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Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

February 28, 2013 3 comments

An Omaha asset know far and wide outside the city and the state of Nebraska is the Omaha Community Playhouse.  With the possible exception of the Joslyn Art Museum, it owns the richest history of any Omaha arts and cultural organization.  I mean, we’re talking serious pedigree here.  So it’s no small thing to hold a ranking position on the artistic staff there.  That a former husband and wife hold the artistic director and associate artistic director posts there and have done so for many years intrigued me and the result of my curiosity is the following story soon to appear in the New Horizons newspaper.   Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins have been making theater together for decades and they’ve gone right on working at the Playhouse even after their divorce.  They’ve made this unusual situation work and after the 2013-2014 season they will finally be going their separate ways, but there’s a lot of theater ahead of them yet.  If you’re a theater fan then check out my many theater stories on this blog, including a history piece on the Omaha Community Playhouse and features related to the Brigit St. Brigit, Blue Barn, John Beasley and other theaters.  You’ll also find quite a bit about the Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

A shared passion for theater has kept Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck joined at the hip despite countless moves and significant life changes.

If they were a production, Collins-Beck would be a sensation for their show-must-go-on endurance. A year-and-a-half from now their decades-long run as a dedicated theater team – he’s artistic director and she’s associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse – will end when they retire from those positions and they finally go their separate ways.

Their love story is not just with dramatics. Back in the early 1970s they fell head over heels for each other while working in the theater – they were even introduced on stage. They began living together, traveling far and wide pursuing their dream, including two stays in New York City, where they made audition rounds trying to break in on Broadway. There and at other stops they worked regular jobs to support their stage aspirations. With nothing tying them down, these theater vagabonds went wherever the work took them.

Beck recalls, “We were exceptionally lucky along the way. We had connections that kept taking us to a different step. We remained very open. We were constantly moving, sometimes three or four times in a year, to different cities. So everything had to fit in a Volkswagen Beetle. You lived a very strange life but it was always interesting.”

They’ve performed in every conceivable situation, from grand venues to under a leaking circus tent in a driving rainstorm to a cattle auction barn to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where one group of inmates was on their best behavior while another group heckled the performers the entire time.

Dinner theaters became their mainstay.

“One of our trips took us to Atlanta where we were in a fantastic theater that did nothing but big musicals – Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof,” says Collins.

That Southern metropolis became home when Turner Broadcasting hired them to work in front of and behind the camera for its WTBS superstation.

On far right are Carl Beck and Susan Baet Collins, ©netnebraska.org

“Maybe the biggest departure was an opportunity for us to write and perform on a children’s television show for Turner Broadcasting called Superstation Funtime. I was on the show and Carl was a writer,” says Collins. “We worked for three years, in and out of production of this show and in other positions at the network.”

TV was a decided change of pace for the theater artists.

“There wasn’t the same degree of comfort, of knowledge, of want to work in television as there was in theater,” says Beck. “I just always felt I would be scrambling to catch up in television, but my roots, my base is more theater-driven, and that’s what we would both prefer to be doing.”

Ironically, Collins has gone on to do extensive work as a voice talent for  network TV children’s shows (Street Sharks, Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Liberty’s Kids, Horseland, Strawberry Shortcake, Dino Squad). She also does narration for commercials, documentaries and corporate videos.

Perhaps the couple’s most memorable performance came for British royalty.

“We wrote and performed a live show for the Prince of Wales at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,” Beck explains.”Prince Charles came there as part of a U.S. tour. We had just opened a comedy improv group there with other Nebraskans and were kind of a new topic.”

Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the royal. “I ended up as the master of ceremonies,” Beck says. “Gladys Knight and the Pips were the big entertainment.” Collins appeared in a sketch quizzing Charles on his knowledge of Southern slang. She got to meet him backstage and was charmed by his droll flattery.

Theater is the couple’s life. Upon marrying in 1977 they followed, in their own humble way, the tradition of more famous husband and wife stage teams such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

The couple have a son together, Ben Beck, who is a playwright and actor in Omaha. Though Collins and Beck divorced in 1996, they’ve remained friends and colleagues, managing to amicably, successfully work side by side at the Playhouse. Their parallel careers long ago brought them there. Beck came first. When Superstation Funtime was cancelled he “jobbed in” to direct for the Playhouse’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.

