Jo Ann McDowell’s Theater Passion Leads Her on the Adventure of Her Life: Friend, Confidante, Champion of Leading Playwrights, Directors, Actors and Organizer of Major Theater Festivals and Conferences
It’s late spring, and that means the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is nearly upon us. The annual playwriting festival is hosted by Metropolitan Community College, whose former president, Jo Ann McDowell launched the event. The mercurial McDowell is the focus of the following story I did for the New Horizons newspaper on the eve of the 2007 fest. She is the epitome of the subjects I gravitate to as a writer because she has followed her passion and magnificent obsession for theater to some amazing places and into the company of some amazing personalities. There’s no question that the week-long conference, which runs May 28-June 4 2011, is one of the artistic high marks each year in Nebraska. Some of theater’s best established and emerging talents descend on Omaha for the event, and as compelling as they and their work are, McDowell has a story in her own right and she is a formidable figure in her own way. Her life in theater, never on stage, but always as a facilitator and advocate, is one she wants to tell in book form, and I do hope does commit it to the page one day. I would be honored to be the storyteller.
Jo Ann McDowell
Jo Ann McDowell’s Theater Passion Leads Her on the Adventure of Her Life: Friend, Confidante, Champion of Leading Playwrights, Directors, Actors and Organizer of Major Theater Festivals and Conferences
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
If the mood strikes her, Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell need only glance out the north windows of her expansive office to look upon earth laden with history. McDowell, who became the school’s first female president when appointed in 2005, works out of a stately two-story, brick and stone, wood-trimmed, columned building on the historic Fort Omaha campus.
History permeates Metro’s 70-acre, maple tree-studded grounds in north Omaha. Her administrative suite is housed in one of several restored Victorian structures that date back to when Fort Omaha operated as a U.S. Army supply center in the late 19th century. Fort Omaha was abandoned in 1896 and reactivated in 1905 as the Signal Corps School before closing again in 1913. In 1916 it reopened as the American military’s first balloon school, training aerial observers who served in World War I. During World War II, Fort Omaha became the support installation for the Seventh Service Command and doubled as a work camp for Italian war prisoners. It later became a U.S. Navy and Marine personnel center.
Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus
Fort Omaha is perhaps most famous as the site where Ponca chief Standing Bear was imprisoned and stood trial in a landmark 1879 civil rights case that first established Native Americans as persons under the law. The residence of the fort’s then-commander, General George C. Crook, a Civil War and Indian Conflicts hero, is preserved on campus as a museum called the Crook House. Fort Omaha’s designation as a National Register District helps ensure its preservation.
The surrounding area is filled with history, too — from the Mormon camp grounds and cemetery to the birthplace of Malcolm X.
McDowell appreciates this rich past. “Fort Omaha is a jewel. The history of this fort is so breathtaking and wonderful. It has such beauty,” she said. She can’t help but be steeped in it as she resides in one of the Victorian homes on campus, a former officers quarters that is reputedly haunted. “I love that house,” she said. But she’s more interested in making new history, a process begun as soon as the Kansas native assumed Metro’s presidency. In her brief tenure she’s moved forward the school’s facilities and programs, including: expansion of its noted Institute of Culinary Arts; acquisition/renovation of old buildings and construction of new ones; development of the college’s first dorms; and creation of a theater arts degree.
Closest to her heart is her and her team’s organization-presentation of the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), now in its second year. The conference is modeled after similar events she was associated with in Independence, Kan. and Valdez, Alaska, where she previously headed up community colleges.
The changes at Metro coincide with a sharp increase in school enrollment, up 10 percent (in terms of head count) since her arrival. Its enrollment is now second only to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln among state higher ed schools. Metro has three Neb. campuses, four learning centers and 100-plus off-site locations.
From a second-story verandah her office opens onto, she can see the fort’s old parade ground spread out across a wide field that gently sweeps upward at its edges. During the theater conference a giant tent erected on the great lawn is home to programs/activities. Atop a hill on the west side set a row of tall Victorian dwellings, some converted to dorms, others used as guest houses for visiting artists and one serving as McDowell’s personal residence. “They’re like grand Victorian ladies,” she said. “All of them have been redone. They’re beautiful.”
