.”

He says his work falls in line with the African-American oral tradition and its contemporary spoken word off-shoots.

“One of the framing devices of the play is a nationally televised competition of slam poets called ‘America’s Next Top Poet,’ It’s a riff on the reality TV talent competitions we have today and a platform for various characters in the show who are thematically responding to the various things happening in the play.

“I look at slam poetry as having its roots in the black arts movement of the 1960s and while I certainly have respect for certain hip hop artists and particularly the roots of hip hop the slam poetry I endeavor to write is poetry about uplift, and investigating a social-political human scene in need of urgent, passionate exploration. I don’t write about things I would consider every day, mundane or not in support of us becoming our best selves as human beings. I write about things I feel are very urgent, like the state of our young people, the state of our families.”

Outside the New York theater scene he’s perhaps best known for having been a Def Poetry Jam regular. His performance there of the poem “Knock, Knock,” taken from his own Emergency, became a YouTube sensation. He uses slam poetry and spoken word as testimonies that comment on the incendiary events of his plays. He likes what can be expressed through the slam style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I actually call the moments of heightened poetic expression in my shows soul arias. They’re moments of direct address that are these passionate two to three minute explosions of poetic expression that crystalize not only an idea or theme but an emotional feeling in a powerful, poignant way that can parallel the aria in opera or the soliloquy in Shakespeare.

“‘Knock, Knock’ is a perfect example.”

The searing poem affirms that parents’ bad decisions need not define their children’s lives.

 

Knock knock for me.

For as long as you are free,

These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.

The best of me still lives in you.

Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,

But you are not my choices.

Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,

But we are not their choices.

For despite their absences,

We are still here,

Still alive,

Still breathing,

With the power to change this world

One little boy and girl at a time.

Knock knock,

Who’s there?

We are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ultimately what I discovered is that no matter where we come from or where we are in terms of challenges or difficulties we have the power to create our lives,” Beaty says. “My deepest pain was the path to my highest purpose. By really dealing with the challenges of my past and looking at them straight in the face I discovered I have a story to tell. I’m able to create the kind of life I want out of clarity of who I’m choosing to be, not out of fear of who I could be based on my past.”

It’s a message he’ll share with youths during his Sherwood Foundation-sponsored Omaha visit in workshops at North, South and Central high schools and with the Young, Gifted & Black teen troupe at The Rose Theater.

For updates about the artist visit http://www.danielbeaty.com.

For tickets to Emergency, visit TicketOmaha.com.

Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool

June 3, 2011 6 comments

My usually eclectic blog has been theater heavy this week because I decided to celebrate the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which ends June 4, by sharing some of my theater stories from the recent and not so recent past.  I’ll continue posting theater stories well after the conference closes because I discovered I have a nice cache of them, but I’ll also be back to showcasing the diversity of my work that regular followers have come to expect. I did the story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it’s a look at how some Omaha theater professionals variously utilize the art form as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool.

 

Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Making Images

Something subversive happened in the Old Market one recent Saturday evening.

From out of the blue, pedestrians converged on sidewalk corners and molded their bodies into dramatic sculpted “images.” One image included a man on his back cringing in terror as an assailant stood over him with a raised boot. Another posed father-and-son partners sealing a deal with a handshake that suddenly, inexplicably broke. A third linked people in a solid human chain until some unseen force rudely disturbed it.

If the symbolic frieze frames did not adequately convey their message of oppression, someone hanging anti-Initiative 416 (Defense of Marriage Amendment) signs around the individuals did, including one placard labeling the assault victim as a “Gay Man.” Just to be sure, another demonstrator handed out anti-416 leaflets.

These human tableauxs, so suggestive of figurative sculptures taking shape in front of your eyes, were in fact street theater pieces being used to focus awareness on the divisive 416 measure. The unfolding scenes were meant to make a statement, draw attention and engage people in dialogue about the issue. As the theater action progressed that night, a few curious passersby did stop to stare and proffer off-handed remarks. Then, when a plant in the crowd posing as an antagonist began spouting Biblical admonitions about same sex marriage and another plant posing as an initiative supporter began refuting his every protestation, some onlookers vigorously joined the debate on either side.

The ensuing discussion was the moment when this unorthodox piece of theater melded with genuine crowd reaction and, in so doing, accomplished exactly what organizers intended.

The Boal Way

So, was this event an example of art or theater or political activism? A little of all three, according to its instigator, University of Nebraska at Omaha Dramatic Arts Professor Doug Paterson. A self-described “insurrectionist” from the ‘60s, Paterson leads the UNO-based Thespis troupe (Theater Helping Everyone Solve Problems in Society), which follows many of the theories of Brazilian director Augusto Boal and his Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) movement.

