Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: ”Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ’Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Encounter Magazine
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community
I’ve been writing about the Great Plains Theatre Conference since its start eight years ago and while I don’t get the chance to write at length about it and its guest artists the way I used to, I still manage an assignment like this one, which is an interview with producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. He’s been moving the event in some different directions that put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and that connect the conference more deeply with the community. My story appears in Omaha Magazine.
The 2013 Great Plains conference is May 25 through June 1. It’s a wide mix of readings, productions, and special events, all of it geared to celebrating plays and playwrights and the theater.
On this blog you can find the many other stories I’ve filed over the years about the conference and some of its guest artists, including interviews with Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, and Patricia Neal. In fact, you’ll find here many other theater pieces I’ve written over time. Enjoy.
Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine
Plays and playwrights remain “the heart” of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.
The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theater artists responding to the work in group and one-one-one feedback sessions.
“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theater community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.
“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now were able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”
Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.
“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that it’s moving them forward as theater artists.”
Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of and finding a playwriting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group and two of her own plays read at the conference have been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.
“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off.” says Lawler.
He adds that other local theaters also source plays and contacts at the conference.
“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.
“Theres a great exchange that happens.”
Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater expanding what theater might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.
Works by featured guests are performed, including a water rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon slated for the edge of the Missouri River.
The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art and food of those communities.
“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding’s being sought for year-round women’s programs.
Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.
Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has “allowed it to grow.” Actors, directors and technicians from the theater community help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.
For the conference schedule, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A playwright? (dramatwist.com)
- Brand new works by Washington state playwrights in festival at Burien Little Theatre (highlinetimes.com)
- Region sets scene for local playwrights (triblive.com)
- Chicago Writers’ Bloc to Showcase 13 New Plays at Next Theatre Co. in Evanston (chicagostagestandard.com)
- Playwrights-In-Residence and The Meaning Of Homegrown Theatre (undermainblog.wordpress.com)
- New works by Washington playwrights in festival at Burien Little Theatre (b-townblog.com)
- Local Playwright Gears Up for Big Theatre Event in Washington, DC (oldschool1053.com)
Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”
If your usual reaction to poetry is along the lines of “Ugh” or “No thanks” than be prepared to undergo a conversion when you attend a slam poetry event. It’s hard to imagine not being carried away by the sheer exuberance, courage, passion, and talent displayed at one of these celebrations of words and ideas. The Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival is a prime example of all this and more at work. My story about it in The Reader (www.thereader.com) is repurposed here. Check out the team finals this Friday, April 12 at Creighton University. The individual finals are April 21 at UNL. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll find yourself getting hooked and cheering and applauding poets the way you do musicians or actors or athletes.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence.
The 2013 team finals pitting defending champion Duchesne, Lincoln North Star, Lincoln High and Omaha Central are April 12 at 7 p. dm. in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium at Creighton University‘s Harper Center. The event is free and open to the public.
Poets serve as coaches of participating teams from public and private, inner city and suburban schools and community organizations.
“I love the mix of different schools and geography we have represented,” says Omaha poet and festival director Matt Mason.
He also loves how slam poetry brings together cool kids and nerds. “There’s the football player and the chess player and the golf kid, all lined up on the same team helping each other,” says Mason. “Teachers report this is an approach to poetry that reaches students not reached very much in classes. Asking them to write and perform and tell their stories really opens something up in them and makes them appreciate what’s happening at school rather than sitting there with a bad look on their face.”
Teams prime themselves for a season of poetry concentration.
“We treat this as if it were a sports activity at a school where teams start practicing, getting ready for competition, doing workshops and scrimmages in the fall, and then there’s the big tournament (festival) in the spring,” he says.
There are scores and standings but Mason says it’s more a celebration of creatively expessing ideas and feelings.
Duchesne team member Gina Keplinger repeats a festival slogan “the point is the poetry, the point is the people,” adding, “Poetry is bigger than stages and pages and microphones.”
The often achingly intimate poetic reveries explore love and loss, identity issues, social woes, and everything human. Westside team member Lia Hagen’s “Inappropriate” is a satirical critique of gayphobia. Lincoln North Star team member Shatice Archie’s “My Two Inch Thick Mattress” is about homelessness.
