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.
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Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse
An Omaha asset know far and wide outside the city and the state of Nebraska is the Omaha Community Playhouse. With the possible exception of the Joslyn Art Museum, it owns the richest history of any Omaha arts and cultural organization. I mean, we’re talking serious pedigree here. So it’s no small thing to hold a ranking position on the artistic staff there. That a former husband and wife hold the artistic director and associate artistic director posts there and have done so for many years intrigued me and the result of my curiosity is the following story soon to appear in the New Horizons newspaper. Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins have been making theater together for decades and they’ve gone right on working at the Playhouse even after their divorce. They’ve made this unusual situation work and after the 2013-2014 season they will finally be going their separate ways, but there’s a lot of theater ahead of them yet. If you’re a theater fan then check out my many theater stories on this blog, including a history piece on the Omaha Community Playhouse and features related to the Brigit St. Brigit, Blue Barn, John Beasley and other theaters. You’ll also find quite a bit about the Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
A shared passion for theater has kept Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck joined at the hip despite countless moves and significant life changes.
If they were a production, Collins-Beck would be a sensation for their show-must-go-on endurance. A year-and-a-half from now their decades-long run as a dedicated theater team – he’s artistic director and she’s associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse – will end when they retire from those positions and they finally go their separate ways.
Their love story is not just with dramatics. Back in the early 1970s they fell head over heels for each other while working in the theater – they were even introduced on stage. They began living together, traveling far and wide pursuing their dream, including two stays in New York City, where they made audition rounds trying to break in on Broadway. There and at other stops they worked regular jobs to support their stage aspirations. With nothing tying them down, these theater vagabonds went wherever the work took them.
Beck recalls, “We were exceptionally lucky along the way. We had connections that kept taking us to a different step. We remained very open. We were constantly moving, sometimes three or four times in a year, to different cities. So everything had to fit in a Volkswagen Beetle. You lived a very strange life but it was always interesting.”
They’ve performed in every conceivable situation, from grand venues to under a leaking circus tent in a driving rainstorm to a cattle auction barn to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where one group of inmates was on their best behavior while another group heckled the performers the entire time.
Dinner theaters became their mainstay.
“One of our trips took us to Atlanta where we were in a fantastic theater that did nothing but big musicals – Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof,” says Collins.
That Southern metropolis became home when Turner Broadcasting hired them to work in front of and behind the camera for its WTBS superstation.
On far right are Carl Beck and Susan Baet Collins, ©netnebraska.org
“Maybe the biggest departure was an opportunity for us to write and perform on a children’s television show for Turner Broadcasting called Superstation Funtime. I was on the show and Carl was a writer,” says Collins. “We worked for three years, in and out of production of this show and in other positions at the network.”
TV was a decided change of pace for the theater artists.
“There wasn’t the same degree of comfort, of knowledge, of want to work in television as there was in theater,” says Beck. “I just always felt I would be scrambling to catch up in television, but my roots, my base is more theater-driven, and that’s what we would both prefer to be doing.”
Ironically, Collins has gone on to do extensive work as a voice talent for network TV children’s shows (Street Sharks, Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Liberty’s Kids, Horseland, Strawberry Shortcake, Dino Squad). She also does narration for commercials, documentaries and corporate videos.
Perhaps the couple’s most memorable performance came for British royalty.
“We wrote and performed a live show for the Prince of Wales at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,” Beck explains.”Prince Charles came there as part of a U.S. tour. We had just opened a comedy improv group there with other Nebraskans and were kind of a new topic.”
Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the royal. “I ended up as the master of ceremonies,” Beck says. “Gladys Knight and the Pips were the big entertainment.” Collins appeared in a sketch quizzing Charles on his knowledge of Southern slang. She got to meet him backstage and was charmed by his droll flattery.
Theater is the couple’s life. Upon marrying in 1977 they followed, in their own humble way, the tradition of more famous husband and wife stage teams such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
The couple have a son together, Ben Beck, who is a playwright and actor in Omaha. Though Collins and Beck divorced in 1996, they’ve remained friends and colleagues, managing to amicably, successfully work side by side at the Playhouse. Their parallel careers long ago brought them there. Beck came first. When Superstation Funtime was cancelled he “jobbed in” to direct for the Playhouse’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.
“Then we got the call that (then-executive director) Charles Jones was looking for an associate director to help him because the Playhouse then was undergoing a large expansion, so we moved up there with a 6-month old baby and I became associate director,” says Beck. “That was 1983.”
When Jones suffered a stroke in ’96 Beck became artistic director and Collins associate artistic director. They’ve remained in those positions ever since.
“We feel absolutely incredibly lucky to have stumbled into the positions that we have that allow us to live a very pleasant, normal life in a community like Omaha being able to make our living doing something we both feel very passionate about,” says Beck.
Between them, they helm most of the theater’s mainstage shows, particularly the big musicals that are the theater’s stock-in-trade moneymakers.
Their professional alliance has endured dating, marriage and divorce. “We’ve been joined at the hip professionally most of our lives. It’s kind of unusual,” says Collins. When their wedded bliss was no more they looked past their differences to focus on what was best for their son and their career. “It couldn’t work any other way,” she says. “We celebrate holidays together, we’ve taken trips together.”
She’s been married 13 years to an attorney from Norfolk, Neb., Dennis Collins, who performs at the Playhouse and has been directed by her ex.
“It’s an odd little family, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Susan says.
Having lived and worked together so long, the pair connect deeply.
“It’s definitely a relationship you cultivate, especially after a divorce,” says Beck. “You realize the important things. We certainly don’t want to make anyone we work with or are friends with choose sides. Our single greatest focus was to continue to raise our son and both be very much a part of his life. No one was going anywhere.”
Because they’ve shared a life together, the two artists enjoy a bond that goes well beyond what most associates share.
“We obviously do know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have grown very comfortable over a period of time with being able to support or cover one another or when one’s fired come to the rescue,” says Beck.
They had each others’ backs in 2009 when Beck was asked to resign by Playhouse president Tim Schmad in the midst of a budget crisis and Collins promptly resigned to show her support for her ex. That riff with management was resolved when Playhouse supporters expressed indignation at Beck’s dismissal and Schmad had a change of heart. The artists patched up their differences with administrators and Beck and Collins resumed their posts.
