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)
When interviewing an artist there’s always the point where you ask the obvious question, Where do your ideas come from? or What influences does your work draw on? And, of course, the answers are at once right in front of us, because ideas spring from life, and concealed, because ideas also germinate in the imagination and subconscious. And since every artist’s life is individual there are as many variations to those inspirational sources as there are artists. Playwright Carlos Murillo is someone I interviewed many months ago in anticipation of one of his plays being performed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Our conversation veered into some of the touchstone experiences that help shape who he is and what he writes about.
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s Work Explores Personal Mythmaking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Playwright and DePaul University theater professor Carlos Murillo has established a national reputation with such works as Dark Play or Stories for Boys, which UNO Theatre is staging Feb. 23-26 and March 2-5.
The theater world is small. For example, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad student met Murillo at a Kennedy Center theater festival in Washington, D.C. Aware Murillo’s Dark Play was slated for production by UNO, the student set the wheels in motion for the playwright’s campus visit in January. At UNO Murillo guest taught a class, observed a rehearsal and attended a reading and a discussion of his work.
“It was a really fun experience,” says Murillo, who spoke to El Perico by phone from Chicago.
He enjoys interacting with students and teachers over his work.
“It’s a really cool thing when a group of people you don’t know are engaging with something you’ve created. Making theater is like solving a very complex problem,” he says, adding he likes contributing to the process of unlocking a play’s mysteries. His participation, he says, is “sort of honoring that people are committing to something that’s meaningful to them and that hopefully will have some impact in their training or in their thinking about the world.”
Catching up to productions of his plays “is sort of like visiting your kid after they graduate from college,” he says. “They’re trucking along doing their own thing and you meet up with them every now and then and check in.”
The concepts or issues his work explores become talking points in the classes he teaches. “It keeps the mind in shape and it serves as a great laboratory of ideas,” he says. While he didn’t set out to be an educator, he’s come to embrace the role.
“I do love it.”
There’s also a more practical side to teaching.
“Making a living as a playwright is next to impossible,” he says, “Most of the writers I know either have teaching gigs or write for TV or do other stuff because it’s very difficult to make a living just off of ones playwriting.”
His path has been both traditional and nonconventional.
Born in the U.S to immigrant parents — his mother’s Puerto Rican and his father Colombian — Murillo mostly grew up in Long Island, NY. As a boy he spent three years in South America, where his father was transferred by his employer, Bank of America. Wherever Murillo lived, he was drawn to creative expression.
“As far as writing’s concerned it was something I was always interested in from the time I was a kid. I was always writing poems and short stories and stuff like that. I also had a real passion for theater early on. I acted in a lot of plays in junior high and high school, and those twin passions kind of merged and I became a playwright.”
During a long theater apprenticeship his family encouraged him and still does.
“My parents are remarkably supportive. I’m grateful for that.”
Murillo attended Syracuse University to study acting but dropped out and traveled for a time before returning to New York to work at various theaters. All the while, he continued writing. He learned under several master practitioners, including acclaimed director Robert Woodruff. “He was a huge influence,” says Murillo.
As the Public Theater’s associate literary manager Murillo came into contact with “a parade of extraordinary artists,” adding, “It’s an amazing institution and it was kind of like the best grad school you can imagine.”
Murillo went from self-produced plays in small Manhattan venues to being invited to developmental residencies and his work being widely read and produced.
A consistent theme in his work, he says, is “the idea of personal mythmaking — the stories we tell ourselves or tell to other people about ourselves and the relationship of those stories to the actual reality of who we are.” Dark Play examines what happens when a character spins fictions that have real life consequences.
As a playwright Murillo straddles different worlds and must be a quick study in each, skills he’s well practiced in because of the way he grew up. “While my parents spoke Spanish and English at home my cultural references were rock music, TV and all the pop culture things most Americans have,” he says. “I had the experience of living in South America as well. It’s like having one foot in two different identities.”
He writes about Latino identity in oblique and direct ways. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing is autobiographical about what it means to be Latino in America. A fictional playwright, Javier C., is a recurring character in his plays.
- Video: Latino playwright Nilo Cruz sees each of his plays as a “miracle” (latinalista.com)
Actress and playwright Regina Taylor’s fine play, Crowns, celebrates the tradition that finds many African-American women wearing hats at church. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is largely based on interviews I did with cast members in a John Beasley Theater production of the Taylor play. The women comment on what’s behind the whole hat thing and it turns out these crowns represent and express all manner of things. I think you’ll find the story insightful and entertaining, and if you get a chance to see the play by all means do, because it says more than I could ever hope to say about the subject.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Regina Taylor’s musical drama Crowns celebrates the ties that bind African American women in the black church. Faith and fellowship rule, but the hats proudly worn by these grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters soulfully express their solidarity and individuality.
The female cast of Crowns, in performance February 23-March 18 at the John Beasley Theater, well relate to the hat queens they portray. Millicent Crawford, who plays Mother Shaw, said the parts “just fit.” After all, she and her fellow players come from a long line of church-going, “hat wearing divas,” said Brandi Smith (Yolanda). If there’s one thing “we all learned growing up,” said Janet Ashley (Velma), “it’s that you don’t go to church without something on your head.”