“The thing that continually impresses me is the way the students so directly and honestly address the most challenging issues in their lives…nothing is out-of-bounds or too personal for them,” says Westside and Central coach Greg Harries.
The fest is put on by the Mason-led Nebraska Writers Collective, which sends poets into area schools. When a documentary profiling a Chicago youth slam poetry competition caused a buzz here he rode that impetus to organize the first LTAB Omaha slam in 2012. Twelve teams competed then. The field grew to 19 teams this year, for him a signal of slam poetry’s growing popularity.
“I think more and more it is getting into the culture. It wasn’t just the movie that got kids onto slam poetry teams. YouTube made more people aware of it. What we did last year created a kind of momentum, so that we’ve got students trying to get LTAB teams into their schools because they’ve got friends on a LTAB team. So it’s spreading now from the kids themselves. They are the best advocates because they’re excited about it and their friends see how excited they are.”
Slam’s competitive aspects are real but not paramount. Judges award points for individual and team performances. Performers with the highest cumulative marks keep advancing. Audiences are encouraged to express their appreciation and do so with applause, finger snaps, cheers. Mason’s impressed that competitors don’t seem as caught up in the winning or losing as they do in the shared experience.
“What’s really exciting for me is to see how these students support each other and support other teams. They’re cheering for their own team because it’s a competition but when somebody from another team does something they like they’re the first ones on their feet.
“These kids just want to see good stuff and so they get excited when they see it.”
Keplinger says, “Being cheered on, complimented and genuinely congratulated by poets who were not members of my team was a welcome surprise.”
“There’s a competition but there’s also a recognition and acceptance of each other’s talents,” says Lincoln High English teacher Deborah McGinn. “The camaraderie is based on words and language. The energy is just sky high.”
Mason’s enthused the fest is growing the state’s poetry community.
“We’ve held poetry slams for students for years in the area and they’ve been decent, we’ve seen some good work, but it hasn’t had anywhere near this level of talent and just really polished work. I mean, the talent level is just through the roof. I think that goes back to our coaches working with schools for months, not just coming in and doing a one-off workshop.
“A fair amount of our coaches are coaching a team for the second time. I think the work shows that these kids are growing and really speaking about issues the audience responds to and doing it in a way that really brings them alive.”
Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
If you appreciate really good acting then a name you should know is Yolonda Ross. Her face may be familiar but her name likely isn’t. She doesn’t get the high visibility film and television parts that another Omaha native actress of color , Gabrielle Union, gets but it’s not for lack of talent. It certainly isn’t for a lack of looks either. No, it’s hard to say why she hasn’t had the major breakthrough that other actresses have but it’s not as though her career is wanting either. She’s done lots of good work on the big and and small screens and three new movie projects are sure to bring her more attention than she usually gets. She appears in new movies by noted filmmakers David Mamet and John Sayles and her own writing-directing debut, the short Breaking Night, which she also stars in is making the festival rounds. Indeed, her dramtatic narrative short is screening at the Omaha Film Festival on March 8. She’ll be there for that screening and she’ll also participate in an acting panel on March 9. I’ve been following her career for several years now and you’ll find my earlier stories about her and her work on this blog. I’m hoping she finally gets the due she deserves.
Omaha Film Festival Highlight: Yolonda Ross Adds Writer-Director to Actress Credits; In New Movies by Mamet and Sayles as her Own ‘Breaking Night’ Makes the Festival Circuit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
You may not know the name but for more than a decade now Omaha native Yolonda Ross has been a stalwart actress in American independent cinema and quality television movies and episodic dramas.
Before recently working with a pair of star indie writer-directors – David Mamet, on the new HBO movie Phil Spector, and John Sayles on the coming feature Go for Sisters – she’d previously been directed by Woody Allen (Celebrity), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) and Todd Haynes (I’m Not There).
Ross played the recurring role of documentary filmmaker Dana Lyndsey in season two of the acclaimed HBO series Treme. She’s guested on such prestigious network shows as Third Watch, 24, Law & Order and New York Undercover.
Spector and Sisters come on the heels of her turn as a mother and wife in the well-received 2012 indie feature, Yelling to the Sky, that deals with issues of race, violence, bullying and relationships. It was shot in Queens, NY.
