When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
Here’s another piece that didn’t make it into print, and so I’m publishing it here. It’s the story of how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.
Camille Metoyer Moten
When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook
©by Leo Adam Biga
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.
That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I am healed.” Anyone unfamiliar with her spiritual side before discovered it once she began posting positive, faith-filled Facebook messages about her odyssey and ultimate healing, which she attributes to a Higher Power.
Her frequent “Fabulous Cancer-Free Babe” posts gained a loyal following. Many “Facebook Prayer Warriors” commented on her at-once intimate, inspirational and humorous musings. One follower quipped, “Your posts are like going to church at the Funny Bone.”
Metoyer Moten decided cancer was an experience she couldn’t deny.
“When you perform your whole thing is pulling people into this artistic moment with you. When I got the cancer and started posting about it I thought, Well, this is my song, this is the song I have right now and I want people to feel everything I’m feeling, the good parts and the bad parts, and at the end I want them to see the glory of God in it.”
The humor, too. She described the asymmetry of her reconstructed breasts. While losing and regaining hair she called her bald head “Nicki MiNoggin,” then once patches came back – “Chia Rivera.” She’s since dubbed her swept-back scraggle, “Frederick Douglass.”
“I wrote it as I saw it. If it struck me funny, that’s what it was. I will talk about anything, I just will. I’m just like this open book.”
That extended to shares about weight gain and radiation burns
Mainly, she was a vehicle for loving affirmations in a communal space.
What support most touched her?
“Probably just the amount of prayer,” says Metoyer Moten, whose husband Michael Moten heads One Way Ministry. “Every time I said, ‘Please pray,’ there were people right there and sometimes they would put their prayer right on the post, which was awesome. Some of the encouraging things they would say were really special. The Facebook people really did help to keep me lifted and encouraged and they said I did the same for them.
“It almost never failed there were things I read I needed to hear. We had this beautiful circle going of building each other up.”
Camille with fellow Omaha singer-actress Jill Anderson, who’s dealing with her own health issues (you can find my story about Jill and her journey on this blog)
The sharing didn’t stop at social media exchanges.
“The thing I loved were the personal notes I got from people asking me to write to loved ones going through something, and I wrote to them just to encourage them because that was the whole purpose – to tell people who you go to in time of trouble.”
She’s writing a book from her Facebook posts.
“My goal is to encourage people and to glorify God and to talk about how social media can be a meaningful thing.”
Camille being Camille, she went beyond virtual sharing to invite Facebook friends, all 2,000-plus of them, to “chemo parties” at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “I usually had about 12 to 15 people. The nurses were very sweet because sometimes we’d get too loud and people would bring food. Other patients sometimes joined the party, which was kind of my point – to liven it up. We just had a ball.”
It wasn’t all frivolity.
“We would pray on the chemo machine that the chemo would affect only the cancer cells and leave the good cells alone. Once, a woman rolled her machine over for us to lay hands on hers as well. It was just a beautiful testimony.”
Cancer didn’t stop Metoyer Moten from cabaret singing or acting
“Even though I had a little harder time every now and again it didn’t stop me from doing anything.”
She even believes she came out of it a better performer.
“I’m not a very emotional person but sometimes to connect spiritually you have to have a little more emotion involved. I think now the stuff I’m doing on stage is better because I think I’ve connected to myself better emotionally. I think I had stuffed things down a long time ago. This made me realize it’s okay to have some emotions.”
Fellow performers David Murphy and Jill Anderson walked with her on her journey. Now that they’re battling their own health crises, she’s
there for them.
She’s glad her saga helps others but doesn’t want cancer defining her.
“A long time ago I decided there’s no one thing that’s the sum total of your entire life. I’m happy to talk about what God did for me during this experience, but I’m not going to dwell on the cancer bit forever.
“I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Cancer.’ I want them to look at me and say, ‘Healthy…healed.'”
Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.
Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world
If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.
“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”
An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.
“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”
With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”
Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.
“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.
Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.
“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.
“It was all about illusion.”
Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.
“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.
“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”
Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.
“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”
It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.
“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”
He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.
“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”
Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.
That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,
“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”
Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.
“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”
Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”
A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.
For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.
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.
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.
