Posts Tagged ‘Megan Terry’

This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.


Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.



Megan Terry


You can linl to that Reader story at–

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at and her LinkedIn page at

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight


The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles


The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center


Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

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

June 2, 2011 5 comments

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



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

Based on an interview Leo Adam Biga did with Marshall Mason for The Reader (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

LAB: You really were a prodigy breaking new ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LAB: Like Megan Terry…

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


Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

LAB: How do you define lyric realism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical mystery tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman production

May 19, 2010 14 comments

JOE CINO with Edward Albee at a benefit for th...

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UPDATE: Ah, it’s spring again, and that means it’s time for the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, where many established and emerging playwrights and other theater professionals from the far corners of the U.S. gather their collected energies for the theater arts.  As a journalist who interviews some of the guest artists for the conference, which this year is May 28-June 4, I enjoy dropping the name Megan Terry and mentioning that she lives in Omaha. It never fails to elicit a response: first, affection and admiration for the work of Terry, a great American playwright; and then surprise and delight that she lives in the host city for the conference.  What follows below is an article I did five or six years ago on Terry and how and why she came to resettle in Omaha from New York and what she did here.

I only attended a couple productions by the Omaha Magic Theatre, an avant garde, experimental stage company led by two women who against all odds made their ground-breaking theater a success in Omaha, Neb. One of the partners, Jo Ann Schmidman was from here and made her reputation here with the theater.  The other, Megan Terry, made a name for herself in New York long before joining Schmidman in Omaha at the Magic Theatre.  They closed their theater some years ago and the two women who created such a distinct niche for themselves seemed in danger of fading into obscurity when I caught up with them and wrote the following story, which appeared in The Reader (  Basically, I wanted to capture in print just how extraordinary what they did was and just how compelling they are as individuals and as partners.


Magical mystery tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman production

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Even in the counter-cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s, the idea conservative Omaha could support an experimental theater with a strong feminist, gay/lesbian bent defied logic.

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

When native Jo Ann Schmidman founded the Omaha Magic Theatre in 1968 as a center for avant garde expression in the Old Market, she followed her muse. The fact she was barely out of her teens, between her sophomore and junior years as a Boston University theater major, only added to what many must have regarded as folly. That’s not how she saw it though.

Instead of resistance, “what we discovered was quite the opposite…open-minded people with a work ethic,” said Schmidman, an Omaha Central grad weaned on local children’s theater, the work of an adventurous wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse and a summer studying in Northwestern University’s prestigious theater program.

“The pioneering spirit and the quest to work with your own hand, out of your own soul, is an Omaha, a Midwestern trait and that’s exactly the kind of theater I was interested in doing. It didn’t have anything to do with being radical, it had to do with being homemade and what is inside of people,” she said at a Great Plains Theater Conference (GPTC) panel. “It wasn’t about shocking people, it was about giving them a vehicle to reflect, a way to understand one’s self better, to go on a spiritual journey.

“I knew it was a perfect place to start an alternative, experimental theater…there was nothing like it and to date there is not another alternative theater in town. It’s either realism or naturalism.”

In a 1996 Theatre Quarterly interview she said the very qualities of this place that isolate it from the theater mainstream allow for exploration: “There is something incredibly expansive about this area and about the people that live here. The extremes of temperature, I believe, allow extremes of creation.”

She originally opened OMT as a summer enterprise. Grad students from Boston U. rounded out the company. The first season was heavy with plays by European absurdists Genet and Brecht. American works came later, including The Tommy Allen Show by Megan Terry.

The paths of Schmidman and Terry first crossed years earlier.

A Mount Vernon, Wa. native, Terry has lived a life in theater. She was “brought up” in the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, mere blocks from the home of her pioneer grandma. “I just scratched at the door until they let me in,” she said of Playhouse founders Burton and Florence James. After completing her theater studies in the Pacific Northwest Terry tried for an acting career in New York, all the while journaling. “Pretty soon, I thought my own dialogue was better than the stuff I had to perform. Little by little I started writing.”

“At this same time were all the protest movements, the marches. There was a huge political-social-cultural revolution. The new music, the new art, the Action painters and Abstract Expressionists, were at their zenith. All these things were converging,” Terry remembered. “I’d go to Washington Square and hear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez before they were famous. There were about 35 marvelous playwrights all working in New York City and we could all walk to each other’s theaters, so it was like, Can you top this? We just played off of each other.

“I mean, it was all there. I see theater really as a conservative art, where it takes from everything else and I think American jazz had to do what it did and American painting had to do what it did before our kind of theater could happen, because the other arts feed you.”