“Then we got the call that (then-executive director) Charles Jones was looking for an associate director to help him because the Playhouse then was undergoing a large expansion, so we moved up there with a 6-month old baby and I became associate director,” says Beck. “That was 1983.”

When Jones suffered a stroke in ’96 Beck became artistic director and Collins associate artistic director. They’ve remained in those positions ever since.

“We feel absolutely incredibly lucky to have stumbled into the positions that we have that allow us to live a very pleasant, normal life in a community like Omaha being able to make our living doing something we both feel very passionate about,” says Beck.

Between them, they helm most of the theater’s mainstage shows, particularly the big musicals that are the theater’s stock-in-trade moneymakers.

Their professional alliance has endured dating, marriage and divorce. “We’ve been joined at the hip professionally most of our lives. It’s kind of unusual,” says Collins. When their wedded bliss was no more they looked past their differences to focus on what was best for their son and their career. “It couldn’t work any other way,” she says. “We celebrate holidays together, we’ve taken trips together.”

She’s been married 13 years to an attorney from Norfolk, Neb., Dennis Collins, who performs at the Playhouse and has been directed by her ex.

“It’s an odd little family, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Susan says.

Having lived and worked together so long, the pair connect deeply.

“It’s definitely a relationship you cultivate, especially after a divorce,” says Beck. “You realize the important things. We certainly don’t want to make anyone we work with or are friends with choose sides. Our single greatest focus was to continue to raise our son and both be very much a part of his life. No one was going anywhere.”

Because they’ve shared a life together, the two artists enjoy a bond that goes well beyond what most associates share.

“We obviously do know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have grown very comfortable over a period of time with being able to support or cover one another or when one’s fired come to the rescue,” says Beck.

They had each others’ backs in 2009 when Beck was asked to resign by Playhouse president Tim Schmad in the midst of a budget crisis and Collins promptly resigned to show her support for her ex. That riff with management was resolved when Playhouse supporters expressed indignation at Beck’s dismissal and Schmad had a change of heart. The artists patched up their differences with administrators and Beck and Collins resumed their posts.

The pair perform similar but separate roles at the Playhouse, where they form a conspiracy of hearts and minds that is all about mutual support.

“We rarely work on the same project together,” says Collins, “What we do is kind of go to bat together in front of the board or executive committee for what we think is necessary to maintain or add to our productions here.”

Just as the couple found enough common ground after their divorce to remain friends and colleagues they found a path to come back to the Playhouse after  that celebrated flap with their bosses. Healing the wounds from that severing was crucial if the Playhouse were to thrive.

“It was a very intense period for absolutely everyone,” recalls Beck. “Those of us that were most affected by it came to realize this was very detrimental to the Playhouse and hurting the institution and that, differences aside, we all very much loved this organization. And for that reason we sat down and started coming to terms with one another because the institution was much greater than the individuals involved and the incident that happened.”

Collins says, “Everybody came bearing an olive branch all at the same time.”

Still, there was an awkward feeling-out period.

“Everyone had to find their way after that point and very carefully move forward because you were trying to absorb different people’s attitudes and what had taken place,” says Beck. “It was a gradual process.”

A direct benefit from all of that was that the division that previously existed between the art and business sides of the Playhouse was eliminated. Instead of operating independently as they did before, with little discussion or appreciation of what the other did, the two sides began communicating.

When the couple first joined the Playhouse the artistic and financial decisions were made by one person, Charles Jones. Eventually, those duties were divided among different people. It just made sense.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more collaborative decision making that happens then when we first came,” says Collins. “At the time artistic and financial decisions were pretty much managed by the same person. A lot of theaters operated in that way until they started splitting the responsibilities.”

But over time the two camps became isolated and mistrustful, all of which contributed to the 2009 fall-out.

Collins says, “When we first came back from that Tim (Schmad) and Carl and I would have at least weekly meetings, which is something we’d never done. We reported to each other a lot and you could watch both parties start to see what life was like for an arts administrator in the middle of a big recession.”

She says where before she and Beck never gave much thought to money matters they now routinely ask themselves, “How do we help justify the budget?” She adds, “And now he (Schmad) sees what is really necessary for all this programming to take place. It’s admirable to watch because before we were seeing the other side as the enemy. Before the ‘dust up’ I never went to a financial committee meeting or a board meeting. I go to everything now. It helps you see what we’re facing.”

Part of what the Playhouse faces is a changed environment in which it is no longer the only show in town.