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- “Always…Patsy Cline” show returns to Gardendale July 12 and 13 (al.com)
When interviewing an artist there’s always the point where you ask the obvious question, Where do your ideas come from? or What influences does your work draw on? And, of course, the answers are at once right in front of us, because ideas spring from life, and concealed, because ideas also germinate in the imagination and subconscious. And since every artist’s life is individual there are as many variations to those inspirational sources as there are artists. Playwright Carlos Murillo is someone I interviewed many months ago in anticipation of one of his plays being performed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Our conversation veered into some of the touchstone experiences that help shape who he is and what he writes about.
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s Work Explores Personal Mythmaking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Playwright and DePaul University theater professor Carlos Murillo has established a national reputation with such works as Dark Play or Stories for Boys, which UNO Theatre is staging Feb. 23-26 and March 2-5.
The theater world is small. For example, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad student met Murillo at a Kennedy Center theater festival in Washington, D.C. Aware Murillo’s Dark Play was slated for production by UNO, the student set the wheels in motion for the playwright’s campus visit in January. At UNO Murillo guest taught a class, observed a rehearsal and attended a reading and a discussion of his work.
“It was a really fun experience,” says Murillo, who spoke to El Perico by phone from Chicago.
He enjoys interacting with students and teachers over his work.
“It’s a really cool thing when a group of people you don’t know are engaging with something you’ve created. Making theater is like solving a very complex problem,” he says, adding he likes contributing to the process of unlocking a play’s mysteries. His participation, he says, is “sort of honoring that people are committing to something that’s meaningful to them and that hopefully will have some impact in their training or in their thinking about the world.”
Catching up to productions of his plays “is sort of like visiting your kid after they graduate from college,” he says. “They’re trucking along doing their own thing and you meet up with them every now and then and check in.”
The concepts or issues his work explores become talking points in the classes he teaches. “It keeps the mind in shape and it serves as a great laboratory of ideas,” he says. While he didn’t set out to be an educator, he’s come to embrace the role.
“I do love it.”
There’s also a more practical side to teaching.
“Making a living as a playwright is next to impossible,” he says, “Most of the writers I know either have teaching gigs or write for TV or do other stuff because it’s very difficult to make a living just off of ones playwriting.”
His path has been both traditional and nonconventional.
Born in the U.S to immigrant parents — his mother’s Puerto Rican and his father Colombian — Murillo mostly grew up in Long Island, NY. As a boy he spent three years in South America, where his father was transferred by his employer, Bank of America. Wherever Murillo lived, he was drawn to creative expression.
“As far as writing’s concerned it was something I was always interested in from the time I was a kid. I was always writing poems and short stories and stuff like that. I also had a real passion for theater early on. I acted in a lot of plays in junior high and high school, and those twin passions kind of merged and I became a playwright.”
During a long theater apprenticeship his family encouraged him and still does.
“My parents are remarkably supportive. I’m grateful for that.”
Murillo attended Syracuse University to study acting but dropped out and traveled for a time before returning to New York to work at various theaters. All the while, he continued writing. He learned under several master practitioners, including acclaimed director Robert Woodruff. “He was a huge influence,” says Murillo.
As the Public Theater’s associate literary manager Murillo came into contact with “a parade of extraordinary artists,” adding, “It’s an amazing institution and it was kind of like the best grad school you can imagine.”
Murillo went from self-produced plays in small Manhattan venues to being invited to developmental residencies and his work being widely read and produced.
A consistent theme in his work, he says, is “the idea of personal mythmaking — the stories we tell ourselves or tell to other people about ourselves and the relationship of those stories to the actual reality of who we are.” Dark Play examines what happens when a character spins fictions that have real life consequences.
As a playwright Murillo straddles different worlds and must be a quick study in each, skills he’s well practiced in because of the way he grew up. “While my parents spoke Spanish and English at home my cultural references were rock music, TV and all the pop culture things most Americans have,” he says. “I had the experience of living in South America as well. It’s like having one foot in two different identities.”
He writes about Latino identity in oblique and direct ways. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing is autobiographical about what it means to be Latino in America. A fictional playwright, Javier C., is a recurring character in his plays.
- Video: Latino playwright Nilo Cruz sees each of his plays as a “miracle” (latinalista.com)
Unforgettable Nancy Duncan. The late actress, theater director, administrator, and professional storyteller was not someone you could easily dismiss or forget or walk away from unaffected. Her positive energy, whether her bright eyes, smile and laugh or her sunny outlook on life, swept over you like a cool breeze on a warm day. She made you feel good. Her intelligence and truth challenged you to listen and think. Her generous spirit reminded you of the gratitude you ought to demonstrate. Her humility reminded you that the world does not revolve around yourself. Later, when she got sick, I witnessed her courage in the face of a life and death struggle. Even then, she was still giving and sharing, using her battle with cancer to teach and maybe preach a little about how absurd and precious life is. You’ll find a number of stories on this blog that I did about Nancy and her passion for storytelling over the years.
