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If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?


If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Theater offers windows on the world, yet only a fraction of plays produced anywhere are written by women. This arts parity issue has urgency with national initiatives extending to Omaha, where theater artists variously discuss the problem and implement remedies.

“The initiatives have been around for about a decade now,” said Creighton University theater professor Amy Lane. “The most well-known, 50/50 by 2020, started in response to a study that revealed women’s voices grossly underrepresented in theaters.”

In 2006, 17 percent of plays professionally produced nationwide (12 percent on Broadway) were written by women. “Surprising,” Lane said, given that “60 percent of the theater audience is women.”

She wonders if “there will be true gender equity by 2020” and what “progress” has been made thus far.

UNO theater professor Cindy Melby Phaneuf echoes many when she says, “My opinion is we are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.” She heads the National Theatre Conference, whose Women Playwright Initiative has produced 500 plays by women since 2011 and expects to reach 1,000 by 2020. “I am encouraged by the energy and interest in gender parity, but am most interested in taking action.”

“I support these initiatives and applaud the theaters implementing them,” said Omaha playwright Ellen Struve.

Struve’s had plays mounted at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) and Shelterbelt Theatre and across the nation.

“When I began writing plays, I didn’t know many other women getting produced on a regular basis. This past year I was able to invite more than a dozen Omaha-based women playwrights to participate in the 365 Women A Year project. It was so exhilarating to look at that list of writers. Even better was to see a few of the plays fully-produced by Denise Chapman at the Union for Contemporary Art.”

2017 panels hosted by the Blue Barn Theater and the University of Nebraska at Omaha dialogued about the social-economic context behind exclusion and why plays written by women would enrich any season.

“Panels are great for raising awareness. Representation matters: for women and female-identifying playwrights, directors, actors, designers, crews, administrators. Discussions are fine, but action is what is needed,” said  Lane.

She created the 21 & Over series at OCP “to introduce Omaha to new works and new voices.” 21 & Over seasons were 50/50 by 2020 compliant, she said..

OCP’s ongoing Alternative Programming series continues to be diverse.

Creighton and UNO are devoting their respective theater departments’ entire 2018-2019 performance seasons to works by women playwrights.

Lane said Creighton’s “made a commitment to continue with the 50/50 by 2020 Movement” beyond this season.

Phaneuf and colleagues want to move things forward.

“UNO and Creighton have agreed to shine a light on what our greater Omaha community is doing already and look to the future to provide more opportunities to revel in women’s voices. The goal is gender parity on a permanent basis as an ordinary way of programming our seasons representing diverse voices. With parity also comes a desire to produce plays by writers of color. We are constantly on the lookout for plays that represent a variety of cultures and heritages.”

Outside the academic setting, Omaha presents a mixed bag in theater gender parity.

Phaneuf said despite some gains, many Omaha theaters present seasons with only one or two works by women. Sometimes, none.

“Those making artistic decisions at Omaha theaters either care about this issue or they don’t. If they care, then it is not a difficult task to make sure a theater’s season includes works by women,” Lane said. “There are plenty of terrific plays out there and plenty of resources to find them. If this is not an issue that matters to them, then they shouldn’t be surprised if they get called out. I think more of us who do care should speak out more when we see gender parity ignored.”

OCP artistic director Kimberly Hickman said “more opportunities for female artists is among her programming guidelines.” This past season several OCP playwrights and composers identified as women as did all its guest directors and many designers.

“Those priorities remain in place for 2018-2019.”

“Parity in theater is a complex issue that can’t be simplified to only gender,” Hickman said.

A session on female leadership she attended at a recent conference for regional theaters brought this home.

“While the room of women had many things in common, our experiences were very different due to ethnicity, sexuality, economic status, academic background, location. All these factors need to be taken into consideration. I believe the best way to make progress is to look at who is at the table making decisions. If the people all look the same, that is a problem and steps need to be taken to evolve. I also think accountability is important. I have intentionally surrounded myself with people I know will hold me accountable.”

The Shelterbelt has a demonstrated “strong commitment to gender parity, not only for playwrights, but for all production positions,” said executive director Roxanne Wach. “We do try to include at least 50 percent women playwrights in a season, while still creating a balance in storytelling and genres. It’s a conscious choice by our reading committee and a shared vision of our board.

“I personally feel if we don’t start with parity in the small theaters, it will never happen in larger theaters.”

Shelterbelt’s won recognition from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for reaching equity goals.

“To look just at playwrights is only scratching the surface,” Wach adds. “We’ve got to start valuing the work women bring to all areas of theater production and the great value in having different points of view.”

Omaha’s largest footprint on the national theater scene, the Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), uses a 100 percent blind reading process selecting plays.

“We are one of the few major development programs that do this,” producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said. “We have had many long debates about whether we should change to have predetermined selection percentages to include gender, race, identity, but the overwhelming consensus by our staff and those who attend the conference is to keep the selections blind.

“Even with a blind selection we have always been close to parity. This year was a clean 50-50 split. Our women playwrights often appear on the Kilroys List (of most recommended unproduced or underproduced plays).”

UNO’s new Connections series is being curated from GPTC works by underrepresented playwrights.

GPTC playwright Sara Farrington terms parity “a triggery question” and initiatives to date “a baby step.”

“Many people simply don’t and won’t trust plays by women. It is astonishing people still assume women can or will only write about being imprisoned by their bodies or men. That idea has been beaten into a mass theater-going audience by over-produced, overrated, wildly misogynistic male playwrights and producers and by artistic directors financing and programming plays with reductive and fearful depictions of female characters.

“Women playwrights have a deep, refined, 200-proof rage. Rage makes for badass and innovative storytelling. Women playwrights tell stories backwards, sideways, in a spiral, upside down, from angles you’d never expect. They are utterly complex, psychologically profound and contemporary.”

Fellow GPTC playwright Shayne Kennedy, a Creighton grad, calls for systemic change.

“I believe men and women tell stories differently and because the creative industries have long been dominated by male voices, we as a culture have become conditioned to hear in those voices. I think to correct the imbalance we are going to need some risk-takers, visionaries and deliberately opened minds.”