The pair perform similar but separate roles at the Playhouse, where they form a conspiracy of hearts and minds that is all about mutual support.
“We rarely work on the same project together,” says Collins, “What we do is kind of go to bat together in front of the board or executive committee for what we think is necessary to maintain or add to our productions here.”
Just as the couple found enough common ground after their divorce to remain friends and colleagues they found a path to come back to the Playhouse after that celebrated flap with their bosses. Healing the wounds from that severing was crucial if the Playhouse were to thrive.
“It was a very intense period for absolutely everyone,” recalls Beck. “Those of us that were most affected by it came to realize this was very detrimental to the Playhouse and hurting the institution and that, differences aside, we all very much loved this organization. And for that reason we sat down and started coming to terms with one another because the institution was much greater than the individuals involved and the incident that happened.”
Collins says, “Everybody came bearing an olive branch all at the same time.”
Still, there was an awkward feeling-out period.
“Everyone had to find their way after that point and very carefully move forward because you were trying to absorb different people’s attitudes and what had taken place,” says Beck. “It was a gradual process.”
A direct benefit from all of that was that the division that previously existed between the art and business sides of the Playhouse was eliminated. Instead of operating independently as they did before, with little discussion or appreciation of what the other did, the two sides began communicating.
When the couple first joined the Playhouse the artistic and financial decisions were made by one person, Charles Jones. Eventually, those duties were divided among different people. It just made sense.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more collaborative decision making that happens then when we first came,” says Collins. “At the time artistic and financial decisions were pretty much managed by the same person. A lot of theaters operated in that way until they started splitting the responsibilities.”
But over time the two camps became isolated and mistrustful, all of which contributed to the 2009 fall-out.
Collins says, “When we first came back from that Tim (Schmad) and Carl and I would have at least weekly meetings, which is something we’d never done. We reported to each other a lot and you could watch both parties start to see what life was like for an arts administrator in the middle of a big recession.”
She says where before she and Beck never gave much thought to money matters they now routinely ask themselves, “How do we help justify the budget?” She adds, “And now he (Schmad) sees what is really necessary for all this programming to take place. It’s admirable to watch because before we were seeing the other side as the enemy. Before the ‘dust up’ I never went to a financial committee meeting or a board meeting. I go to everything now. It helps you see what we’re facing.”
Part of what the Playhouse faces is a changed environment in which it is no longer the only show in town.
“When we first came if you wanted to see a big musical in Omaha you went to the Playhouse,” says Collins. “Now you can see a first national touring production of Memphis or see The Lion King sit down here for six weeks. That never happened before. There are more theaters now, too.”
She frets that what makes the Playhouse special is lost on some.
“There are people I worry who don’t see the value in nurturing this part of the art form with theater as an avocation. I want to keep in everybody’s brain how important this centrally located community theater is to the nurturing of new talent and new audiences.”
The theater is having to adapt to stay relevant.
“Audiences are changing,” says Beck. “The old rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. People don’t buy season memberships the way they used to.
There are so many more options for their arts dollars today. So we’re becoming less membership oriented and more reliant on single ticket sales.”
To better appeal to different audiences the Playhouse now promotes a slate of traditional and nontraditional offerings.
He says, “We’ve rebranded our theater as having two very separate spaces. We call it, ‘Find Your Stage.’ We have a more traditional mainstage theater and an edgier, more contemporary theater, the Drew.”
Collins says a big challenge is getting capacity seating up in the mainstage.
A Christmas Carol
Theater’s been the glue that’s kept the couple together and so it shouldn’t be a surprise the two met as actors with the Nebraska Repertory Theater in Lincoln. She’d moved with her family to Lincoln after growing up in Detroit, Mich. and other places. She was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater major. He gravitated there from his hometown of Shreveport, La. by way of theater studies at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa.
After stints with dinner theaters and rep companies around the nation and that three-year hiatus in TV, they ended up back in Neb. and here is where they’ve stayed. Collins and Beck have faithfully continued the Playhouse’s rich tradition that extends back to its 1924 founding and that includes notable alums Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire and state of the art facilities.
The Playhouse has become their theater home.
Each feels they’re exactly where they’re meant to be but after giving so much for so long they’ve also put in motion their leaving the Playhouse at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Their rationale for parting ways is simply wanting to move on to do other things. Then there’s the fatigue factor of time and energy spent mounting shows. Announcing their resignations so far in advance has as much to do with their love for the institution and giving it time to find the right replacements as it does leaving on their own terms. After all, they’re in good health and they don’t want to wait and be forced out due to illness.
They make no bones about what a special place the Playhouse is and the special place it holds in their lives.
“It’s a long history,” says Beck. “We came as actors. We then grew into what we became. We had a deep strong appreciation for its strengths and an understanding of its weaknesses. Moving into management and directing positions we were able to maintain the strengths we always appreciated and went to work on things we felt we could improve. It’s been embraced by the Omaha community for 89 years and when you work here as we have you become entrenched in the history of the organization.”
On the other hand, he says, “we’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been living in a rehearsal hall a long time. You reach a point where you realize new blood is a very positive thing and a transition for the Playhouse is a growth.”
Collins says, “We’ve seen a lot of people go out of here on walkers or in ambulances. We didn’t want to be those people who say with a last gasp, ‘I have one more show in me…’ Because as much as this is what we love to do rarely do you have a day away from the Playhouse, You’re here days in the office but then you’re back from 6 to 10 o’clock in rehearsal. Weekends, forget it. It kind of runs your time.”
In an unusual move, they announced their impending departure in August 2012, a full two years before their resignations take effect.
“We were having discussions about it probably two-and-a-half years ago and we both came to the conclusion we were both ready to do it and doing it at the same time made a lot of sense,” Beck says.
Besides, he adds, “it’s time to do something else and to structure your life in a different way. We’re both wide open. I have a lot of family in the South and in all likelihood I will relocate and spend more time around a beach.”
Collins, meanwhile, intends staying in Omaha, where she’s planted deep roots as an actress, director, playwright and voice talent.