A measure of the esteem Ross enjoys is that both Mamet and Sayles wrote parts for her in their new films. Though she’s only in one scene in the Spector biopic, which premieres Mar. 24, it’s with the great Helen Mirren. Her co-lead role, opposite LisaGay Hamilton, in the Sayles cross-cultural suspenser Sisters marks her first lead in a prestige feature.
2013 also marks Yolonda’s writing-directing debut with the short drama Breaking Night, an official selection of the Mar. 6-10 Omaha Film Festival unreeling at the Regal Stadium 16, 7440 Crown Point Avenue. Her dramatic narrative short screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. The coming-of-age story stars Ross as a young woman riding the throes of first love to escape a harsh home life. The film was selected for the New Voices in Black Cinema series in Brooklyn, NY.
Ross is a veteran of workshops at the Sundance Institute‘s screenwriters and directors labs, where she’s worked with her “dear friend” screenwriter-director Joan Tewksberry (who scripted Nashville). The actress filmed her short last summer in St. Charles Parish, New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, whose spell she’d already fallen under from her work on Treme, the post-Katrina Big Easy-set drama. She recruited some of her crew from the show.
Fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne served as a Breaking Night producer.
A longtime New York City resident, Ross will be at the OFF screening, where Omaha friends and family will lend support.
Though she hopes Sisters leads to acting offers and Breaking Night establishes her directing cred, she’s taking matters in her own hands by writing new scripts for her to direct and/or star in. She’s currently penning a feature family drama she plans to direct in Houston, Texas next year. She’s also writing a spec pilot. She has more short scripts she’d like to develop.
She clearly views Breaking Night as the start of her career as filmmaker.
“It’s like one down and many to go. Once I got it finished it was just onto the next one. It doesn’t stop at one,” she says.
The many faces of Yolonda Ross:
Ross, a Burke High graduate who left Omaha in the mid-1990s to work in fashion, also sings (jazz, R&B) and paints (acrylic abstracts) and thus she views writing-directing as simply two more expressions of her creativity.
“I can do a lot of things. I happen to be one of those people that’s gifted in a lot of ways creatively. I mean, that’s just how I function. To not be utilizing all the parts of yourself sort of feels like you’re wasting yourself .”
Her writing’s evolved to where she’s confident she can craft her own vehicles.
“I feel as time has gone on my writing has gotten more defined. I know what my voice is, I know I have a unique point of view, I know I see things in a way that I feel are not being seen. Also, so many things are from a male point of view. I find it refreshing to see somebody else’s point of view, and you know I’m a black woman and one that I don’t feel is stereotypical,” says Ross, who’s worked with several women directors.
“I can tell a story and my writing has been really going places.
Breaking Night realizes a long-held goal to put her ideas on screen.
“I wanted to get the visions out of my head and see if I can do it, see what I can make, see what comes out of me. I actually had something else written but I didn’t feel like doing that so the story of Breaking Night just kind of came about. I had just been up at the Sundance film labs the summer before working on a project and it just made me want to have my own project to work on and to see what came of it with a collective group of people.”
Helming her own film proved to be everything she thought it would be.
“It was like an amazing, magical event. Little by little it all came together. It was a four-day shoot. Our last day of shooting was a night shoot that went into morning and the sun came up and we watched the sun rising. We all broke night together and nobody wrecked anybody’s nerves. We all worked together, there were no like attitudes, it was just beautiful.”
She says the film’s story is “a universal one with a different face on it.” Her inspiration was the classic ’70s rock song “Blinded by the Light,” a personal favorite that always conjured romantic and rebellious images for her. She set the story, which all takes place in the space of 24 hours, in the same decade to stay true to the song’s roots.
“I tell a universal story of a young person going through problems at home who doesn’t have support and leaves home. That’s every race, every generation.”
In her script the song becomes an anthem for breaking free of shackles that define or limit us. Her choice to infuse an interracial love relationship into the mix was about overturning stereotypes but in the end her film’s less about that than it is about finding one’s identity and following one’s destiny.
