Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
A not-so-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to Jill Anderson organizing the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival this year: strange, unsettling, and often debilitating symptoms began appearing out of nowhere and after many tests, a mis-diagnosis and many more tests she found out the culprit: multiple sclerosis. In true trouper fashion she has carried on and “the show” is indeed going on in her capable hands. It is ironic perhaps that her life-altering disease should come in the year the festival explores the permutations of Bram Stoker’s classic transmutation novel Dracula. Her festival, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 and uses art, music, drama, film, literature, and more to explore the themes bound up in the Stoker work and the superstitions and cultural traditions that influenced his creation.
Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival
Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.
In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she’s dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.
“My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It’s weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker,” she says.
Her indefatigable spirit’s hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie’s because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.
The emergence of her disease is still so new that she’s far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.
“It hits everybody differently, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there’s no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.
“I’ve heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can’t have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there’s no one around to help me? I’ve had blue days with those kind of thoughts.”
Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.
“Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research,” she says. “I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece.”
“There’s really no group in town doing exactly this,” she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says “Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they’re doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets.” What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of “what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people’s imaginations.” That niche, she adds, has found “a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature.”
Then there’s the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you’ll find in the metro.
“The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it’s really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building.”
Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.
“It’s been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.
Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn’t afford.
“I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.
My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, ‘It will never work for Dracula,’ and the clerk said, ‘I am related to him.’ My friend said, ‘Van Helsing?’ ‘No.’ With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.
“I leaped on him,” she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.
“What are the chances?” asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.
Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?
“I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it.”
For 2014 she sought “something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public.” With fellow creatives she’s concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:
Movie Night, 7 p.m.
Nosferatu on the Green
F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle’s north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula’s rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. “Isn’t that fun?” Anderson says.
•October 23 through November 1
Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians
Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham’s permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai’s family artifacts go back many generations.
•October 23-26 and 29-30
Drama Duet, 7 p.m.
Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who’s directing, says, “This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He’s young but sort of timeless and ageless. He’s transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be.”
Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.
The two shows take place in the castle’s atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.
Double Lecture, 6 p.m.
The Man Behind the Monster
Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology
Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author’s life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England’s preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.
Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as “absolutely fascinating stories” about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area’s deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.
Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.
This “big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.
Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.
Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.
Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.
“My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I’ve gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I’ve gotten thank you letters from people who’ve seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn’t seen him smile since his wife died. That’s the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that.”
Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music’s transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.
“On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ straight to my face.”
“It was totally surprising and wonderful,” Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of “Stardust,” “Amazing Grace,” “Softly” and Tenderly” and “How Great Thou Art,” no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.
“Music is and always has been the great healer. I’ve usually been on the providing side of that equation. It’s interesting to be on the receiving end as well.”
The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an “all-consuming feat” she values now more than ever.
“It’s easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It’s something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward.”
She’s having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.
The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she’s looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.
“This Dracula I’m directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It’s a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another.”
Directing is something she expects to do more of.
“I’ve done more performing than directing but I’ve been directing for years and now I’m feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more,” says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.
She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She’s left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she’s always returned home.
She’s grateful for the outpouring of care she’s received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the “incredible love and loyalty” she’s received has meant a lot to her as she’s navigated this “scary stuff.”
She’s grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.
“This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you.”
She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.
These experiences, she says, have given her “new insight” into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.
“I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they’re facing scary illness. When you’re sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you’re hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.
As an actress, Anderson’s called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.
“Oh God it’s hard to do. I think people’s ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now.”
There’s nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now
“All the weird stuff that’s happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I’m actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn’t able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before.”
In an April 5 post she shared, “Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents’ house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds.”
That ability to be in the moment, she says, “is the best thing that’s come out of it (her health crisis).” It’s why when people ask how she’s doing she can honestly say, “I’m taking it one day at a time.”
For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit http://www.joslyncastle.com.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.
Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.
He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.
She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.
Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.
Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.
He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.
Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.
For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.
Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.
“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.
He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.
“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,
At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.
“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”
He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.
“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”
Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.
“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”
The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”
Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.
He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.
In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.
“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.
“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. “
Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.
“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”
She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.
In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.
|Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes|
“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”
Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.
The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.
“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”
“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.
“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”
He despaired at what he found in that arena.
“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.
“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”
He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.
“Some of their stories broke my heart.”
The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.
“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”
Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.
“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”
All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.
He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”
Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.
“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”
This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .
“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”
At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.
After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.
“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”
She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.
“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”
She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.
Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”
Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”
The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”
Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.
“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.
Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.
Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.