“I probably won’t leave Omaha and I will be a part of the theater community but it’ll be more my timetable and I’ll pick my projects. Carl and I in these positions take on the most potential income-producing projects of the season, which means we do the big musicals with the mega casts. Back when I first came here I was more like our resident director Amy Lane where I would get to do the funky quirky little plays in the small theater that we know aren’t going to make money. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play with some great piece of writing in a small room with seven or eight actors.
“I would like to do that and I would like to do a little more performing.”
She’d also like to write more. She and her late partner, composer Jonathan Coles, wrote three widely performed musicals for young people.
An inevitable consequence of announcing their retirement so early, she says, “is people are thinking we’re retiring tomorrow. We kind of get, ‘Are you still here?’” A big part of giving such long notice was affording the Playhouse ample time to find successors who are the right fit for unusual jobs at what is a singular institution. Once their replacements are found, Collins and Beck fully expect to help train or advise them in order to ease that transition.
“We know what’s involved. It’s just a very different thing, so you have to have knowledge of the place,” says Collins. “So we’re hoping whoever comes in can give us time before he or she just kicks right in with their first production.”
Not only are there multiple productions to mount each season there’s the great elephant in the room that must be constantly fed – the Playhouse’s annual mega production of A Christmas Carol. Besides its long mainstage run in Omaha, it’s performed by two companies of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in tours that take the show to the east and west coasts.
“A Christmas Carol is a huge component of why we are able to sustain ourselves. It’s both tour and resident production,” says Collins, “and it isn’t like you could come in tomorrow and just direct the show.”
“It’s a machine,” says Beck. “We rehearse three productions at the same time. You come in at 9 a.m. and you leave at 10 at night, juggling all three, and the intricacies of that.”
“It has a legacy. There’s an integrity about this production,” Collins says.
That production is the adaptation that the late Charles Jones gifted the theater with after his arrival there. Jones, a consummate Southern gentleman who oozed charm, was one of the most charismatic figures the couple has had the pleasure of knowing.
“Charles Jones had an amazing capacity to talk anybody into anything, be it corporate donors, be it actors, whomever. Charles was an impresario. Working for him, working around him was daily an education,” says Beck.
“There’s the kind of teacher who takes you down to nothing and then lets you try to stand up again and I was never able to respond to that very well,” says Collins, “but I have always thrived under someone who says, ‘I think you can do anything’ or ‘I think you can do more with than you know,’ and that was always Charles. When I first came here he gave me lots of encouragement as a performer and then came a day he decided I should start directing and I hadn’t directed anything outside a class. I’ll always be grateful to Charles.”
Education is a major aspect of what Collins and Beck do whether directing a show or conducting workshops and classes. By its nature, Beck says, community theater means working with casts filled with people who have dramatic training or stage experience as well as those who’ve never appeared in a play “and your job is to get them all to the same level.” He adds, “You’re constantly learning, constantly starting from square one with each project and each group of people. You’re dealt a different hand every time you go off.”
“In every cast I would love to have one very young, inexperienced, eager, talented high school student because they are so genuinely excited to be there and they become the heart and soul of an entire company,” he says. “You can bring a person along and nurture someone. I’ve had two this year.”
Similarly, Collins says “it’s the process” of creating theater she most enjoys.
“It’s going to that audition and your heart’s kind of in the pit of your throat because you’re not sure you’re going to find the people you’re looking for.” More often than not she does. “We get criticized for casting the same people but I challenge anybody to name a play where we haven’t introduced someone new to the stage.”
Discovering new talent is a side bonus.
“Julia McKenzie in All Night Strut is my latest, Oh-my-gosh, where-did-you- come-from? find. This young woman that none of us knew just showed up at our auditions and she’s proven to be a phenomenal dancer, with personality out her toes and she can sing, too. We have been nothing but thrilled with her since the day she walked in.
“There was a little girl we cast long ago in A Christmas Carol named Caroline Iliff. I knew her mother, who said, ‘Oh, my daughter’s auditioning for A Christmas Carol,’ and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, who isn’t it?’ And this little girl was darling and we put her in the company and over the years she became such a poised, amazing, capable young performer. She ended up playing Annie in the musical Annie. She went on to play my Wendy in Peter Pan and developed this impeccable British accent.
“Now she’s a grown-up person playing Belle in A Christmas Carol and off in Texas studying music theater and I feel, ‘That’s my baby.’”
Collins and Beck also enjoy immersing themselves in the world of a play.
“You do a play about Helen Keller or Ann Landers or the music of the 1930s and 40s and you learn a whole bunch of stuff. Each play is its own little being,” she says. “I want to steep myself with as much information as I can get about the subject matter. Then you try to see it in your head and then some actor comes along and maybe changes your mind or takes your suggestion and runs with it or takes it further than you imagined. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Beck says, “Every two to three months you’re faced with a new set of challenges and starting back at square one with casting, with putting a piece together, with finding your way. It doesn’t allow room for getting dull.”
He says mounting a community theater production is a balancing act.
“You make the rehearsal process as positive an experience as possible.
You don’t abuse. You realize these people get up the next morning and have to be at work, so you’re careful in how you use them.”
He says one reason why the Playhouse attracts top talent show after show is that it offers something no other theater in town can match.
“Cast are featured in a very professional setting with top notch costumes and sets and sound and orchestra and all of the trappings and so it’s a wonderful realization for a performer. It’s a remarkable facility.”
Collins and Beck are quick to add they don’t do it alone.
“There would be no way we could feel this pleased about the work we get to do if it wasn’t for the production team and the people we have the privilege of working with every day,” says Collins. “These people are under a lot of pressure and yet they will go the extra mile every time and they’re right there at your side.”
And they’re all under one roof – props, costumes, scenic design, sound, music.
“That’s a really fortuitous thing,” she said.
Almost as fortuitous as Collins and Beck enriching the Omaha theater scene for 30 years.
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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)
I had never heard of hearthrob tenor Mario Frangoulis when I got the assignment to interview and profile him in advance of Omaha concerts he gave a few years ago. He was a lot of fun to speak with and his music was passionate if not exactly my style. But he has a worldwide following, so what do I know. He has a good story behind him too. When you put together the voice, the looks, the international flavor, and the whole romantic aura about him, it’s easy to understand why he’s a star.
