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PlayFest broadens theater possibilities: Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works


Much of theater is elitist without even intending to be.  It’s just the nature of what happens when art, academics, and economics collide.  There are of course counter strains to the theater of exclusion.  The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is an interesting study of something that started out as a kind of closed set endeavor hanging on the threads of the  New York City stage establishment but that has made a concerted effort in recent years to break out of its box to be more cutting-edge, community-based, and inclusive.  My story here for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details how the conference’s PlayFest series is leading the way to make theater more engaging and accessible while at the same time more experimental, including site-specific works that draw on multiple genres and that feature work and in some cases collaborations by artists from Omaha and New York that speak to events and concerns in this community.  In keeping with this more communal, democratic spirit of theater, PlayFest events are free and open to the public.  This year’s events are at Kaneko May 27, the Malcolm X Center May 28 and the historic Florence Mill on May 30.  A highlight will be readings by 2014 conference featured playwright Kia Corthron at the May 28 Voices at the Center program at the Malcolm X Center.  That program is a continuation of the Neighborhood Tapestries series the GPTC inaugurated a couple years ago to bring theater into the communtiy or more specifically into neighborhoods.

 

 

 

 

 

PlayFest broadens theater possibilities
Great Plains Theatre Conference events feature community-based, site-specific works

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Great Plains Theatre Conference continues stretching beyond its hidebound beginnings by assuming an ever freer, more engaging public model. Where it was once top-heavy with crusty old lions of the conventional New York City stage, it’s now embracing more contemporary, cutting-edge, community-based artists. Where it often played like an exclusive party or lab for the drama circle set, it’s now a more inviting, inventive forum for artists and audiences alike.

GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler, who’s acutely aware of theater’s challenge capturing audiences, has made the conference more accessible through PlayFest series offerings that take theater outside the box. Lawler entrusts PlayFest to artists from Omaha and New York, where he’s worked as a director, to create site-specific, free-form, multi-genre works that break barriers and embrace community.

“Theatre in the U.S. stagnated heavily in the last century with ticket prices climbing ever higher and content being generated by an overwhelmingly white, male, privileged, linear storytelling, playwright-director based system driven mainly by capitalist economics rather than community enrichment,” he says. “The idea behind PlayFest is to move theater out of the established ‘temples of art’ by experimenting with content, form, means of production and dissemination.

“On top of the spirit of experimentation and exploration we make a special effort to create a Neighborhood Tapestries project performance each year from the stories and history of our own community members. All these aspects combined with the fact PlayFest is free, open to everyone and performed in alternative sites across the city creates a wonderful new dynamic for theater in our community.”

 

Kevin Lawler

 

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.

 

Susann Suprenant

 

“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.

 

Kia Corthron

 

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.

 

Denise Chapman

 

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.

 

Enlarged View

Florence Mill

 

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.

 

Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project

March 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Jason Levering and a group of fellow Omahans has proven just cheeky enough to adapt Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage.  The world premiere of their efforts is March 21 and 22 at the Sokol Auditorium in three performances to benefit the Benson Theatre Project, a nonprofit is primed to purchase and restore a vintage vaudeville and movie house in Omaha’s Benson business district.  Business Theatre Project executive director Amy Ryan says, “My confidence in Jason Levering and his ability to put on a quality production influenced my decision to sign off, along with the other project leaders.” I asked her if she has any trepidation in hanging a fundraiser on a premiere, never-before-staged work, even if it is adapted from a mega popular novel whose title everyone knows and whose author is a brand unto himself. “It’s a tall order, no doubt.  Certainly there were many factors and risks to be considered, but in the end we decided that it was a unique and viable way to raise funds and showcase Omaha’s local talent.”  Levering is also artistic director of the Benson Theatre Project.  What follows is my upcoming story in The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the adaptation, which st least based on the legendary status of the source material and its author has given this production a very high curiosity factor.  For my article I interviewed Levering about various aspects of the project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’

Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Credit Omaha writer-director Jason Levering for possessing the temerity to not only consider adapting Stephen King’s meta horror novel The Shining to the stage but to follow through and actually get the master’s approval. Now he’s only hours away from seeing the adaptation he and Aaron Sailors wrote make its world premiere.