I don’t go into it in the following story, but Nancy’s husband Harry Duncan was one of the world’s most highly respected fine book press printers. His Cummington Press earned he and the books he printed many awards and much praise.
The children’s theater Nancy led changed names from the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre to the Omaha Theater Company for Young People and its home changed from 35th and Center to 20th and Farnam in The Rose, a performing arts for children and families space.
Also, this story doesn’t discuss the long-running storytelling festival in Nebraska Nancy helped found and run and it barely alludes to her becoming a much-in-demand and beloved storyteller at festivals around the country. Some of my other Nancy Duncan stories do explore these facets of her work.
From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s Journey to Storytelling Took a Circutious Route
©by by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
Omaha actress-storyteller Nancy Duncan has always been an independent sort. Born In Indiana, she grew up a tomboy in Illinois suburbs and Georgia backwoods and chafed at her mother’s attempts to make her a debutante. Even after she became a successful performer years later Duncan couldn’t win her approval.
“My mother was a real Anglophile. She was never pleased with my theater work because she wanted me to do glamorous characters, and Baba Yaga was the antithesis of glamour,” Duncan said with her diaphram-rattlng laugh. Baba Yaga is a witch Duncan adapted from Russian literature to create the character she is most closely identified with. “She wanted me to do parts where I wore beautiful clothes but if there was a lizard part in a play I wanted it. It’s always frustrated me I couldn’t play Caliban,” she said, referring to the deformed, half-human slave of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The former executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre is now a full-time performer doing precisely what she wants and loving every minute of it. Duncan appears as Baba Yaga & Friends, the name of her theatrical enterprise, before school and community audiences across the nation. Much of her performing is done under the auspices of state arts council touring programs, including those in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. She recently joined the Mid-America Arts Alliance roster of artists touring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
She spoke recently about her life in the theater at the home she and her husband Harry Duncan share in mid-town Omaha. Curled up cross-legged on a sofa, she was every inch the storyteller and actress with her attentive eyes, animated body movements and expressive hands and voice. She was still excited about a summer sojourn in the United Kingdom. Inspired by the stories of Scotland’s Duncan Williamson, she studied with him and his big family. She said she had written him asking “permission to tell his stories and to absorb th econtext the stories came out of and to get some feeling of what they meant to him and why he told them.”
She got permission, too, returning, she said, “with five more of his books – five you can’t get in the States. I’m well-armed for the next couple years to tell these great stories, and they are wonderful. They’re all stories of the supernatural. And really some of them are very scary,” she said in a hushed voice. “There are real confrontations with the devil.”
Duncan enjoys staying at people’s homes when touring. “Usually that turns out to be a really fun situation and I learn a lot and make friends, and I like to do that. For a storyteller, it’s a nice give and take situation. And I gather a lot of stories that way, too.”
Sponsors booking her may choose from her large repertoire of one-woman shows, whose stories and telling differ greatly. As Baba yaga she is a 600-year-old witch with the disposition to match her warts and fright wig. For “Good Old Crunchy Stories” Duncan appears as herself, yarning folk, fairy and other tales from a variety of cultures. Many stories are borrowed from literary sources. Others are taken directly from families’ history and lore, preserved by the oral tradition. Some are meant for children, others for adults.
An adult show is “Nebraska ’49,” in which she tells the stories of actual pioneer women in their own words, drawing from their diary accounts a portrait of the 1849 transcontinental migration. The trek by wagon train was arduous, often tragic.
“It’s the untold story about what women had to go through on that journey,” said Duncan. “It’s not the glamorized depiction of Little House on the Prairie. Liza (Wilcox) doesn’t want to go. There are things about it she loves but she goes into detail about a lot of the hardships. Liza’s son gets killed in Ash Hollow. The death of her son is just devestating and it was caused by an accident, which is how most deaths on the wagon train occurred. They weren’t caused by run-ins with Indians.”
A new show called “Why the Chicken Crossed the Road” is a humorous children’s hour with characters taken from David Macauley’s book of the same name. It’s one show were laying an egg is part of the fun. Like most of her performances “Why the Chicken” contains simple morals and truths about who we are and “how we live,” she said.