Mario Frangoulis, When Dreams Come True
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine
Wherever Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis performs he sings of love, home, family, themes that reappear in his repertoire because they have such deep meaning for someone who “had a very troublesome childhood.” Born to Greek parents in Rhodesia, he lived in that African nation until age 4. When anti-aparthaid uprisals erupted there, he was left in the care of an aunt in Greece.
It meant separation from his parents and siblings.
“It was meant to be for a little while until things calmed down and unfortunately they got worse and it took me four years until I saw my parents again,” he said by phone from London, where he was headlining at Royal Albert Hall. “I lost my country, my best friend, my family. It was all very different in Greece. And, of course, I love Greece and I am Greek, but I was born in Africa.”
He knows now it was done “so I could be out of danger,” but as a child he “felt rejected. I felt like it was my fault. I was very upset for a long time and always searching for answers and always looking for a way out of myself and I guess I found this outlet through music — a great way for releasing a lot of the anger and hurt feelings. Music was a very positive force in my life. I feel very privileged to have had not just the want and the need to express myself but to have some kind of talent that I could then take advantage of and share with the rest of the world.”
When he appears in concert with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra for the first time on Nov. 7 ay 8 p.m. he’ll be with young people who’ve overcome their own adversity. Thirty-six current and previous Horatio Alger Scholarship winners in Nebraska will be featured during the Holland Performing Arts Center program. The need-based scholarships go to at-risk youths. Frangoulis, who’s given several concerts in support of the association, identifies with these kids.
“I’m so proud to be part of the Horatio Alger Association. Their scholarships give young people a chance to better themselves and to create their own future. I was very lucky because there were some people who believed in me and I think every child needs someone to believe in them, and the Horatio Alger Association does that. This is the best way to give — to be generous to young people, because young people are the future. And if it wasn’t for people supporting me at a young age I’m not sure what I would have done in my life.”
His aunt first recognized his musical gifts. Said Frangoulis, “If it wasn’t for my aunt I don’t think I would be in this business. She truly saw a talent and always encouraged me to study. She influenced me in so many good ways, and I think it all starts from home anyway. Greece became my home and she became my mother. In fact, I think I adopted her rather than the other way around.”
Frangoulis, who debuted professionally at age 17 in 1998, studied at Guildhall in London and Juilliard in New York. He’s done musical theater on the West End. He’s performed in major opera productions. He’s featured in the musical film De Lovely. He’s enjoyed crossover hits with the Sony Classical singles “Sometimes I Dream” and “Follow Your Heart.” He starred in a PBS special. He performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. He’s toured America. He’s worked with such artists as Placido Domingo, Justin Hayward and Natalie Merchant.
Frangoulis is touring the world to promote his debut album, Sometimes I Dream, which he describes as “an extension of what I believe about good music and life.” Those enduring themes of love, home and family resound on it. “As a human being there’s always a need to be loved and to share the love you have with people,” he said, “whether it’s in a relationship or on stage with an audience.”
The album contains “a lot of personal songs,” he said, including the title track. “It has a very strong connection to what I thought I might be one day.” He said the songs are replete with “great images and great poetry.”
Opera-classical music, he said, “is my biggest love.” Why? “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess opera with its big feelings and huge sentiments has always been part of my life, so in a sense it’s like my feelings found a home in opera. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the only way of expressing myself. I’ve found a way of expressing my life through various styles of music — through a musical theater piece or a great rock song or a great jazz piece. I think they all have greatness. Music, if you’re open to allow it to affect you, it can affect you in so many different ways.”
He said audiences in Omaha can expect a diverse program.
Performing live is the ultimate expression of his art.
“The most honest moment between the audience and myself,” he said, “is the live performance — when the audience shares the song with you and the passion for your music, when you’re both in the same place responding to each other. I feel we are like mirrors — whatever you give to people they will respond to that and give you back. This is the magic of performing live.
“It’s up to you how open you are in allowing yourself to be a channel of communication through your music. It’s up to you to create and recreate yourself within this world. It’s a wonderful journey.”
Frangoulis will perform two additional concerts with the Omaha Symphony, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 2 p.m., also at the Holland.
The special Nov. 7 program honoring young scholars will be hosted by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. Horatio Alger friend Steven H. Durham and family are honorary hosts. Durham’s the son of the late Charles W. Durham, an Alger member. Alger Chairman Emeritus Walter Scott Jr. and his wife, Suzanne, and President/CEO David L. Sokol and his wife, Peggy, will host the events.
Dreamy Mario Frangoulis
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis is a world-class crossover artist. His serious vocal chops, eclectic tastes, adaptable style and abundant stage presence find him at home in different genres and mediums. Not quite 30, he’s already made a mark in opera, popular music theater, film, television, concerts and records.
This hunk and heartthrob with the soaring, multi-octave voice and smoldering Mediterranean passion is the classical equivalent of a rock star. Super Mario headlines three Omaha Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend at the Holland Performing Arts Center on a world tour promoting his debut album, Sometimes I Dream. He described the work as “an extension of what I believe about good music and life” by phone from London.
Frangoulis, who debuted professionally at age 17 in 1998, studied at Guildhall in London and Juilliard in New York. He’s created roles on the West End. He’s performed in major opera houses. He’s featured in the musical film De Lovely. He’s enjoyed crossover hits with the Sony Classical singles “Sometimes I Dream” and “Follow Your Heart.” He starred in a PBS special. He performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. He’s toured America. He’s worked with such artists as Placido Domingo, Justin Hayward and Natalie Merchant.
His repertoire is filled with themes of love, home and family because of what’s happened in his life. “I had a very troublesome childhood,” he said.
Born to Greek parents in Rhodesia, he lived in that African nation until age 4. When anti-aparthaid uprisals erupted there, he was left in the care of an aunt in Greece.
It meant separation from his parents and siblings.
“It was meant to be for a little while until things calmed down and unfortunately they got worse and it took me four years until I saw my parents again. I lost my country, my best friend, my family. It was all very different in Greece. And, of course, I love Greece and I am Greek, but I was born in Africa.”
