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)
Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’
What actor Kelcey Watson did a few years ago in taking on the lead role in a play only eight days before the curtain went up doesn’t quite rise to the 42nd Street legend of a chorus girl replacing the leading lady on opening night. But considering the part and the script were demanding and the world famous playwright would be in attendance Watson pulled off a minor miracle in not only learning his lines but giving a performance that made it appear as if he’d been rehearsing for weeks or months, not days. He performed his feat in service of a Blue Barn Theatre (Omaha, Neb.) production of Six Degrees of Separation and its author John Guare witnessed the actor’s spot-on work and praised him for it. Director Susan Clement-Toberer found herself in the uneviable position of replacing the actor originally cast as Paul slightly more than a week before opening night. And as my story explains she was about to bring in someone from out of town when Watson, who had shined in a Blue Barn staging of Minstrel Show (by Max Sparber) called offering his services. It all worked out better than anyone could have imagined and my story puts the pieces together of how this conspiracy of hearts made it happen with so short a lead time. Watson from time to time does work at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha. This blog contains numerous stories I’ve written about the theater and its namesake, actor John Beasley.
Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On April 11 Omaha actor Kelcey Watson got wind a lead part was coming available with only eight days before the Blue Barn Theatre opened John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Director Susan Clement-Toberer replaced the actor originally cast as Paul — the axis around which the farce revolves. She was about to bring in someone from out-of-town when Watson called. She took it as fate.
Watson had never seen Six Degrees on stage or on screen, much less read the script. He only knew the story’s premise of how a young, homeless black man (Paul) insinuates himself into the lives of white Fifth Avenuers.
Watson got the pivotal part after assuring Clement-Toberer he was cool having to kiss a man on stage and learning a role full of intricate dialog in a week. Oh, by the way, she added, John Guare will be here opening weekend. Gulp. Serious pressure.
She began working with Watson that same day. It was a crash course of blocking and intentions and memorizing and running lines. Lots of notes and discussion. When it would all get to be too much, they’d cat nap on the set’s pair of red vinyl sofas. Then he joined the cast for a 6 to 10 p.m. rehearsal. They did a full run-through the very first night. He followed that same schedule for a week.
Before he knew it, preview night arrived on the 18th. “It was like, whoosh, and I was there…a whirlwind of nicotine and caffeine and play reading,” Watson said. His motivation was “not failing the cast. These people had worked hard for weeks and I just happened to join in. They were really welcoming toward me. They made it kind of easy to fall into the work.” He used whatever nerves he felt to inform his part. He said, “The stakes were so high. I infused that anxiety into the character. The hardest part was getting it word perfect. It was a lot of complex verbiage to kind of eat and take in and digest.” For him “the mountain” was mastering “the thesis speech” in which he delivers a manifesto about schizophrenia, imagination, the human need to connect and Catcher in the Rye. “I knew I had the part down cold if I could do this speech.”
He’s nailed it enough to earn accolades. He couldn’t have done it, he said, without Clement-Toberer, whom he calls “a very gifted and giving director.” Of their rapport, he said, “We really did have this link that was very earnest and very sensual in some ways.” As she puts it, “We became fast and furious buddies in those eight days. I knew pretty quickly I had made the right decision. He was able to memorize his lines so rapidly and to inhabit the character and fill him out.” She said the way he brings Paul to life is “beautifully done.”
She’s never had an actor have to learn so much so fast. “It’s a helluva role and to have to jump into it in an eight day rehearsal period was a pretty intense process, but also exhilarating. I think Kelcey worked really well under those circumstances. He really rose to the occasion.”
Why did he want the part badly enough to put himself through all that, not to mention risk being unprepared with the play’s author looking on?
“I really, really wanted to do this,” the 29-year-old said. “It really was a rare opportunity that something like this comes up.”
On a deeper level, he identified with Paul. Watson calls Paul “a lost soul” and he said the character’s desperate search for acceptance paralleled his own a few years ago. In 2001 the Omaha native, Benson High grad and former ska band lead singer left to follow his acting dream in New York. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. Things didn’t go his way. A bad attitude didn’t help.