“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”
The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.
Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.
“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”
“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.
“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”
She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.
“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”
Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.
“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”
“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.
Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.
“We were ragtag,” she says.
“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”
“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.
As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”
“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.
When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.
“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.
By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”
Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.
“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”
The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.
Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”
Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.
“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”
He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.
Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.
Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.
“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”
When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”
Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.
“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”
She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.
“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.
“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”
When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.
Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”
Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.
Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”
“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”
Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”
Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.
“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”
Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.
Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.
“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.
“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”
The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?
“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”
Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
I dare say there’s not a more instantly recognizable voice than that of the late Johnny Cash. You hear that deep Southern molasses growl and it’s unmistakably him and no one else. When I got wind of a Cash tribute show playing Omaha, I immediately thought of Omaha performer Brenda Allen because she’s the only entertainer in these parts that I know of who counted Cash as a friend. She also jammed with him and appeared on the same bill as him. Allen’s her stage name. Her real name is Brenda Allacher. I’ve interviewed Brenda before, once for a story about the play A Piece of My Heart which dramatizes the real life experiences of American women who were in the Vietnam War as nurses, aid workers, and entertainers. Brenda went there as part of an all-girl band. More recently I wrote an in-depth profile of Brenda that revealed her Cash ties. Both those stories can be found on this blog. For this new story I recount some of Brenda’s priceless Cash recollections, including an amusing, can’t-make-up-this-kind-of-stuff anecdote about the perculiar way they met. I also aounded out some admirers of Cash from the local music scene. Additionally, Ring of Fire cast member Erika Hall shared her thoughts about the man and his music and how adaptable his songs are to women interpreters like herself. The story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
NOTE: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash concludes this weekend at The Waiting Room in Benson.
Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
With impresario Gordon Cantiello’s new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it’s only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring.
The king of hard-scrabble, honky-tonk infused with gospel, country, folk, blues and rock, became a living legend with his Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues persona. His soulful music fit his wayfaring life. In his last decade Cash enjoyed a renaissance among artists and fans across the musical spectrum. The Reader solicited local musicians and music lovers to reflect on his work and found many admirers, but only Brenda Allen, aka Brenda Allacher, counted him as a friend. She also jammed with Cash and played on the same bill as the late star.
As a young vocalist-guitarist Allen was befriended by Cash, whose generosity she fondly remembers. Their memorable first meeting happened in 1958 when she auditioned for a guest spot on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee at the Jewell Theatre in Springfield, Mo. She was 18 with some modest credits. Cash was 26 and already an established star.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the show, which was starting in about an hour. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
A dark-featured man in a black shirt caught Allen’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking.’ Yeah, I wonder who that is?”‘
In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee-Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing. A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the beast decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls. “We dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this deep male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.
“We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. That’s what started it. He was a perfect gentleman.”
After returning to her home in Lincoln, Neb. Allen stayed in touch with Cash. “I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. I set him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and he sent me his first song book. Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed. Instead, she landed with Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie. In 1962 the Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen opened for Cash at Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium and Omaha’s Ciivc Auditorium. Later, as part of the Taylor Sisters, she was on the same program with Cash at a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show also featuring June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell. “I’d say we were in damn good company.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. “He had such a charisma about him. You just felt there was something special about this guy.”
Brenda, circa 1970s-1980s
Brenda with Cash in his later years
Ad promoting a show she was in
His interest in her career continued. “I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ He told me, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’ He and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” The elephant anecdote always connected Allen and Cash.
As for his troubled personal life, she says, “Around the time June Carter entered the picture I started noticing things about John from when I first him. I knew of the wildness.” Depression and addiction took their toll in “the bad years.” Allen’s been there. At 74 the recovering alcohol is a karaoke regular. She sings some Cash tunes. His melancholy, redemptive ballads work well with female interpreters. Just ask Erika Hall, who performs Cash standards in Ring of Fire.
“He was real, he was gritty, he was flawed, he spoke for all of us who make mistakes, who feel pain, and he had a very unique gift of being able to tell that story through music,” Hall says. “He gives us something to grab onto when we feel like we are alone in our pain. I find it interesting how well some of those songs do transfer to a female singer. It just shows you how much emotion was present in that music.”
Hall, who essayed Patsy Cline in a recent Cantiello-produced show, says the Cash canon lives on because “he was able to speak to multiple generations in the same way.” She adds, “Pain is pain, joy is joy – those emotions don’t change from generation to generation and Johnny Cash was able to send those emotions through his music in a way every human can identify with. He spoke to us. That’s his legacy.”