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

Link to the 2018-2019 UNO theater season at:

http://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-communication-fine-arts-and-media/theatre/index.php

Select UNO Theater 2018-2019 season:

TARTUFFE (Studio)

by Molière, adapted by Constance Congdon from a literal prose translation by Virginia Scott

Director Jackson Newman

August 23-25

THE CLEARING

by Helen Edmundson

Director Lara Marsh

September 26-29, October 3-6

SECRET GARDEN

Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon

Director D. Scott Glasser, Musical Director Shelby VanNordstand

October 31-November 3, 7-10, 14-18

CONNECTIONS

Director Dr. Ron Zank

February 20-23, 27- March 2

MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

by Anne Washburn

Director: Jeremy Stoll

March 14-17, 2019

THE WOLVES

by Sarah DeLappe

Director Dr. Cindy Melby Phaneuf

April 10-13, 17-20, 2019

___________________________

Link to the 2018-2019 Creighton theater season at:

https://www.creighton.edu/ccas/fineandperformingarts/boxoffice/

Select Creighton Theater 2018-2019 season:

HANDLED

Written by Shayne Kennedy

World premiere play/Mainstage Theater

October 31 – November 4, 2018

KINDERTRANSPORT

Written by Diane Samuels

Play/Studio Theater

February 13 -17, 2019

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL

Book by Heather Hach; Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benajmin

Musical/Mainstage Theater

March 27-31, 2019

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Life Itself VII: 25-plus years of Omaha theater stories


 

Life Itself VII:
25-plus years of Omaha theater stories

New plays are discovered at Omaha’s own Great Plains Theatre Conference

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/new-plays-are-di…eatre-conference/

 
North Omaha rupture at center of PlayFest drama
Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year
Finding home: David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha
Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby” 
Noah Diaz: 
Metro theater’s man for all seasons and stages
Art in the heart of South Omaha
Things coming full circle for Doug Marr, Phil’s Diner Series and Circle Theatre

Kevin Lawler, ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 
PlayFest broadens theater possibilities: Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works
Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart
Stephanie Kurtzuba: From bowling alley to Broadway and back
Creative to the core: 
John Hargiss and his handmade world
BRAVO! Sing for the Cure
“The Bystanders” by Kim Louise takes searing, moving look at domestic violence as a public health issue
South Omaha stories on tap for free PlayFest show; Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to south side
Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown
Celebrating 90 years, the Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission
Omaha theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello back with new show
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
Kevin Lawler guides ever evolving theater conference to put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and to connect deeper with community
Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse
Beasely #1 by Eric Antoniou (LEO)
John Beasley has it all going on with new TV series, feature film in development, plans for new theater and possible New York stage debut; Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s “The Soul Man”
Journeyman actor John Beasley discusses life in film-television-theater and striving for in-the-moment believability
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
John Beasley: Living his dream
Family of creatives: Rudy Smith,  Llana Smith,  Q (Quiana) Smith
Omaha’s black sirens of song and spoken word
Hardy’s one-man “A Christmas Carol” highlights Dickens-themed literary festival
Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens
Artist facing life-altering disease makes “Dracula” subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
Tiffany White-Welchen delivers memorable performance in “Lady Day”
Blue Barn Theatre
NEW BLUE:
Blue Barn Theatre putting down new roots
FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater
Paul Williams: Alive and well, sober and serene, making memorable music again
Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with “A Flowering Tree”
Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward 
Breaking the mold: 
Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala
Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community
Omahans put spin on Stephen King’s “The Shining’ – Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project
Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego
Art imitates life for “Having Our Say” stars, sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and their brother Ray Metoyer
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood star to appear at Omaha screening of “Carousel”
Omaha playwright Beaufield Berry comes into her own with original comedy “Psycho Ex Girlfriend”
Beaty’s one-man dramatization of the diaspora considers what freedom looks like for African Americans
Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new Ttke on “The Magic Flute” –  co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking
A Theater Twinning
photo
Doing time on death row: Creighton University theater gives life to “Dead Man Walking”
Tyler Perry’s brand of gospel play coming soon to theater near you
Tired of being tired leads to new start at John Beasley Theater
Native American survival strategies shared through theater and testimony
“Walking Behind to Freedom” – A musical theater examination of race
What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”
Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha
Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean “
Homage to the bootstrappers by the Grande Olde Players
Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool Playwright
Actor Kelcey Watson fills role of a lifetime on short notice in Blue Barn production of “Six Degrees of Separation”
Lara Marsh’s breath of life
The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg
Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous route 
Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust
A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret
Dick Boyd as Scrooge in 2005, ©photo by Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY

Dick Boyd found role of his life, as Scrooge, in Omaha Community Playhouse production of Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”
Preston Love Jr. channels Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in one-man chautauqua
Get your jitney on: August Wilson play “Jitney” at the John Beasley Theater resonates with cast and crew
The enchanted life of Florence Taminosian Young, daughter of a whirling dervish
Being Jack Moskovitz: Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered
John Beasley and sons make acting a family thing
Crowns: Black women and their hats
Camille Metoyer Moten: A singer for all seasons
Shakespeare on the Green: 
A summertime staple in Omaha
Learning from a Broadway actor

Kevyn Morrow

 
Kevyn Morrow’s homecoming 
Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over
Change is gonna come: GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire
Great Plains Theater Conference ushers in new era of Omaha theater  
Jo Ann McDowell’s theater passion leads to adventure of her life as friend, confidante, champion of leading stage artists and organizer of festivals-conferences
Playwright-director Glyn O’Malley, measuring the heartbeat of the American theater
Q&A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

John Guare

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”
Q&A with playwright Caridad Svich, featured artist at Great Plains Theatre Conference
Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes
Attention must be paid: Arthur Kopit invokes Arthur Miller to describe Great Plains Theatre Conference focus on the work of playwrights
Q&A with Edward Albee: His thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and preparing a new generation of playwrights   
Great Plains Theatre Conference grows in new directions
Unforgettable Patricia Neal
More than Buddy: Billy McGuigan expands on Buddy Holly shtick to collaborate with his brothers and band in Beatles tribute
 
 
Hey, you, get off of my cloud! Doug Paterson – acolyte of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal and advocate of art as social action
Radio DJ-actor-singer Dave Wingert, in the spotlight
Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success
Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start
Charles Jones: Looking Homeward
In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor
Nancy Duncan: Storyteller
A Woman Under the Influence
Anyone for classics? 
Brigit Saint Brigit Theater stages the canon
Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time
John Beasley: Making his stand

Brian O’Bryne and Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television
Lauro play “A Piece of My Heart” dramatizes role of women in war zones
Magical mystery tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman production
Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous
Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith
War and peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony
Golden Boy Dick Mueller of Omaha leads Firehouse Theatre revival
Opera comes alive behind the scenes at Opera Omaha staging of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” starring Renee Fleming

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

February 1, 2018 1 comment

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

 

Nebraska is far from the theater capital of the world, yet many natives have trod the Broadway boards – from Henry Fonda to Sandy Dennis to Andrew Rannells. Actress-singer Roni Shelley Perez, 21, hopes to join their ranks. The Omaha Marian and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has graced several area stages and is now pursuing her dream in New York City during winter audition season.

This daughter of native Filipino parents has prepared for this all her life.

“I’ve been singing since I was very young. I sang-along to Barney songs ay 3. I started playing guitar at 8,” said Perez.

She also plays the ukelele.

She began performing for family functions and Filipino community gatherings at 11.

“I used to play guitar and sing Filipino covers.”

It earned her spending money.