Terry churned out plays at an amazing clip, at one point having a new one produced every month. Edward Albee co-produced a double bill that included her Ex-Miss Copper Queen On a Set of Pills at the Cherry Lane Theatre. She was a founder of the legendary Open Theatre, an experimental company that produced her work, eventouring it nationally. Other Terry plays were performed at the chic La Mama. Another at the Circle Rep. Still another at the Actor’s Studio.

Along with Sam Shepard, a fellow founder of the Open Theatre, she was identified as one of America’s most promising new playwrights.



Her work is of its times, yet timeless, reflecting our culture’s struggles with violence/war (Viet Rock), spouse/child abuse (Goona, Goona), objectification (Objective Love), prison life (Babes in the Big House), underage drinking (Kegger). A key facet of her work is transformation, which bends roles, even genders. Themes predominate more than characters in her metaphorical plays.
Terry faced a transformation of her own when the NY theater landscape changed in the early ‘70s. The Open Theatre disbanded. Finding venues for her work proved difficult. Flush with the fervor of feminism, she chafed at the thought of deferring to male producers or playwrights anymore.

“At a point I worked with very strong men in the ‘60s. Joe Chaikin, Tom O’Morgan, Peter Feldman,” said Terry, who developed Viet Rock in a Saturday Open Theatre workshop that also produced HairRock was perhaps the first major work of art to deal with the Vietnam War. When Chaikin and Feldman “took it (the play) away from me,” she said, “a big confrontation” ensued.

Drawn into “the arms of the feminist movement,” Terry felt empowered to go off on her own. “After women saw Viet Rock some of them started coming to me asking me to come to consciousness-raising groups, and I did,” she said. “As more people started calling me up and saying, ‘Will you write a play for something we’re doing?, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I realized I’m behind the careers of all these fabulous guys, but I’m way back here in the shadows and they’re getting all the glory. So, why not separate?”

Aptly, Terry’s and Schmidman‘s paths crossed in theatrical fashion.

“I met her [Schmidman} in Boston when I was asked to come to write the bicentennial celebration for Boston University’s theater school” Terry said. While in Bean Town she joined the throng gathered for a protest on the Boston Common. Out of the crowd Terry estimates approached a million people, the two found each other.

“I don’t go to rallies but I went to an anti-war rally where I met her by mistake, doing guerrilla theater,” Schmidman said. “I found her to fix my tin foil mask.” “Her mask had come off and I helped her with it. It’s just absolutely true,” Terry said.

Schmidman admired Terry’s work. Indeed, she said, “I had the top of my head blown off” by the work of Terry and her cohorts. The two got to know each other when Terry later went to Boston U. to workshop her Approaching Simone. Terry cast BU theater students. None of the perky, blonde, blue-eyed, well made-up girls fit what she wanted. So, “I designed an improvisation where one person had to stand off all of the rest of the kids in the school,” she recalled, “and Jo Ann had the power to stand them off. I said, ‘Ah ha, I can write this play around her. There’s the power I’m looking for.’’ Jo Ann WAS Simone. The play ran off-Broadway at Cafe La Mama, becoming the first student-cast production to win an Obie.
Their relationship grew when Schmidman toured with the Open Theatre, “It was a magic, perfect fit,” said Schmidman. Terry visited Omaha in 1970 to see Schmidman’s production of the Tommy Allen Show.

“It was a better production then I had done out in Los Angeles. I had to admit it,” said Terry. “I said, ‘This is really good.’ I mean, she was showing me things about this play I didn’t know were there.”

With some prodding, Terry set her sights on this place, moving here in 1974.

“When the Open Theatre closed and I saw what Jo Ann was building here,” Terry said, “I could easily make that transition. She’s a great director.” Still, it was a huge leap of faith. “She was leaving where one made it in the theater. Plenty would not leave New York City, period. But for Megan I never heard a second thought,” Schmidman said.

The difference being in Omaha Terry didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone. It’s why leaving the center of the theater world was not such a hard move. “I always felt like I was camping out in New York as it was,” Terry said. “I always felt like it was temporary. The feminist movement freed me from being stuck in New York and being in that life.” She said she ended up being far more productive here.

Schmidman said since Terry’s “ego was not at stake,” Omaha made sense, as here she could “work every day within a viable company” that would produce her plays. “Megan is the kind of playwright that writes for a company of people, which is how I lured her out here.”

As Schmidman did before her, Terry found the possibilities for theater here “wide open.” Terry’s presence lent OMT instant credibility. Her career hardly suffered for the move. Her prodigious output (60 plays) continued. Her work has been taught or performed across North America, Europe, South America and beyond.

The theater became a year-round venue for the most mind-altering work. It changed locations a few times before settling at its present downtown site on 16th street in a former department store next to King Fong’s.

More than two decades before the Blue Barn Theatre opened, these women were doing Witching Hour work that made electric cool aid acid trips seem tame.