“There are definitely images that would always come to mind when I would listen to the song, knowing the time period it comes from, knowing which stations it would be played on and who the audiences would be for it. But in my thoughts it’s universal because everybody I know loves that song and rocks that song and I wanted to put a different face on who the characters were in it.
“If a film from the song was made in the ’70s when it came out I’m sure those characters would all be white. In TV and film then most times you would see black people either in the city on drugs or selling drugs or trying to get out of the ghetto or in the South trying to flee the South. In this case I wanted to put certain constraints on myself to fit the story and these elements into this seven minute song and tell this story.”
She’s satisfied she delivered a tale of youthful angst and longing that transcends cultures.
“I feel I’ve succeeded because race is not the issue at all in it. The story happens to have a black family. What I used as reference were movies like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It’s a rural home where the mom, even though it’s not said, has like a factory job and she’s got a dude she shouldn’t be with. He’s not a dad, he’s kind of living off them and taking advantage.
“The boy the girl is in love with is her escape. He’s the only one that understands her. At that age you have that person and he’s that person. They both run away. She’s got him as protection. That’s a young romance, so who knows what’s going to happen to it when she gets to wherever she’s going.”
Ross has the girl she plays cross paths with a posh black couple out on the town getting their disco down. The couple represent to the girl a sophistication and life far removed from her own.
“It’s like they symbolize to the girl that she can become that. So then she does take her life and her future into her hands and makes a decision. She’s not going to be a person who gets run over and taken advantage of, she’s not going to allow herself to be in the same kind of situation as her mom.”
An actress who never looks the same from part to part, Ross deftly plays both the ingenue and the ethereal disco mama.
Ross shot and edited the encounter to indicate the disco couple also see in the girl the possibility of something she’d never seen in herself. The girl becomes empowered by accepting a knowing look from the woman and a kiss and a business card from the man. All affirmation of her worth and emancipation – that her time has come, that her path will be different.
“It’s like, ‘This fabulous couple sees something in me? OK, I’m out of here.’ The kids don’t know where they’re going, they’re just running away, but now she’s going wherever the disco man’s card says he from. It’s that kind of feeling.”
Ross went after a late ’70s-early ’80s Pop style look for the film, which plays like a good music video. She doesn’t mind the music video comparison but is adamant the story stands on its own.
“It has the aspects of a music video to it but it really is a short film because without the music the story is still there. I would like people to understand that there’s a lot actually happening there. All those frames in it have meaning.”
The visual palette changes as the drama plays out.
“It’s got three parts to it. It starts off light and kind of generic but once you get into the home it gets dark, it gets more real because it’s a messed up situation that happens. Once she’s out of the home that night it goes through a kind of surreal take. It leaves you wondering did this really happen or did she dream it.”
In one shot the two young lovers have a kind of out-of-body experience while making out and to convey that feeling Ross wanted a visual effect she recalled seeing from that era. But she couldn’t find an example and she didn’t know what to call it.
“That was like the hardest thing,” she says. “In describing seeing that thing on TV or in videos in the early ’80s I could not find anybody who knew what that thing was. I finally found somebody to actually do it for me. It’s called a trail.”
The ending unfolds in an other-worldly rural idyll flush with Spanish Moss trees. There’s a sumptuous quality to the imagery throughout, even the gritty parts, that she credits her director of photography, Justin Zweifach, with.
“My DP was amazing. He literally came on a week before us shooting because my original DP dropped out and it was a blessing because he understood everything that was going on in my head. I made storyboards and there’s a full script but him asking me certain questions about the feel of things, the feel of characters, how I saw things, that was way more helpful in him capturing how it looks. It’s above and beyond what I expected. I mean, he shot it beautifully.”
She says crew embraced the project because with its minimal dialogue and luscious images their work can be readily seen on the screen.
Others who helped ease her through the first-time filmmaking process were executive producer Tim Mather and associate producer Sasha Solodukhina.
About Mather, she says, “When you’ve got somebody who’s got your back and understands the whole production part of it to guide you through it’s a lifesaver because there are so many little things. I come from acting, so I know about emotions, I know about all that kind of stuff. Before I did this i really didn’t even know the difference between a gaffer and a grip. I hate to say this but I didn’t know what the jobs were, but now I know. I know in front of, I know behind, I know these things now.