But performing is, first and foremost, “a healing art” for Perez. “Stories told in songs can be relatable. People going through that same situation need to hear these stories. It’s hard for people to be vulnerable, so to see someone else vulnerable helps them to know it’s okay to feel.,” she said. “Performing arts can be very impactful. It’s a shareable, very much a collective experience.”

In SNAP Productions’ mounting of In the Heights at Omaha South High last spring, Perez’s character Nina mirrored her own life as the eldest child of aspirational immigrant parents in a tight ethnic community.

“Like Nina, there was all this pressure on me growing up to ‘Go, you can do this.’ That role answered a lot of questions for myself.”

She found support as a UNO Goodrich Scholarship Program recipient.

“Goodrich was like a family and definitely one of the best things I took from my undergrad. They believed in me and took a chance on me.”

Her parents were initially dubious when she majored in vocal performance and musical theater.

“Every immigrant parent is hoping for the American dream and I’m going into a field where financial stability is not really a thing. They were scared for me to go into music. But then as soon as opportunities started happening (scholarships, prizes, accolades), they realized, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s been such a huge part of my life that I can make it into a career.”

The mainstream success Filipina performers enjoy, ala singer-actress Lea Salonga, gives added hope.

“She’s a big influence. She represents the Filipino community in musical theater.”

Filipino actresses have made waves in Hamilton in New York and London. “All these people are just very inspiring.” Then there’s singer-actress Sarah Geronimo. “Growing up, my mom would always play her music and I always looked up to her. She has a beautiful voice. I wanted to sing like her. I wanted to be like her.”

Perez dreams of Broadway but for now her goal is to “just perform professionally” as a working artist. “If it;s there, then I want to turn it into something bigger. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet.”

It’s doubtful any performer from Neb. has been more prepared at such a young age. She boasts years of high-level training and performing. At 18, she won the part of Mary Magdalene in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s worked with New York stage professionals at the Open Jar Institute, NYU Steinhardt’s Summer Study in Musical Theatre and Shetler Studios’ workshop of Zanna Redux.

“I’ve been going to New York every year now to see where I am ability-wise. I’ve been making connections.”

In Omaha, she got scholarships to Broadway Dreams Foundation Summer Intensive Workshops in 2013 and 2014, studying under and performing with Tony Award nominees and winners. It grew her confidence.

“It showed me what I need to continue working on but also it was like, ‘Hey, if I’m able to perform with them right now, I’ll be able to stand my ground and eventually get to their level too.’ It’s been very encouraging and definitely humbling. Like, I’m clearly not the best, but I can work at it and come to that level.”

She’s participated in master classes through Omaha Performing Arts. The 2016 National Student Auditions competition winner has been recognized by the Playhouse, Theatre Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Last year, she and a classmate won first place in the Musical Theatre Division of the National Opera Association’s Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition.

She attributes her drive to her hard-working parents, who own their own business.

“I want to give back and work just as hard. I can’t even fathom coming from a third-world country to the United States with poor English and trying to start a family and career. It’s very inspiring and always on my mind as I take on new roles and shows.”

At 20, Perez earned the lead in Heathers at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. Her character sings the entire show, so she trained to build vocal stability and stamina. It was both her first lead and first paid acting gig.

“That role came very close to my heart,” she said. “I’m grateful the Blue Barn took a chance on me.”

She returned there this past summer as the title character in Priscilla.

Her most “demanding and rewarding role” came last fall in UNO’s production of Spring Awakening.

“This one really tested my vulnerability and sacrifice. I had to let everything go. That was very hard to do.

Everything I’m doing is giving me a better version of     myself or helping me be my best. There’s always something to learn – always. I love a good challenge.”

Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s twice directed Perez. is convinced she has what it takes to make it.

“I expect it and I’m exhilarated for the moment when that happens,” Clement-Toberer said. “She was born to do this. She’s got the vision of what she wants to do, and if there are nos along the way, it’s not going to stop her.”

Perez herself said she’s going after it now “because I think I do have what it takes to succeed.”

Follow her at www/ronishelleyperez.com.

How wayfarer Stuart Chittenden’s Nebraska odyssey explored community through conversation

November 1, 2015 2 comments

This past summer Stuart Chittenden formulated an equally brilliant and lovely idea to explore the power of conversation for making community when he struck out on the road for a meandering journey of small talk into the very heart of his adopted state, Nebraska. Traveling by RV, the ex-pat Brit stopped in a series of towns and cities to sit down and talk with people about what community means to them, but mainly he listened to their stories. And he recorded those tales. On his weeks long adventure he met and had conversations with a cross-section of this state’s salt-of-the-earth folks and he came away with a new appreciation for this place and for people’s diverse lifestyles in it. Read my Journeys piece here about Chittenden and his project for Metro Magazine or link to it at http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/. Or get your copy of the print edition by subscribing at https://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/Subscribe/

IMAGES FROM STUART CHITTENDEN’S WEBSITE © http://830nebraska.com/ unless otherwise noted.

From the Metro Magazine print edition

How a wayfarer’s Nebraska odyssey explored community through conversation

Stuart Chittenden’s magnificent obsession led to an epic road trip…a summer sojourn across the state centered around community and conversation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Nov-Dec-Jan issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

Leave it to an ex-pat Brit to travel Neb. in search of what makes community in this Midwestern place. He did it the old-fashioned way, too, by engaging in dozens of face-to-face conversations with residents across the width and breadth of the state over a month-long journey.

Traveling alone in a rented RV, Stuart Chittenden, 46, stopped in urban and rural settings, on main streets and side streets, in libraries, coffee shops, barber shops, bars, town squares and private homes to chew the fat with folks. He shared the fruits of his travels and conversations across social media via his project website, Instagram posts and Twitter tweets. He also did radio dispatches for KIOS 91.5 FM.

Chittenden made the August 10-September 5 trip for his project A Couple of 830 Mile Conversations. Nebraska is about 430 miles from east to west but his purposely meandering, circuitous route nearly doubled that distance each way.

He will be making public presentations about the project across the state this fall. Beyond that, he’s considering what to do with the 100 hours of recorded interviews he collected.

The project received an $8,000 Humanities Nebraska grant matched by monies from an online Indie Go-Go Crowd Funding campaign.

American archetypes

The experience fulfilled a lifelong fascination he’s cultivated with American archetypes. He’s long wanted to see for himself the places and characters who’ve fired his “fertile imagination” about pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, rugged individualists. indigenous cultures and immense open spaces. The project gave him an excuse to “follow the archetypal American adventure to go west.”

Not surprisingly, the experience made quite an impression.

“My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an intriguing. lovely and delightful place to go and explore. In terms of the culture. I was surprised by how vibrantly pioneering the west of the state feels. In Scottsbluff several people demonstrated this zest for self-determination, for sustaining themselves and coming together as they need to. Billy Estes and others there credit that spirit to the legacy of the pioneers.

