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.
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.
©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.
Omaha theater has its stalwart, perennial, deeply rooted figures who do their thing here year in and year out. Theyre just always part of the scene and therefore you can always count on them for a certain number of shows, often at the same venues. Then there’s someone like Gordon Cantiello, who was once a constant presence himself on stages in town before taking a job to teach theater on the west coast. He’s an actor, director, producer. But he never really left Omaha. He’s come back intermittently since his move and with increasing frequency the last few years to put on cabaret revues such as the popular Beehive. He’s had great success with theatpiece in Omaha on four different occassions, including last year. Now this theater gypsy is back with a production of Always…Patsy Cline, another show he’s had success with. The limited engaement run begins Aug. 10. The diminutive, quiet-spoken Cantiello is known for getting the best out of his actors and staging rousing, audience-pleasing productions. He’s never had a real theater home here but he considers Omaha home and has even purchased a place here as his second residence. He’s thinking of opening his own theater venue here once he retires from teaching. Then this theater gypsy might finally settle down again.
Omaha Theater Gypsy Gordon Cantiello is Back with New Show
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Theater gypsy Gordon Cantiello is back in town again.
The stage veteran and former full-time Omaha resident teaches speech and theater at a private school in San Diego, Calif. When he lived here he put on dozens of plays from the early 1970s through the mid-’80s but made his biggest splash in 1992 when he produced and directed Beehive, an all-female rock ‘n’ roll musical revue that played 10 months at the Howard Street Tavern in the Old Market.
He revived the piece in 1996 and 2002 and again last year at The Waiting Room in Benson, when he gathered four original cast members in local divas Kathy Tyree, Tiffany White-Welchen, Ginny Sheehan Hermann and Sue Gillespie Booton.
“I’ve done a lot of different things in Omaha but without a doubt Beehive had the longest run,” he says.
Now he’s returned with another cabaret production he’s visited before, Always…Patsy Cline, which begins a limited engagement at The Waiting Room on August 10 through his own Performing Artists Repertory Theatre. Erika Hall , who essayed the title part in an Omaha Community Playhouse production, portrays the country singer and Cantiello favorite Gillespie Booton plays fan-turned-friend Louise Seger.
Cantiello’s been a player on the local theater scene since the East Coast native first came here in 1972 to head the theater department and teach part-time at Dominican High School. Prior to that he made the rounds in summer stock and Broadway auditions trying to make it as an actor. Though he got work going on all those cattle calls was difficult. He didn’t like the “insecurity” of never knowing where his next job was coming from.
Fortunately, he listened to his parents and theater coaches and pursued his education. He earned an undergraduate degree in speech and theater from Ricker College (Maine), teacher certifications in Neb, and Calif. and a master’s from Schiller International University in West Germany.
“I think I always knew I was a teacher and a director,” he says.
When his gig at Dominican High ended he supported himself waiting tables while acting at Omaha’s three dinner theaters – the Westroads, the Upstairs and the Firehouse. The old insecurity bug bit again and he wound up teaching speech and theater at Duchesne Academy from 1981 to 1986. With some prodding from Cantiello his brightest student, Tiffany White-Welchen, became a star performer at the Firehouse and later one of the stalwarts in his Beehive.
He left in ’86 for San Diego, where he’s lived and worked since, but he’s never stopped reengaging with Omaha theater. He bought a home here eight years ago and plans making this his main residence and staging ground once he retires.
“I knew I liked Omaha when I landed here. There’s just something about the city, the people that’s friendly. It is my home, I love it here, I feel comfortable here, I feel accepted here. I feel the warmth of the people.”
He’s also found devoted followers for his brand of theater.
“My niche is cabaret. People miss the dinner theater experience, where the theater’s sort of all around you and people can relax, have a cocktail, watch a show and have something to eat.”
If his name is not readily familiar it’s because Cantiello’s never been affiliated with a single venue or two, Instead, he’s freelanced from place to place. There may not be anyone who’s put on such a variety of shows in such diverse locations in the metro.
He’s did Side by Side by Sondheim and Celebration at M’s Pub, The World Goes ‘Round at the Jewish Community Center, Smokey Joe’s Cafe at Harrah’s Casino, Kathy Tyree and Friends at The Max, Oliver at the Omaha Music Hall, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Chanticleer Theater and the Lincoln Community Playhouse. He also did shows at funky spots no longer around, including Smokey Joe’s at The Ranch Bowl and Forever Plaid at Frankie Pane’s.
In addition to Beehive at the Howard Street, he did Always…Patsy Cline, Reunion, Studs and Kathy Tyree and Friends there. His most prolific spot was the French Underground below the French Cafe, where he staged Jacques Brel, Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Belle of Amherst, Some Enchanted Evening, Dames at Sea and Side by Side by Sondheim.
Over the years he’s worked with some of Omaha’s top female stage artists and he admires them all: Phyllis Doughman (“a remarkable actress”), Kathy Tyree (“a wonderful cabaret performer with an incredible voice and personality people love”), Tiffany White-Welchen (“a great talent”) and Sue Gillespie Booton (“I love her work ethic – she just jumps in”). There’s also been Nola and Carole Jeanpierre, Patty Driscoll and now Erika Hall.
“All those women are really talented.”
He’s counted many of them as friends. They appreciate what he’s done for them.
Tyree says Cantiello helped her “go to my next level as a professional entertainer,” adding “He has very high expectations of us as performers. I love him as a friend and a producer and a director.” She says she can always expect him to get intense when something’s wrong. “That’s the perfectionist in him. He wants it right.”
None of his Omaha ties would have likely happened if he hadn’t done summer stock at the Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, Mass. An Omaha woman was the music director there but taught at Dominican back here during the school year. She let him know the school was looking for a theater director. After doing the New York thing again a real job sounded good and he applied and got hired at the school.
Another reason he’s not a household name despite his many credits is that he’s been mostly on the West Coast the last quarter century, only returning for those cabaret originals and revivals. He’s reinvented himself several times but in the last act of his life he’s content doing theater his way.
“It’s a tough road but if you’re passionate about it and do it there’s nothing that can stop you, and I’ve done it and I’m proud of that.”
That philosophy goes back to some career advice he got from theater legend Mary Martin, whom he was infatuated with from network television broadcasts of her iconic title role in the satge hit, Peter Pan.
“I wrote to her and she wrote back (with a signed 8 by 10 glossy of herself). She said, ‘Billy Rose (famous impresario) once told me to go back to Texas and run a dance school and be a housewife. Had I listened to him I would never have had the pleasure of entertaining you and countless others. So go with your passion, go with your heart, and nothing can stop you.’ It was very liberating and encouraging and to this day I have her picture hanging in my office, though I have to explain to my students who she was and all she did.”
From the start, he could never get enough theater. As a young man he helped start a children’s theater and at one point found himself doing four productions at once.
“I had all this energy. I loved it so much.”
Today’s Omaha theater community is different than the one he came to all those years ago. He likes the mix of viable companies and venues that’s evolved.
“It surprises me that in Omaha there’s so much and all the theaters seem to do well.
Theater breeds theater. The more you have that, the better the community. I think Omaha may be ready to take that step of having a professional equity theater. It very well will happen I think.”
He’s even eying his own venue to host the kind of productions he’s become best identified with. He’d like to offer classes, too.
For Always…Patsy Cline dates, times and tickets call 402-706-0778 or visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
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.