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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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Once more, with feeling: Omaha South High Magnet School and SNAP reteam for new musical “Once On this Island”


This weekend Omaha South High Magnet School and SNAP Productions are re-teaming for another musical co-production after the success of last summer’s “In the Heights” collaboration.

“Once On this Island” is the attraction this time around.

Remaining performances are Friday, June 29 through Sunday July 1.

Check out my El Perico story below to learn more about the show and the cast.

For show times and tickets, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/once-on-this-island-tickets or call 531-299-7685.


Once more, with feeling
Omaha South High Magnet School and SNAP reteam for new musical “Once On this Island”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

A year ago, Omaha South High Magnet School and SNAP Productions set the local theater scene abuzz with their joint staging of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights. The all-star production of current and former South students, school performing arts staff and community theater veterans filled seats and won raves.

South and SNAP are again co-producing an acclaimed musical, Once On this Island, which happens to be enjoying a Broadway revival, The June 28-July 1 run at South once more teams community and school artists in a show about love conquering differences.

All tickets are $20. Proceeds benefit SNAP and South.

Urban-themed Heights was set in New York City’s Dominican subculture. Island is set in the Antilles archipelago, where love-sick orphan Ti Moune breeches the divide between dark-skilled peasants and light-skinned aristocrats with help from the gods. The Romeo and Juliet-inspired story is nearly all sung-through.

South and SNAP share a message through theater.

“I feel our mission of inclusion and acceptance dovetails beautifully with South’s amazingly diverse student body and nurturing environment,” said SNAP Artistic Director Michal Simpson, who directs the show.

“We believe theater should inspire and educate, unite and connect. We want it to reflect our world today – to share stories that reflect the gifts all cultures and ethnicities bring to the table. Above all, we believe theater can change people and, perhaps by seeing shows like these, our community becomes more open and affirming, welcoming and respectful of all people,” Island producer and South Magnet Coordinator Rebecca Noble said.

“The fact we are able to do multicultural and ethnically correct casting is something SNAP has been striving for,” Simpson said.

Regina Palmer, who plays Ti Moune, said, “It’s exciting that this story about island people of color is being told by a demographically correct cast.”

Show stage manager Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a South High grad, said, “This show is a great opportunity for people of color to demonstrate we’re out here and we’re as talented as anybody else. I think that’s what a lot of the theater community is looking for right now.”

Noble said Simpson’s assembled “an amazing cast.”

The play features three Omaha theater stars who’ve shared the stage before in Palmer, Echelle Childers  and Zhomontee Watson. They earned great notices in Caroline or Change at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

“That OCP connection brings us back full circle,” said Watson. “We work really well together. Our voices meld. And we genuinely enjoy each other’s time and company, so it’s nice to be reunited in another show that is so powerful and packs a lot meaning into it.”

Then there’s the synergy of different ages collaborating.

“It gives students a great opportunity to work with some talented people in the community,” Moreno Villanueva said. “It’s important for adults to connect with young people because they are the future of theater.”

“Everyone gets connected in this way. I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said Watson, who plays Asaka.

Simpson said it’s a great training ground.

“With the staff and adult talent they’re working with, the kids can get a true read of what it’s like to participate in the community. They are exposed to new methods of direction, staging and choreography as well as new friendships and mentors. It’s a win-win for all involved.”

South senior-to-be Juan Valdovinos, who was in Heights, loves working with high-caliber talent.

“This collaboration gives me a chance to experience a new level of theater and dedication. I’ve grown a lot as a singer, a dancer and actor, It’s pushed me to do better at what I do. It’s an amazing opportunity. I would never have dreamed of performing with adults like this.

“We set a very high standard last year, but this cast is very passionate and I know we are up to the challenge.”

He appears in Island’s ensemble.

Noble looks to expand collaborations “with other organizations because our kids learn with every new person they work with and we feel really strongly that as an arts magnet we need to help them grow and have as many opportunities as possible.”

Though Zhomontee Watson did not attend South, she is an Omaha Public Schools grad (Benson) and she appreciates this opportunity for new collaborations.

“I had never worked with SNAP before, so I wanted to be able to gain those connections and work with a new director. I love working with new people.”

The productions also serve as reunions.

“One of the ensemble girls, Isabel (Gott), actually played my daughter when we did Les Miserable for the OPS summer musical at South,” Palmer said.

South High alum Kate Myers Madsen, who plays Andrea, is back again after performing in Heights. This new show reconnects her with old friends.

“My good friend Justin Blackson did Once On this Island with me in high school. I worked with the choreographer (Roxanne Nielsen) throughout high school.”