“One of the reasons I left New York is because it really did a number on me. It kicked my ass,” he said. “I got kicked out of the Academy. I couldn’t work with people. I was such an asshole. I was trying really to find myself. I didn’t really know who I was.”
It’s why, Watson said, “I connected with Paul immediately, because he’s a loner. He’s trying to find a home.” Like Paul in the play, Watson didn’t have a place of his own in New York. He scrounged to get by, reinventing himself as needed. He said, “I’ve been down. I’ve been out. I’ve had to stay at people’s houses a few weeks here and there.”
The lure of “doing black theater” with John Beasley brought him back to Omaha. He did Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson at the Beasley Theatre. But he ultimately came back because “Omaha’s my home. It’s a place I feel safe at.”
His rediscovery of his love of acting continued at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he did an intensive three-month workshop in 2004. “Going through Steppenwolf I learned ensemble acting,” he said. “This time I was so receptive. I learned how to trust people…to let myself go.” He brought his nuanced approach with him back home.
Omaha is where he’s come of age as an artist and as a man. Besides the comfort of his hometown, there’s the home he’s found, too, in local theater. In his search to connect with people and ideas and emotions, he’s looking “to find that space where you can really express yourself and your feelings and be vulnerable.” The Blue Barn may be that space. “They bring the stakes up higher,” he said.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Six Degrees. The fact things turned out so well confirms he’s doing what he’s supposed to. “It’s amazing to me the cast said things like, ‘You’re our hero’ and ‘Thanks for saving us.’ This is what I love to do,” he said. “I went to school for this stuff. I’m still in debt because of it.”
Clement-Toberer said when told what Watson had to do to ready himself for the part that Guare, who attended the April 20 show, complimented the actor, saying, “It was as if he was inventing it right on the spot.” Watson said that before Guare left the theater, the playwright turned to him and said, admiringly, “Eight days, huh?.” Watson could only smile.
She said Guare explained how he “thinks of characters in colors” but often finds oranges miscast as purples. “He felt with this production the cast of colors was appropriate across the board. He said, ‘Of course, if you can’t find the right color, then you cast Kelcey.’” It’s the kind of comment theater legends are born of.
Here’s a story I did a couple years ago or so about an Omaha theater stalwart, Lara Marsh, who’s touched many people with her winning personality and generous spirit and those good vibes and works have come back to her ten fold as she battles cystic fibrosis and faces the prospect of a double lung transplant. This story appeared on the eve of a fundraiser for her, one of many such events that the local theater community has organized on her behalf.
Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Got Oxygen? This question on top of Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet is very funny and ironic at the same time. I immediately bought a T-shirt and the expression always makes me smile. But this question, in Omaha at 936 feet, somehow loses all its humor.”
Cystic Fibrosis survivor Lara Marsh in her online journal/blog
Veteran Omaha stage manager Lara Marsh is in a fight for her life with Cystic Fibrosis. The inherited, chronic disease produces a thick, sticky mucus that impairs the respiratory and digestive systems. She needs $55,000 to get the double lung transplant required for her only chance at anything like a normal life span. She’s already exceeded CF life expectancies.
“When I was 4 the doctors told my parents I would never see 5. When I was 5, I wasn’t supposed to make it past 8. At 8, the average life expectancy was 14. The average death age for a female now is 37, and I’m 39, so I’ve done really well, but for me it’s unacceptable to die that young.”
Her sister Amy had her life cut short by CF at 18. By contrast, Lara’s married and the step mother of five children. She travels. She’s a college graduate (University of Nebraska at Omaha). She enjoys a career as Nebraska Theatre Caravan Artistic Coordinator/Apprentice Coordinator at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where she also stage manages. She’s beaten the odds. She also can’t recall when illness was not part of her life.
“It doesn’t define me and yet it’s made me a big part of who I am. It’s just all I remember. I am very much a positive person always striving for goals,” she said. “I remember as a small child joking but not really joking with my doctor, ‘You can’t retire until I die because I’m going to be the oldest living CFer in the world.’
Of course, the older you get reality comes into play, seeing the progression of the disease, knowing where I’m really at compared to where I wish I was at. Another whole side of this is the pride factor of showing people I’m a human being dealing with this. I don’t like to show the negativity, I don’t like to show the weakness.”
