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)
I have had the distinct pleasure now of profiling a handful of Omaha’s chanteuses – those vexing songbirds of the nightclub or cabaret set who enchant as much with their attitude as with their voice. The magic they imbue a song with has everything to do with how they interpret the words and music, bending notes with tone, texture, posture, expression. One such songstress is Camille Metoyer Moten, who fairly oozes sophisticated style. This piece I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared a few years ago. More recently, I’ve written about two more sisters of the Great American Songbook in Karrin Allyson and Anne Marie Kenny. You can find my stories about these other artists on this same blog. I still hope to write about the most legendary of the cabaret singers from Omaha, namely Julie Wilson.
Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Excuse the shameless alliteration, but singer Camille Metoyer Moten often gets props for her versatile chops, a quality she amply displayed in concert at the Multi-Faith Music Festival last month. In short order the Omaha native effortlessly went from a jazzy cabaret interpretation of the Harold Arlen standard “Over the Rainbow” to a soaring duet with Seth Fox of “Make Our Garden Grow” from the Leonard Bernstein classic Candide to wailing solo and harmony turns on the Rent anthem “Seasons of Love.”
Her classically trained mezzo soprano hit all the requisite notes, leaving no doubt she could call on more if required. She confirmed this in a recent interview at the north Omaha home she and her husband Michael Moten, pastor of One Way Ministry church, share. If necessary she said she can still find the first soprano notes she once reached automatically as a Xavier University voice major in New Orleans in the early 1970s, where she sang with the school’s noted jazz band and in clubs around town. Ellis Marsalis often sat in with her and the Xavier crew.
As impressive as she was that night at All Saints Episcopal Church, where she shone the brightest on a talent-rich festival bill, it was just another example of how easily she swings from one thing to another. Last spring she sang opposite Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s mega production of Ragtime. She’s a musical theater legend there, with two Fonda/McGuire Awards to her credit. But she’s best known for her cabaret shows. Lately, she’s been laying down tracks for her first CD, Go Forward, a mix of contemporary religious music. Then there’s her work at One Way Ministry, where she leads the choir and sings solos. She’s also a regular in Opera Omaha and Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum concerts.
She can sing anything,” said Playhouse music director Jim Boggess. Pianist- producer-conductor Chuck Penington, a frequent accompanist of hers, said, “She has a very broad repertoire. She can go clear across the 20th century in music. She knows lots and lots of material and she sings it all really authentically.”
Metoyer Moten, who began singing at home imitating “the silky, velvety sound” of song stylists Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald she listened to on her mother’s records, finds satisfaction in having “a lot of versatility. That’s one of the reasons I stay so busy,” she said. “That was my goal when I first started out. I wanted to be able to do it all. I love it all so. I love the fact I can do that. I love when people say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’” Long fascinated by how those legends got just the right inflection or phrasing, she’s now the model of cool, the caress of her voice enveloping a lyric, pulling you into the embrace of its meaning.
As those who work with her are quick to point out, her artistry extends beyond technique. “She has an innate sense of musical style and makes the message in a lyric very personal,” said Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France. “You can talk about voice and her voice is warm and compelling, but you can’t separate voice from life experience, intelligence and soul. I suppose if one can bring all of that together in performance then you really have something, and Camille does.”
The 52-year-old mother of two draws on many things. Her grandpa Vic and dad Ray ran the family business, Metoyer’s Barbecue, on North 24th Street. She said in one of the late ‘60s riots her fair-skinned father went there to “protect” the place. “As he stood outside a group of teens advanced and he overheard one say, ‘Let’s get him,’ thinking he was white, before another one said, ‘No, man, that’s Metoyer” and moved on.” Her dad was president of the Nebraska Urban League. Her folks were “involved” in the 4CL civil rights group. As a child she marched on city hall with them demanding fair housing and she met Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson.
While a Burke High School senior her mother died from a brain tumor. She said her mom was “a great singer.” Family legend has it she even landed an audition with Duke Ellington, “but never did anything with it,” except harmonize with her children, choosing life as a homemaker over touring torch singer. The loss of her mom occurred the same year Burke’s then music director denied Metoyer Moten a part in a production of Guys and Dolls due to her race. Years later she helped overturn bias in local theater by winning nontraditional roles — Mary Magdalene, Fanny Brice and Eva Peron — which helped make it happen for other minorities. “I do feel like I kind of opened the door to that color blind casting,” she said.