For one week each spring the green spaces and vintage structures host some of the American theater’s finest writers and directors. Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Obie winners, led by conference artistic director Edward Albee, mix with emerging playwrights and the best from Omaha’s vibrant theater community, for play labs, workshops, panel discussions and performances. It’s a theater gathering and forum.
How apt that a site once rich with the pageantry and ceremony of the military should now accommodate the pomp and circumstance of higher education and serious stage craft.
She did much the same at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference (Valdez) and William Inge Theatre Festival (Independence). Her advocacy put her in close contact with established greats, including the late Arthur Miller and August Wilson, and rising young talents, some of whom, like Will Eno, have now made their mark.
Playwrights from 25 states and one foreign nation are expected in Omaha. Major media outlets, from the New York Times to National Public Radio, are slated to come. “We’ll have people from all over the country here,” McDowell said.
Twenty-five area theater companies are scheduled to participate in this year’s conference — doing readings, staged performances — which is why McDowell likes to describe it as “bringing together a community of theater. Theater is collaboration and partnering,” she said, but never before, she’s told, have so many local theaters joined forces to work cooperatively on such a large scale. “It’s about all of us joining together to celebrate the amazing magic that goes on in theater,” she said.
The 2007 Great Plains event runs May 26 through June 4. Most programs and activities are open to the general public. In addition to Metro, the conference unfolds at other venues, among them the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha Community Playhouse, Creighton University and Holland Performing Arts Center.
McDowell, who places great value on the arts, views the GPTC as a growth opportunity for all who attend.
“There are not enough events/places like this that nurture artists. We nurture playwrights, but we also nurture actors and directors and creative spirits. It’s an educational event. It’s all about educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright,” said McDowell, adding that whoever comes, whether theater professional or devotee, will be “learning.”
“There’s another outcome of this Edward [Albee] and I have spoken about — we’re growing audiences for theater,” McDowell said. “That’s one of our missions. What we do is teach people to be real theater enthusiasts. I believe we’re enhancing all the arts by enhancing an audience.”
Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jo Ann McDowell at the GPTC
She believes the arts touch something deep in us as human beings.
“Every time we go to the theater or to the opera or to an exhibit,” she said, “it’s a journey. It nurses our soul.”
She said she’s a perfect example of how the arts can help one blossom.
“My whole adult life I’ve been an educational administrator and that’s my career, but what has made me grow and watered my roots is the arts. I love the arts — all the arts. I love creativity. I think it’s made me a better administrator because…I think education has to be balanced. To be a well rounded person you have to have other interests. My passion is education, the arts and public service and those three things have always driven me. I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them.”
Her immersion in theater is so deep, whether attending a local show or a New York premiere or hosting a Whos-Who of artists, she calls her position at Metro “my day job. I do my job during the day and then the weekend I do this,” she said, meaning indulging her theater appetite. “It’s passion for me. It’s my down time. It’s missionary work. I’m preaching now, aren’t I?” she said in the emotive, effusive manner of a Tennessee Williamsesque Southern belle.
“I have five college degrees and none in the arts, but I think I’m an arts scholar. You know, it comes out of my love for the arts. I’ve spent a lot of time studying, going to the theater. I was on the state arts commission in Kansas and Alaska. But I have no talent in the arts. My only talent’s going out and trying to grow audiences for theater and to get benefactors to buy into this mission to make it available to people who really can’t afford it.”
When she gets on a roll, McDowell speaks rapidly. Dressed in a blue and white power suit, her light, reddish brown locks flowing to her shoulders, she is at once a take-charge executive and a cool culturist, equally at ease with the macro visioning, micro managing, board wrangling and personal glad handing that go with the territory. Brokering deals and building coalitions are old hat to McDowell, who began her professional career as a lobbyist and public relations expert.