From wraps, rags, scarves and caps to turbans to berets to formal head attire, hats are legacies that unite women over generations of sacrifice, ceremony, joy and sorrow. “That’s just a traditional thing in our culture,” said Smith, who plays the central character Yolanda, “and it goes all the way back to Africa, when women would wrap their heads with the gelees. So, we are still covering our heads today.”
A woman’s head should be adorned, the Bible says, and in black culture that means some serious crowns come Sundays. Bare heads do not belong in the Lord’s House. It’s traditional, historical, scriptural, familial. In this largely hat-less era, not every black woman wears one to church anymore, but chances are her mother or grandmother does. When women of a certain age meet, as Mother Shaw, Velma, Mabel, Wanda and Jeanette do in the play, their hats represent a lifetime of experiences. When the wounded Yolanda arrives in their midst, their circle envelops her to share proverb-like stories and songs. In a rite of passage that resounds with spirit, the defiant girl becomes a woman and willingly joins in, learning to find the joy that lives beside her pain. Hats become a metaphor for the unbroken circle of life and the passing down of lessons.
The rich material busts out with the exuberance and ritual of a black Baptist church’s praise-and-worship, call-and-response service. It is funny, revelatory, sad and buoyant. Voices, spoken and sung, are raised on high to consider hats in all their gospel-inspired glory and the various ways women use them to shine.
“You must have the right attitude to put certain hats on. It’s hatitude,” Ashley said in the flamboyant style of Velma.
“There’s some hats you can wear and some hats you can’t. You have to have the right hat,” said Crawford, whose Mother Shaw is a willful preacher’s wife and the group’s wise matriarch. “You put on a wide-brimmed hat that’s got some feathers, you better be able to pull that off because you’re making a bold statement and people can see it. It takes confidence to wear certain hats. You’ve got to be able to work it.”
“You know from the second you put a hat on whether it’s you or not,” said Phyllis Mitchell Butler, who plays Mabel, the Hat Queen with a litany of hat etiquette rules. “You know either that’s your hat or it’s not.”
“I think one of the women in the play says, ‘You can tell a lot by the hat a woman wears. About who she is,” said Crawford, adding a woman can say things with a hat. “A hat can be very flirtatious or not.”
Ashley said Velma reminds us a hat can reveal or conceal.” “It’s like a mask,” Crawford said. A pastor’s wife off stage, Ashley dips the brim of her hat on Sundays, she said, so the congregation “can’t see anything on my face.” Conceal or not, a big hat is just right for some women. “You see, I wear big hats because little hats don’t look good on my head,” Ashley said. “I’d rather do a big hat” Crawford said, “because you walk in the room and it’s like, Wow! That hat is bad!”
Some women are so defined by their hats, that without one, Crawford said, it’s like “something’s missing — she needs a hat on.” “It wouldn’t be right,” said Ashley, adding the anticipation of what a hat queen will wear is a spectator sport for “hat watchers. There are certain women that you know when they come through that door they’re going to have on a hat and you want to see what hat is she wearing.”
Hats are style-status symbols. A poor woman may take a plain hat but adorn it splendidly or she may spend all she has for a lavish one. The play refers to Mabel’s mom fussing over a simple hat so that it “changed the whole look,” Ashley said. “We look at how the hat is made. We look at those details. The details are important.”
Crawford said some women, like Mother Shaw, will not buy a hat they love if “they don’t think it’s worth paying a lot of money for. But there are women that will pay an arm and a leg as long as they know no one else is going to wear that hat.”
“That’s right,” Ashley said. “Not just in the play either…My sister shops where she knows no other woman in Omaha will shop because she’s going to make sure she’s not going to see her hat on anybody else.” “We really do that — we don’t want to see our hats” on another woman, Crawford said. Call it being a hat cat.
As a fine hat costs dearly, it’s to be treasured. “You’re going to be taking care of those things you worked hard for,” Crawford said. That’s why an unspoken but well understood hat rule states — “nobody messes with my hat” — which Crawford said hat queens like her mother make emphatically clear. “You don’t go near her hat. Don’t knock the hat, don’t touch the hat. My mom, she will lay down the law.”
Showing off a hat is half the fun. Women really step it up for special occasions. Then, a “hi-ya” or “hit-ya” hat isn’t enough. Coordinating a whole outfit, plus accessories, is required. “You go to one of the church conventions or gospel workshops or whatever and these women are going to be decked out, as they said back in the day, from head to toe,” Crawford said. “Hat, purse, shoes, dress, jewelry. Everything matched. They’re going to be dressed to the nines.”
“It’s like the lamp with the shade,” Ashley said. “You have to have that right top and that bottom to go with it.”
The play suggests a hat queen’s collection of crowns can number in the hundreds. “No exaggeration,” Crawford said. The lone male voice in the play, provided by John Beasley, observes to his hat crazy wife, “You ain’t got but one head.” Ah, but a heavenly crown awaits to adorn that sweet head.