At lily white Burke things weren’t so enlightened. “I had some issues there,” she said. A sympathetic drama teacher did come to her “with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just want you to know it had nothing to do with your talent. That man said he’s not having no black girl kiss a white boy on his stage.’ It was messed up. I was crushed but I appreciated her honesty.” After graduating she fled Omaha, at 17, for a new start down south, in Louisiana, where her dad’s Creole family hailed from.
“It was a bad year,” she said. “So I went to New Orleans. It was kind of just an opportunity to get away from the whole thing.” To her “roots.”
The Crescent City proved a tonic. There, blond afro and all, she trained her voice, met her husband, underwent a born again conversion and discovered jazz. With “so much” to engage her, what most enamored her was “the heart and soul of the people. They live their culture. The music and the food, it’s so them, and I admire that,” she said, “because it’s just a passion you don’t see other places. It’s a very spiritual place.” It’s where jazz first truly spoke to her. “Growing up and listening to the jazz artists my mother had was one thing. Then to see and feel the passion of the jazz artists there was a totally different thing.” She came to see it as an inheritance. “I had all these peers that had come from generations of jazz players. So I was surrounded with all these incredibly gifted musicians from that city.”
Partying her way through college, she found an eager playmate in a local boy named Michael Moten. Raised a Catholic, she’d fallen away from organized religion. He was no churchgoer himself. But then he made a resolution to “get closer to God” and made good on it. She did, too. “It completely changed our life,” she said.
The couple married and in 1979 acted on the advice of her dad, a counselor at Boys Town, to apply as family teachers there. They flew in on a Friday and nailed the interview. They went back to New Orleans on a high after landing the jobs. The following Monday her father was shot and killed at the family’s eatery by a deranged woman he’d fired a year before. He was 52. The “drugged-out” woman had harassed him and the family by phone, spewing “profanities.” “Just a senseless death,” Metoyer Moten said. “My father was such a giving man. His funeral was massive. So many people turned out because he was a great guy.”
Upon her return to town in ‘79 she began gigging in theater and concert settings.
Having endured the pain of losing both parents prematurely, she has a well of emotions to summon in coloring her soulful cabaret work. For someone as shy as she, the intimacy of that performing “took some getting used to,” she said. As a girl she used to sneak downstairs to dress up in her mother’s red cape with leopard trim and mimic what she imagined an elegant jazz singer in a club must look and sound like. Her mother would creep down the stairs to listen, the creak of the steps giving her away, enough to make the self-conscious Camille clam up.
Metoyer Moten prefers the “nice distance” a theater’s stage and lights provide as a buffer from audiences, but she’s come to embrace the “freer style” of cabaret, even if it exposes her. “When you’re doing that cabaret thing they’re right there, you know. You might spit on them. which has happened,” she said, cracking her big easy laugh. “I just talk…about my panty hose… whatever, and people like that. People get involved and talk back. It’s fun. It’s helped me get over that shyness.”
Her laidback vibe wins over everyone. “She’s truly one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life,” Boggess said. “A wonderful sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself very seriously. She is so easy to work with because she’s always open to suggestions. But she’s usually right about what’s right for her. I just love working with that girl. I love her to death. And she breaks my heart when she sings.”
One of Camille Metoyer Moten’s many upcoming engagements is singing for the Omaha Holiday Lights Festival concert Thanksgiving night at the Gene Leahy Mall.
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Big Bad Buddy Miles (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Song Girl Ann Ronell (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Before you get the idea that the only thing happening this summer in my hometown is the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards and Native Omaha Days, here’s a heads-up for this year’s rendition of the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival. The popular event has been packing them in for performances of the Bard’s plays at Elmwood Park for 25 years. The following story for Omaha Magazine gives a brief primer for how the fest started and what to expect at it. This blog is full of stories about and links to Omaha cultural attractions. It used to be people complained there wasn’t enough to do here, but now it’s quite the opposite – there’s so much to do that it’s hard choosing among the bounty.
Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
When the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival returns this June and July, alternating two professional productions of the Bard’s work, it will mark the 25th season for one of Omaha‘s summer entertainment staples.
Over that time the free outdoor event has played to more than a half-million spectators in a tucked-away nook of Elmwood Park adjacent to the UNO campus.