Besides bringing the theater conference to Omaha, McDowell’s succeeded in adding a general theater major at the college, where a new performance space is under construction. She credits the positive response the conference has netted with helping her convince the Metro board that a school once identified with its technical-trade programs, should offer an associate theater degree. One day she envisions a two-plus-two program in cooperation with the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University. She sees Metro’s theater offerings as complements to those at UNO and Creighton.
“We’re getting to be an arts school,” she said. “We’re rooted in the trades, but we’re certainly a comprehensive school and I think theater and the arts are part of who we are.”
She envisions Metro as a year-round “artist colony” whose resources/facilities are made available to theater companies and community organizations. She’s already opened the Victorian homes on campus to visiting artists.
Her passion for theater and for the arts is a legacy she carries from a key teacher in her life who introduced her to the wonders of the imagination.
“I had a great teacher that taught me to love the theater. Her picture’s right up there…” said McDowell, gesturing to a framed photo of an elderly woman in a red suit, the late Margaret Goheen. It’s among dozens of images on the walls of McDowell’s office that capture her beside family, friends and theater legends.
Goheen was an English-speech instructor of McDowell’s at Independence (Kan.) Community College. “She loved the theater,” said McDowell, who fondly recalls attending New York excursions Goheen led. They were McDowell’s first glimpse of Broadway, Off-Broadway and the whole New York theater world. It was heady stuff for a girl who grew up on a dairy farm outside Cherryvale. Prior to college, McDowell’s interests revolved around 4-H. Her folks owned race horses and the family came to Omaha when the thoroughbreds ran at Ak-Sar-Ben.
The elder Goheen opened new possibilities for McDowell.
“She gave me an A in my first speech and she didn’t give As easily. She saw it in me,” McDowell said. “I think about Margaret. How we used to sell brownies forever to get to go to a play in Kansas City or Tulsa. I’ll never forget when she took me to New York for the first time. We’d stand in the back row” of a Broadway house “and afterwards she’d give me like a test. Who directed the play? Who did the sets? She would explain everything about the theater to me. She taught me to love theater.”
Years before, Goheen’s fire was sparked by the same instructor who taught famed playwright William Inge (Picnic, Splendor in the Grass), a native of Independence. Goheen later founded the William Inge Festival in the late playwright’s hometown. “She also saw in me that I could make things happen — I could organize,” McDowell said of her mentor. Thanks to Goheen, the first Broadway show McDowell saw was Inherit the Wind at the Palace Theatre. She later honored its playwright, Jerome Lawrence, at the Inge Festival. Goheen asked McDowell to help with the festival.
Goheen’s confidence was well justified as the Inge Fest proved a success. It also introduced McDowell to Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the preeminent American playwright with whom she founded the Last Frontier in Valdez. After a successful 12-year run in the far northwest, she and Albee now co-direct the Great Plains conference in Omaha.
McDowell feels none of it would have occurred without Goheen taking an interest in her. “She had the same theater teacher William Inge had,” McDowell said. “That torch — a torch for a love of theater — was passed to Margaret. Margaret passed that torch to me. I’m passing that torch on. She was great. I was shaped by her. She died…but she’s still very close to me. She’d be proud of her old student, I tell you, because I’ve taken that mission she was on” to new heights.
A Baby Boomer, McDowell found strong women role models in not only Goheen, but her grandmother Anna and aunt Wilma, both long-time educators, and her mother, Lucille, who ran the family farm in wartime. McDowell’s grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse for 38 years. The school is still in use today.
She admires the matriarchs she learned from. “We ‘60s women were the daughters of women who ran the country during the ‘40s,” she said. “Those women went to work. They ran factories, they ran farms, they ran their own homes. They had personal power for the first time. They made money.” When the war ended, she said, women grudgingly went back into the home. “They raised kids like me who were never told we couldn’t do something. I was never told by my parents, ‘You cannot do that because you’re a girl.’ In fact, if anything, I was encouraged.”
Family is the foundation for McDowell’s life. She married her childhood sweetheart while in college and moved to California. The union quickly dissolved, but not before her only child, Suzann, was born. Adrift, McDowell moved back home, where, she said, “I had my family. What a gift to have somebody always there to cheerlead you.” She resumed school and never looked back.