The Shining, A Play, has a three-show run March 21 and 22 at Sokol Auditorium, 2234 South 13th St., the old-line South Omaha space known for live music concerts, not full-blown dramatic theatricals. Make no mistake, this will be a big, effects-laden production commensurate with the sprawling, supernatural-laced source material.

The show’s a fundraiser for the Benson Theatre Project. Levering is artistic director of the nonprofit, which needs $250,000 to purchase the former Benson vaudeville and movie house at 6054 Maple St. before renovation work can begin. It’s adjacent to the Pizza Shoppe and PS Collective, whose owner, Amy Ryan, is the project’s executive director. Ryan, a community advocate and arts supporter, goes way back with Levering, who’s also co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival.

An Aurora, Neb., native, Levering’s worked on short films. He and Sailors are collaborating on a feature film adaptation of short stories from author Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake collection. That project’s on hold while Chaon works on the Starz series Most Wanted. Levering’s s stage credits include acting in the Blue Barn Theatre’s Round Midnight series and adapting Oscar Wilde fairy tales at The Rose theater.

What made him think of reworking what many consider a horror masterpiece? It starts with him being “a huge Stephen King fan.” Then there’s the fact the claustrophobic story largely unfolds in one location, the Overlook Hotel, which lends itself well to stage presentation. Finally, there’s The Shining franchise of the popular novel as well as successful film and television treatments, not to mention the built-in brand that the title and King’s own name bring to any adaptation.

“The genesis started during the 2013 Omaha Gives campaign that raised some money for the theater,” Levering says. “Afterwards we talked about doing our own production as a fundraiser and how while we don’t have our own theater troupe we know enough people that we could try and put something together.

“We didn’t want it to be something that had already been done here. We wanted it to be something special, that is our own. But we also wanted it to be something recognizable. I suggested doing a stage adaptation of a popular book that hasn’t been adapted yet. I naturally fixed on The Shining. We all thought it was a great idea.”

That left the not so small matter of getting the famous author to bestow his blessing on the endeavor.

“You have to get permission from Mr. King for something like that,” says Levering, who made the overture to the agency, Paradigm, that represents the legend.

The go-ahead came easier and quicker than Levering imagined.

“Mr. King read our proposal and he was very interested in what we were doing with the Benson Theatre project and he gave us a limited option to adapt The Shining to stage.”

King also retained the right of approval over the script, the director (Levering) and the cast.

 

 

Jason Levering
Levering next dived deep into the book and into the lore surrounding its inception and he discovered a reason why his instinct to adapt it as a play may have resonated with King.

“In my research I found out Mr. King originally conceived it as a five-act play and then he eventually turned it into a novel.”

Levering’s careful study of the book reintroduced him to the story’s great set-up. Jack and Wendy Torrance and their boy Danny become stranded in a haunted mountain hotel in a winter storm. Danny’s extrasensory gift makes him the target of evil spirits who prey on him through his weak father, intent on forever imprisoning the family there.

“It kind of has everything. The other thing it has going for it is these fantastic characters, Jack especially. He’s written as a good man, a recovered alcoholic with some anger issues but doing his damnedest to pull his family back together. To go from that point where there’s all this hope when they first move into the Overlook to the end where he’s literally trying to kill his family it’s such an incredible journey.”

Distilling the heart of the story took Levering and Sailors some time.

“We went through the book together. Aaron broke it down into an outline so we could figure out the main beats of each scene – what we really needed to capture that was essential. We worked from that outline as we were writing the script. He took Act III, I took Act I, and we started working forward.”

They finished the remaining acts together.

“As we wrote we sent pages back and forth, editing and polishing  each other’s work. We sent pages to another writer friend, Krissy Hamm, an associate producer on the show, and she gave us notes. It really helped to have that third person looking at it.”

Levering says he and Sailors abided by one operating principle.

“We both wanted to be very faithful to the book. A lot of the dialogue is pulled straight from the book. There’s only a few points where the dialogue was changed or something was added so that the scene would play well on stage. For the most part though the dialogue is pretty much Mr. King’s words.”