“In a more remote community like Valentine it also means you don’t have any other choice but to fix things or make things. You do it for      yourself or it doesn’t get done. To see that spirit is to really appreciate it. I thought most rural communities would seem somewhat tired and there are those towns that do appear to be in a position of uncertainty – they don’t know what circumstances are going to do to them and so they feel in flux. But then there are those other towns that aren’t allowing circumstances to dictate what happens. They are looking at the available resources they have and managing those things in ways that make them sustainable.”

Individuals made their mark, too.

“Owen Timothy Hake in St. Paul touched on the courage needed in the choice to sit and talk with a stranger.”

R. Mark Swanson in Valentine recounted how conversation was therapeutic for him in the wake of his father’s suicide and losing his 16-year-old son. He told Chittenden that stories are “a form of freedom.”

The project was also an extension of work Chittenden’s been doing with conversation as a mediation and relationship tool. He wanted as well to assess the facility of this human communication medium as a means for finding consensus around the idea of community.

He says the project was “founded in my belief conversation is a way we connect better and form community.” It was also his opportunity to discover how people across the state talk about community. “I was very aware of the supposed divides between rural and urban. Also I wanted to put to the test my beliefs about conversation to see if it really has that kind of power or potency.”

Tom Schroeder in Dannebrog told Chittenden how community requires genuine personal, emotional investment. Community often came up in the sense of the safety it offers. Others spoke about community in terms of the appreciation they have for their town.

Though Chittenden’s lived in Omaha many years – his wife Amy is a native – the journey was his first real foray across the state with the intention of finding the heart of things and closely observing and recording them. That’s why he opted to follow the road less traveled – taking highways and byways rather than Interstate 80.

Making sense of it all

Still fresh from meeting people wherever he found them, he’s been weighing what these encounters and dialogues reveal. He says it was only at the end of the trip he began “to formulate some ideas around what community means to people.”

“Some of these incipient thoughts around community are that it’s paradoxical,” he says. “I heard a lot of people talk about things like it’s trusting, it’s supporting each other and it’s feeling safe and not locking your doors, et cetera, and that’s all true. But it didn’t really ever quite get to the heart of the matter. And the more people talked the more other elements started to come out that suggested to me community is a paradox. If you try to create it by saying, ‘I’m going to make my neighborhood a good community,’ it’s a very difficult thing to do.

Community instead is a deliberate individual choice to behave and do things in ways that invest in something not directly related to you.

“It’s a very individual action and it’s a very deliberate choice. The people that are active and altruistic and do something that isn’t selfish – the effect of that is community.”

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Not his first rodeo

All of this is an extension of a path he’s been on to use conversation as a community building instrument. It started when he first came to Omaha to work as a business development director for David Day Associates, a branding agency he still works at today.

“Being new in town required me to network. I found there to be an arid landscape for engagement of a depth beyond one inch and that was not satisfying to me. I didn’t want to be in a new community and establish networking connections that had no merit other than just superficial Neb. nice. So that was one provocation that led me to desire more meaningful conversations with people.

“The second track is that the more I look around me in Omaha and in communities across the nation I see increasing division and inequality – wrapped up in very casual stereotypes and bigotry to people on the other side of the fence – and I am morally outraged by that situation.

I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of The Other and the way to do that is to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”

He felt strongly enough about these things that he and Amy hosted a series of by-invitation-only conversation salon evenings in their mid-town home beginning in 2010.

“People would come together and talk about issues without an agenda and move beyond the superficial,” he says.

That morphed into salons led by siimilarly-minded creatives. But after two-plus years it got to be more than the couple could handle at home. At Amy’s insistence, he looked long and hard at how much he wanted to continue doing it and the need to take the model out into the world.

“It was something incredibly meaningful and fulfilling for me and therefore I wanted to see if it had merit beyond the personal in our home,” Chittenden says.

He then formed Squishtalks, a for-profit platform for conversation-based interventions and experiences he develops and facilitates for organizations, corporations and communities.

The 830 Nebraska project amplified everything Squishtalks represents and reinforced what he feels his purpose in life is shaping up to be.

“Conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and to individuals but what I’m learning is that it’s my calling.”

“My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an intriguing. lovely and delightful place to go and explore.”

“I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of The Other and the way to do that is to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”

“Conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and to individuals but what I’m learning is that it’s my calling.”

“The list of people that will stay with me from this project and whom I intend to maintain connection is quite long.”

To be or not to be

Calling or not, Chittenden felt the project pulling him in different directions.

“I wrestled with should I heavily promote the project in the places I was going to or not promote things at all but literally just turn up somewhere totally unannounced. The difficulty with over-promotion is that what happens is you run the risk of getting a queue of people who want to talk at you and you miss other people. People self-select for reasons that perhaps aren’t the reasons you want them to sit down and talk to you. At the other end, if you just roll in and don’t tell anybody – I could be sitting around places and having no conversations with anybody.”

He resolved this dilemma by playing it down the middle “so things weren’t contrived but I’d also have people to talk to,” adding, “That was an interesting dance and I don’t know whether it was right or wrong, one could never really know. But I feel as if I struck a balance between reaching out to a few interesting people in advance, reaching out to library directors to work with them, and then just showing up.

“Actually getting on the road, the experience was very much working out – where do people convene, where does anybody convene in any environment for any purpose, where do people go to protest, to celebrate, to feel a safe environment for provocative conversation?

All of these things were occurring to me.”

Early into the experience, he says, “I realized I had to adjust my initial formal plan of just setting up in a public space to put myself into places where people did convene and often that meant a bar, more likely a coffee shop or the donut place and maybe stopping at the gas station to ask where the old-timers were. It was that balance between allowing serendipity to reign and if no one came and sat with me for two hours, that’s what happened, that’s how that was meant to be.”

At each stop, he says, “…maybe 95 percent of people would acknowledge me warmly or would respond to my greeting warmly. Maybe 2 in 10 would ask what’s going on and then 1 in 10 would sit down. And the reasons why the other people didn’t will remain unknown and I think that’s totally fine.”

Wherever he set up with his sign reading “Hello! Please sit and chat with me” he surrendered himself to take whomever fate offered in this intersection of outsider-meets-local. He was not disappointed.

People he won’t soon forget

“The list of people that will stay with me from this project and whom I intend to maintain connection is quite long.”

Two unforgettable characters were Lukas Rix and Mark Kanitz in Wayne.

“They’re in an open gay partnership in town. They are live wires. Very sophisticated, smart, lovely, generous, warm people running a business on main street called Rustic Treasures. They’re very interesting just because of who they are and the choice they made to be openly out in rural America. They talked about how if you do make that choice you can never turn it off – you become the barometer of gay issues for everything. We talked about that tension.”

Chittenden also heard their disenchantment.

“The business success they’ve created there is remarkable yet Lukas spoke of the ambivalence they experience from the Omaha young professional and entrepreneurial scene. That was my first taste of a community or group of people doing things that are genuinely interesting but facing the arrogant antipathy of the big urban center because we think it’s all irrelevant beyond the city limits.”