Lara’s lately revealed more about living with the disease via campaigns raising funds for her transplant needs. Her thespian peers, along with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, have organized Places, Please! benefits at area theaters. Playwright/director Kevin Lawler said Lara’s positive vibe attracts much support. “She is the most talented stage manager I have ever worked with, a real artist, and one of the most fantastic people I have ever met. She is deeply beloved by the entire theater community in Omaha. A truly exceptional person.” He said her “extraordinary story” is literally “a race against time.”
More than $45,000 has been raised on her behalf. COTA matches some monies raised. Proceeds from this Saturday’s noon to 6 p.m. Lungs for Lara event at Sumtur Amphitheater at Walnut Creek in Papillion will go toward her transplant fund. The organizers are Random Acts of Kindness, COTA, Places, Please! and Cells for Life. There will be raffles, booths, a karaoke competition, a bounce house, live bands and food. Admission is a used cell phone or ink cartridge or a $5 donation.
Lara’s symptoms sometimes prevent her from attending such events. It may be exhaustion or infection. Coughing jags are frequent. The worst thing about CF, she said, “is knowing it’s never going to get better without the transplant. And as much as I try to do the regimens (respiratory treatments, antibiotic IVs, exercise) I’m supposed to and live life and be positive and do this, and do that, the progression still happens, and I really got hit in the face with that last year. Big time.” Her Forced Expiratory volume levels dropped, necessitating she go on oxygen.
“It’s not like I did anything to bring it on, it just happened, and so as much as I try to do to prevent it my body reminds me, Hey, this is still going to happen, whether you like it or not. Essentially, I’m not a 39 year-old. My insides are more like a 60-somethings. And so when I catch a cold or whatever it’s slower for my body to recover. You never know about side effects or other things that could go wrong, especially with a transplant.”
A reminder of the dangers is the experience of Amy, who died of complications from the procedure.
“I’m not afraid to get the transplant,” said Lara. “I already decided a long time ago I would do it. I just want to get it over with, really. I’m ready to move on with my life. But I’m nervous about how my body will react and how long it will take to recoup.”
Periodic hospitalizations take Lara away from what she loves most — friends, family, the theater. Because CF’s been her lifetime companion she’s had the bittersweet experience of befriending and losing fellow travelers.
“There’s been some CFers I’ve gotten close with and most of them have died. All the ones I knew growing up have passed. This one gal I knew, we had a 20-year friendship, and she passed last year. She’s the last one.”
Still, Lara seeks out other sufferers, even though meeting entails risks. “We can be a danger to each other if we are near one another and are contagious, and so we exercise what we call the three-foot rule — stay at least three feet from each other. And don’t touch. It’s harder for us to get to know each other now because of HIPPA privacy laws.” Despite red tape, she manages finding folks who defy the odds. “I’ve definitely been exposed to enough negative results that I need to find some positive ones, so I’ve been meeting some patients who are doing really well .”
She resists limitations. “One thing my doctors and I recently talked about is my CF could reach a point where I have to quit work, and I told them I can’t fathom it, it’s unacceptable…” Her precious travel could also be curtailed. “It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. Something CF has contributed to is me wanting to experience the most out of life, to see anything and everything I can. I have a goal to see all 50 states. I have about seven left. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Her “ultimate dream” is visiting Australia, and not just for the beaches. “I’ve loved Koalas since I was a little kid…I want to go pet a Koala.”
“Recovery is not like it used to be and that is disturbing.”
Lara Marsh blog entry
Visit COTA’s Web site for Lara, which contains her blogs, at www.cotaforlaram.com.
- Cystic Fibrosis No Longer a Kids’ Disease (abcnews.go.com)
- Cystic fibrosis breakthrough reveals why females fare worse than males (medicalxpress.com)
- May is Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month (sacbee.com)
- Foundation Hopes To Raise Funds, Hope For Cystic Fibrosis Month (detroit.cbslocal.com)
The Omaha indie filmmaking scene is not very active, especially when it comes to features. One of the few homemade feature projects to get made here and nationally distributed is For Love of Amy, a sentimental pic written and produced by its lead actor, Vincent Alston. While not a memorable work, the film’s storytelling is effective and the project is notable for simply defying the odds and being realized on screen and actually netting soome screenings and now a DVD release. My story below was written a couple years ago as the film’s production wound down. Alston attracted name talents in Ted Lange and John Beasley to direct the film and to essay a supporting role, respectively. The picture did attract enough notice to earn Alston the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival award for most outstanding first film and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alston is heard from again.