“When we first came if you wanted to see a big musical in Omaha you went to the Playhouse,” says Collins. “Now you can see a first national touring production of Memphis or see The Lion King sit down here for six weeks. That never happened before. There are more theaters now, too.”

She frets that what makes the Playhouse special is lost on some.

“There are people I worry who don’t see the value in nurturing this part of the art form with theater as an avocation. I want to keep in everybody’s brain how important this centrally located community theater is to the nurturing of new talent and new audiences.”

The theater is having to adapt to stay relevant.

“Audiences are changing,” says Beck. “The old rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. People don’t buy season memberships the way they used to.

There are so many more options for their arts dollars today. So we’re becoming less membership oriented and more reliant on single ticket sales.”

To better appeal to different audiences the Playhouse now promotes a slate of traditional and nontraditional offerings.

He says, “We’ve rebranded our theater as having two very separate spaces. We call it, ‘Find Your Stage.’ We have a more traditional mainstage theater and an edgier, more contemporary theater, the Drew.”

Collins says a big challenge is getting capacity seating up in the mainstage.

A Christmas Carol

Theater’s been the glue that’s kept the couple together and so it shouldn’t be a surprise the two met as actors with the Nebraska Repertory Theater in Lincoln. She’d moved with her family to Lincoln after growing up in Detroit, Mich. and other places. She was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater major. He gravitated there from his hometown of Shreveport, La. by way of theater studies at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa.

After stints with dinner theaters and rep companies around the nation and that three-year hiatus in TV, they ended up back in Neb. and here is where they’ve stayed. Collins and Beck have faithfully continued the Playhouse’s rich tradition that extends back to its 1924 founding and that includes notable alums Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire and state of the art facilities.

The Playhouse has become their theater home.

Each feels they’re exactly where they’re meant to be but after giving so much for so long they’ve also put in motion their leaving the Playhouse at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Their rationale for parting ways is simply wanting to move on to do other things. Then there’s the fatigue factor of time and energy spent mounting shows. Announcing their resignations so far in advance has as much to do with their love for the institution and giving it time to find the right replacements as it does leaving on their own terms. After all, they’re in good health and they don’t want to wait and be forced out due to illness.

They make no bones about what a special place the Playhouse is and the special place it holds in their lives.

“It’s a long history,” says Beck. “We came as actors. We then grew into what we became. We had a deep strong appreciation for its strengths and an understanding of its weaknesses. Moving into management and directing positions we were able to maintain the strengths we always appreciated and went to work on things we felt we could improve. It’s been embraced by the Omaha community for 89 years and when you work here as we have you become entrenched in the history of the organization.”

On the other hand, he says, “we’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been living in a rehearsal hall a long time. You reach a point where you realize new blood is a very positive thing and a transition for the Playhouse is a growth.”

Collins says, We’ve seen a lot of people go out of here on walkers or in ambulances. We didn’t want to be those people who say with a last gasp, ‘I have one more show in me…’ Because as much as this is what we love to do rarely do you have a day away from the Playhouse, You’re here days in the office but then you’re back from 6 to 10 o’clock in rehearsal. Weekends, forget it. It kind of runs your time.”

In an unusual move, they announced their impending departure in August 2012, a full two years before their resignations take effect.

“We were having discussions about it probably two-and-a-half years ago and we both came to the conclusion we were both ready to do it and doing it at the same time made a lot of sense,” Beck says.

Besides, he adds, it’s time to do something else and to structure your life in a different way. We’re both wide open. I have a lot of family in the South and in all likelihood I will relocate and spend more time around a beach.”

Collins, meanwhile, intends staying in Omaha, where she’s planted deep roots as an actress, director, playwright and voice talent.

“I probably won’t leave Omaha and I will be a part of the theater community but it’ll be more my timetable and I’ll pick my projects. Carl and I in these positions take on the most potential income-producing projects of the season, which means we do the big musicals with the mega casts. Back when I first came here I was more like our resident director Amy Lane where I would get to do the funky quirky little plays in the small theater that we know aren’t going to make money. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play with some great piece of writing in a small room with seven or eight actors.

“I would like to do that and I would like to do a little more performing.”

She’d also like to write more. She and her late partner, composer Jonathan Coles, wrote three widely performed musicals for young people.