Feeling lost, he turned to music for solace. It became his salvation. “I was very upset for a long time and always searching for answers and always looking for a way out of myself and I guess I found this outlet through music — a great way for releasing a lot of the anger and hurt feelings,” he said. “Music was a very positive force in my life. I feel very privileged to have had not just the want and the need to express myself but to have some kind of talent that I could then take advantage of and share with the rest of the world.”
His aunt first recognized his gift. Professionals soon took notice, taking him under their wing. The debt he owes to others led to his involvement with the Horatio Alger Association, whose scholarship program helps at-risk youth pursue dreams. On Friday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m., the first of Mario’s three Omaha concerns will recognize on stage 36 current and previous Horatio Alger Scholarship winners in Nebraska.
Mario’s happy to share the spotlight with young people he sees himself in.
“I was very lucky because there were some people who believed in me and I think every child needs someone to believe in them, and the Horatio Alger Association does that. Their scholarships give young people from some very troublesome backgrounds a chance to better themselves and to create their own future. If it wasn’t for people supporting me I’m not sure what I would have done in my life.”
During his visit he’s meeting with the Omaha South High and Omaha Central High student choirs to offer words of inspiration and hope.
His album’s title track touches on the possibilities he imagined for himself on stage once people encouraged him. “It has a very strong connection to what I thought I might be one day,” he said. Opera’s his first love but he enjoys all kinds of music.
“I guess opera with its big feelings and huge sentiments has always been part of my life, so in a sense it’s like my feelings found a home in opera. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the only way of expressing myself. I’ve found a way of expressing my life through various styles of music — through a musical theater piece or a great rock song or a great jazz piece. I think they all have greatness. Music, if you’re open to allow it to affect you, it can affect you in so many different ways.”
A few years ago two very different Omaha theater companies did a twinning in the same space to help save costs. The Blue Barn Theatre is known for cutting-edge contemporary work. The Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company specializes in classics. During this pairing of convenience each organization remained autonomous. The arrangement and relationship proved satisfactory and in short order the Brigit Saint Brigit found enough support to go its own independent way, producing at a revolving slate of sites with the hope of finding a permanent home. The Blue Barn meanwhile consolidated its strong niche in the community and is well positioned for the future. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the afterglow of the twinning experiment.
A Theater Twinning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The venues comprising Omaha’s theater scene have their own identities, each as recognizable as any character or setting in a play.
The grand dame of them all is the Omaha Community Playhouse. She’s the well-heeled matriarch and life-of-the-party who throws sumptuous bashes in her plush digs. Her costumes and decorations are to-die-for but that glitter is sometimes more show than substance. Love her or loathe her, you must give the old gal her due. Secretly every ham desires to shine on her stage.
The other extreme is represented by the intimate Shelterbelt, a small, plucky poverty row entree that wears its penchant for arresting new work on its sleeve. This classic overachiever does wonders despite limited resources, consistently garnering top Theatre Arts Guild awards. The John Beasley Theater & Workshop is in a category all its own as Omaha’s only dedicated African American dramatic arts forum. While the shows aren’t always as polished as they could be, no one can question their heart or authenticity.
Then there’s the bohemian Blue Barn Theatre, which enters its 20th season as this burg’s undisputed home for cutting edge contemporary work, and the aristocratic Brigit Saint Brigit Company, now in its 16th season of presenting classics from the American and Irish stage. Although they seemingly focus on incompatible ends of the spectrum both are committed to professional quality theater. They also share a decidedly serious approach to everything from the fringe to celebrated standards of the theater canon.
Despite glowing reputations the Blue Barn and BSB have always just struggled by. That comes with the territory but things are tougher in these hard economic times. As a way to hedge their bets this pair of Omaha theater fixtures has joined forces to secure their present and realize their ambitious vision for the future.
Last summer the Blue Barn was in debt. The Old Market-based theater held an Aug. 25, 2007 fundraiser to help get its financial house in order. Supporters turned out in droves. Contributions poured in. The immediate threat was resolved but Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, along with her board, sought a long-term alternative to what she called the theater’s “treadmill” existence.
“We’ve dealt with debt before. But after 19 seasons it was time to either grow into something new or to stop,” she said. “I talked to the board and to the founding members. None of them were willing to come back and get back on the treadmill either. So we made the decision that if things did not change, if we did not change our view of what we could be, that we would close.”
Around this same time BSB contemplated losing its home at the College of Saint Mary, which gave the company until mid-2008 to find new quarters. Financially healthy but with no permanent facility lined up for its 16th season, doubt hung in the air. Artistic director Cathy Kurz and executive director Scott Kurz searched for a new home. Wherever the couple looked they found sky high rent. Nothing fit.
That’s when Clement-Toberer called with a solution to both theaters’ dilemmas. She proposed partnering by sharing residence in the Blue Barn space at 614 South 11th Street. The principals were already friends and colleagues who shared a similar forward-thinking, dream-big mindset. All parties concerned viewed it as a good fit aesthetically, philosophically and financially.
Teaming up, as Scott Kurz noted, only made sense. “It’s a win-win. Everybody comes out ahead,” he said. “I think it’s not just smart in a business sense but as an opportunity to present the entire gamut of theater in one place and to see both companies flourish in a way that supports the people who are creating the art.”
This marriage between two of Omaha’s most respected theaters got a dry run during a combined production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse this past spring. BSB’s Scott Kurz and Amy Kunz starred and the Blue Barn’s Clement-Toberer directed.
With the 2008-09 theater season kicking off this month, the two organizations will soon find out how their partnership is received in a space that, until now, has been associated with the Blue Barn. In recognition of the bookend theaters operating out of the same location the shared collaborative site is now called The Downtown Space, lending it a fresh, neutral name in what is a new beginning for each organization. A new sign out front announces the change.
With the two companies under the same roof, using the same stage, will this union dilute the audience base for one or both or will it rejuvenate things and grow audiences? No one knows.
Such questions are important in light of a long term goal the two theaters have of founding a combined professional repertory company in a new space. It was a goal each theater was independently desiring already. Now that they’re partners it’s only natural they pursue this vision together.