Other things are being done to make certain story elements live on stage. For example, newspaper accounts Jack reads silently to himself in the novel are projected on a screen. Flashbacks play out on the side while the main action occurs stage center. Creative ways were found to bring the Overlook’s topiary animals to life. Levering is intent on making the physical experience as visceral as possible for the audience and thus, William Castle-style, action and sound will happen throughout the auditorium, including the balcony.

Lighting and sound effects will cast a dark, malevolent mood.

 

 

 

 

Levering consulted Omaha theater veteran Kevin Lawler and brought in veteran scenic designer Kit Gough to help realize the horror.

“I want it to be immersive. I want to give the audience the feeling they really may not go home. I want them to feel they’re sitting in the middle of the Overlook Hotel as it comes to life. From the time you walk in the door it’ll be like you’ve entered the Overlook.”

Levering had his own scary encounter with the work.

“My hardest challenge was the moment the hotel takes over Jack. I was excited to write it but I was also terrified of it because that scene is where his character shifts and becomes the monster. He’s in the Colorado Room and basically the hotel has come to life. Lloyd the bartender manifests and pours him a martini. That scene was difficult for me to write because it’s at that point he turns on his family and I honest to God had nightmares of wanting to hurt my wife and kids, even though I never would.

“The idea someone could turn like that is frightening. It was actually the last scene I wrote. It was the worst for me. I’m also an actor and so method-style I poured myself a martini and drank it while writing. I wanted to feel what he was going through.”

Levering feels “honored” and “thankful” King approved “the direction we’re taking.” The cast is headed by Marc Erickson as Jack, Levering’s son Christopher as Danny and Christina Rohling as Wendy.

An invitation’s been extended King, so don’t be surprised if you spot the king of horror among the throng.

Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

For tickets, visit theshiningomaha.com. For more about the restoration project, visit bensontheatre.org.

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 1 comment

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

 

 

Ray Metoyer

Ray Metoyer

 

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

Omaha Theater Gypsy Gordon Cantiello is Back with New Show

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

 

Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community

April 27, 2013 1 comment

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

 

 

Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine

 

Plays and playwrights remain “the heart” of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.

The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theater artists responding to the work in group and one-one-one feedback sessions.

“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theater community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.

“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now were able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”

Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.

“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that it’s moving them forward as theater artists.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of and finding a playwriting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group and two of her own plays read at the conference have  been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.

“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off.” says Lawler.

He adds that other local theaters also source plays and contacts at the conference.

“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.

“Theres a great exchange that happens.”

Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater  expanding what theater might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.

Works by featured guests are performed, including a water rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon slated for the edge of the Missouri River.

The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art and food of those communities.

“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”

StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding’s being sought for year-round women’s programs.

Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.

Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has “allowed it to grow.” Actors, directors and technicians from the theater community help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.

For the conference schedule, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.

Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing

April 20, 2013 4 comments

 

Writers come in all packages.  Few are packaged as colorfully as Beaufield Berry, a young, talented Omaha playwright who’s just coming into her own as a force to be reckoned with.  Her new original comedy, Psycho Ex Girlfriend, is now playing at the Shelterbelt Theatre in town.  My profile of Berry is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It won’t surprise me if her work eventually gets produced in theaters regionally and nationally.

 

 

Beaufield Berry, ©femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com

 

 

Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Everything about one of Omaha’s bright new playwrights bespeaks exotica, starting with her name, Beaufield Berry. This biracial, bicoastal creative with model good looks has worked as an actor, a singer, a VIP dancer, a burlesque performer, a mud wrestler and a horse ranch entertainment director.

She’s into body-building. She’s fallen in and out of love. She’s suffered broken hearts and broken a few herself. She’s written several plays, a novel, a television pilot and many poems. She’s had works read at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. One ended up staged in New York. Another in Philadelphia.

Her self-described original full-length “dark comedy,Psycho Ex Girlfriend, is in the midst of a month-long run at the Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St., where it continues through May 12. Playwright and former Shelterbelt artistic director Ellen Struve is a champion of Berry’s work. So is new artistic director, ElizaBeth Thompson, who directs the show.