 An inevitable consequence of announcing their retirement so early, she says, “is people are thinking we’re retiring tomorrow. We kind of get, ‘Are you still here?'” A big part of giving such long notice was affording the Playhouse ample time to find successors who are the right fit for unusual jobs at what is a singular institution. Once their replacements are found, Collins and Beck fully expect to help train or advise them in order to ease that transition.

“We know what’s involved. It’s just a very different thing, so you have to have knowledge of the place,” says Collins. “So we’re hoping whoever comes in can give us time before he or she just kicks right in with their first production.”

Not only are there multiple productions to mount each season there’s the great elephant in the room that must be constantly fed – the Playhouse’s annual mega production of A Christmas Carol. Besides its long mainstage run in Omaha, it’s performed by two companies of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in tours that take the show to the east and west coasts.

A Christmas Carol is a huge component of why we are able to sustain          ourselves. It’s both tour and resident production,” says Collins, “and it isn’t like you could come in tomorrow and just direct the show.”

“It’s a machine,” says Beck. “We rehearse three productions at the same time. You come in at 9 a.m. and you leave at 10 at night, juggling all three, and the intricacies of that.”

“It has a legacy. There’s an integrity about this production,” Collins says.

That production is the adaptation that the late Charles Jones gifted the theater with after his arrival there. Jones, a consummate Southern gentleman who oozed charm, was one of the most charismatic figures the couple has had the pleasure of knowing.

“Charles Jones had an amazing capacity to talk anybody into anything, be it corporate donors, be it actors, whomever. Charles was an impresario. Working for him, working around him was daily an education,” says Beck.

“There’s the kind of teacher who takes you down to nothing and then lets you try to stand up again and I was never able to respond to that very well,” says Collins, “but I have always thrived under someone who says, ‘I think you can do anything’ or ‘I think you can do more with than you know,’ and that was always Charles. When I first came here he gave me lots of encouragement as a performer and then came a day he decided I should start directing and I hadn’t directed anything outside a class. I’ll always be grateful to Charles.”

Education is a major aspect of what Collins and Beck do whether directing a show or conducting workshops and classes. By its nature, Beck says, community theater means working with casts filled with people who have dramatic training or stage experience as well as those who’ve never appeared in a play “and your job is to get them all to the same level.” He adds, “You’re constantly learning, constantly starting from square one with each project and each group of people. You’re dealt a different hand every time you go off.”

“In every cast I would love to have one very young, inexperienced, eager, talented high school student because they are so genuinely excited to be there and they become the heart and soul of an entire company,” he says. “You can bring a person along and nurture someone. I’ve had two this year.”

Similarly, Collins says “it’s the process” of creating theater she most enjoys.

“It’s going to that audition and your heart’s kind of in the pit of your throat because you’re not sure you’re going to find the people you’re looking for.” More often than not she does. “We get criticized for casting the same people but I challenge anybody to name a play where we haven’t introduced someone new to the stage.”

Discovering new talent is a side bonus.

“Julia McKenzie in All Night Strut is my latest, Oh-my-gosh, where-did-you- come-from? find. This young woman that none of us knew just showed up at our auditions and she’s proven to be a phenomenal dancer, with personality out her toes and she can sing, too. We have been nothing but thrilled with her since the day she walked in.

“There was a little girl we cast long ago in A Christmas Carol named Caroline Iliff. I knew her mother, who said, ‘Oh, my daughter’s auditioning for A Christmas Carol,’ and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, who isn’t it?’ And this little girl was darling and we put her in the company and over the years she became such a poised, amazing, capable young performer. She ended up playing Annie in the musical Annie. She went on to play my Wendy in Peter Pan and developed this impeccable British accent.

“Now she’s a grown-up person playing Belle in A Christmas Carol and off in Texas studying music theater and I feel, ‘That’s my baby.'”

Collins and Beck also enjoy immersing themselves in the world of a play.

“You do a play about Helen Keller or Ann Landers or the music of the 1930s and 40s and you learn a whole bunch of stuff. Each play is its own little being,” she says. “I want to steep myself with as much information as I can get about the subject matter. Then you try to see it in your head and then some actor comes along and maybe changes your mind or takes your suggestion and runs with it or takes it further than you imagined. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Beck says, “Every two to three months you’re faced with a new set of challenges and starting back at square one with casting, with putting a piece together, with finding your way. It doesn’t allow room for getting dull.”

He says mounting a community theater production is a balancing act.

“You make the rehearsal process as positive an experience as possible.