Like our chicken natures.
“At the very beginning I ask the kids if they’ve been called chicken, and most of them have. Then I say, ‘Are you a chicken?’ And they say, ‘No.’ At the end I tell them, ‘I hope you go home and find a way to celebrate the chicken in yourself’ because essentially that’s what the show is – a celebration of my chicken nature, which is the opposite of Baba Yaga, who is, you know, Aaargh…”
Baba Yaga has been a sensation since Duncan first played her in 1981 at the Emmy Gifford. She said kids deluged the theater with letters and phone calls wanting to talk to Baba Yaga. Some even sent breath mints. Although the old hag is still a hit Duncan said Baba Yaga often elitcs disruptive opposition from some Bible-thumpers.
“Fundamentalists picket me all the time because Baba Yaga is a witch and they don’t want their kids exposed to Satanism and witchcraft,” she said sarcastically. “They don’t want their kids to hear fairy tales either. They only want them to hear Bible stories. Not too long ago in Lee County, Iowa the sheriff had to meet me at the county line and escort me to the school. I was flanked by two policemen to protect me from these five crazies.”
Such incidents are not confined to rural areas. Duncan said a Des Moines school turned down her doing residency there “because of flak over Baba Yaga. Just crazy.”
She expects similar protests against her new “Spooky Stories” show populated with witches, wraiths and pranksters.
To needle her adversaries Duncan’s promotional brochure bills “Why the Chicken” with this zinger: “If you are not brave enough to book Baba Yaga and risk losing a few pin feathers, this is the show for you.” She said, “It’s not only me who’s chicken, but the sponsor,” and laughed up a storm.
Duncan does leave audiences spellbound – but with stagecraft, not witchcraft. “In traditional storytelling circles they talk about this sort of hypnotic effect you have on your audience. You look out and see people staring with these slack faces, mouths hanging open and eyes frozen, like they’re daydreaming. It’s kind of nice to see kids or adults totally transported,” she said of the experience of holding a crowd in rapture.
Her charmed audiences range from those at elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities to libraries, community centers and festivals. She is doing more adult work than ever but whatever their age she always prefers “a captive audience. I don’t like situations where people come and go and eat. I like to be where an audience makes the commitment to come and be there for a while. My goal is to transform it into a give and take situation where they become partners in the telling. It’s the same in the theater. You want to get that audience in cahoots with you. Every audience is different because they listen differently. That give and take transforms your telling.”
She said when she and an audience really connect “it becomes a mystical experience and is very moving. Something is happening, both of you are changed because of it, and that’s really, really exciting. That’s what I’m always seeking. It doesn’t always happen.”
Duncan said storytellers are “very much in touch with their audience all the time. It’s like having a good conversation with somebody. It’s not a lecture, you’re there listening and giving back.”
A good audience response, she noted, “may be a special kind of silence or the way they laugh. It’s all in the little things they pick up on. There are certain places where they can’t avoid laughing unless they’e asleep. But there are other many more things they’ll get if they’re really with you. Beyond that, if they give themselves to you, then you discover new things in the performance and telling.”
That happened last October at a Philadelphia area high school. “I was doing a show about self-esteem, and that’s a great theme for that age level. They really went with it and I discovered a bunch of stuff that I didn’t even realize was either moving or funny.”
Duncan first developed an appreciation for storytelling on the lap and at the feet of her grandmother. “She shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until she died when I was 16. My two brothers and I spent a lot of time with her. She was great. She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories. She loved the B’rer Rabbit stories and could do them with a great dialect. And my father was a great storyteller. He liked to perform the story.” She said her father’s animated telling was more like her own than her grandma’s.
As a girl Duncan indulged in rich fantasy play, assuming different identities like so many hats. “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer. My friend and I made leopard suits and claws. We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends.”
When the family moved from Illinois to north Georgia Duncan found a fertile place for her imagination to run wild in the woods near their home. She and her playmates learned the outdoors on “safaris,” she said. “We built little houses and became primitive people living there as long as we could. Our mothers never really had to babysit us – they had a hard time getting us home. It was a safe place. Now, I don’t know whether children could do that.”
The only close call was when moonshiners ran the girls off.
By high school she had years of private art and elocution lessons behind her but she was still a tomboy at heart. When forced to choose between playing basketball and acting, for example, she opted for sport. She played four years.