Fans of Omaha native author and playwright Rachel Shukert will find a similar satiric voice in Berry.

Berry calls her play’s title character, Britte, a “crazy, kooky, quirky girl,” adding, “Parts of the show I wouldn’t say are autobiographical but I wouldn’t say they’re extremely foreign to me either. When I was writing the show I had myself kind of in mind. It was a really cathartic writing experience from beginning to end. I was sharing my writing as I usually do with my close, intimate friends, my best friend Katie Beacom-Hurst being one of them. So when it was done at the Shelterbelt Reading Series (in 2012) we had the luxury of hand-picking the cast and there was no one else I wanted to play Britte but Katie, someone who knows me inside out and has watched me take this journey.”

Beacom-Hurst landed the same role in the current Shelterbelt production. Britte’s best friends, KB and Didi, played by Katlynn Yost and Kaitlyn McClincy, morph into several more characters to create a Greek chorus. The boyfriend, Matt, is played by Nick LeMay, who also plays other male roles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berry started Psycho in 2010. By 2011 it lagged as she found herself stuck in a bad case of writer’s block.

“It wasn’t until I went to Central America by myself for two months on this soul journey to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador that I really had a breakthrough.

Once I got out of my surroundings and got alone and foreign the show became really close to the play that’s being performed.”

Berry has another full-length play, He’s Here, being considered for a month-long workshop by the Raven Theatre in Chicago.

It’s a full resume for anyone, especially for the just-turned 29 artist who after years of flitting around has finally settled down. She has a real job at Rebel Interactive, an Omaha branding agency.

“I’ve always had a sense of independence, I’ve always been a do-what-I-want kind of person,” she says.

Upon returning from Central America she says she felt “transformed.” She’s more purposeful than ever about doing her work and getting it produced. But like most writers she’s beset by insecurities about the very thing she cares so much about.

“When it comes to writing it’s the only thing I feel like I’m here for this reason, so it’s very close, it’s very personal. So it just scares me shitless whenever anybody even says anything good. I can’t believe it.”

Her play The Waiting Line about a cross-section of people awaiting organ transplants received an unusually strong response at its Great Plains reading

“It was overwhelming. I walked in there with my mom and my best friend holding their hands, I was so scared. It was very emotional. It’s nerve wracking for me to hear my words in actors’ mouths.

“But that was by far the best response I’ve had to any of my pieces and I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on other shows. One of my panelists called the show ‘raw and visceral, poetic and lyrical.’ Whoa! What?

“I didn’t set out to be any of those things, it just mused through me…

Words tend to automatically flow through her. Like the poems she puts on Redbubble.

“I don’t edit any of that, it all comes straight-out however it comes. Very organically. I feel like if I work it too much or think about it too much I’m going to take all the life out of it.”

 

 

 

Berry

 

 

The feedback she gets from readings and workshops helps her hone her plays.

She’s long had a writing gift though claiming it as her own has been another thing.

“It’s hard for me to even say gift. I really don’t know where it’s coming from. I am a good writer but I can’t think too highly no matter what somebody else says, no matter what I think because not everything is going to be accepted. I’m going to get rejection letter after rejection letter and that hurts. So I just take everything casually. I’m on pins and needles, every single goddam time.”

Growing up she was steeped in creativity by her artist mother, Pamela Berry, who got Beau started in theater at 14. The home-schooled Berry got her experience at churches where her mom organized theater productions and through the Omaha scouting theater troupe, Explorer Post 619. She says working with the troupe “was a great experience,” adding, “You got to write and direct your own shows. We did some awesome stuff and some really bad stuff, too I happen to know a lot of people in the theater community from the Post – people I met there.”

Her involvement with the Post ended around age 19, when the intrigue of dating took hold. She eloped at 20 and divorced soon after. Then in quick succession she put together a burlesque troupe, the Sparkling Diamonds, that opened for some bands before falling apart. She went off to Vegas, where she went by Carmen Rose. There, she formed a hip-hop dance group and relaunched a new version of Diamonds. She was doing off-strip VIP table dancing when she wound up a paid mud wrestler at a club. She did a stint as a Miller Lite Girl.

