The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but 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.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area
The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash. It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
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Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: ”Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ’Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Encounter Magazine
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
Laura Love assumes as many different looks as she does musical styles. She’s a mixed blood in that sense. None of it with her seems false or forced, either. She’s a genuine seeker who’s spent the better part of her life connecting with her varied roots and influences and constantly in the process of evolving, growing, redefining herself. She’s a talented musician, writer, and singer who comes from a rich music legacy. This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from 2008, when she came to perform a concert in our shared hometown of Omaha. A few years earlier I did an extensive cover story about her and her coming out the other side of a chaotic childhood and adolescence. You can find that earlier piece on this blog. Part of her story, and something she writes about in her superb autobiography You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes and that I write about in that cover article, is that she’s the illegitimate daughter of the late Omaha jazz icon Preson Love Sr. You’ll find on this blog several stories I wrote about Preston.
Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Laura Love defies labels. As a light-skinned, Seattle-based, African American singer-songwriter whose work gravitates to folk, country, bluegrass Americana, she’s heard it all. That she’s not a down sister. That acoustic roots music is uncool for a black person to play. That it belongs to whites or, in the case of the Negro spirituals and slave songs she recaptures, it’s outdated, passe.
Love, who performs an 8 p.m. concert with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jen Todd on Friday, Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center, said the more she immerses herself in the music the more she’s drawn to it. “This is great music. It’s rhythmic, its soulful, it’s got harmonies, it’s got our spiritual history, our cultural history. The Bible-centric sentiments in it, to hold on and of endless, boundless love, are expressed beautifully and eloquently, so I’ve really come to love the music.”
She sees a small resurgence of black artists returning to this heritage sound and the instruments identified with it — banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar. Her own new band, Harper’s Ferry, includes black banjo, fiddle and dobro players.
The wry Love variously calls her hybrid style folk-funk, Afro-Celtic or hip-Alachian. Her latest CD, NeGrass (2006, Octoroon Biograph), refers to what she is — a black woman performing bluegrass. The concept album is inspired by her slave ancestors’ journey to freedom. She delivers her sagely-observed, incisively-phrased original songs, along with traditional spirituals, field hollers and folk tunes, in a soaring, soulful voice, accompanied by her electric bass licks and backed by a seasoned Nashville ensemble. The work is infused with indignation and pride.
The bitter, joyous fruit of race runs through NeGrass, a sarcastic yet hopeful plea for understanding. Her song “Passing” deals with the notion that shades of skin color affect how people are perceived. Love said her own European-like features elicit different responses than her sister Lisa’s darker, African-like features.
“When are we going to fully realize how much richer the world and life and our experiences would be if we would just move past really insignificant differences in the color of our skin?” she said.
Another stigma the sisters struggled with was being the illegitimate offspring of Preston Love Sr., the late Omaha jazz musician. Their mother, Wini Jones, sang in a band he led. Their attempts to connect with him and his family had mixed results.
Laura’s searing 2004 CD and book, You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes, chart her coming-of-age odyssey in Omaha and Lincoln. Growing up she confronted issues of race, identity and belonging amid her mother’s mental collapse. Nebraska’s where Love discovered her voice and the father and family she never knew.
Her father’s dogmatic stance that jazz music is the exclusive province of blacks, she said, is no different then blacks dismissing bluegrass as the sole domain of whites. She makes no such distinctions.
“There’s virtually no place in American music where the music of white people is not influenced by blacks and the music of black people is not influenced by whites,” she said, “and that’s a good thing. Music is dynamic, it’s not static. It comes from some place and it evolves to a place. It’s like it’s always being expanded and to narrow it…is kind of backwards thinking. I feel like my richest experiences as a musician and an artist are playing with people from other cultures.”
A keen, outspoken observer, Love resists limitations. “Maybe if Barack wins the presidency we’ll feel we don’t have to fit so clearly into categories anymore. We can just branch out and do what feels good to us,” she said.
Her vocal opposition to George W. Bush, articulated in her song “I Want Him Gone,” has seen her solo bookings drop in red states. She won’t be silenced. “I can’t be happy-happy while the world burns,” she said. All you can do, she added, is “just get out there and say it and play it the way you want.”
Given her links to Nebraska, she’s curious about who will come to her Friday gig. She doesn’t expect many black folks. Then again, she might meet a new relative. It’s happened before.
- The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community
I’ve been writing about the Great Plains Theatre Conference since its start eight years ago and while I don’t get the chance to write at length about it and its guest artists the way I used to, I still manage an assignment like this one, which is an interview with producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. He’s been moving the event in some different directions that put more focus on fewer plays and playwrights and that connect the conference more deeply with the community. My story appears in Omaha Magazine.
The 2013 Great Plains conference is May 25 through June 1. It’s a wide mix of readings, productions, and special events, all of it geared to celebrating plays and playwrights and the theater.
On this blog you can find the many other stories I’ve filed over the years about the conference and some of its guest artists, including interviews with Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, and Patricia Neal. In fact, you’ll find here many other theater pieces I’ve written over time. Enjoy.
Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine
Plays and playwrights remain “the heart” of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.
The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theater artists responding to the work in group and one-one-one feedback sessions.
“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theater community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.
“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now were able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”
Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.
“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that it’s moving them forward as theater artists.”
Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of and finding a playwriting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group and two of her own plays read at the conference have been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.
“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off.” says Lawler.
He adds that other local theaters also source plays and contacts at the conference.
“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.
“Theres a great exchange that happens.”
Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater expanding what theater might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.
Works by featured guests are performed, including a water rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon slated for the edge of the Missouri River.
The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art and food of those communities.
“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding’s being sought for year-round women’s programs.
Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.
Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has “allowed it to grow.” Actors, directors and technicians from the theater community help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.
For the conference schedule, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/gptc.
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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- Brand new works by Washington state playwrights in festival at Burien Little Theatre (highlinetimes.com)
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- Chicago Writers’ Bloc to Showcase 13 New Plays at Next Theatre Co. in Evanston (chicagostagestandard.com)
- Playwrights-In-Residence and The Meaning Of Homegrown Theatre (undermainblog.wordpress.com)
- New works by Washington playwrights in festival at Burien Little Theatre (b-townblog.com)
- Local Playwright Gears Up for Big Theatre Event in Washington, DC (oldschool1053.com)