“The vision came out of a place of stagnation,” Clement-Toberer said. “We were no longer willing to produce theater in the treadmill way.”
BSB artistic director Cathy Kurz said, “We’re wanting to establish a repertory company where actors and other artists are paid an honorable wage.”
It’s rare, BSB executive director Scott Kurz said, that theater artists can make a living in Omaha practicing their art. “And that’s what we’ve both been working towards as companies since the very beginning. It’s the reason we started doing it because it’s our career, it’s not just a hobby.”
Despite the theaters being in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they’ve merged. The artists describe their union as “a partnership,” which has to do with cooperation and sharing resources. The theaters are not morphing into some hybrid that negates or obscures their signature brands. They remain artistically and administratively autonomous but in a mutually supportive environment.
Each theater is keeping its own identity, maintaining its own budget and retaining its own board and membership base while alternating shows in their respective schedules and collaborating on select other shows.
They have their own separate contacts for both individual show tickets and season subscriptions. They have their own distinct web sites.
The theaters share administrative, storage, technical space and pool some resources to effect cost savings. To accommodate BSB’s office-costuming needs some physical changes have been made to the site’s back stage area.
Along the way, it’s meant “figuring out the new rhythms” of two theaters working side by side.
Clement-Toberer said the new model brought about by the relationship offers a best of both worlds scenario. “We stay separate entities creating theater under the same roof and creating a vision to grow towards a true repertory company.”
For Scott Kurz, it’s all about freedom and possibility. Each theater, he said, retains “the flexibility to do the things we do best. The cool thing about where we are right now is the future is ours. It’s a blank piece of paper and we can incorporate any way we see fit. The benefits to the community we provide in terms of art and theater are only enhanced by our independence. That independence will be used as a selling point because you’re getting two for the price of one.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Cathy Kurz said.
Combining the seasons of two companies has meant some adjustments — the end result being more theater opportunities for audiences. The BSB is now running each of its productions four weekends instead of three and adding Thursday shows to its usual Friday-Saturday-Sunday mix.
Programmatically, the theaters’ alternating productions offer a diverse lineup of old and new classics.
BSB presents: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Sept. 4-27; The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Feb. 5-28; and The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, April 23-May 30. The Blue Barn presents: The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Oct. 16-Nov. 8; Wit by Margaret Edson, Mar. 19-April 11; and Reefer Madness: The Musical, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, June 18-July 11.
A collaborative holiday production by the two theaters presents Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Nov. 28-Dec. 20. The schedules do reflect a broad sampling of theater.
Clement-Toberer said the partnership is already paying dividends in the overwhelming response being felt from the theaters’ patrons. “It’s a very smart business deal,” said Clement-Toberer, who reports “increased” individual and corporate support. The theaters are exploring joint venture grants.
For the first time in either theater’s history, endowments are being started to provide the kind of long term security they’ve never known before.
As Clement-Toberer said, ticket sales alone “do not keep your doors open. In order to grow and to be able to continue to produce theater you have to have donors.”
People are jumping on the bandwagon, the artists say, because they see two established theater companies taking steps to assure their sustainability.
“If one thing has staved both theater companies to the longevity we’ve had it’s been the reputation for the work we do,” Scott Kurz said. “I think we’re finding more doors are open to us because we’re together. The idea of an artistic venue being smart and responsible enough to pool their resources and move forward is a good indicator to corporations and larger foundations that we’re serious about what we say.”
“There are so many true philanthropists that are behind both theaters and they’ve very excited,” said Cathy Kurz, adding that each company brings “credibility” to the table.
It’s a fact of life that small theaters struggle. But none of these artists was willing to settle anymore for what Clement-Toberer described as a “hand-to-mouth” scramble to just get by. Being on that treadmill was exhausting.
“Money never leaves your mind. It’s like a vacuum and it’s sucking out your creativity,” Cathy Kurz said. “So then the thing that is your vocation becomes less fulfilling.”
“The vision had to change to get us out of that rut and that’s what happened,” Clement-Toberer said. “The vision became broader and more direct into what we wanted to do and become.”
Money is being raised. A new space is being sought. Chances are it will be an existing site that’s renovated for reuse. Whatever happens though, the two theaters will continue moving ahead together towards their vision.
‘Experience has shown that it’s always about moving forward,” Scott Kurz said.
“There’s a unique energy that’s coming together. It’s a renewal. It’s like a rebirth,” Cathy Kurz said. “We’re actively looking at our own future,” Scott Kurz added, and that future, Clement-Toberer said, “is bright.”
“We’re going to produce great theater here this season — both companies — and I think possibly some shows better than we’ve done before because we’ll be collaborating,” Clement-Toberer said. “We are going to grow into the premier regional professional company in the Midwest. I see that happening.”
- Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene (latimes.com)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company Sues to Stay in Building (legaltimes.typepad.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)
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- May is Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month (sacbee.com)
- Foundation Hopes To Raise Funds, Hope For Cystic Fibrosis Month (detroit.cbslocal.com)
Unforgettable Nancy Duncan. The late actress, theater director, administrator, and professional storyteller was not someone you could easily dismiss or forget or walk away from unaffected. Her positive energy, whether her bright eyes, smile and laugh or her sunny outlook on life, swept over you like a cool breeze on a warm day. She made you feel good. Her intelligence and truth challenged you to listen and think. Her generous spirit reminded you of the gratitude you ought to demonstrate. Her humility reminded you that the world does not revolve around yourself. Later, when she got sick, I witnessed her courage in the face of a life and death struggle. Even then, she was still giving and sharing, using her battle with cancer to teach and maybe preach a little about how absurd and precious life is. You’ll find a number of stories on this blog that I did about Nancy and her passion for storytelling over the years.
I don’t go into it in the following story, but Nancy’s husband Harry Duncan was one of the world’s most highly respected fine book press printers. His Cummington Press earned he and the books he printed many awards and much praise.
The children’s theater Nancy led changed names from the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre to the Omaha Theater Company for Young People and its home changed from 35th and Center to 20th and Farnam in The Rose, a performing arts for children and families space.
Also, this story doesn’t discuss the long-running storytelling festival in Nebraska Nancy helped found and run and it barely alludes to her becoming a much-in-demand and beloved storyteller at festivals around the country. Some of my other Nancy Duncan stories do explore these facets of her work.