She raised her daughter alone while working, studying and starting her career. Her academic pursuits took her from Independence CC to Pittsburg State to Kansas State, earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate along the way.
“I was so disciplined,” she said.
McDowell, who’s never remarried, has four grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces. She likes having family close by. A grandson lives with her in Omaha. He attends UNO and accompanied her to New York for a theater vacation over Christmas. A granddaughter stayed with her over the summer. A third grandchild is considering Creighton University’s med school.
“I’m crazy about them,” she said of her grandkids. “I’m glad I’m able to help them.”
So tied is McDowell to the region that she still owns the homes she and her mother lived in down in Kansas. The farm she grew up on is still held by the family. Her fierce devotion to family and her warm, nurturing qualities may be why noted theater artists from disparate places feel drawn to her.
How else to explain a farm girl clicking with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee? She said, “What I think it is is he knows I’m committed. And he knows I’ve taken a lot of heat over doing a theater conference.” Swelling with pride, she said “ours is the only event he’s put his name on. One of the greatest honors of my life has been my relationship with Edward Albee. I’m invited to all his openings. His inner circle is very small. I mean, he’s the greatest living playwright. He’s brilliant, but what people don’t know…is he’s a great and loyal friend, and he cares so deeply.”
Being close to her childhood home is a big reason why McDowell left Alaska for Nebraska. Not long before she died, McDowell’s mother made a request — that Jody relocate to the Midwest. The good daughter fulfilled her mother’s death-bed wish when she opted to leave Valdez for Metro in Omaha.
“Mother was the glue. I miss her every moment,” McDowell said. “When she was dying she told me, ‘You’re going to be the oldest generation in our family. You need to come home…’ Well, I am a Midwesterner through and through. The reason I’ve been able to hit the ground running was this was no transition for me. This was coming home. Going to Alaska was a huge, huge transition, but this has been easy. I had never lived but a hundred miles from my mother until I moved to Alaska.”
When she was ready to leave Alaska, she said she told headhunters, “‘I want to get back to the Midwest. I want to go home. I need to go home. My family needs me.’”
Besides losing her mother, McDowell had lost her only sister, whose children had “become like my own kids.”
Omaha wasn’t McDowell’s first choice, but after researching the vital cultural-arts scene here and checking her gut, her coming here was never in question.
“When I started looking into Omaha I went, ‘Wow.’ When I came, everything wowed me. The Joslyn and the Holland…and all these theater companies, the galleries, the Old Market, two medical centers, two universities, the zoo, Lauritzen Gardens, the golf courses. There’s something for everyone here.”
Striking too was the generous philanthropic climate that supports the arts.
The mission she’s made theater in her life is not unlike the zeal she’s devoted to education and to women’s rights. She is, after all, a child of “that magic time of Kennedy and Camelot,” she said. “I’m one of those ‘60s children that wanted to go out and make a difference. I testified before Congress on women having equality and on women’s issues. When I started out women did not get equal pay for equal work…We didn’t have athletic scholarships. Those are things we really fought for. We were trying to get people to think differently about women’s roles.”
She wanted to be a lawyer as a young woman, but at the time, she said, “only three percent of the law school seats at KU (Kansas University) were taken up by women. I’ve lived through a lot of that — those wonderful changes and challenges. I was on the state (Kansas) board for the women’s political caucus. I taught women’s studies. I had my own little television show on women’s issues. I was also invited twice to the White House when Carter was there — once on the Salt II talks and once on the status of women. I was really active. You couldn’t be in that generation and want a career and not be involved.”
McDowell achieved pioneer status at her alma mater, Independence CC, when named president — making her one of the first women college presidents in the nation then. It was a radical thing, she said, “in a town where there were no women in any positions of power.” Her rise up the ranks was legendary — from dean to vice president to executive vice president to president in ’88. She was appointed by the governor to the Kansas Board of Regents, becoming the first community college rep on that august body. “That was a big deal for me,” she said.