Sometime soon I will be posting a short story I wrote about another filmmaker with Omaha ties, Patrick Coyle, who has made a serious splash with the indie features he’s written and directed. The biggest impact Nebraska filmmakers have made in recent years are by Alexander Payne, whose first three features were made in Omaha and whose next film, Nebraska, will be made in the mostly rural environs of the state’s central-western panhandle region, and Nik Fackler, whose Lovely, Still is finally finding large audiences via cable and DVD. This blog is full of stories about these and other filmmakers with Nebraska ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.
Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,” is Black and White and Love All Over
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On a recent Saturday morning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center director Ted Lange and crew worked efficiently to get their shots for the indie film For Love of Amy. Lensing in Omaha and environs since mid-June, the crew needed few takes. A satisfied Lange would say, “Print it…Movin’ on” and the troops rigged things for the next set-up. Far removed from his Love Boat days, the savvy Lange, bedecked in ball cap, blue jeans and athletic shoes, wore a T-shirt adorned with Laurence Dunbar, the subject of a one-man show he conceived and performs.
Screenwriter-producer-star Vincent Alston of Omaha was a quiet, intense presence on set, where he wore a deep blue suit as Michael. Alston seemed wide-eyed about the whole process, understandable given this is his first film and his ass is on the line three ways. He watched things closely and after takes often drew Lange aside to confer about what approach was best.
The concept behind the film will make you go either, “Ewww” or “Awww.” Michael (Alston) is black and his best friend Ryan is white. The dying Ryan extracts Michael’s promise to be there for Ryan’s 9-year-old daughter, Amy. Ryan dies and his widow suffers a breakdown. In steps Michael. Then a revelation about the child’s birth mother throws your expectations askew.
It reads like a treacly, weepie Lifetime message pic. All the racial, sentimental gravitas could be thoughtful or deadly, depending on how it’s handled.
Audiences must judge if Alston and Lange lift the material above the sweetly banal. Alston has the acting chops to make Michael, the single black man who takes Amy into his life a believable figure. Alston’s impressed on the John Beasley Theater stage and as Malcolm X in the one-act play The Meeting. Still, his debut script arguably reads like many well-intentioned social-humanist dramas you’ve seen.
Lange, who played Isaac on the network television chestnut, Love Boat, is a veteran TV and theater director and the author of 21 plays. The San Francisco resident has directed and starred in a film version of Othello. Scenes from his new play George Washington’s Boy were read at the recent Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). In 2005 he came to Omaha to direct his own play, Four Queens and One Trump, at the JBT. So he has the creds, as he said, to “make this thing work.”
How Alston, a Jersey native, got to this point is a story itself. He worked in corrections back east and when he moved here in the ‘90s. His entree to acting came when, “on a whim,” he took a class. Bitten by the bug, he found his niche in naturalism. He made his living in computers while pursuing his theater passion. He now has his own company, VLA Productions, that creates video-Internet visuals and produces stage works, notably Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, a work Alston’s now identified with. The piece depicts a hypothetical meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He staged and starred in a production of it at the GPTC.
Alston’s been writing a few years now, drawing on experiences from his own life. He and his wife Pamela actually care for children not of origin and not of the same race by serving as foster parents. “We’ve had all kinds — Native American, white, biracial, the whole gamut,” he said. Currently they care for two Sudanese youths. Alston and his wife also have a son and daughter of their own.
His Beasley Theater contacts led him to give his script to Lange, who responded to it. “I love the different worlds that are really present side by side in it,” Lange said. “The fact that Michael is black and his best friend is white. The fact that Michael is raising his best friend’s kid. The twist that comes in there at the end about the child’s mother. It does have some nice little turns in it.”