Boal, who came to Omaha in 1996 to give workshops, developed T.O. as a political tool to aid oppressed peoples around the world in their struggle for liberation. That night in the Market Paterson led his players in applying Boal’s image and invisible theater techniques (The professor played the antagonist in the crowd.). In keeping with their revolutionary roots, the drama that night was sprung – guerrilla-style – on unsuspecting folks in public spaces for the purpose of eliciting responses to a socially relevant issue. The ultimate aim, then or any time, is to incite action. Paterson organized a second theater event around the 416 measure at an October 31 rally on campus. Previous events have tackled the enduring UNO parking crisis.

Another Boal technique favored by Paterson – forum theater – utilizes workshops in which everyday people address problems at work or in their community through discussion and role playing led by a facilitator. In this interactive, outside-the-box approach to theater, the idea is to break down the Fourth Wall traditionally separating practitioner from audience and to build bridges connecting the two via conversation that works toward some resolution.

“Boal developed a theater that differs from the Western approach of pacifying you in the audience while actors describe a reality that you then take to be true. As an audience, you are powerless to change the story. You’re told, ‘This is the way it is,’ especially if you’re a minority. Boal believes in twisting things in a fun, open, community-based way that gives people a way to change the story. It’s what he calls interrogative theater. Rather than declare reality, it interrogates reality. It challenges the notion that it has to be this way — that it can’t be something else. It suggests new possibilities,” said Paterson, who has studied with Boal in Brazil.

Working It Out

Paterson has conducted forum theater workshops for many organizations, including the Omaha Public Schools, Creighton University and UNO. Workplace diversity issues are most commonly confronted, but not in the we talk-you listen vein.

“In forum theater we first play games to relax people and get them interacting with each other. Then we perform scenarios depicting some oppression, like a secretary given a last minute project by her boss when she needs to be someplace else,” he said. “The secretary tries overcoming her obstacle, but she just can’t. At some point we turn to the audience and say, “Okay, what would you do if you were her?’ Instead of having the audience sit there quietly we encourage them to talk to each other and share ideas to find some new solution.

“We encourage them to show how they would handle the situation differently, and it’s interesting because then it’s really them in the moment feeling sympathy for that character and the words almost become their own. Our attempt is to see if the audience is willing to be so moved and engaged by what’s happening that they really want to do something. Once they see something from their own life represented or dramatized, they think, ‘That’s me up there.’”

He said the response by participants is usually enthusiastic. “Often we can’t get through all the scenarios because there’s so much discussion. People get up and intervene and are very excited. I’ve never seen it fail.”

All the World’s a Stage

This grassroots theater has been a passion of Paterson’s since he discovered how deeply it resonated with his own emerging social consciousness amid the civil unrest in America a generation ago.

“I’ve been engaged in Theater for Living, Theater for Change or what has come to be known as Community-Based Theater since the mid-’70s,” he said. “I actively resisted the war in Vietnam while at Cornell University and it was during that time I formulated all my thinking about how culture works and how it is part of the oppressive process. I was really taken by the idea that if we could stake out new audiences, then we’d find a way to create a new culture in theater.

“Later, I started a small professional company in South Dakota whose purpose was to go into rural areas and engage farmers and ranchers in a kind of cultural salvage work where we found people’s stories and turned those into plays that we performed in these small towns.” He repeated the process when he came to UNO in 1981 – exploring the farm crisis with students in an original play (It Looks Good from the Road).

His students there included Omaha playwright Doug Marr and actress Laura Marr who, along with Paterson and others, formed the proletarian Diner Theater, which took this theater-happens-everywhere philosophy to heart. “

It drew a different group of people who might not have felt comfortable going to a regular theater setting,” Paterson said. “It was more neighborhood. It was more working class. It was site-specific. It was very exciting.”

Dramatic Results

The Marrs, along with fellow UNO theater grad Brent Noel, are adherents of Boal’s work and together operate a venture, Dramatic Results, incorporating the tenets of Boal in forum theater workshops at corporations.

“The trend today in business is to develop creativity and decision-making in employees, and Boal’s exercises are effective in helping build problem-solving skills,” Noel said. “We don’t offer answers or solve problems. We’re more interested in asking the right questions and encouraging people to think about possibilities. We offer a process whereby employees discover solutions. It’s empowering.” Noel said while many businesses are not yet ready to welcome theater techniques into their staid office settings, clients that do are satisfied. “Once they see how it works, most realize the value of it. It works in everything from sales to diversity to critical thinking training.”

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith


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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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