What possessed her to lead this Reality TV life.

“Oh, it was Vegas, I was 21, I have no idea. I get bored extremely easily and I have to always be looking for the next big thing or something fun to do. I just want to try everything. Like there’s no reason not to.”

Love took her to New Jersey. Philadelphia became a regular haunt. She did some spoken word there. She appeared in a production of Cabaret. Through it all, she kept writing. Eventually her plays got readings in Philly and one, Ugly Birds,  was performed at Spark Fest.

When her East Coast love affair went bad she went to Telluride, Colo., where she wrote The Waiting Line.

There was also a music sojourn in Calif. and various forays to Europe, Canada, Mexico. Her “traveling self” is so engrained that even though she’s seemingly found in Omaha what she’s been searching for she’ll always be footloose and fancy free.

“I think the majority of my soul will never quite be settled anywhere and that’s why I want to give myself the luxury of traveling to places and staying there for a few months spurt, so I can keep my foot in the world.

“What I really love about Omaha that I didn’t find on either coast is there really is an opportunity to create your own world of whatever your art is. There’s a lot of open doors here and if you’re of an entrepreneurial spirit there’s a lot of doors you can open yourself.”

She’s currently looking at forming her own theater production company.

For tickets to Psycho call 402-341-2757 or visit http://www.shelterbelt.org.

 

Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse

February 28, 2013 1 comment

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.

Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans

February 8, 2013 Leave a comment

 

In the theater few artists have what it takes to pull off a one-man or one-woman show that requires creating multiple characters of all different ages and persuasions and that are both believable and compelling.  Daniel Beaty is such a rare artist.  He’s performing his one-man show Emergency Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and it’s a must-see for its thought-provoking and entertaining take on what freedom means to African Americans in the context of the specter of slavery amidst the land of liberty.  My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it’s well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life.

His award-winning play, which he performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, is a bold meditation on freedom. It imagines a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York City. When this worst symbol of slavery rears its ugly head before our greatest symbol of freedom it throws into relief the inconvenient truth that liberty still eludes many African Americans.

“This is a metaphor for what stands in front of our freedom,” Beaty says. “Emergency is an exploration of what it means to be free – free to love, free to have hope, free to find one’s purpose and to live a life that’s bold and fully expressed.”

He says the ideas behind the show come from his own growing up as well as observations he made as a former New York City public schools arts educator, where every day reality contradicted America’s promise of equal opportunity.

“Because of my own personal upbringing and life story I really saw myself reflected in the lives of so many of these young people dealing with similar issues of parents battling incarceration or addiction or poverty,” he says. “It really clarified my purpose as a writer and performer to ask the questions, Why are we here? How can things be better? What world are we leaving for our children? It became clear to me the unhealed legacy of slavery is still impacting the hearts and minds of so many people. It goes back to the breakdown of the family that happened during slavery and our children not being told the story of our history in this country and not understanding the roots of economic disparity.”

For Beaty, the cyclical, generational problems that hold many blacks back have their origins in the psychic shackles of slavery.

“Why do you think there are more black people who are poor and in prison than any other group? Because we’re inferior? No. The ghetto is a modern-day plantation. And don’t get it twisted, I’m not just talking about poor people. You can have a six-figure income, a Ph.D., and still be a slave in your mind.

“I don’t believe in telling the story as excuse-making. People overcome and do the extraordinary every day. But I do believe in telling the story for the sake of context  and saying, ‘You may have been born in the ghetto and your mom and your grandmother may have been in the ghetto and there’s a root for this economic disparity. But the same way there’s a root for that disparity there is a story of tremendous overcoming and possibility that can also inspire you to be greater than your circumstances may cause you to believe you can be.”

Beaty’s a case in point. The Dayton, Ohio native’s father became a career criminal and heroin addict. With his father in and out of prison Beaty and his older brother were raised by their social worker mother, Shirley Magee.