Lange said he also liked the challenge of finding ways to avoid any cliches bound up in the story and in the characters.
“That where your art comes in,” Lange said. “There’s a couple little things we had to tweak. That’s collaboration. That’s Vince saying, ‘Now, Ted, I need this to happen,’ and me saying, ‘Oh, we can do that with just a little bit of this.’ It’s like I told Vince, ‘I’m going to make some suggestions to you. If I can’t tell you why, you go tell me to fuck myself. Don’t do it. But if I tell you something and you ask me why and I give you an answer, you gotta at least give me honest consideration, and that’s how we’ve been working. It’s good.”
Lange said the cast is good enough to avoid playing one-note characters. “We’ve got wonderful actors that can deliver the goods. I’m really excited by the fact we’ve got people who can help me tell the story and can play against the words — start out in one direction and then evolve into this other direction,” he said.
Besides Alston, there’s strong local talent in the cast, including veteran film-TV-theater actor John Beasley in the scene-stealing role of Tate, Tyrone Beasley as X and Lindsay Seim as Kat. Lange was blown away by Omaha actress, Melissa Epps, whom he cast in the role of Claire, ostensibly the heavy of the piece.
Some punch was lost with the late drop out of stage-screen actress Mikole White (She Hate Me), whose role as Jas, Michael’s girlfriend, is being filled by New York actress Joyce Sylvester (Crackin’ Green). The fact that established talent signed on indicates Alston’s script works on the page. The fact there’s a racially mixed cast and crew and the story depicts African American professionals living outside strictly “black Omaha” makes the project fairly unique in local filmmaking circles.
Despite the black-white dynamic that frames the story, Alston insists — and his script bears him out — the film is not about race. Instead, he likes to say it’s a story about “doing the right thing when you don’t know what right is.”
As Lange said, “Ultimately, you know what the right thing to do is, whether it’s profitable or satisfying or all those other things. But sometimes it takes a lot of guts to really do what’s right, and not let your ego, your pride get in the way, and to me that’s what this movie is. Does Michael have the guts to do what’s right?”
Alston got the idea for the story after a party in which a little white girl he didn’t know came up to him and spoke to him “like I was her best friend in the world,” he said. “It was intriguing this child could have this conversation with me and it got me thinking, Could we have that same conversation 10 years hence? Or would society’s prejudices have so impinged on her psyche that those inevitable walls that go up among people who are different prevent it? That was the genesis for it.”
The only racial tension in the film comes in the form of Amy’s maternal grandmother, Claire, who opposes Michael, and from X, a black friend of Michael’s who reminds him of certain realities in America; namely, that a single black man raising a white girl may not fly.
The scene shot at UNMC takes place in a hospital waiting room, where Claire, her husband Frank and their granddaughter Amy keep vigil over Ryan, who’s asked to see Michael. Michael arrives just as Claire expresses her dislike of him to Frank — “I’d sure like to know what in hell makes him so damn special. He’s not even family. I’ve got half a mind to…”. Upon seeing Michael, it’s clear Amy loves her “uncle.” Epps well underplays the antagonistic role of Claire and Grace Bydalek is thankfully unaffected as Amy. Race becomes subtext as much as pretext for the action.
Alston, who’s experienced first hand the politics of race as both a victim of profiling and as a cog in the racially skewed penal system, doesn’t so much concern himself with black-white as human considerations.
“My philosophy is I want to do entertainment that draws on the best in people, not the worst, that challenges people to be better…I think Michael in the film is challenged to be a better person,” he said. “At the end of the day he realizes this isn’t about affirming himself, it’s about a little girl and what’s best for her.”
Alston found himself challenged to heed his better self while a guard at the New Jersey State Home for Boys at Jamesburg (NJ) and working maximum security at the adult Douglas County Correctional Center (Neb.). He didn’t like what the job did to him. “It will jade you,” he said. “Dealing with the worst all day, every day…to see human beings reduced to animals, particularly seeing people who look like me reduced to that, and not even care anymore, and to be proud of it — I had to get out of there. I hit a point where really the bottom dropped out of my life.”
Luckily he had someone looking out for his best interests at Jamesburg.