Terry and Schmidman recently sat down for interviews at the theater, an open, tiled space with a stripped-down ‘50s-vibe. They are a study in contrasts. Terry has the pale, soft, rounded features and sweet, doe-eyed look of an ingenue turned mature matron. Schmidman is a slim, dark-featured, hard-angled figure whose severe face and brooding demeanor signal intensity. Little Bo-Peep and Gothic Queen. Both exude a manic fervor on low simmer. They listen intently. They laugh easily. Each interrupts the other to complete a sentence, the way longtime companions do.

The two ceased producing at OMT a decade ago. A new group of artists use the space and the name today, inspired by what the two women did to push theater’s boundaries. Terry and Schmidman long intended handing over the OMT to a new troupe. Groups came and went. None stuck. In 2004, fashion designer Julia Drazic and a coterie of designers, visual artists and musicians hit it off with the women and took over the space. The resulting multi-media, multi-layered shows defy categorization. Sound familiar?

Schmidman, who advises the group, calls Drazic “a natural born producer.”

Drazic and Co. realize the heavy legacy they carry with the OMT name.

The Growth of the Magic Theatre
A generation apart, Terry and Schmidman each studied and rejected old theater concepts in favor of a freer model unbound by, in their minds, rigid constraints and assumptions. While Schmidman’s a militant adherent of independence and a harsh critic of conventionality, Terry’s more politic.

With Schmidman as artistic director and Terry as resident playwright, OMT showcased works by playwrights thick in the canon of the American avant garde: Ron Tavel (Kitchenette), a collaborator with Andy Warhol on the Pop artist’s early narrative films; Paula Vogel (Baby Makes Seven), whose play How I Learned to Drive won a Pulitzer; and Obie and Pulitzer winner Sam Shepard (Chicago). Guest directors helmed some shows. Visiting playwrights-directors did workshops. It was all about change and challenging the status quo, even the very definition of theater.

Schmidman was well-suited to the task said New York playwright Susan Yankowitz: “Jo Ann has flung herself into roles, as actor-as director, with unusual courage and confidence, qualities that make her especially friendly to risk.”

Everyone contributed ideas to a play’s development. Everyone participated in its performance. Devoid of the usual barriers, like a proscenium stage, audiences, actors, stage hands, words, sets, music, costumes, sculptures, movements and projected images became equal elements in total, multi-media, sensory immersions.

Terry’s transformational style, in which actors interchange parts or morph into objects, was aided by soft sculptural costumes. Crew handled lights, music and sets not behind a curtain or in shadow, but out in the open, for all to see. Same way with actors changing costumes. It was part of the experience, as in the spirit of the ‘60s New York “happenings” Terry witnessed.

The experience, Omaha theater director Jim Eisenhardt said, could be formidable. “Oh, absolutely, it was intimidating, but it was a great shared experience, too.”

“In those days our object was to push previously established ideas of what theater was in new directions,” said Schmidman. “To create absolutely contemporary theater…in other words, to create theater that had to do with our lives, living and working in Omaha, Nebraska, because that’s what we were doing. So it was a pretty lofty task we set for ourselves. It was to reinvent what does theater look like, what does it sound like, what is it.

“And certainly there were plenty of roots in people before us. This was the end of the ‘60s, so we had Cafe La Mama, Cafe Chino, the Open Theatre” as models to follow.”



From 1996 Dallas Children’s Theatre/Omaha Magic Theatre production of Star Path Moon Stop





OMT fit in well with the Old Market’s head shops and art galleries. It had the entire building that contains the Passageway. The company lived communally there and in a loft across the street, with Terry cooking big stews from French Cafe refuse. The theater became a self-supporting operation. Members did not need to take second jobs. By taking risks rather than playing it safe the women made OMT a successful, recognized home for contemporary theater.

“We were producing this fine theater that commanded national grants and international respect at a time when it wasn’t being given to the opera or the symphony,” Schmidman said. “This tiny little theater was getting direct National Endowment for the Arts support in ever escalating amounts because the work was good. They (the NEA) came out each year to see the work.”

The two women’s imprint is undeniable.

As if being an experimental theater were not enough, OMT dared to be a “‘gay,’ ‘radical feminist,’ ‘lesbian’ theater‘” on top of it, said Rose Theatre artistic director James Larson. “None of that existed in Omaha before.” Given that, he said, “it is extraordinary the Magic Theatre could survive for 30 years.” He added it’s “impressive” OMT could command large grants and he admires how  “resourceful” Schmidman and Terry were in replenishing the company over time.

OMT built loyal followings for experimental work that proved accessible. “Once the people saw the work, whether they knew what they were seeing or not, they responded to it,” Schmidman said. One reason may be the extensive research Terry did for “the big community pieces” OMT did, like her Kegger, that dealt with under age drinking. Once they had a hit, they kept it in front of audiences for a steady cash stream. OMT toured Kegger for three years, nearly surviving on its proceeds alone.