“My mother is a phenomenal woman. She grew up very poor in a small North Carolina town. She and her family participated in boycotts and sit-ins. She saw the  becoming and the challenges of that period in our history. She’s just a fighter by nature, so in the midst of my father’s incarceration and addiction she made sure we were provided for at the expense of her own rest. She worked long hours and took care of her children.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel’s prodigious writing and speaking skills set him on a path to higher education. The Yale University and American Conservatory Theater graduate has written a string of solo (Through the Night) and ensemble (Resurrection) plays that have garnered acclaim.

Dedicated to being an “artist activist,” he says his activism is “rooted in everything I write anyway but I’m more and more being asked to participate in causes, in conversations around social issues. I personally believe that with a platform of fame or celebrity comes the responsibility to be a participant in the social discourse. With the privilege of people saying we listen to you, we want to hear from you comes a responsibility to give voice to those who don’t have that voice. That’s a big lesson I was taught by some of my mentors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, who used the platform of their celebrity or performance to talk about important issues.”

He feels there’s also a healing and bridging his work offers audiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“One of the main reasons I choose to perform and write solo plays is because I believe inherent in seeing one person portray dozens of characters in a truthful, three-dimensional manner is the message that we are all connected. I sincerely believe our greatest problems as a world are rooted in the illusion we are separate from one another and different from one another. Certainly there are points of difference but I sincerely believe we are more alike than we are unalike,” he says.

“I think it’s in the space of understanding our shared humanity that we have the best possibility of healing the social economic disparities and ending the violence that plague societies. We are responsible to each other and for each other.”

He says his work falls in line with the African-American oral tradition and its contemporary spoken word off-shoots.

“One of the framing devices of the play is a nationally televised competition of slam poets called ‘America’s Next Top Poet,’ It’s a riff on the reality TV talent competitions we have today and a platform for various characters in the show who are thematically responding to the various things happening in the play.

“I look at slam poetry as having its roots in the black arts movement of the 1960s and while I certainly have respect for certain hip hop artists and particularly the roots of hip hop the slam poetry I endeavor to write is poetry about uplift, and investigating a social-political human scene in need of urgent, passionate exploration. I don’t write about things I would consider every day, mundane or not in support of us becoming our best selves as human beings. I write about things I feel are very urgent, like the state of our young people, the state of our families.”

Outside the New York theater scene he’s perhaps best known for having been a Def Poetry Jam regular. His performance there of the poem “Knock, Knock,” taken from his own Emergency, became a YouTube sensation. He uses slam poetry and spoken word as testimonies that comment on the incendiary events of his plays. He likes what can be expressed through the slam style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I actually call the moments of heightened poetic expression in my shows soul arias. They’re moments of direct address that are these passionate two to three minute explosions of poetic expression that crystalize not only an idea or theme but an emotional feeling in a powerful, poignant way that can parallel the aria in opera or the soliloquy in Shakespeare.

“‘Knock, Knock’ is a perfect example.”

The searing poem affirms that parents’ bad decisions need not define their children’s lives.

 

Knock knock for me.

For as long as you are free,

These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.

The best of me still lives in you.

Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,

But you are not my choices.

Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,

But we are not their choices.

For despite their absences,

We are still here,

Still alive,

Still breathing,

With the power to change this world

One little boy and girl at a time.

Knock knock,

Who’s there?

We are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ultimately what I discovered is that no matter where we come from or where we are in terms of challenges or difficulties we have the power to create our lives,” Beaty says. “My deepest pain was the path to my highest purpose. By really dealing with the challenges of my past and looking at them straight in the face I discovered I have a story to tell. I’m able to create the kind of life I want out of clarity of who I’m choosing to be, not out of fear of who I could be based on my past.”

It’s a message he’ll share with youths during his Sherwood Foundation-sponsored Omaha visit in workshops at North, South and Central high schools and with the Young, Gifted & Black teen troupe at The Rose Theater.

For updates about the artist visit http://www.danielbeaty.com.

For tickets to Emergency, visit TicketOmaha.com.

Playwright Carlos Murillo’s Work Explores Personal Mythmaking


 

 

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.”

A writers group led him to “two hugely influential teachers” — Eduardo Machado and Maria Irene Fornes.

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.

 

 

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