Things have come full circle for Myers Madsen, whose first Omaha community theater gig was with SNAP.

She said these plays showcase what South offers.

“When I was at South it was never given the credit it was due but there’s always been a phenomenal, talented student base. It’s finally got the platform to show why it’s the arts magnet.”

Island’s take on shades of color equating to class status is timely given today’s rhetoric around race and immigration.

“Colorism is one of the main conflicts in the play,” Palmer said, “and in real life it’s not something talked about often. Usually it’s just straight racism. Colorism is more nuanced because it exists within black communities in which lighter-skinned people, even though still black, are looked upon more favorably than dark-skinned people. This is still a very relevant, problematic issue.

“I remember when I was younger staying in summers because I didn’t want my skin to get darker.”

Zhomontee Watson said in addition to the play’s heart-filled music and dance numbers, its powerful human themes about identity will make audiences think.

“It’s something that makes you sit down and process how you fit into the story and what you look like in the story.”

For dates, times and tickets, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/once-on-this-island-tickets or call 531-299-7685.

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

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

June 6, 2018 1 comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Great Plains Theatre Conference is more than a collaborative around craft. It’s also a source of plays for theaters, whose productions give GPTC playwrights a platform for their words to take shape.

The May 27-June 2 2018 GPTC included a Blue Barn Theatre mounting of Matthew Capodicasa’s In the City, In the City, In the City. Artistic director Susan C. Toberer booked it after a 2017 PlayLab reading. The piece opened a regular run May 17, Then came a PlayFest performance. The show continues through June 17 to cap Blue Barn’s 29th season.

Toberer said the conference is “a good source” for new material, adding, “I wouldn’t have been aware of City if not for GPTC and it became perhaps the show we most looked forward to this season.”

 

Susan C. Toberer, ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

Staging new works from the conference expands the relationship between theaters and playwrights.

“The incredible openness of the process is one of the many joys of working with a script and a playwright with such generosity of spirit. Not only were we able to bring Matthew into the process early and often to offer guidance and support,” she said, “but he invited the artists involved to imagine almost infinite possibilities. We are thrilled to bring his play to life for the first time.”

GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is part of my dream. It’s not really a dream anymore, it’s reality, that local theaters can garner and grab productions, including premiere productions of plays from the scripts that come here to Great Plains. City is a great example of that,” he said.

“Another example is UNO now designating the third slot in their season to fully produce a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayLab from the previous year.”

“The GPTC-UNO connection goes way back,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor Cindy Phaneuf. She’s developed alliances with conference guests, even bringing some back to produce their work or to give workshops.

Since conference founder and former Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell shared her vision with community and academia theater professionals in 2006, It’s been a cooperative venture, Theater pros serve as directors, stage managers, actors, dramaturges and respondents. Students attend free and fill various roles onstage and off.

The Young Dramatists Fellowship Program is a guided experiential ed immersion for high school students during the conference. It affords opportunities to interact with theater pros.

“The participation of our local theater artists and students is a key sustaining factor of the conference,” Lawler said. “Our national and international guest artists are won over by the talent, generosity and insight of our local theater community and that helps the conference rise to a higher level of engagement and creativity.”

Besides honing craft at the MCC-based conference, programming extends to mainstage and PlayFest works produced around town. Then there are those GPTC plays local theaters incorporate into their seasons.

“We’ve always done plays touched by Great Plains.” Phaneuf said. “Now it’s taking another step up where we’re committing sight unseen to do one of the plays selected for play reading in our season next year. That happens to be a season of all women, so we’re reading the plays by women to decide what fits into our season.”

It will happen as part of UNO’s new Connections series.

“The idea is that UNO will connect with another organization to do work that matters to both of us. This coming year that connection is with the Great Plains.”

Phaneuf added, “We’re also doing The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe. It also started at Great Plains and has gotten wonderful national exposure.”

Additional GPTC works account for some graduate student studio productions in the spring.

This fall Creighton University is producing the world premiere of Handled by CU alum Shayne Kennedy, who’s had previous works read at GPTC.

 

Elizabeth Thompson, ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

The Shelterbelt’ Theater has produced a dozen GPTC-sourced plays since 2006, including three since 2014: Mickey and Sage by Sara Farrington, The Singularity by Crystal Jackson and The Feast by Celine Song. It will present another in 2018-2019.

As artistic director since 2014, Elizabeth Thompson said she’s nurtured “a stronger bond with Great Plains, especially since GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working is one of our founders – it’s a no-brainer.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve has seen several of her works find productions, including three at Shelterbelt, thanks to Great Plains exposure and networking.