You don’t abuse. You realize these people get up the next morning and have to be at work, so you’re careful in how you use them.”

He says one reason why the Playhouse attracts top talent show after show is that it offers something no other theater in town can match.

“Cast are featured in a very professional setting with top notch costumes and sets and sound and orchestra and all of the trappings and so it’s a wonderful realization for a performer. It’s a remarkable facility.”

Collins and Beck are quick to add they don’t do it alone.

“There would be no way we could feel this pleased about the work we get to do if it wasn’t for the production team and the people we have the privilege of working with every day,” says Collins. “These people are under a lot of pressure and yet they will go the extra mile every time and they’re right there at your side.”

And they’re all under one roof – props, costumes, scenic design, sound, music.

“That’s a really fortuitous thing,” she said.

Almost as fortuitous as Collins and Beck enriching the Omaha theater scene for 30 years.

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

January 23, 2011 7 comments

NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins.  Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on.  This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash:  she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions.  But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show.  Sweet.

Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith.  She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York.  This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion.  It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas.  Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays.  My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.

 

Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins

 

 

Quiana Smith’s dream time takes her to regional, off-Broadway and Great White Way theater success

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.

Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.

Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.

It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim,  “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.

Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”

Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”

She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.

Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.

“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”

What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.

“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”

Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”

In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”

 

Q. Smith

Quiana Smith

 

 

To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.

“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”

Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”

A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”

 

High Res Can't get enough of Q. Smith. Photo by David Wells.

Quiana Smith, ©photo by David Wells

 

Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”

Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.

She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”

Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.

 

 

 

New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”

Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”

For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”

She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”

 

 

Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor

While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”

Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.

Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.

Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.

That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.

The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”

Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

 

 

Harry Duncan

 

 

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

    Image result for nancy duncan story

 

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith


Inside Edward Hopper's Nighthawks

Image by mistress_f via Flickr

Omaha playwright Doug Marr first made a name for himself when he and some drama cohorts created Diner Theater, the blue collar, workingman’s version of dinner theater. It was an offshoot of the Circle Theatre he helped found. The concept of Diner Theater was just quirky and fun enough and Marr’s plays more than entertaining enough to develop a loyal following. Diner Theater is no more, but Doug’s gone on to write, produce and direct many more plays for many more venues. His wife Laura, a fine actress, has appeared in many of his works. The fact that Doug’s made a living at his art in his hometown speaks to his persistence, talent and imagination. I loved going to his Diner Theater plays in Benson, just a short drive from my then-home, and I somehow always knew I would write about him. I finally did and this profile is the result. It appeared in a short-lived paper called the Omaha Weekly. At the time I did this piece Doug’s Circe Theatre operated out of a church basement in mid-town. Today, it shares space with First United Methodist Church and Urban Abbey.

 

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and keeping the faith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

“One reason why I’m not intrigued by a lot of theater and literature being written today is because the dreams die too early on the page. The writing today is faithless, hopeless and destitute of any soul, and I can’t live in that world. I can’t.”

The words and sentiments belong to Omaha writer Doug Marr, whose life and work have put him on intimate terms with keeping the faith despite steep odds.

His best known creation, Diner Theater, encompasses a body of funny and poignant plays about a gallery of misfits who find surrogate homes in greasy spoon denizens of our collective imaginations. In 1983 Marr was the lone writer among a bunch of dramatic arts acolytes from the University of Nebraska at Omaha longing to bring theater “to the people.” Led by their guru, UNO dramatic arts professor Doug Paterson, the idealistic group planted the seed for what became the Circle Theater company at the wedding reception of Doug and his wife Laura, who had fallen head-over-heels for each other during a UNO production of Marat/Sade, a drama of lunatic asylum inmates enacting a play.

Crazy is what some called Marr when, desperate for a performing space, he and his cohorts settled on Joe & Judy’s Cafe, a real working diner smack dab in the heart of the Benson business district. Inspired is what they called him after he penned the first in a series of plays set in Phil’s, a place where life lessons are dished-up along with the blue plate special. The play launched the Circle in 1984. From the start, a genuine diner meal preceded each show, and thus was born Diner Theater, a charming and inspired concept that attracted a fiercely loyal following among new and veteran theatergoers alike.

More Phil’s plays followed, along with others set in assorted bars, cafes and road houses. Marr, who spent his share of time in working-class dives like the ones he wrote about, found a winning formula with his diner counter dramas, really morality plays infused with his loony humor, heartfelt sentimentality, deep social consciousness and abiding faith.

