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Noah Diaz making run for his dream at Yale School of Drama and theater companies nationwide

August 5, 2018 1 comment

Noah Diaz making run for his dream at Yale School of Drama and theater companies nationwide

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Noah Diaz proves there’s no prescribed way to follow your passion. In 2017, the Council Bluffs native and Omaha theater darling received a full ride scholarship to the prestigious Yale School of Drama without majoring or even minoring in theater as a UNO undergrad.

He’s already a rising star in Yale’s vaunted graduate playwrighting program after winning accolades for acting and directing here. Though he didn’t formally train locally, he said, “I’ve received so much second-hand training from the people I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve worked with a staggeringly high number of talented people on stage and off. I have mentors, big and small,” said Diaz, who’s been home over the summer.

“In many ways I was raised by my mentors from whom I received theatrical and life lessons.”

Feeling he already had theater covered, he studied special education and communication disorder and creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Meanwhile, his play The Motherhood Almanac opened theater doors for him here and outside Nebraska. The Sheltebelt staged it. He did a residency with it at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in Idaho. Two New York City theater companies workshopped it. Encouraged by fellow playwright Ellen Struve, he applied to name graduate theater programs. Like a feel-good turn in a play, the one school he assumed he had no real chance at accepted him into its illustrious ranks.

“I thought it was never really going to happen for me,” he said. “It was hard not to recognize what kind of capital ‘I’ institution Yale was and how impenetrable it appeared. But there actually seemed space for me there and then it was space I was heartily welcomed into.”

He learned of his acceptance on his mother’s birthday.

“We had already planned having a dinner that night with the extended family. My mom said. ‘The only gift I want is to share the news myself with everyone.'”

His first year in New Haven has been “astounding” and “profoundly rewarding.”

“It’s a really intense program. We don’t have many breaks. It functions as a conservatory. We are often in classes six days a week from 8 a.m. until about 2:30 p.m. and then we’re in rehearsals from 2:30 to 11 p.m. It’s similar to how medical students are in classes and then go on their hospital rotations.

“I’m busy every day. I’m very tired. My mind was prepared but my body wasn’t. It’s a matter of gritting yourself and barreling through. In so many ways it was the longest year of my life and yet the shortest. It requires such exertion of energy, not just creatively, mentally or emotionally but physically as well. I wrote five plays over the year, one of which went up to a workshop production in the spring, in addition to many others I started and abandoned.”

His apartment is close to the venerable campus, which he said “reminds me of Hogwarts in Harry Potter.”

As an arts and letters Ivy Leaguer, his life is consumed by studies, rehearsals, writing and craft analysis.

“I live alone which is smart because I do a lot of writing and I need a lot of quiet. A huge challenge for me personally in this program is generating work so quickly and so frequently. I’m learning themes that constantly keep reoccurring in my work, what that’s telling me about myself, why I’m interested in exploring these things and what dramatic structures I keep leaning on.

“I have a lot of conversations with my colleagues about knowing the difference between what is a playwright’s voice and what is a playwright’s schtick. The difference, at least for me, is honing my artistic voice and not simply relying on the same bag of tricks. I’m proud of this first year body of work because I’ve tried things –    somewhat reinventing myself or at least challenging myself in new ways. That’s intentional.”

The work doesn’t all just stay on the page either.

“This particular playwriting program is a little unusual in that we are offered a production each year.”

He’s written three new scripts over the summer.

“My second year production starts rehearsal the first day of classes or shortly thereafter, so I have to prepare options to present.”

There’s no shortage of stimulation.

“I’m working with incredible people in my cohort. They are so talented and smart. My faculty – Sarah Ruhl, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Amy Herzog, Robert O’hara, Jackie Sibblies Dreary, Young Jun Lee – are all luminaries still working in the field. It enriches my learning experience,”

With notable alums on stage and screen, the school is a recognized talent pool that industry producers, directors and agents scout. Diaz has already heard from some.

“I’ve been really fortunate that a lot of people have been reaching out. I’ve been taking meetings, I’ve been in touch with fantastic companies. This summer alone I’ll be at three different theater companies across the country developing my work.”

He was in Chicago for the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Carnaval of New Latinx Work in July. This month his Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally is part of the Two River Theater Latinx festival in Red Bank, New Jersey and a workshop at The Lark in New York City.

Diaz said the example of other Omaha playwrights has emboldened him to forge ahead with his own career.

“Our community of playwrights inspire me. Because of all the people who’ve come before me, it never really crossed my mind that I couldn’t. I saw people doing it and I just always kind of had that feeling, Oh, when it’s my time, I will do it, too.”

He’s excited that two more Omaha theater nerds, actresses Roni Shelley Perez and Bailey Carlson, recently made the big move to NYC.

“I hope that line continues.”

He’s not forgetting where it all started for him.

“I thank Omaha in so many ways for having prepared me and supported me. It’s really great to know they have my back. I plan to be back every summer for the Great Plains Theatre Conference.”

He was back for this year’s GPTC, where his star Yale prof, Sara Ruhl, was the honored playwright. He also had a reading of his You Will Get Sick at the Shelterbelt.

He wishes playwrights had more showcases here.

“There are not many places for playwrights to go and yet these playwrights continually write and persevere to tell the stories they need to tell. That tenacity and initiative to write in a town that isn’t always ready to hear the stories they do write is exciting to me.

“What I love about the playwrights in our community is that so often it’s not about accolades or attention but rather generating and creating pieces of art important to them. That’s something I try to do. I try to tap into whatever it is I personally need to tap into.”

One of his Yale plays, The Guadalupes, cuts closer to his life than anything he’s written. It explores questions he has about his own racial identity and his relationship with the Hispanic side of his family.

“It’s about my grandmother, my grandfather and my father and mother. It’s this deeply personal play about being both white and Hispanic and the irreconcilable differences between the two. It deeply affected me. It was well received, which was great.

“I think for any writer of any form the history that you carry will always seep into the work. But this one was directly about my family, so that was a first for me. I don’t know if l’ll be doing that again anytime soon, but I did get that one out of my system.”

As things continue moving fast for him, he takes comfort in the surety his Yale degree will mean something.

“We’re told that regardless of what you think your personal career trajectory will look like, you will be working in your chosen field. They’re not promising us Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prizes, but having gone to this university and through this program, I will be able to live and work and pay my bills as a writer.”

“That (prospect) is so fulfilling and rewarding to me.”

Follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/public/Noah-Diaz) and Twitter (twitter.com/diaz_noah).

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work atleoadambiga.com.

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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

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 1 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
 
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