“My boss and my mentor was a Muslim and he just taught me so many life lessons. He told me, ‘Vince, don’t stay here, this isn’t for you. There’s something greater out there — you just gotta go get it.’
Alston quit. On the advice of a friend who lived in Omaha, he moved here. In need of a job, Alston worked as a guard at the county correctional facility, but when he saw the same thing happening to him again he quit after only a few months. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can’t stay here.’” That decision turned his life around. Within short order he took computer classes at Metro that steered him onto a new career path and he met his future wife.
After transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha he took an acting class as an elective and found a whole new passion. “I fell in love with it. It was like a light went on. You hear how people have epiphanies? That was me,” he said. “I remember I did my first monologue and there was a sort of hush in the room. I was leaving and this kid said, ‘People are talking about you.’ I just loved it from then on — that I could get a response from people. It’s interesting because I’m basically an extremely shy person, but you find that stage and I guess it gives you a place to be safe to express yourself.”
His journey to self-realization is not so different than that of Michael’s in the film. “Life is about becoming what you need to become,” Alston said. In Alston’s case, an artist. He found a mentor in UNO theater professor Doug Paterson, with whom he began staging performances of The Meeting. He found another mentor in John Beasley, but not before testing the waters at other theaters.
“Here’s what I found about theater here,” Alston said. “There’s a lot of it, but rarely do they do anything that speaks to my sensibilities. The other thing is, there’s this prevailing belief theater should be bigger than life. The Beasley Theater is the only place I’ve found where I can do the kind of in-the-moment, natural, real emotional response to theater. If you get up there and fake anything, that’s not going to wash with John (Beasley). You’re listening for real, you’re responding emotionally for real. So that’s been a breath of fresh air.”
It didn’t hurt that someone Alston admires so much encouraged him. “John was the first person of his caliber to tell me I could make it as an actor,” Alston said.
Beasley said Alston, who appeared in the JBT production of Jitney, came to him fairly seasoned but unused to laying it all on the line.
“His style is pretty laid back. He’s a protege of Doug (Paterson). Doug’s style and my style differ, though I have respect for what he does,” Beasley said. “Under Ted Lange I’ve seen Vince go inside a little bit more and dig a little deeper to mine some of that gold to bring the character out.”
Beasley’s proud to count Alston as a protege as well. “I’m happy to see he was able to start from nowhere and get this project launched. It’s quite an accomplishment to get your first film made,” Beasley said. “I don’t know what will happen with this film, but I think he’s on his way.”
Alston had been after Beasley for Tate, a wise old janitor at the school Michael teaches at, but the actor held out. It was Lange who got Beasley to give the part another read. “Ted said, ‘Look, Vince has put a lot of work into this character,’ so I took another look at it,” Beasley said. “I’m extremely happy to be a part of this project. I think it’s a good thing for Omaha. I did the movie because Vince asked me and I respect him. I felt I could do no less. I knew it meant a lot to him.”
“The fact that John is doing a role is just huge for us,” Alston confirmed.
Other JBT stalwarts on the For Love of Amy team are: Ty Beasley, who in addition to playing X serves as first assistant director; Amy Laaker as line producer; and Mark O’Leary as location manager.
“It really would have been impossible to do this project without them,” Alston said. “They’ve been with it from day one. You gotta have people committed to seeing the thing through to the end.”
Alston’s four-year odyssey to get the project made has been filled with the usual ups and downs. “In the process you’re running around like mad trying to chase down money,” he said. “You’re always trying to get in front of the next guy. Every day you’re networking with people…presenting business plans, making phone calls.” Once, the film was two weeks from cameras rolling when the financing fell through. “It just throws you for a loop when it happens,” he said. “As frustrating as it was for me, it was more frustrating to tell the cast and crew.”
At his lowest points Alston said he rallies himself with something the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune once said: “’I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man could use a discouraged soul.’ That is so heavy,” Alston said.
Whether the film ever sees the light of day is anyone’s guess. Alston hopes it makes the festival circuit and sells theatrically or to television. He’d like to make enough off it to tell more stories on screen. If it does well enough, he muses, maybe “I won’t have to chase the money so hard the next time.”
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