That legacy cuts across boundaries performer Billy McGuigan (Rave On) says.
“There are very few artists who ascend above the labels used to classify artists. We love to say Elvis is the King of Rock, Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings are undeniably country. But The Man in Black? He’s above all that. He started as an early rock artist, became a country icon, a television personality and influenced the undertones of rap music.
“There’s something about that voice. That deep baritone resonates the soul and goes beyond his just singing a song. Add in the driving rhythm of the Tennessee Three and you’ve got a magical formula.”
“The legacy of Johnny Cash stretches across seven decades,” Pacific Street Blues host Rick Galusha says. “His influence was felt at the onset of rock and roll at Sun Studios and into the new century with his historic American recordings with Rick Rubin. Any artist able to stay-on-top while maintaining a high level of artistic integrity is bound to be influential.”
“Who hasn’t been inspired by Mister Cash?” asks Rainbow Recording studio owner and Paddy O Furniture band leader Nils Anders Erickson, “He wrote and sang about what he knew and you believed him. It wasn’t just a song, it was the truth. Love the man, love the music.”
The Ring of Fire cast also includes Sue Gillespie Booton, D. Kevin Williams, Thomas Gjere and Zach Little. Cantiello directs with musical direction by Mark Kurtz and Vince Krysl.
The show’s remaining play dates are Saturday, August 9 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 10 at 1 and 5 p.m. The Waiting Room is at 6212 Maple Street. For tickets, call 402-706-0778.
For details, visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
PlayFest broadens theater possibilities: Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works
Much of theater is elitist without even intending to be. It’s just the nature of what happens when art, academics, and economics collide. There are of course counter strains to the theater of exclusion. The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is an interesting study of something that started out as a kind of closed set endeavor hanging on the threads of the New York City stage establishment but that has made a concerted effort in recent years to break out of its box to be more cutting-edge, community-based, and inclusive. My story here for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details how the conference’s PlayFest series is leading the way to make theater more engaging and accessible while at the same time more experimental, including site-specific works that draw on multiple genres and that feature work and in some cases collaborations by artists from Omaha and New York that speak to events and concerns in this community. In keeping with this more communal, democratic spirit of theater, PlayFest events are free and open to the public. This year’s events are at Kaneko May 27, the Malcolm X Center May 28 and the historic Florence Mill on May 30. A highlight will be readings by 2014 conference featured playwright Kia Corthron at the May 28 Voices at the Center program at the Malcolm X Center. That program is a continuation of the Neighborhood Tapestries series the GPTC inaugurated a couple years ago to bring theater into the communtiy or more specifically into neighborhoods.
PlayFest broadens theater possibilities
Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference continues stretching beyond its hidebound beginnings by assuming an ever freer, more engaging public model. Where it was once top-heavy with crusty old lions of the conventional New York City stage, it’s now embracing more contemporary, cutting-edge, community-based artists. Where it often played like an exclusive party or lab for the drama circle set, it’s now a more inviting, inventive forum for artists and audiences alike.
GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler, who’s acutely aware of theater’s challenge capturing audiences, has made the conference more accessible through PlayFest series offerings that take theater outside the box. Lawler entrusts PlayFest to artists from Omaha and New York, where he’s worked as a director, to create site-specific, free-form, multi-genre works that break barriers and embrace community.
“Theatre in the U.S. stagnated heavily in the last century with ticket prices climbing ever higher and content being generated by an overwhelmingly white, male, privileged, linear storytelling, playwright-director based system driven mainly by capitalist economics rather than community enrichment,” he says. “The idea behind PlayFest is to move theater out of the established ‘temples of art’ by experimenting with content, form, means of production and dissemination.
“On top of the spirit of experimentation and exploration we make a special effort to create a Neighborhood Tapestries project performance each year from the stories and history of our own community members. All these aspects combined with the fact PlayFest is free, open to everyone and performed in alternative sites across the city creates a wonderful new dynamic for theater in our community.”
This year’s PlayFest features three distinct events over four days at venues that couldn’t be more different from one another.
On May 27 the artists of Omaha-based aetherplough present We’re Almost There – High Viscosity. This conceptual performance piece will inhabit the wide-open, light-filled second floor at Kaneko, 1111 Jones Street. The piece is directed by Susann Suprenant and Jeanette Plourde. Specifically designed for the show’s cavernous interior, the piece is also informed by the transformation of this former Fairmont Creamery warehouse space into a cultural oasis.
Lawler says he brought the two directors together because “Susann and Jeanette seem like sisters in the realm of creativity and thought,” adding, “With their heavy background of performance based in movement I knew they would complement each other wonderfully.”