He found in college towns like Wayne and Chadron a tension between the campus and town cultures.

“I was told it’s like the seasons in how the vibrancy of a town ebbs and flows depending upon the student population. A professor in Wayne made a remark about ‘town and gown’ and that division between faculty-campus life and in-town residents. He talked about some of those differences and how these groups could do better to maybe be more integrated. In Chadron they call it the 10th Street Divide.”

There were characters and then there were characters.

“A guy called Butch Blecher in Neligh had a lot to say for himself between chain-smoking and chewing tobacco and telling me about how he’s in poor health. I was just across main street photographing    something and he was on the other side in his wheelchair when he called out to me and I went across and sat down on the pavement for an hour-and-a-half while he talked about everything and anything.

“It was all storytelling. He interjected a tone of casual racism around Latinos being illegal immigrants and criminals and in the same conversation went on to talk about how much he liked a lady called Maria he bonded with. He let her get things from his garden and she cooked exquisite homemade Mexican meals for him. He was sad when  she had to abruptly leave because she was illegal.

“It was fascinating to hear someone move from casual stereotypes into personal stories that defied those stereotypes.”

Chittenden says the exchange reminded him “we’re always informed in some way by our circumstances and it takes a lot of thought to step outside ourselves and recognize that must be true of everybody,” adding, “It’s difficult to judge people unless you get a sense of the landscape in which their lives and viewpoints were formed.”

In Alliance, Chittenden found a story of transformation and redemption in Native American Edison Red Nest III.

“He spoke powerfully and with brutal candor about the hope of his upbringing, the potential for success and how it all feil off the rails. He started doing drugs, dealing drugs, robbing places. He found himself in a federal penitentiary. He came out of jail, cleaned up and found himself again because Native American elders reintroduced a pride in his culture. He is now working in the community to help Native American children perceive the richness of their history and culture.”

More Characters

Near Bayard, Chittenden got a guided tour of Chimney Rock from his ride, Gordon Howard.

“He’s by his own description a curmudgeonly S.O.B. and that’s exactly what he is. He put me in his truck, smoked his cigars and told me his stories as he drove up remnants of the Oregon Trail. Then we sat outside the rock for awhile.”

In Valentine, Chittenden was taken with Episcopal preacher R. Mark Swanson.

“He impressed me with his philosophical take on community and life

and how people adjust to hardships.

Swanson’s had his share of hardships and Chittenden says “he’s ministered to people who have experienced difficulties.”  ”

“Mark and his wife Margaret were living up on the Rosebud Reservation. She was a teacher at one of the schools. He just struck me by how sensitive he is to relationships people form between             themselves. There was an intelligence borne of ministering to hundreds if not thousands of people over his lifetime that just made me feel very warmly about him.

“He spoke very intelligently about the nature of the church and community and ministering and how people relate.”

In Loomis Tama Sundquist runs a convenience store-diner called Mrs. T’s that Chittenden found charming.

“I roll in and I’m chatting with the two girls at the counter and then Tama comes over and like any good proprietor she is all chit-chat and wanting to know what’s going on. She and her family race these small go-carts all around the region. She’s incredibly bubbly and has a lot of smarts about her. She’s the kind of person that fills a room up. She had plenty to say about the nature of town. I asked her what community is and she joked, ‘It’s a group of people too poor to leave.’ But I did have that impression of Loomis.”

The snob in him initially discounted having lunch there but the aroma, sight and sound of that day’s sizzling steak special won him over.

“This was the best steak I have had for a long time. It was fantastic.”

In Dannebrog, where all things are Danish, his visit to the bakery reminded him of an Irish pub. The old cronies enjoying coffee and dunkers there – John Nelson, Mike Hochstetter and Russell Powers –

welcomed the stranger with good-natured ribbing,

“These guys were so funny with their bantering and joking. Russell told how he had been confused by a tourist for Roger Welsch (Dannebrog’s most famous citizen for his best-selling books), so he just played it up and persisted in being Roger Welsch.

“John had had some surgery and never spoke, he just smiled, kicked his legs and gestured. Incredibly endearing the way he responded  – the physicality of his presence so affirming.

“Mike is like 6-foot-7. He’s gigantic. He just seemed to be the epitome of everything I think about as the pioneering immigrant Scandinavian farmer – just from his look, his size, his poise. He wasn’t verbose but what he said was not wasted words. He was smart and intelligent with what he had to say. Like many other people I asked what community means and he just opened his big arms and warmly gestured, saying, ‘It’s what you see here.’ It was this idea that here’s this community place where people can come and talk about anything they want to.

“The money’s on the counter, non-molested. No one’s going to steal.

People pay what they should pay. You’re welcome anytime.”

Chittenden, who shaves his head, needed a shape-up at one point and got it from Chadron barber Don Dotson, whom he says is in “the great mold of barbers” as philosophers, psychologists and pundits.

“Don talked about community in somewhat predictable terms in the sense of this being a right-sized community, people know each other, that sort of thing. But he also warmly reflected on the fact that as one of only two barbers where Chadron once had more than 20 his place is now an even more important venue for community.

“He made it clear I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted to chat with him and the guys in there.”

One of those guys, Phil Cary, is a Chadron State College math professor.

“He came down to Chadron because he wanted a place he felt was the right environment to raise his boys. Since they’ve grown and left he’s come to love the community and doesn’t want to leave.”

Not everyone Chittenden met and spoke with wanted to be recorded.

One of those who declined was 83-year-old Dee from Broken Bow .

“She asked if I wanted to see a photo of the barn her father had built. I replied yes. She returned with a box. She was showing me some old photos and at one point her eyes lit up and, pointing at one photo, she said, ‘I remember!’ Dee then looked at me and said, ‘Perhaps it is a good thing you are here.’ We talked for three-and-a-half hours.”

The only two African-Americans he spoke to for the project – the paucity of blacks in greater Neb. dismayed him – declined to be recorded. He surmised they didn’t want to go on the record about what it’s like being black in a state where they are such a decided minority.

Reflections

Between the 830-mile jaunt and various detours and side trips along the way, Chittenden logged 1.902 miles. The only formal route he followed was from Omaha to Scottsbluff. Everything else, including the return trip, was “random and digressive.”

“I had roughly mapped out the trip beforehand. On the road I used Google Maps and asked people for suggestions.”

He managed getting lost just once and then for only a brief while. He avoided any traffic tickets. But he did contend with some mechanical problems in the form of a bum water heater and various closet snafus that stops at a repair shop and a Menards, respectively, afforded the necessary if temporary fixes.

Mother Nature spared him any weather extremes.

An enduring sight after a rainstorm was “a delightful double rainbow on my last night out at the westernmost point of the trip in Scottsbluff.”

He slept every night away aboard the RV.