Back to the Future
Today, with all but the Marrs departed from the Circle, Doug and Laura have gone back to the future by relocating the theater from its diner home the past 17 years to Central Presbyterian Church, 55th and Leavenworth Streets, an unlikely venue until you learn the couple are active members (Doug teaches Sunday School) and the associate pastor, Dwight Williams, is a veteran Circle performer. Instead of Chapel Theater, though, the couple opted to resurrect the Circle name. Why move from the spot where the magic first happened? “It just didn’t feel right there anymore — creatively, spiritually, emotionally. We were ready for a change. We needed to be in a new place. To have a rebirth,” Marr, 47, said from the mid-town brick home he, Laura and their two young children, Dylan and Emma, share.

 

 

 

 

Publicity still from his play Starkweather

 

It may surprise some to learn Marr, that wild and crazy theater guy, is a devout Christian but then again he is all about defying expectations. For example, while best know for the Diner Theater cycle, his wide-ranging work includes the acclaimed stage drama Starkweather, whimsical stage adaptations of Mother Goose and Curious George, an historically-based Civil War dramatic feature film scriptBall Hill (which has been optioned) and a pair of mystery novels he’s now writing. He’s done a fair amount of directing for the stage. He’s encouraged new theater talent through a playwrighting competition. There is also his outreach work with special needs groups, school residencies and a new for-profit venture, Dramatic Results.

Life Lessons
A Cheyenne, Wyo. native, he grew up in a middle class family (his father was a high school music teacher and a professional jazz player and his mother worked office jobs) and at age 12 moved with his folks to Omaha. It was at Ralston High School where the avid reader, weaned on the rebellious ‘60s literature of Kerouac, Vonnegut and Heller, first dabbled in writing.

“I had always been in love with the written word. Literature spoke to me on a really deep level. I just liked what writers were telling me and the fact you could take away from literature whatever you wanted,” he said.

He wrote a well-received one-act play as a failing undergrad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When UNL officials urged him not to return in 1971, he dropped-out. His plan was to earn some money before giving college another try. He went to work for Wilson Meatpacking Co., where he got a gritty education no college could provide. His first job, on the night cleanup crew, found him “catching blood” in the blood pit. After a shackled cow was stunned and its throat slit, it was his task to prop a bucket under the thrashing animal’s head to catch the fountain of blood spurting out. By morning, he stood knee deep amid a river of red.  Later, he was “promoted” to cleaning the chitlin machine and its tub full of intestinal worms from butchered hogs. “It was very surreal and very nightmarish at times,” he said of his three-year Wilson ordeal. It was there too he was indoctrinated to union machinations. “I was a young guy brought up with a strong work ethic but there, if you worked too hard, people pulled you aside and threatened you to slow down. So, I basically worked four hours and sat around the other four reading and hiding from the foreman.”

At the end of his shift Marr obeyed tradition by unwinding at South O watering holes, usually Mel’s or the Pork Chop Bar. The idea was to get numb. “The Pork Chop was a scary establishment. It was built sometime around the turn of the century and that was the last time it was cleaned too,” he said. “I remember the day they condemned the moose head over the bar. It was like the place the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life describes, ‘We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.’ That was it. You didn’t take your wife or date there. It’s where I had my first experience getting drunk at six in the morning, which was odd. Mel’s was a little nicer.”

It was at these joints Marr was exposed to some of the dreamers, schemers, drifters, losers, lushes and flophouse philosophers who would populate his fiction.

“Some of these guys, when they died, left behind stacks of uncashed checks in their little roominghouses because basically they lived to work and drink,” he said.

In his plays he purposely evokes a more romantic, less dreary image of those blue collar haunts. His lost souls seek not just oblivion but redemption. And, in the person of Phil, unlike real-life bartenders, they find a friend, a confessor, a soulmate. Long before Cheers, Marr portrayed a place where hope springs eternal for patrons and barkeeps who form an extended family. Phil is the head of that family, dysfunctional as it is. “Phil’s a guy who had dreams of having more. Of having a fuller life through material wealth. But what he ends up finding out, as do the people in his diner, is that they have real wealth in their connection to one another. In their friendship and love. They support their dreams even though they realize their dreams are maybe never going to come to fruition,” Marr said.