She then went to work for Kansas governor Joan Finney, who put McDowell “over all education in the state, K through 12, community colleges and universities. I liked it, but I didn’t like being in government,” she said. ‘I was an educator.” In 1992 she left Kansas, for Alaska of all places, in part because she felt Kansas was too restrictive. “It was very conservative,” she said. And in part because a major corporate funder of the Inge Festival, ARCO, had moved to Alaska and was courting her to come there. “That’s why I ended up in Valdez. I was at Prince William Sound Community College for 13 years.”
The current discontent over the Iraq war and the disconnect between a hard line administration and a wary nation takes her back to her activist era. She said, “This war is reminding me of” Vietnam in “the ‘60s. I just see a lot of deja vu right now.” “Conservative southeastern Kansas” was “not exactly a hotbed” of activism,” she said, as her political and arts involvement ran against the tide there. She said the Inge Festival was considered by some locals “a little avant garde.”
She found a more accepting environment in Valdez, where she and Albee made the Last Frontier a major happening in American theater. “I loved my time there,” she said. So did her did mother, who went every summer as long her health allowed. “She caught a silver salmon that won the salmon derby.”
McDowell’s activism these days centers around the arts and education.
She’s proud to be part of a movement of people of “a certain age who are,” she said, “going to change retirement drastically. One of my board members asked, ‘How long do you plan to work?’ and I said, ‘As long as I’m able.’ As long as I’m healthy and I’m so inspired and I have passion for what I do. Burnout is a word our generation has a hard time understanding. I see people that are just doing amazing things. We’re a generation that wants to contribute.”
A play lab at the GPTC
Her lasting contribution to the Midwest may be the Great Plains conference. She hopes it “will put Omaha and Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way” — the same way the theater fests in Valdez and Independence have brought attention. She hopes to endow the conference, something she did with the Inge, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. A video salute honored her part in the festival. Seeing the video “was so emotional for me,” she said.
As the Great Plains conference and Metro theater program grow she envisions inviting prominent playwrights to be in residence there.
Private/public funding, including ARCO oil money, helped underwrite the Inge and Last Frontier. The same way she sold those — as engines for “economic development” that “fills hotels” — she’s selling the Great Plains. Last year she said she hoped “the conference will get people to change their image of us (Metro) and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy.” It’s already happened, as she’s lined up some of the area’s largest donors/organizations to support the event, including honorary chairs Fred Simon and Dick Holland, and sponsors Creighton University, Cox Communications and the Cooper Foundation. She plans to seek foundation grant funding to secure the event’s future.
She looks to leave her mark at Metro with the Great Plains. Ultimately she said the event is larger than any one institution: “The college could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “has reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, volunteers. “They’re very generous, arts people. It’s about all of us coming together,” she said. “Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community having a family reunion.”
Wherever McDowell’s gone, her arts passion has flowered. Her efforts have earned her much recognition. She was presented the Alaska Governor’s Arts for Distinguished Cultural Service Award in 2003. The Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell Theatre Scholarship is given annually to a University of Alaska, Anchorage student majoring in theater. Twice she’s been honored nationally by Phi Theta Kappa, including receipt of the sorority’s Michael Bennett Lifetime Achievement Award. Pitt State and KSU have accorded her their highest alumni awards.
Now back in the Midwest, McDowell’s not only come home, but her precious conference — a continuation of the Inge and Last Frontier — has found a home too. “I’ve been dragging this thing around with me for 26 years and this is where it’s staying,” she said. “I finally found a home. This conference deserves Omaha and Omaha deserves this conference, because it’s a marriage. It works.” Putting down roots for herself and the conference should ensure its place here. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade,” she said. “I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”
All of it — from the great artists she’s come to know to the magic moments in the theater she’s enjoyed to the young talent nurtured in the process — gives her joy.
“It’s been a gift in my life. As long as I’m breathing, I’m going to be doing this.”
For Great Plains Theatre Conference details, call 402-457-2618 or visit www.mccneb.edu/theatreconference.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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