“We both bring an intensity of focus, a trust in collaborative creation and a willingness to explore performance made with-for-in the space and with the body as the impetus, rather than narrative as the impetus. We trust in the ‘meaning-making’ abilities of the audience,” says Suprenant, dean of communications and humanities at Metropolitan Community College.
“We’re kindred spirits with respect to the creation of performance and the creation of events to share with an audience,” says Plourde, a New York director. “We create performance, we create live events, we work with groups of artists we consider artist-creators. There isn’t a script.
We start with questions and territories of exploration and as directors we guide the exploration with a company to create what ultimately becomes a performance event.”
Each year the conference recognizes a playwright and celebrates their work. During the May 28 Voices at the Center 2014 honored playwright Kia Corthron will read from a selection of her politically charged plays and be joined by local spoken word artists, actors and musicians speaking their own truths. Set outdoors at the Malcolm X Center, 3448 Evans Street, this gathering of raised social consciousness at the birth-site of the slain activist born as Malcolm Little is curated by Omaha Community Playhouse Education Director Denise Chapman.
This Neighborhood Tapestries event will intersect with issues affecting inner city communities like North Omaha’s. The Harlem-based Corthorn will read from her new play Megastasis, which she says is “inspired” by the Michelle Alexander book The New Jim Crow in its look at “how the war on drugs has impacted the black community in such devastating ways.” Chapman will direct an excerpt from her adaptation of ancient Greek theater, Women of Troy, that substitutes modern urban women “left behind” as collateral damage in the war on drugs. TammyRa Jackson, Zedeka Poindexter and Monica Ghali portray the Trojan women.
Corthron, who’s written for television and has authored a novel, will read from at least two more of her plays: Trickle and Sam’s Coming.
She recently won a $150,000 Windham Campbell literary prize.
She says she strives to affect audiences emotinally as a way to engage them and therefore “make them think and maybe reconsider or for the first time consider issues they hadn’t thought about before.” She says as a black woman writing about the black experience whatever she chooses to address in her work is bound to be militant in someone’s eyes. “I feel like if you are part of a community that has been traditionally oppressed as the black community has been that…it’s hard to write anything without it being somewhat political.” In Corthron’s view, wearing one’s hair natural or not, having a light or dark skin tone and using slang or proper English all potentially become tense political-ideological points thrust upon and internalized by blacks.
When Corthron’s penning a play she says “‘I’m just really conscious of and true to the world of these characters and to the way these characters would speak. That’s sort of my driving force when I’m writing – their language.”
The playwright’s excited to have her characters’ voices mix with those of The Wordsmiths, led by Michelle Troxclair and Felicia Webster, the poets behind Verbal Gumbo at the House of Loom, along with Devel Crisp, Leo Louis II and Nate Scott. Adding to the stew will be hip hop artists Jonny Knogood and Lite Pole. Chapman looks forward to this “battle cry music that speaks truths about what’s going on in the community and offers platforms to start conversations for solutions.” Corthron and her fellow artists will do a talk back following the show.
Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru is creating original mural art for the evening.
On May 30 PlayFest moves to the historic Florence Mill, 9102 North 30th Street., for Wood Music, an immersive event created by the writers, directors and actors of the New York-based St. Fortune Collective. Omaha’s own Electric Chamber Music is composing original music. New Yorker Elena Araoz, is directing. Her husband Justin Townsend is designing the show with the conference’s Design Wing fellows.
Araoz says the 1860-set piece will have the audience walk through the mill to meet characters drawn from its past. That year is when the mill converted from water to steam energy. Around that time Florence lost a contentious bid for the state capitol. It all concludes with an outdoor celebration featuring mill-themed music, dance and secret burlesque.
“We’re trying to give the audience more of an experience than just a play,” says Araoz.
The theatrical party will be a direct through-line to the communal, festive life of the mill today as the home to a farmer’s market, an art gallery and live music performances.
St. Fortune writer Jack Frederick says the event will both “pay homage to and activate the mill’s rich history” and new reuse.
Frederick, Araoz and Co. have tapped mill director Linda Meigs, who led efforts to preserve the site and has made it into an arts-agriculture-history colony, for details about the structure’s Mormon settlement lineage. Brigham Young himself supervised its 1846 construction as a grist mill. After the Mormons abandoned their winter quarters the mill was rebuilt and a grain elevator added.
Each PlayFest event is free and starts at 7:30 p.m. For more details and for a schedule of conference events, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.
Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.