“Touring is what kept us going,” Terry said. “It helped enable us to keep doing what we were doing, reaching out to all of the communities, getting to know people at different universities and arts councils.”

Q & As usually followed shows. Often, the theater invited scholars or experts to lead discussions related to the themes/issues raised. Audiences weighed in, some testifying, as in church, to how the plays resonated with their lives.

Terry and Schmidman set a high standard.

Larson, a playwright whose doctoral thesis is on Terry, worked with OMT for 15 years. He said, “There was a time in the ’60’s and ’70’s when Megan was considered one of the top three female playwrights in the history of American Theater” along with Lillian Hellman and Susan Glaspell. “Then more female playwrights emerged, and Megan is still remembered as the leading political/feminist playwright.”

Noted New York playwright and poet Rochelle Owens said, “Megan Terry’s plays explore the boundaries of American culture…Her use of ‘transformation’ marked her as one of the most original dramatists of the experimental theater of the 20th century.” Owens said Schmidman is a “brilliant artistic director” who, along with Terry, is “an inspiration to theater artists.”

OMT was an island unto itself, isolated, by choice and by perception, from the larger theater community due to the work it did and the single-minded focus, some might say zealousness, the women displayed. “We didn’t play the local theater game,” Terry said. “Or socialize,” Schmidman interjected. “We were too busy working.”

Its 30-year run only ended, in 1998, when Schmidman and Terry, partners in life and in the theater, reached a point of exhaustion. The two share a house together in south O. The theater’s old touring van is parked on the street. The house is obscured by the van and an overgrown garden in front that seems an apt metaphor for two artists whose wild, creative vines are intertwined.

“When we closed we were playing to full houses every night,” Schmidman said. Even if she and Terry were weary, why walk away from such a good thing? “It’s just, there are other things to life. There are other art forms, like living,” Schmidman said. Besides, she said, it just never got any easier, especially the struggle to win grant money. All the late nights of preparing mountains of paperwork for grant applications and then waiting on pins and needles for a yes or no wore on them.

“The audiences were great, the work was great, but getting the damn money was as miserable as ever,” Terry said.


Right Brain Vacation Photos: New Plays and Production Photographs from the Omaha Magic Theatre 1972...


They closed shop to archive OMT’s and Terry’s remarkable bodies of work, all of which is housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thirty years of original, groundbreaking work unseen before here, some seen for the first time outside NY. Tours across Nebraska, Iowa. All “musicals,” not with familiar show tunes, either, but original, contemporary, music.

“The biggest myth of the American theater is people will only go to a show if they can leave the theater humming the tunes or they’ll only go to something that sounds like something else. That has not been our experience,” Schmidman said.

The Magic made its mark far beyond Omaha, too. Terry and Schmidman collaborated on the lyrics and book, respectively, for Running Gag, staged as an official selection of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY.

In 1996 the Magic represented America in the Suwon Castle International Theatre festival in Suwon, South Korea, just south of Seoul. Terry, Schmidman and Co. performed Star Path Moon Stop outdoors before a crowd of some 5,000 squatting spectators.

“It was fabulous,” Schmidman said. “They come from a shamanistic tradition, so they really got into our kind of theater,” Terry said. “They embraced it because it’s quite like their traditional, very broad, emotional, spectacle theater,” Schmidman elaborated. “Yes, their theater is very episodical and relies on fabulous stage effects,” Terry added. The festival appearance followed workshops OMT did the year before in Seoul. The theater traveled abroad once before, when they toured Body Leaks at a women’s fest in Canada.

From OMT’s inception, Schmidman surrounded herself with collaborators drawn from many disciplines/backgrounds. Rarely did anyone have formal theater training. There were painters, musicians, poets, hippies and freaks. Among the noted artists to work with OMT were painter Bill Farmer, musicians Jamel Mohamed and Luigi Waites and composer John Sheehan. Sora Kimberlain arrived as a visual artist and ended up doing set design, acting, writing and directing.

“The bottom line was if theater reflects life and if we’re creating a brand new way of performing, well, you sure don’t need to go to school for it,” Schmidman said. “You need to open your heart, open your soul, give yourself over to the work and do what it tells you.”

EDITOR’S NOTES: While Schmidman and Terry closed the original OMT a decade ago, they’re hardly inactive. Terry still writes, accepting commissions from theaters like The Rose in Omaha. Schmidman no longer directs but she consults/mentors the new OMT and other young theater artists.

In 1992 the Magic Theatre produced a book, Right Brain Vacation Photos, that serves as a great OMT primer, the American avante garde and experimental theater. Look for it at your local library or on

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