“And Tim is great dealing with people and places you need to have connections to to get better deals and to get things done.”
She says Solodukhina was “like wonder woman because she got me so many people. She knows everybody.”
As for having Payne’s imprimatur on the film, she notes, “What can you say? How can that hurt? I’m glad that our friendship made him come on and contribute. I still have to show him the film though.”
With the likes of Payne, Mamet and Sayles in her corner, she knows her work is getting noticed by the right people.
“It’s like how I feel most of my career has been, you just do your work and a lot of times you don’t feel anybody’s paying attention or whatever but then you get these offers from these great directors, so it’s amazing who watches and who does think of you.”
The offer from Sayles came while she location scouted for her short. She knew him from auditioning for his Honeydripper, losing a part in it to her Go for Sisters co-star, LisaGay Hamilton.
Sisters is the fictional story of childhood best friends whose different life paths have separated them for 20 years until events reunite them as adults. Ross is the newly released from prison Fontaine, who finds her old friend Bernice (Hamilton) assigned as her parole officer. The street wise ex-con becomes a lifeline when Bernice’s son is captured and held for ransom by drug dealers in Mexican border towns. Edward James Olmos becomes the third amigo in this search party that courts danger at every turn.
Edward James Olmos, LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross in Go for Sisters
Olmos, Hamlton, Ross in Go for Sisters
The low-budget, guerrilla-style shoot in Mexicali, Calixico and Tijuana required a huge number of locations in a short number of days, which kept cast and crew hopping.
“It was fun but just different logistically for me,” says Ross. “It was sort of like you wake up and you just go. You don’t even look around. You’re like, OK, who am I? What are we doing? It’s almost a road movie because we’re on the move so much. The story takes you on a nice trip. There’s lots of familiar faces in cameos and it’s fun to see who you come across next.”
About the enigmatic Sayles, she says, “Pretty much he gives you the blueprint and you do it. He has said, and now I see it, that his directing is choosing the right actors,. He lets us do our work.” By contrast, she says Mamet “is more verbal than John. I think he’s really funny, I really like him a lot. The one way they are alike is they both tell stories while working and they both have people around them they’ve worked with before, so there’s a level of comfort with the crew.”
She’s excited to see who next notices her work. though she says she’s been around long enough to know that some filmmakers “go after the same people or who they think are hot or whatever,” adding, “You can be talented all day but that has nothing to do with them hiring you.” She says if box office performance is the arbiter then she’ll always be at a disadvantage because the small indie work she does rarely makes much of a splash or a profit.
“It’s unfortunate. The rest is just all crazy business stuff, which makes no sense. That’s why I’m writing.”
Ross is also part of a March 9 panel, Actors on Acting, at 3:15 p.m.
The Omaha Film Festival is a curated assemblage of narrative feature films, documentaries, live action and animated shorts as well as workshops and panels. Now in its eighth year, the fest has a strong track record of bringing film artists with and without Nebraska ties to discuss their work.
For schedule and ticket details, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
- John Sayles – An American Classic (mrmovietimes.com)
- Phil Spector Biopic Trailer Released By HBO (noise11.com)
- Interview with Victoria Mahoney on ‘Yelling to the Sky’ starring Zoe Kravitz, Gabourey Sidibe and Black Thought (ifelicious.com)
Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse
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 a Life and Career Based in Theater at the 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.
- Regional Theater of the Week: Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Ohio (cleveland.broadwayworld.com)
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- Location Spotlight: First United Methodist Church (artsforallinc.wordpress.com)
- Opera Omaha Co-production of’The Magic Flute’ Casts Enchanting Spell (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Upcoming Local Auditions (artsforallinc.wordpress.com)
- Opera Omaha Enlists Jun Kaneko for New Take on ‘The Magic Flute’ – Coproduction of Mozart Masterpiece Features Stunning Designs Setting the Opera World Abuzz (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Let me start by saying that I don’t know enough about the art form of opera to intelligently review an opera, any opera, but I do know a thing or two about theater, and opera is music theater. For what it’s worth then I can add my enthusiastic thumbs up to the new Opera Omaha co-production of The Magic Flute. I saw the Sunday, Feb. 24 matinee performance at the Orpheum Theater and I can report that the aspects of the show that I knew the most about going in, which were also those that I most anticipated, namely artist Jun Kaneko‘s designs, beautifully complemented and propelled the music and story. His animated set designs and costume designs were highly expressive yet never detracted from the music or the action. His work truly helped to set the mood and to draw us in into the emotional life of characters and incidents. The other aspects of the produciton looked and sounded just as pleasing to me as the designs did and they all worked in unison together to cast an enchanting spell. It was a thoroughly delightful experience that I had the pleasure of sharing with my girlfriend, Carole Jeanpierre, who has a lovely operatic voice and is composing an original opera of her own. More to come on all that in future posts.