“Some of the greatest advocates of my work have been other writers at GPTC. I’ve helped get GPTC writers productions and they’ve helped me get productions. We are always fighting on behalf of each other’s work,” Struve said. “My first play Mrs Jennings’ Sitter was selected as a mainstage reading in 2008. (Director) Marshall Mason asked me to send the play to companies he worked with on the east coast. Frequent GPTC playwright Kenley Smith helped secure a production in his home theater in West Virginia.

“When my play Mountain Lion was selected (in 2009), Shelterbelt offered to produce the plays together in a summer festival. Then in 2010, (playwright) Kari Mote remembered Mrs. Jennings’ Sitter and asked if she could produce it in New York City.”

In 2011, Struve’s Recommended Reading for Girls was championed to go to the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Amy Lane directed it.

“This kind of peer promotion-support happens every year at Great Plains,” Struve said. “It has been a transformative partner for me.”

Kevin Lawler confirms “a strong history” of “artists supporting each other’s work well beyond the conference.”

Plays come to theaters’ attention in various ways.

“A lot of directors will send me the piece they’re working on at Great Plains and say, ‘I see this at the Shelterbelt and I would love to stay involved if possible.’ That’s definitely something we look at,” Thompson said. “The writer already has a relationship with them and that can make the process a little easier.

“Actors involved in a reading of a script we produce often want to come audition for it. They’re excited about seeing something they were involved with in a small way get fully realized.”

Capodicasa’s City was brought to Blue Barn by actress Kim Gambino, who was in its GPTC reading. She studied theater in New York with Toberer.

Capodicasa is glad “the script made its way to the folks at Blue Barn,” adding, “I’m so honored the Blue Barn is doing the play.” He’s enjoyed collaborating with the team for his play’s first full production and is happy “to “share it with the Omaha community.”

“When I served on the Shelterbelt’s reading committee, I was charged with helping find scripts that could possibly fill a gap in the season,” said playwright-director Noah Diaz. “I remembered The Feast – its humor and beauty and terror – and suggested it. Frankly, I didn’t think it would win anyone over. To my surprise, Beth Thompson decided to program it — something I still consider to be deeply courageous. An even bigger surprise came when Beth suggested I direct it.

“The GPTC is providing an opportunity for the community at large to develop relationships with new plays from the ground up. My hope is by having direct connection to these writers, Omaha-based companies will begin shepherding new works onto their stages.”

“Because we’re a theater that only produces new work,” Thompson said, “these plays have a much better chance of being produced with us than they do with anyone else in Omaha.”

Doing new work is risky business since its unfamiliar to audiences, but Thompson said an advantage to GPTC scripts is that some Shelterbelt patrons “already know about them a little bit because they’re developed with Omaha actors and directors – that helps.”

Twenty plays are selected for GPTC from a blind draw of 1,000 submissions. Thus, local theaters have a rich list of finely curated works to draw from.

“These playwrights are going places,” UNO’s Phaneuf said. “You can be in the room with some of the best playwrights in the country and beyond and you can get to know those writers and their work. It’s wonderful to see them when they’re just ready to be discovered by a lot of people and to feel a part of what they’re doing.”

Whether plays are scouted by GPTC insiders or submitted by playwrights themselves, it means more quality options.

“It just opens up our gate as to what we consider local, and while we have amazing writers that are local, they’re not writing all the time, so it gives us a bigger pool to pick from,” Thompson said.

When theaters elect to produce the work of GPTC playwrights, a collaboration ensues. “They’re definitely involved,” Thompson said. The GPTC playwrights she’s produced at Shelterbelt all reside outside Nebraska.

“Their input is just as valuable as if they were living here and able to come to every rehearsal. We Face-time, Skype, text, email because they do have the opportunity to make some changes throughout the process.”

For Lawler, it’s about growing the theater culture.

“I love that our local theaters are being able to take different scripts from the conference and throw them into their seasons – many times giving a premiere for the play. A lot of productions and relationships are born at the conference.”

Ellen Struve has been a beneficiary of both.

“GPTC has given me access to some of the greatest playwrights alive. It’s a community. Local, national and international. It has invigorated the Omaha writing scene. Every year we get to see what’s possible and imagine what we’ll do next.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com.

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

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

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

NOTE: THIS IS A 2017 STORY

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What made it a must-see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

Cathy Kurz and her Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A quarter century since Cathy Kurz was told, “No one wants to see this stuff,”‘ her Brigit Saint Brigit (BSB) Theatre company still draws paying audiences to productions of the classical canon.