From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s Journey to Storytelling Took a Circutious Route
©by by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
Omaha actress-storyteller Nancy Duncan has always been an independent sort. Born In Indiana, she grew up a tomboy in Illinois suburbs and Georgia backwoods and chafed at her mother’s attempts to make her a debutante. Even after she became a successful performer years later Duncan couldn’t win her approval.
“My mother was a real Anglophile. She was never pleased with my theater work because she wanted me to do glamorous characters, and Baba Yaga was the antithesis of glamour,” Duncan said with her diaphram-rattlng laugh. Baba Yaga is a witch Duncan adapted from Russian literature to create the character she is most closely identified with. “She wanted me to do parts where I wore beautiful clothes but if there was a lizard part in a play I wanted it. It’s always frustrated me I couldn’t play Caliban,” she said, referring to the deformed, half-human slave of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The former executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre is now a full-time performer doing precisely what she wants and loving every minute of it. Duncan appears as Baba Yaga & Friends, the name of her theatrical enterprise, before school and community audiences across the nation. Much of her performing is done under the auspices of state arts council touring programs, including those in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. She recently joined the Mid-America Arts Alliance roster of artists touring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
She spoke recently about her life in the theater at the home she and her husband Harry Duncan share in mid-town Omaha. Curled up cross-legged on a sofa, she was every inch the storyteller and actress with her attentive eyes, animated body movements and expressive hands and voice. She was still excited about a summer sojourn in the United Kingdom. Inspired by the stories of Scotland’s Duncan Williamson, she studied with him and his big family. She said she had written him asking “permission to tell his stories and to absorb th econtext the stories came out of and to get some feeling of what they meant to him and why he told them.”
She got permission, too, returning, she said, “with five more of his books – five you can’t get in the States. I’m well-armed for the next couple years to tell these great stories, and they are wonderful. They’re all stories of the supernatural. And really some of them are very scary,” she said in a hushed voice. “There are real confrontations with the devil.”
Duncan enjoys staying at people’s homes when touring. “Usually that turns out to be a really fun situation and I learn a lot and make friends, and I like to do that. For a storyteller, it’s a nice give and take situation. And I gather a lot of stories that way, too.”
Sponsors booking her may choose from her large repertoire of one-woman shows, whose stories and telling differ greatly. As Baba yaga she is a 600-year-old witch with the disposition to match her warts and fright wig. For “Good Old Crunchy Stories” Duncan appears as herself, yarning folk, fairy and other tales from a variety of cultures. Many stories are borrowed from literary sources. Others are taken directly from families’ history and lore, preserved by the oral tradition. Some are meant for children, others for adults.
An adult show is “Nebraska ’49,” in which she tells the stories of actual pioneer women in their own words, drawing from their diary accounts a portrait of the 1849 transcontinental migration. The trek by wagon train was arduous, often tragic.
“It’s the untold story about what women had to go through on that journey,” said Duncan. “It’s not the glamorized depiction of Little House on the Prairie. Liza (Wilcox) doesn’t want to go. There are things about it she loves but she goes into detail about a lot of the hardships. Liza’s son gets killed in Ash Hollow. The death of her son is just devestating and it was caused by an accident, which is how most deaths on the wagon train occurred. They weren’t caused by run-ins with Indians.”
A new show called “Why the Chicken Crossed the Road” is a humorous children’s hour with characters taken from David Macauley’s book of the same name. It’s one show were laying an egg is part of the fun. Like most of her performances “Why the Chicken” contains simple morals and truths about who we are and “how we live,” she said.
Like our chicken natures.
“At the very beginning I ask the kids if they’ve been called chicken, and most of them have. Then I say, ‘Are you a chicken?’ And they say, ‘No.’ At the end I tell them, ‘I hope you go home and find a way to celebrate the chicken in yourself’ because essentially that’s what the show is – a celebration of my chicken nature, which is the opposite of Baba Yaga, who is, you know, Aaargh…”
Baba Yaga has been a sensation since Duncan first played her in 1981 at the Emmy Gifford. She said kids deluged the theater with letters and phone calls wanting to talk to Baba Yaga. Some even sent breath mints. Although the old hag is still a hit Duncan said Baba Yaga often elitcs disruptive opposition from some Bible-thumpers.
“Fundamentalists picket me all the time because Baba Yaga is a witch and they don’t want their kids exposed to Satanism and witchcraft,” she said sarcastically. “They don’t want their kids to hear fairy tales either. They only want them to hear Bible stories. Not too long ago in Lee County, Iowa the sheriff had to meet me at the county line and escort me to the school. I was flanked by two policemen to protect me from these five crazies.”
Such incidents are not confined to rural areas. Duncan said a Des Moines school turned down her doing residency there “because of flak over Baba Yaga. Just crazy.”
She expects similar protests against her new “Spooky Stories” show populated with witches, wraiths and pranksters.
To needle her adversaries Duncan’s promotional brochure bills “Why the Chicken” with this zinger: “If you are not brave enough to book Baba Yaga and risk losing a few pin feathers, this is the show for you.” She said, “It’s not only me who’s chicken, but the sponsor,” and laughed up a storm.
Duncan does leave audiences spellbound – but with stagecraft, not witchcraft. “In traditional storytelling circles they talk about this sort of hypnotic effect you have on your audience. You look out and see people staring with these slack faces, mouths hanging open and eyes frozen, like they’re daydreaming. It’s kind of nice to see kids or adults totally transported,” she said of the experience of holding a crowd in rapture.
Her charmed audiences range from those at elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities to libraries, community centers and festivals. She is doing more adult work than ever but whatever their age she always prefers “a captive audience. I don’t like situations where people come and go and eat. I like to be where an audience makes the commitment to come and be there for a while. My goal is to transform it into a give and take situation where they become partners in the telling. It’s the same in the theater. You want to get that audience in cahoots with you. Every audience is different because they listen differently. That give and take transforms your telling.”
She said when she and an audience really connect “it becomes a mystical experience and is very moving. Something is happening, both of you are changed because of it, and that’s really, really exciting. That’s what I’m always seeking. It doesn’t always happen.”