The allegorical stories have resonated for many. “Doug writes about the common man in a common language. You see a real caring for his fellow man in his plays and he does it with humor and insight” said Nebraska Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Mike Markey, a Circle co-founder and the originator of the character Phil.

Marr’s humanist bordering-on Honeymooners style is evident in this exchange between the whimsical Phil and the pragmatic Rudy regarding the joint’s dreamer of a dish washer, Daryl, from Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner:

Phil:
“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of those comic books in
time.”
Rudy
“He’s 28 years old for God’s sake. His phases should have
been over with a long time ago. He’s going to turn into a
comic book character.”
Phil
“He’ll see the world as it really is soon enough, my friend.
Let him have his odd fantasy or two. Let him escape for
awhile. It never hurt nobody.”
Rudy
Escaping never earned anybody a living. It won’t bring home
the bacon.
Phil
Well, he has a little while before he needs to start worrying
about that.

Archetypes — from wisecracking waitresses to gruff old codgers to homeless vets to beleaguered laborers — abound in Marr’s work. “It’s a real skill to create a true, honest character that is a unique personality as an individual but that also represents a broad range of social type. Doug is really good at that,” said UNO’s Paterson, a Circle co-founder.

Marr acknowledges his work bears the influence of writers who plumbed the depths and eternal hopes of fringe dwellers. The clearest reverberation is with Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and its saloon-full of wash-outs awaiting a deliverance that may never come. The same types abound in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, two of Marr’s favorite reads. “Even though they’re dreamers, the guys still have hope and faith. And that’s why these beautiful tragedies are so compelling and touching,” Marr said.

Marr’s grasp of life-on-the-brink despair and coming-out-of-the-dark hope comes from personal experience. After undergoing a risky operation for the removal of a tumor from his spine at a Denver hospital in 1975, he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He was 22. Confined to a wheelchair at first, he worked hard to make himself mobile again and, with the aid of crutches and leg braces, he has since gotten around with surprising facility. Ask him how his disability has impacted him and he’s apt to deflect the question by quipping, “What disability?” or “Nobody wants me to be on their bowling team” or “I get better parking.” After some prodding, he replies, “I think it’s helped me see the world in a truer light, as it really is, with all of its afflictions.” And with all its dreams, he might have added.

“Given what he’s had to deal with in losing the use of his legs, his ability to renegotiate his life in a way that is entirely creative is just extraordinary. Doug can be grim in his work, but he is such a fun and hopeful person,” Paterson said.

The Artist’s Path
After reordering his life Marr gave college a second try at UNO in the mid-70s. He enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop, where he fancied himself more a poet (he got his poetry degree in 1979) than a dramatist. “I was kind of taking the easy way out. I didn’t want to write novels or plays. I thought they were these impossible tasks. I really didn’t start writing plays again until we formed the Circle Theater in 1983, when the other members said, ‘Well, you’re the writer — write us some plays.’ So, I started writing, and I found it wasn’t so impossible. It was very fun. And in writing dialogue between characters I found my voice. It felt right.”

The voice he hit upon is nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, happier time but, in spite of deep lament, an ultimately sanguine expression of the Capraesque kind that views all people, even the discontented, as members of a larger community. Marr, who views theater as a healing process, believes his characters represent the void many people feel today. “I think sometimes people fight for things they don’t have instead of being satisfied with what they do have — human touch, conversation, interaction. They’re part of the integral pattern of the world but they don’t recognize it.” In Back at the Blue Dolphin Saloon an alienated young man cannot face the real demon haunting him. When the man finally breaks down, his sister and saloon friends are there for him.

UNO’s Paterson speculates these very themes are what struck a deep chord with Diner Theater audiences. “My theory is the Diner Theater space was an alternative community for folks hard hit by the recession then. And just like Phil’s provided a family for these alienated characters, I think the audience bought into a feeling of being part of this extended family that found meaning in being together. There’s something about sitting down and eating a meal together that’s a hopeful act, and so I think it was a great metaphor. And I think to this day the whole notion of the Diner Theater remains one of the really fresh inventions in the American theater,” said Paterson, a veteran Diner actor-director.

In Paterson’s view, Marr’s plots also “inventively broke the bounds of where theater is taking place.” In one play, a radio announcer is broadcasting a live on-air talent show from Phil’s when a fire erupts down the block and the announcer, corded mike in hand, rushes out to the street to report on the inferno as real passersby rubberneck to see what the commotion is all about. “That was great fun and it displayed Doug’s really wonderful dramatic imagination,” he said.