The play’s certainly the thing at these relaxed evenings on the green and under the stars but the lively pre-show has its own attractions:
•food and souvenir booths
•interactive activities for youths
•live musical performances
•educational seminars to brush up your Shakespeare
•Two-Minute Shakespeare quizzes where the audience tries stumping the actors
•assorted jugglers, jesters and merrymakers.
On select nights Camp Shakespeare performances let school-age kids “speak the speech.” On June 26 Will’s Best Friend Contest invites dog owners to show off their pooches in Shakespearean splendor.
Co-founders Cindy Phaneuf and Alan Klem say the festival found a loyal following right from the start. The come-as-you-are ambience, bucolic site and free shows are hard to beat.
“We really woke up the space,” says Phaneuf. a University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor.. “It’s a gorgeous location — 3.7 acres, naturally slanted, protected by trees, gobs of parking. Once you go down the hill it’s like you’re in a magical little world.”
Whether a brooding tragedy or a lilting comedy an average of 2,000-plus folks flock to each performance. This year’s contrasting shows are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.
Phaneuf says some favorite memories are “the hushed silence of the crowd, the laughter that ripples from the front to back row and spontaneous standing ovations.” She likes that families make Shakespeare “part of their summer… part of their growing up.” Many fans return year after year to soak up the language, the outdoors and the communal spirit.
“It was always about the highest quality art we could possibly create but we also wanted an event where everyone felt comfortable,” says Phaneuf. “Shakespeare seems somewhat elitist but then we put it in an open environment, in a park, right in the middle of the city and it’s very inviting.
“The other thing that’s made it so lasting is we wanted everyone to feel they owned it — that it didn’t just belong to the board and to the people making the plays. If you cater only to a small faction it will not continue to grow and thrive, it will start to wither and die, and so that was really important to us.”
She says the festival alleviated a paucity of the Bard’s work performed locally and gave theatergoers a fix for for the usually dormant summer stage season.
“There was such a hunger and need for it,” she says. “There’s lots of theater in town but very little Shakespeare.”
While some theaters’ seasons now extend into summer the fest’s among Omaha’s only professional venues. Equity actors from across the nation headline their.
Creighton University professor Alan Klem says the event not only presents good theater but supports and grows the local talent pool by hiring professional actors from the community and “bringing in students from Creighton and UNO who are working towards becoming actors.” Phaneuf says for many students it’s their first professional gig. Some, like Jill Anderson, earn Equity cards in the process.
“It just ups the ante and the expectation,” Phaneuf says. “It’s a great training ground.”
The festival’s only one element of the nonprofit Nebraska Shakespeare. Vincent Carlson-Brown and Sarah Carlson-Brown interned as UNO students, then worked through the ranks and today are associate artistic directors.
Besides being a learning lab and career springboard for emerging talent, thousands of high school students attend the Music Alive! collaboration with the Omaha Symphony. Nebraska Shakespeare also tours a fall production to schools throughout the state, complete with post-show discussions and workshops. Klem says these educational efforts are “as important as doing the plays out in the park,” adding that there are plans to expand the tours.
Klem and Phaneuf, who go back to their undergrad days together at Texas Christian University, say they knew they were onto something big when audiences turned out in droves year one. His experience founding Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, Texas gave Shakespeare on the Green a head start. The Omaha fest has always been a collaboration between UNO and Creighton.
The two theater geeks served as co-artistic directors the first six years. Then Klem went onto other things — returning to act roles. Phaneuf continued in charge until resigning after the 2009 festival, when budget cuts resulted in one show rather than the usual two. The festival’s since rebounded. Klem’s back as artistic director and Phaneuf remains close to the organization.
Volunteers are critical to putting the event on. Phaneuf recalls once when high winds blew the set down during the day the stage crew and volunteers rebuilt it in time for that night’s show. She says that show-must-go-on dedication is what she appreciates most: “It’s people pulling together to make this happen. It’s a cooperative venture.” Klem marvels that the same spirit infusing the event 25 years ago still permeates it today.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: June 23-26, July 6, 8, 10 and Hamlet: June 30, July 1-3, 7, 9
Performances start at 8 p.m. Booths open at 5:30. The pre-show starts at 7.
For more info., visit http://www.nebraskashakespeare.com/home.
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- In the land of Shakespeare (everythinginflux.wordpress.com)
- Much Ado About Shakespeare (mfcartaya.wordpress.com)