Spoken word. The word-based performance art ranges the gamut in terms of style and form. But it’s best practitioners usually deliver emotive, intelligent work touching on personal, social, cultural, political themes and featuring a lyrical rhythm and rhyme cadence not unlike that of song. Spoken word events can highlight a range of approaches and subjects that stretch your mind. My soon to appear story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiles one of the Omaha metro area’s most diverse spoken word events, Verbal Gumbo, and the two women who stir its pot, Felicia Webster and Michelle Troxclair.
WithLove Felicia, ©photo by Herb Thompson
Spoken Word Soul Sisters Stir the Verbal Gumbo Pot to Keep it Real and Flavorful
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader
Soul sister poetesses Michelle Troxclair and Felicia “WithLove” Webster stir the pot to make the spicy mix of Verbal Gumbo, the spoken word series throwing down the third Thursday of every month at House of Loom.
The artists launched the series last fall at the invitation of Loom’s Brent Crampton.
“Felicia and Michelle have brought a consistently diverse, experimental and truthfully honest night of poetry and performance. They’re two very strong women in our community that have been really active in the social progressive and arts scene here,” says Crampton. “They help us to live out our mission here with social issues and culture and bringing people together.”
Gumbo’s beats and hipsters fit right in at Loom, 1012 South 10th Street, with its music-dance cultural blends and crafted cocktails.
The spoken word sets are as diverse as the poets themselves. Some pieces are intensely personal. Others, political. Some call for action, others ask you to think.
The mic’s evenly shared across genders and races, with people standing to deliver everything from private testimonies to slam spits to hip hop rhymes to indignant rants to preacher-like sermons to social justice screeds to inspired songs.
“This is a very open, diverse atmosphere and we’re not in judgment of how people choose to be in the world,” says Webster, an arts educator. “Diversity is how we present ourselves here. We’re ‘edutainers.’ If somebody comes up and shares a poem about abuse, well that gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about it.”
“Disseminating information that is going to charge people to heal, to change, to move, to educate, to motivate is also a part of what we do at Verbal Gumbo,” says Webster. ”The issues in the community we come from are very deep. There are a lot of wounds, some of them still open. Having a platform where you are not being judged for what you do or what you say or how you say it allows people to get up there.”
“It’s a healing. Like I have anger management issues and I have to write it and say it, it has to come out. It’s a cleansing experience. And that’s what a lot of people are using this for. People share things on this microphone they wouldn’t share anywhere else. We’re here to provide the platform for people to share and to be transparent and vulnerable,” says Troxclair, a former arts and social services administrator.
Poet Ruth Marimo’s raw story of surviving an abusive relationship, being arrested as an illegal alien and coming out as a lesbian has been embraced there. The Zimbabwe native and mother of two reels about the seemingly contradictory facets of her life in her intense yet whimsical piece, “Who Am I?”
I’m a stranger to my own mother,
A child with no parent,
A sister with no siblings,
An immigrant to this land,
An alien to my own nation.
Who am I?
I’m everything I’m not supposed to be,
A Lesbian who owns no cats,
A literate African,
An educated fool,
A voice that can’t be silenced,
A turbulence that can’t be calmed,
An answer that can’t be found…
Marimo describes how for her Gumbo debut “both Michelle and Felicia really took me in with open arms and under their wing,” adding, “Everyone has just been very supportive.”
Troxclair says Marimo’s “very tragic story that’s had this phenomenal outcome” is among many stories of personal transformation told there.