Duncan said storytellers are “very much in touch with their audience all the time. It’s like having a good conversation with somebody. It’s not a lecture, you’re there listening and giving back.”
A good audience response, she noted, “may be a special kind of silence or the way they laugh. It’s all in the little things they pick up on. There are certain places where they can’t avoid laughing unless they’e asleep. But there are other many more things they’ll get if they’re really with you. Beyond that, if they give themselves to you, then you discover new things in the performance and telling.”
That happened last October at a Philadelphia area high school. “I was doing a show about self-esteem, and that’s a great theme for that age level. They really went with it and I discovered a bunch of stuff that I didn’t even realize was either moving or funny.”
Duncan first developed an appreciation for storytelling on the lap and at the feet of her grandmother. “She shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until she died when I was 16. My two brothers and I spent a lot of time with her. She was great. She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories. She loved the B’rer Rabbit stories and could do them with a great dialect. And my father was a great storyteller. He liked to perform the story.” She said her father’s animated telling was more like her own than her grandma’s.
As a girl Duncan indulged in rich fantasy play, assuming different identities like so many hats. “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer. My friend and I made leopard suits and claws. We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends.”
When the family moved from Illinois to north Georgia Duncan found a fertile place for her imagination to run wild in the woods near their home. She and her playmates learned the outdoors on “safaris,” she said. “We built little houses and became primitive people living there as long as we could. Our mothers never really had to babysit us – they had a hard time getting us home. It was a safe place. Now, I don’t know whether children could do that.”
The only close call was when moonshiners ran the girls off.
By high school she had years of private art and elocution lessons behind her but she was still a tomboy at heart. When forced to choose between playing basketball and acting, for example, she opted for sport. She played four years.
Her thespian days began at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, a private women’s school. “I was always frustrated there. I wanted to go away to college but I didn’t because my father was ill. He died after my first year.”
Still, she said, she enjoyed school and did very well majoring in English and minoring in art and theater. The 1958 graduate was an aspiring writer and earned a full tuition fellowship to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She “hated” the experience. Intimidated by more aggressive students and kowtowing to her advisers she finished the workshop without doing much writing. She then focused on theater and soon met Harry Duncan, who taught journalism and hand printed fine press books at the university. He taught her typography. Student and teacher fell in love and married in 1960.
After earning an MFA in theater she taught at a Quaker school in Iowa. “That was a wonderful laboratory in experimental theater because I did six plays a year for about eight years – productions which I could not do in Omaha.” One was a German language version of Mother Courage.
By the early ’70s she and Harry were raising a family of three children and Nancy was getting restless. To her rescue came the news that Harry had accepted an offer to teach and operate a small press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is how they both ended up here.
“I was thrilled because Omaha is a big enough city where we could be two totally independent people. In a university town like Iowa City you’re always a faculty wife, and I didn’t want to be a faculty wife anymore.”
She went through a period questioning whether the theater was her true calling, taking classes at UNO with the notion of pursuing a medical career.
“But I realized I’d invested eight years training myself to be in the theater and it was ridiculous to start all over again when my children were teenagers and needed to be home. So I recommitted myself to theater.”
Her start here came as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse (1973-’76), where she staged experimental work. Then the Children’s Theatre entered her life through its founder and namesake – Emmy Gifford – whom she met at a Playhouse awards night.
“We sat on the stage afterwards and talked and we got to know each other that evening. Emmy designed shows for me, too, so we got to be really good friends. She kept asking me to come to the Children’s Theatre but they didn’t even have a building at the time and I didn’t want to start all over again.”
Gifford and two other friends on the Children’s Theatre board kept after Duncan until she said yes, but only if certain conditions were met. Namely, Duncan wanted the amateur organization to become a professional theater that would commit to hiring a multiracial staff and to do color blind casting. She also asked for support of the modern dance company she had started. To her surprise, they said yes on all counts. “It was an amazing commitment that I think very few places would make,” she said.
By the time she joined the theater it had moved to its present site at 35th and Center Streets. But major hurdles remained. “It was very hard work because there were only two of us and we had a budget of $24,000. It was just a mess the first three years.”
When she left in 1986 to go it alone as a professional storyteller the Gifford had “transitioned,” she said, “into a professional theater with a budget of $550,000.” The turning point came in the form of three large CETA grants. “Without that money we wouldn’t have been able to make that transition.” Another key was getting the Omaha Public Schools to sanction class trips to the theater. “Once we got OPS approval it just snowballed.”
The theater board also kept its promises, giving many minorities and dancers opportunities lacking elsewhere. Along the way the Gifford became a success story on the burgeoning children’s theater scene nationally. Today, it’s the fourth largest children’s theater in the U.S. and Duncan is proud of that.
As it grew, however, she had less time for performing and the artistic side. Instead, she found herself saddled with fundraising and marketing duties. “I really burned out on the fundraising. I think that was the part of it I came to hate most. I hated seeing people as dollar bills.”
After deciding to leave she found it hard to let go. “I thought I would have some say in what decisions were made and when I realized that, no, nobody wanted to listen to what I had to say that was really painful. Now I realize it’s absolutely essential that people who take over reject everything that went before because they have to find their own way.”
She feels her messy exit served her well. “If it had been a comfortable, easy departure I don’t think I would have been spurred ahead to do my own stuff as much as I have.” Life as a freelance artist “was kind of scary that first year,” she said, “because my income dropped about a third. That whole business of starting out and adventuring into something new is pretty scary but after the first year it’s really grown. I’m pretty well booked up for this coming school year.” She just returned from a storytelling festival in Wyoming.
But the lean days are not so far removed that she can’t appreciate what an Alex P. Keaton clone said at a Wisconsin grade school she played that first year: “A sixth grader asked, ‘Nancy, would you be able to do what you do if you were not heavily subsidized by your husband’ she recalled with a whoop. “I said, ‘No,’ and I told the teacher he should get an A-plus for ‘heavily subsidized.’ I still don’t have to, you know, pay my rent because my husband does that,” she said with a wink.
- Storytelling: Community through . . . Competition? by Katie Knutson (gracewolbrink.wordpress.com)