Works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov, Ibsen, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Stoppard and other playwright legends grace its stage. Since leaving College of Saint Mary eight years ago, the theater’s moved around and now alternates its site-specific work between Joslyn Castle, First Central Congregational Church and other venues.

This 25th anniversary season concludes with Uncle Vanya, April 5-20, at the Castle and The Shakespeare Revue, May 3-24, at First Central, on select dates. All shows are 7:30 p.m.

Low overhead helps keep expenses down, but what’s truly made BSB sustainable without a fixed home is an unwavering commitment to mission.

“Going to rehearsals and working with actors and reading all these plays and thinking about them – that work is everything. That produces the endorphins that make everything else happen,” said Kurz, BSB artistic director and co-founder. “I know the medium, I know the story, and when I read it, I can imagine the story in the medium, and that makes all the difference.”

It helps she’s yoked to a fellow believer in her husband, Scott Kurz, BSB managing director and frequent actor.

Her own fascination began in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. First, watching television productions, then film adaptations and, finally, live theater.

“I just remember being gob-smacked. I would still be sitting there when they were sweeping up. I was entranced by the smell of the greasepaint, the whole thing, I knew nothing about how it worked. I just knew I liked being there.”

The theater became her home through studies at Friends University (Wichita) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Trying to translate these plays to the stage and working with actors to find the extra dimension that occurs in the theater has been the greatest love of my life. I’ve had so many incredible learning experiences.”

She feels classic theater can touch all of us deeply.

“Story is the oldest form in the world. Humans love to be told stories, The reason why these scripts have lasted is they’re so good. People don’t get an opportunity to see them. When they do, they realize today’s dramas pale in comparison, and then you combine that with the fact it’s live, it’s right there, and it’s really spellbinding. “There is no spectacle that even remotely can do what theater does. It’s that visceral encounter with talented live actors working right in front of you in a play that’s well-paced and interpreted. There’s just nothing like it. It’s spectacle. You can’t pause it, you can’t start eating and drinking or get distracted. It’s right there and it amazes people.”

When she moved to Omaha in 1980, the Norton Theatre was the city’s only regular classics showcase, Kurz directed several seasons there. When it closed, she felt adrift. Stage manager Cathy Murphy-Barron and actor John Jackson agreed they should stop simply lamenting its loss and, thus, they formed the nonprofit BSB.

“I didn’t know if people would come. I was discouraged from doing it by others,”  Kurz said.

She persisted anyway, buoyed by her fellow travelers.

“If, as a director, you have talented, disciplined, dedicated actors and you can match them, then you’re going to do it. I’ve never believed you have to have a fancy backdrop or electronics or big screens. That’s not how we are. If you believe in the power of theater and this material, you’re going to do it wherever you can.”

BSB found an instant following and developed a company of players.

But, she acknowledged, if the Norton hadn’t closed, “i don’t know if I would have started the theater.”

BSB produced its earliest shows at Joslyn Art Museum, then Bellevue University, before taking residence at College of Saint Mary in 1997. BSB stayed 11 years.

“College of Saint Mary was just pivotal. They were so supportive of us. We had storage space, dressing rooms, offices. We rehearsed and constructed sets there. People liked the location. We really did build a lot of audience over that time.”

But when CSM experienced an enrollment boom, it reclaimed the space.

“We were really sorry to leave.”

That was 2008. Then came a twinning experiment with the Blue Barn, followed by a stint in the Capitol District before settling at the Castle and First Central. One-offs happened at Mastercraft and 40th Street Theatre.

The Castle’s 19th century architectural splendor lends itself to period pieces without having to build sets and First Central’s flex space allows great freedom.

Kurz wasn’t sure audiences would follow BSB from venue to venue, but they have. Now she wants the uninitiated to know that instead of treating Chekov’s Uncle Vanya as some dry academic-historical exercise to sit reverently through, it’s okay to laugh.

“It’s not dour. There’s a lot of humor. It’s just life.”

The greatest affirmation she receives is seeing patrons after a show “affected” the same way she was when first captivated by theater.

“There isn’t a greater gift.”

She’s grateful a new generation of theater lovers is being cultivated by BSB public after-school programs conducted by actress-educator Patty Driscoll.

By Kurz remaining true to her vision, BSB remains vital.

“This 25 years has has a lot of ups and downs, tension, drama and worry. The thing that’s kept it going is the belief in it and the love for it.”

Visit http://www.bsbtheatre.com. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society
 

South Omaha takes center stage

May 5, 2017 1 comment

What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Image result for south omaha 24th street

 

South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com)

 

South.

When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.

 

 

 

Image result for michael john garces
Michael John Garces

 

 

Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

http://www.gptcplays.com/.

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