In terms of lessons learned or affirmed, he says, in order to engage in conversation “you have to be willing to be vulnerable” “If you don’t present yourself, you cant expect other people to do this. If you approach any environment with a sincere openness and willingness to appreciate someone else’s voice, then the door opens.”

In the end, he may have found out more about himself than anything.

“I don’t ascribe things to a divine hand. But if I’m going to make meaning from my life and think the net result of my being here was positive, then maybe conversation is the gift or the tool or the challenge I have before me to make this a meaningful existence.”

For more about his project, visit http://830nebraska.com/.

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

 

 

Celebrating 90 years, the Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

May 3, 2015 3 comments

When it comes to the arts in Omaha there are maybe a dozen artists and arts organizations with national reputations (Jun Kaneko, Thomas Wilkins, Therman Statom, Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore, John Beasley, Timothy Schaffert, Opera Omaha, Omaha Theater Company, Film Streams, et cetera) and the Omaha Community Playhouse is the longest lived of these.  Its celebration of 90 years concludes in 2015 and what a nine decade ride its been for this theater from the community, for the community.  Two of the biggest acting names to ever come out of the city, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both got their start there.  But the theater’s legacy is far richer and expansive than these two.  Read my Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) retrospective about this pillar of community theater still going strong today and find out what makes it one of the city’s cultural gems whose reputation extends far beyond the confines of Nebraska.

 

 

 

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Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

Theater from the community, for the community celebrates 90 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July issue of Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

Omaha’s love affair with its Playhouse nears a century

During its 2014-2015 season the Omaha Community Playhouse has celebrated nine decades of stage productions and theater arts education. On June 27 the venerable theater is throwing itself a grand Birthday Bash on its east lawn. The free 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, organized by the theater’s support group, Act II, will feature live entertainment, headlined by Playhouse favorite Billy McGuigan, a convoy of food trucks and Broadway bingo. All of Omaha is invited to party like it’s 1925.

When the Playhouse put on its first season 90 years ago the theater brought some much needed culture to a wild and woolly city still shaking the dust off its frontier origins. From a humble start motivated by a desire to just put on plays, it became an Omaha institution. Along the way it changed locations, survived a natural disaster, added a professional touring company, expanded facilities and welcomed many unforgettable characters. Hundreds of productions have been performed before millions of patrons.

Bound up in the Playhouse story is an aspiration to bring people together for a common goal of producing entertainment that engages and fosters community. Civic pride has made it Omaha’s theater. Ambition, determination and generosity has taken it to undreamed of heights as America’s largest community theater.

 

 

 Charles Jones, center

“The key figure in the rise of the Playhouse to the top, Charles Jones, arrived in 1974,” says Warren Francke, author of the new book, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph. “The simplest reasons the Playhouse became number one were the things Charles Jones accomplished.” Jones penned a wildly popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol and created the professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Under his leadership the Playhouse’s audience, budget and staff eventually exceeded any community theater in the nation. “His adaptation of A Christmas Carol became, pardon the expression, the cash cow for decades.” That show’s a tradition 39 years and counting now.

Francke says the Caravan brought talent to the Playhouse and carried the theater’s brand nationwide. Several standouts came to Omaha via the troupe. Jerry Longe succeeded Dick Boyd as Scrooge in Carol. Bill Hutson headed the Creighton University drama department and won multiple Fonda-McGuire acting awards.

Jones was also adept at getting donors on board. “Everyone describes him as the most charming Southern gentleman they ever met and he charmed people, not just performers, but the business community and Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben leaders,” says Francke. He says Jones’ ability to get people like Marge Durham, Barbara Ford, Ed Owen and Howard Drew to see philanthropy as crucial to the future of the Playhouse was critical for the ascendancy that took place from 1975 through the mid-1990s.

He says the Playhouse’s stable of memorable personalities is led by the charismatic Jones and the flamboyant director, Bernard Szold, “an ex-football All-American opera cape-wearing character.” Dodie Brando, actor Marlon Brando’s mother, was a passionate if troubled enthusiast.

Early players and echoes of the past

Long woven into the community fabric, the Playhouse developed as the city did. Omaha was a wide open cow town when the Playhouse gave it its only legitimate theater. As Omaha grew, so did the arts. The Playhouse mirrored that evolution. In the span of a decade that saw the Jazz Age give way to the Great Depression, the Playhouse joined two other significant arts organizations in maturing the cultural landscape: the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and the Joslyn Art Museum. All made their mark and remain strong presences today. Of the three, the Playhouse has perhaps been the least stuffy.

Founded as part of a movement to democratize the arts, the Playhouse formed from the community for the community. Even with a professional staff, its grassroots volunteers have always filled out the casts and crews and supported the theater in myriad other ways. Among those figuring prominently in its early success were two families who, against all odds, produced stage and screen icons. Dodie Brando played the lead in the first play, The Enchanted Cottage. Her husband, Marlon Brando Sr., was theater manager. Their son Marlon, who changed the face of acting in New York and Hollywood, was 5 when he and his family moved away, otherwise he would likely have been pulled into the Playhouse orbit the way another future star was, Henry Fonda. Dodie recruited young Hank into the Playhouse fold. He served as a jack-of-all-trades assistant director and as an actor. His sisters Jayne and Harriet were regular players on the fledging theater’s stage.

Not long after Henry went East to pursue an acting career he returned to star opposite a promising ingenue, Dorothy McGuire, in A Kiss for Cinderella (1930). McGuire herself went onto stage and screen stardom. In 1955 she and Fonda, long established names above the title by then, came back to play opposite each other in a benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s then 17-year-old daughter, Jane, the future two-time Oscar-winner, made her stage debut. Jane’s brother, Peter, who also became a screen star, continued the Fonda family’s Playhouse legacy – acting there while a University of Omaha student. A cousin, Matt Fonda, later acted there.

The Fondas and McGuire are not the only Playhouse “graduates” who moved onto Broadway, film, television success. Current Playhouse president Tim Schmad’s uncle Howard Fischer used the venue as a stepping-stone to a career as a Broadway stage manager and actor.

The Fonda-McGuire heritage lives on at the Playhouse. Artistic director Hilary Adams says, “Having a pedigree is very beneficial for us. I think anything founded and initiated by people of that caliber and passion – it really is the passion in their work – has a continuing legacy here.”

Adams heard of the Playhouse while working in New York City as a much-in-demand freelance director, but she only learned about its distinguished past once she started researching it. She appreciates being part of an organization so intertwined with its community and one that boasts such a long, colorful history. “Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater. That’s huge. Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts . That immediately stood out for me – its history and the way it was founded as part of a desire for a community-based organization to bring culture to Omaha as part of the Little Theater Movement.”

“Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater…Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts… –Hilary Adams

 Dodie Brando

The only show in town

Ex-associate artistic director Susie Baer Collins says the Playhouse parlayed that pedigree into a reputation as “the premiere place for local theatrical entertainment.” She says it’s remained a considerable force even as other theatre companies have put down roots and professional touring productions now regularly come to town. “It was a little scary for all of us the first time The Lion King came to the Orpheum Theater and stayed for more than a month. I wasn’t sure if the Playhouse could survive that kind of stellar competition and still find its audience, but somehow we did. We tried to remain relevant.”

She says the theater’s knack for putting on stellar shows, particularly musicals. grew “in the heyday of Charles Jones,” adding, “He was extremely committed to strong production values and the Playhouse gained a reputation for wonderful scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced every production.”

Doing a Playhouse show meant you’d arrived. “It was like if you got on at the Playhouse then that meant you were doing something theatrically in the city,” says Playhouse veteran Camille Metoyer Moten. “I mean, even now it’s still a big deal.” “It’s definitely a big deal,” says fellow stage veteran Elaine Jabenis. “It opened up a whole new world for me. I met people I ordinarily would not have met,” including Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Dorothy McGuire when Jabenis worked backstage for The Country Girl. “There’s a lot of people I met and worked with who helped pull me up because of their talent.”

Jabenis says it’s no accident the Playhouse has held the community enthralled for going on a century. “Audiences just keep coming back for that magic, for that moment to escape their own life and to see what happens in other lives. It is absolutely magic.” The Playhouse annually nets more local Theatre Arts Guild awards than all its competition combined.

All for one, one for all

Year after year, generation after generation, the Playhouse, no matter the need or challenge, has always found the necessary community backing because it’s a vital, touchstone place for people. “You know, it’s a funny thing about feeling vital,” says Jabenis, whose first Playhouse role in a 1952 production of Father of the Bride was in the old 40th and Davenport site. “When they announced plans to build the present theater I was on the committee to help raise money. I went house to house. I was never that bold a person. I was really pretty shy. But I believed in it, I really did. I was so anxious for it to happen.”

Jabenis says her eagerness to pitch-in reflects a communal desire “to make Omaha the best in everything we do,” adding, “It’s kind of a hunger and it’s something we’ve pushed for.” She also starred in the first production, Say Darling, at the current site in 1959, taking the stage mere minutes after hosting a live remote for local television.

“It’s like the perfect storm or something,” says Metoyer Moten, whose first role there was as the title character in Evita (1986). “You had the people who started it off that had this dream and these high expectations. Somehow they were able to impart that to the next generation, who had that same passion. I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry for culture. We don’t have mountains or the ocean, so we turn to ourselves to give that thing we can bring, which is artistic. “It’s a good common cause.”

This sense of getting behind something is not so different than Omaha’s embrace of the College World Series. It’s what happens when something springs from the community and is nurtured by it. The community theater model, dependent as it is on amateurs or volunteers, leads to misconceptions the Playhouse fights against.

“There’s been times over the years where there’s been debate whether community should be in our name,” says president Tim Schmad. “We hear that newcomers to town see community in our name and they immediately think of a renovated 70-seat church space with productions not the quality we think ours are.”

But Schamd points out community is part of the theater’s DNA and its volunteers work side by side with professionals to create work that he and artistic director Hilary Adams, a veteran of New York City theater, say compares favorably with Broadway. “We feel community definitely needs to be in our name because of the status we have in Omaha and the fact we rely on Omahans to put on our product for the most part,” Schmad says. “Our job then is to get those newcomers here just once. If we can’t get them back that’s our fault but we think if we expose them to our product they’ll understand why community definitely is a part of who we are.”

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do.”–Hilary Adams

Community engagement

Before Adams ever started working at the Playhouse she was impressed by what she found on visits there during the search process to replace longtime artistic director Carl Beck.

“It was really about community engagement – that’s what I immediately saw. And then I discovered not only do they support the Playhouse in Omaha but they support the arts in Omaha.”

Since joining the staff in mid-2014 Adams, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, has been bowled over by the Playhouse’s singular approach to community theater.

“The quality of work is astonishing. I think it’s a real hybrid situation that’s unique to community theaters in that we have a paid staff and everything we do supports our volunteer actors, with the exception of the Caravan. What we do have here is really high quality and high support for volunteer actors, and the staff here is incredibly talented and experienced. We treat the people who walk in our doors the same or better as Equity actors or people who do this for a living get treated.

“Volunteers are at the heart of the Playhouse. We have more than 1,000 in a season. They’re involved onstage, backstage, in the box office, as ushers, answering phones, on the board, in Act II. The public is everywhere in this building.”

Her first exposure to the Playhouse in action was at a performance of Les Miserables. The seamless blending of community she witnessed that night is what she’s come to expect. “I saw all that in operation backstage, And in the front of the house at intermission for Les Mis the entire audience stood up and cheered and I still get like goose bumps thinking about this because almost the entire cast was fellow community members.” The outpouring of love happened again at curtain call and once again at the meet-and-greet in the lobby, as community members in the audience, the cast and crew expressed appreciation for each other. This mutual admiration happens nearly every show.

Schmad grew up with this sense of community. His aunt Margaret Fischer saw every production from the theater’s start until her death. Many of her friends acted on stage there and she and the rest of the family were always in the audience to encourage them. Schmad says many Omaha families claim similar Playhouse legacies. Whether attending shows and classes or volunteering onstage or backstage, the Playhouse becomes a multi-generational tradition. He says it’s not uncommon for someone to start there as a child and to either continue or resume ties in adulthood, often getting their own children involved. “That’s really symbolic of what the Playhouse is,” he says. It goes back to community being the basis for everything there.

“That is very unique. It’s all part of this cycle of “bringing theater with and for communities,” says Adams. It jives with her own theater interests, which is why she left New York for here. “I was looking for a place where I could combine the professional theater experience I had with the skills and focus of my master’s program, which is in applied theater – using theater for social change, transformation and education. I really wanted to merge those two parts of theater. I also came from a community theater background as a young person. From the time I was really small I was also going to New York and seeing shows. So I’ve always sort of been in that hybrid.”

“We learned that this place is bigger than all of us.” –Tim Schmad

 

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  • Camille Metoyer Moten

Training ground and professional environment

Baer Collins says “The performers may be volunteers, but they’re surrounded by professionalism. A great number of the designers and directors, along with the music director, choreographer, technicians, carpenters, costumers, et cetera. are employees of the Playhouse and all are committed to making each show the very best it can be.” That expertise and care shows up on stage.”The Playhouse’s professionalism continues to have a reputation among the theatre community,” she says.

“Actors who may have significant experience or training are often interested in performing at the Playhouse as a volunteer because it strives for such high-quality and its shows have such a professional look. “It was always a thrill when an audience member would say they thought the actors were professional.”