For Marr, the whole diner theater experience was “profoundly interesting.” He added, “Early on, when it was a real diner and there were no theater trappings, people got really caught up in it because they were almost like patrons in a cafe watching a real drama unfold. They were an integral part of it. The audience is very important in the collaborative process of theater but even more so when they’re two feet away from what’s going on. It was really unique.”

 

 

 

 

The plays became a phenomenon here and even in steely New York, where productions were mounted at eateries like the Third Street Grill, the Silver Dollar Cafe and the Hudson Diner. Others were produced in California. The rest is history.

Those early years Marr was a writing machine, penning five or six original plays per season. He was often working on the second half of a play while the first half was in rehearsal. Laura, a distinguished local actress and a member of the professional staff at the Omaha Theater for Young People, starred in most of the early plays. The Marrs soon became Nebraska’s leading theatrical couple. Eventually, even their kids got in on the act — appearing in several plays. While the Circle produced many works outside the Phil’s Diner series, it officially changed names — to the Diner Theater — to make capital of its market niche. And so it remained through a change in ownership, as Joe & Judy’s morphed into Vidlak’s Cafe before the diner finally ceased operations and the theater simply rented space in the building.

Along the way, the founding Circle/Diner gang left to pursue other opportunities. Some, like Amy Kunz and Mike Markey, became leading lights on their own. Eventually, only Doug and Laura remained, as artistic director and executive director, respectively. It became their baby and burden. Ironically, the theater faced competition from a slew of new community theaters (the Blue Barn, the Brigit St. Brigit, the Shelterbelt) whose start was inspired in part by the success of the Circle. By the late-‘90s, with crowds thinning, funding sources eroding (United Arts Omaha’s demise hurt) and Marr’s creative juices flowing elsewhere, the couple sought a new home and mission for their theater. Enter Central Presbyterian Church. Well, actually, its basement.

In February the newly incarnated Circle Theater premiered its first offering at its new digs with 84 Charing Cross Road, co-starring Laura. They followed that play with a Deaf Theater Project production of Plaza Suite. The Circle’s next offering, You Can’t Take It With You, is set for a June 28 through July 15 run. True to its Diner Theater roots, a catered dinner precedes each show.

When invited to assist the Nebraska School for the Deaf with stage productions in the early-’90s Marr found the experience so satisfying he and Laura formed the Deaf Theater Project, which integrates deaf and hearing individuals in plays under the Circle banner. “The Deaf Theater Project literally brings two cultures together — hearing and deaf. We’ve run across many wonderfully talented deaf individuals who are actors and directors.”

The couple are also adherents of “creative dramatics,” a healing-through-arts concept they apply to physically and mentally ill patients, whom they interact with through dramatic skits. “We’ve experienced incredibly positive feedback working with hospital patients. I remember us visiting this one boy, age 8 or 9, who was hooked up to IVs. We were told by staff he might not be up to seeing anyone that day, but we went into his room and made finger puppets and told really silly jokes and he just had a great time. And while we were waiting in the hall to go to another room, this same boy was walking down the hall, rolling his IV-tree beside him, and his mom came up to me and said, ‘You’re the best thing that happened to him today.’ That makes you feel extraordinarily good.”

Asked if his own disability motivates him to work with special needs populations, he replied. “I don’t differentiate between ability and disability. I have not run across any person who was not able to do something. Why should people be excluded from the performing arts because of some cultural difference?” Added Laura, “Doug is great at working with people of different ages and abilities — many with little theater experience — and at making them feel comfortable. I think it’s really hard to do. We share a similar vision for what challenging theater should be, including giving voice and opportunity to people in theater who don’t usually have it.”

The Marrs are also believers in the educational benefits of theater and, with a partner, recently formed a company, Dramatic Results, that finds them applying dramatic techniques to workplace sensitivity-diversity-creativity training.

Even with multiple irons in the fire, Marr is unabashedly not success-driven. He said, “I realize writing is not the most important thing in my life. It’s certainly not as important as my family and my relationship with God.” Between raising kids, mounting plays, finding funding sources and doing volunteer projects, the Marrs are busier and happier than ever.

“We have different things that keep us sustained as artists. That’s what keeps us going. And it’s great fun doing it with someone you love dearly and have grown with over the years. It’s still interesting, It’s still fun. The magic is still there.”

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