Her thespian days began at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, a private women’s school. “I was always frustrated there. I wanted to go away to college but I didn’t because my father was ill. He died after my first year.”
Still, she said, she enjoyed school and did very well majoring in English and minoring in art and theater. The 1958 graduate was an aspiring writer and earned a full tuition fellowship to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She “hated” the experience. Intimidated by more aggressive students and kowtowing to her advisers she finished the workshop without doing much writing. She then focused on theater and soon met Harry Duncan, who taught journalism and hand printed fine press books at the university. He taught her typography. Student and teacher fell in love and married in 1960.
After earning an MFA in theater she taught at a Quaker school in Iowa. “That was a wonderful laboratory in experimental theater because I did six plays a year for about eight years – productions which I could not do in Omaha.” One was a German language version of Mother Courage.
By the early ’70s she and Harry were raising a family of three children and Nancy was getting restless. To her rescue came the news that Harry had accepted an offer to teach and operate a small press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is how they both ended up here.
“I was thrilled because Omaha is a big enough city where we could be two totally independent people. In a university town like Iowa City you’re always a faculty wife, and I didn’t want to be a faculty wife anymore.”
She went through a period questioning whether the theater was her true calling, taking classes at UNO with the notion of pursuing a medical career.
“But I realized I’d invested eight years training myself to be in the theater and it was ridiculous to start all over again when my children were teenagers and needed to be home. So I recommitted myself to theater.”
Her start here came as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse (1973-’76), where she staged experimental work. Then the Children’s Theatre entered her life through its founder and namesake – Emmy Gifford – whom she met at a Playhouse awards night.
“We sat on the stage afterwards and talked and we got to know each other that evening. Emmy designed shows for me, too, so we got to be really good friends. She kept asking me to come to the Children’s Theatre but they didn’t even have a building at the time and I didn’t want to start all over again.”
Gifford and two other friends on the Children’s Theatre board kept after Duncan until she said yes, but only if certain conditions were met. Namely, Duncan wanted the amateur organization to become a professional theater that would commit to hiring a multiracial staff and to do color blind casting. She also asked for support of the modern dance company she had started. To her surprise, they said yes on all counts. “It was an amazing commitment that I think very few places would make,” she said.
By the time she joined the theater it had moved to its present site at 35th and Center Streets. But major hurdles remained. “It was very hard work because there were only two of us and we had a budget of $24,000. It was just a mess the first three years.”
When she left in 1986 to go it alone as a professional storyteller the Gifford had “transitioned,” she said, “into a professional theater with a budget of $550,000.” The turning point came in the form of three large CETA grants. “Without that money we wouldn’t have been able to make that transition.” Another key was getting the Omaha Public Schools to sanction class trips to the theater. “Once we got OPS approval it just snowballed.”
The theater board also kept its promises, giving many minorities and dancers opportunities lacking elsewhere. Along the way the Gifford became a success story on the burgeoning children’s theater scene nationally. Today, it’s the fourth largest children’s theater in the U.S. and Duncan is proud of that.
As it grew, however, she had less time for performing and the artistic side. Instead, she found herself saddled with fundraising and marketing duties. “I really burned out on the fundraising. I think that was the part of it I came to hate most. I hated seeing people as dollar bills.”
After deciding to leave she found it hard to let go. “I thought I would have some say in what decisions were made and when I realized that, no, nobody wanted to listen to what I had to say that was really painful. Now I realize it’s absolutely essential that people who take over reject everything that went before because they have to find their own way.”
She feels her messy exit served her well. “If it had been a comfortable, easy departure I don’t think I would have been spurred ahead to do my own stuff as much as I have.” Life as a freelance artist “was kind of scary that first year,” she said, “because my income dropped about a third. That whole business of starting out and adventuring into something new is pretty scary but after the first year it’s really grown. I’m pretty well booked up for this coming school year.” She just returned from a storytelling festival in Wyoming.
But the lean days are not so far removed that she can’t appreciate what an Alex P. Keaton clone said at a Wisconsin grade school she played that first year: “A sixth grader asked, ‘Nancy, would you be able to do what you do if you were not heavily subsidized by your husband’ she recalled with a whoop. “I said, ‘No,’ and I told the teacher he should get an A-plus for ‘heavily subsidized.’ I still don’t have to, you know, pay my rent because my husband does that,” she said with a wink.
- Storytelling: Community through . . . Competition? by Katie Knutson (gracewolbrink.wordpress.com)