Metoyer Moten, who starred in last spring’s production of the musical Little Women, says it’s a regular occurrence, “You hear it all the time at the (post-show) meet-and-greets where people say, ‘I saw the same show on Broadway and this is way better.’ Ot they ask, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s such a professional performance they don’t think it could be local. They think it’s a cast that’s been brought in from someplace else, when the truth is I may live around the corner from them.”

Metoyer Moten says the professionals employed in key positions at the Playhouse “guide mentor” volunteers to do professional-level work. “They have high expectations. It’s all about expectations. I’ve worked in quite a few theaters and I still feel like when I’m there I have the most professional treatment.”

“You feel more secure because you know they’re really pulling out the very best in you and you’re making it the very best you can,” Jabenis says.

Amid the bright lights and standing ovations, its easy to forget the Playhouse is a training ground for people of any age and experience level to get a top-notch theater immersion and education.

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do,” Adams says. “We have a very strong education and outreach program that includes adult and youth classes, youth summer camp intensives, in-school workshops and residencies, after-school programs, a Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program, an alternative programming series and go-beyond the show programming.”

She’s proud of the two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with Metropolitan Community College and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our apprentices run a lot of the shows backstage. They are supervised, supported and mentored by our paid staff every step of the way. So here you have a professional house that looks like what you’d have on Broadway or high off-Broadway or high regional theater, with all the accoutrements, bells and whistles, and the people working that are this really unique combination, from teens on up, of people really new at it and people really experienced. “It’s an incredible program. It’s the only one like it in the country.”

Apprentice grads have gone on to work for big-time theatrical troupes, theater festivals and network television. The Playhouse is also where young talent gets its start.

Baer Collins says, “We worked very hard to bring young people into our shows, in particular A Christmas Carol. That yearly production became an amazing training ground for children to learn about the discipline and art of performing onstage. I worked with some amazing young people who grew into outstanding performers. They start with learning to smile onstage and to hang up their costumes and end up playing amazing roles like Annie in Annie or Wendy in Peter Pan.” John Lloyd Young made it all the way to Broadway, where he headlined the cast of Jersey Boys, winning a Tony for his efforts. Others who’ve gone onto stardom include Terry Kiser and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.

Two Caravan alums who found fame returned in triumphant roles: Kevyn Morrow, a veteran of the Broadway and London stage, headlined the cast of Ragtime in 2006; and opera star Greg Ryerson anchored South Pacific in 2008. Some Omaha natives who made it big before acting at the Playhouse have returned to play there, including Equity performer John Beasley, who starred opposite Elaine Jabenis in 1996’s Driving Miss Daisy. Former Omaha mayor and congressman Glenn Cunningham and film-TV producer William Dozier are among the notables who acted there.

 

 

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The show must go on

Hilary Adams is impressed the Playhouse has consistently dared to do provocative work. “They really came out of the gate very strong with innovative productions even in the ’20s. They were doing wonderful work here.”

Historian Warren Francke says, “Almost from the start the Playhouse was willing to tackle Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie about a prostitute. When they did controversial plays then they were defended by two board members who were clergymen, one a rabbi and the other a Unitarian minister.” Francke discovered a “wonderful story nearly lost to history” that illustrates the pressure the Playhouse sometimes felt. “A man wrote a play about Brigham Young and Bernard Szold, the then-Playhouse director, knew him and together they conspired to pick up the play. Szold went to his artist friend Grant Wood, who’d just done “American Gothic,” to do the scenic design. That’s overshadowed by the fact the night before opening the Mormon Church got the president of Union Pacific Railroad and their general counsel to convince the Playhouse board to drop 14 of Young’s 17 wives in the cast.”

Adams says community theater serves so many tastes that devising a slate of plays “is about finding the right balance and challenging people but not so far that they get upset with us. For 2015-2016 we’ve created a diverse season of offerings from new American playwrights rising in prominence as well as better known pieces. The season mixes genres and styles and includes two experimentations in form.”

Controversy over content still happens. In the 2003-2004 season profane language in the main stage production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife elicited such negative feedback that Schmad says “it showed us how we shouldn’t mess with their Playhouse.” “We learned a lesson from that,” he says, namely that the main stage Hawks Theatre is better suited to tamer shows. “We did lose a lot of memberships because of it. Hopefully. we got some back. They sent a message. It was kind of ironic that our first show in the Hawks the next year was Hair,” the nudie musical about free love. “It did fine.”

Playhouse leadership has come under fire, too. ‘When we had some public issues in the past I learned just how important the Playhouse is to the community,” Schmad says. In 2009 friction between the administrative and artistic sides made news. “It was something at that time that needed to be discussed and it was and we came out much better because of that. We learned that this place is bigger than all of us. We all came to that conclusion.” Schmad says the upshot of that has been better communication and a clearer division of responsibilities. “The way we’ve structured it now, which is different than a lot of community theaters, is that I’m here to do the administrative things. though I do also oversee the artistic side. But I leave the management of the artistic up to them. I have confidence and trust in what they do.”

“When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” –Tim Schmad

 

Tim Schmad

 

Omaha’s theater

Schmad views himself as the steward of a valued community resource. “When I first came here I said i want to be the caretaker of this place but I also want to move it forward. I feel responsible for this place. I know how important it is to people. In my decision-making I certainly have to take care of my staff and the people who come to the shows, the donors, the board members. There are many nights where I’m awake at three in the morning, but that comes with the territory.”

As for what’s next, he says, “We’re looking at the future, we’re looking at strategic planning, and that’s very important to us. It’s a combination of what we need to do administratively and artistically. There’s no question that selling tickets, donor support and remaining relevant to the community is extremely important. “Right now I think we’re in good hands. Our board is good, our foundation is strong. I’m really proud of our staff. We’ve got some real go-getters that know what they’re doing and are very talented and that love theater and love the Playhouse. “It’s not all roses but I’m kind of proud of where we are.”

A clear indication of the theater’s continued popularity is that some hit shows in the last decade broke all box-office records. Through all the Playhouse’s needs – realizing a new home in 1959, repairing structural damage from a 1975 tornado, supporting a major addition in 1986, building the endowment – Omaha’s responded. “We’ve been very fortunate the community’s come forward to support any special needs,” he says. “We are always trying to improve ourselves. Our facility looks nice but we’ve got 50-some years in this building and so we definitely have some improvements that need to be made, especially in staging and equipment that’s pretty old. So we’re in that mode right now in trying to really improve what we have.”

He expects, not takes for granted, the community will respond again. “They’ve always been there.” Everyone from philanthropists like Howard and Rhonda Hawks to season subscribers and casual theatergoers. “That’s what makes Omaha what it is. The community is proud of the arts and culture in Omaha. When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” They’ve given their time, talent and treasure, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership that comes with that.” That’s why it’s called the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.

 
 
 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 4 comments

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

Art imitates life for “Having Our Say” stars, sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and their brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 1 comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

The Reader Jan. 30 - Feb. 5, 2014

 

Art imitates life for “Having Our Say” stars, sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and their brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

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