“Sometimes someone will say something that someone needed to hear. That’s how it works here. We’re all about that,” says Webster.
Judging, formally or informally, has no place at Verbal Gumbo.
Troxclair says, “Part of my housecleaning when I get up there is to say, ‘It’s difficult to come up here and put your soul and your life experience up on this microphone and so if you don’t like what you’re hearing be quiet.’ We do not allow anybody to be criticized belittled or demeaned in any way. That’s not what we’re here for.”
“When somebody’s on the mic, we respect the mic,” Webster likes to say.
“People are comfortable here,” says Troxclair. “They feel loved, respected and honored and part of something bigger than just themselves. People who wouldn’t set foot in a regular church, mosque, temple, whatever, say it’s almost like church because it’s an uplifting and spiritual experience.”
“Verbal Gumbo is my nondenominational church,” says Webster. “We’re speaking life into words, we’re breathing life into the experience. And we make everybody feel like family when they come in. There have been plenty of nights when I have needed to be lifted up. This is like my poetic-spiritual reciprocity. It feeds my soul, it mixes that gumbo pot up, adding spices when I’m needing a little cayenne pepper to get through.”
Cultivating new artists like Marimo is part of the deal.
“We adopt people on a regular basis,” says Troxclair. “I’m very much a mama and so I take in all strays. When people come in here and they share their stories we’re like, ‘You’re family.’ We embrace everybody we come into contact with and we want to make sure everybody feels like this is a home.”
Before her Jan. 17 Gumbo set Marimo said it herself. The author of the self-published memoir Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant says, “It’s something I look forward to every month because it’s such a welcoming space and it’s diverse.”
“The people who come through those doors come from such different backgrounds and are able to share their experiences and it feeds us for a number of reasons,” says Troxclair, “The level of talent is one. It’s always good to see talented people come and do what they do. Some of the things they talk about is another reason. They talk about everything from relationship stuff to political stuff to tragic life experiences. It’s just edifying.”
The styles and themes range from Marimo’s lyrical reflections to Webster’s old-school beatboxing to Developing Crisp‘s rap-style hooks to Nathan Scott’s political history lesson to Paula Bell’s black woman identity manifesto that ends with, “So you can take it or you can leave it, I really don’t give a damn.”
The audience of creatives sits at cocktail tables and cabanas or stands at the bar. Onlookers really feeling it lean into a performance. It’s the epitome of Omaha Cool, complete with snapping fingers, knowing, nodding heads, raised drinks and adult conversation .
The women behind Gumbo have a long history celebrating The Word. Webster lays claim to organizing the metro’s first spoken word series at the defunct Dazy Maze in the late 1990s. She then left for Philadelphia, where she and Davina Natanya Stewart formed the spoken word duo Daughters of the Diaspora. Troxclair hails from a family of storytellers and has written and orated since youth. When Webster returned to Omaha a few years ago Troxclair recruited her for the Poetry in Motion series she hosted at Loves Jazz & Arts Center.
The diversity and the vibe of Loom, the pair say, help set Gumbo apart from other spoken word venues and events here.
“It brings people from all walks of life and every community in one spot and everybody enjoys each other and respects each other’s culture,” says Troxclair. “We’re open to all different kinds of audiences and artists.”
Gumbo’s wide-open aesthetic complements Loom’s ultra laid-back scene.
“It’s very chilled, very relaxed,” says Webster. “The antique furniture, the vintage feel, the exposed brick, the music, the artwork, it’s very eclectic. All of that creates the ambience that is totally different from any other place in Omaha. You feel like you’re not in Omaha for one night. It’s a whole other vibration. It’s for grown-ups. There’s this opportunity to be a part of a rich culture of artistic expression.”
That expression may include music, dance, body painting and moving to whatever groove grabs you. Small community vendors are invited to promote their side hustle goods and services. Webster and Troxclair say Gumbo’s also a networking-information forum, ala the black barbershop-salon, where community issues and events get discussed and personal problems get aired and vetted.
“It’s a lifeline,” says Webster.
The next Verbal Gumbo is Feb. 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
For series updates visit http://www.facebook.com/verbalgumbo.
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