©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It may not be a stretch to say Omaha theater will not be the same after the first Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 27 through June 3, as organizers and presenters expect the occasion to invigorate the theater culture here. The basis for such optimism rests in the convergence of talent coming for a public assembly that is part rendezvous, jamboree, seminar and Chautauqua. Prominent figures in American theater, among them Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Lloyd Richards, Mark Lamos, Emily Mann and Kathleen Chalfant, will join other established playwrights, directors, actors, instructors and scholars from around the U.S., along with new playwrights and Nebraska’s top theater artists, for a communal focus on craft.
“This stands to be a defining moment for Omaha. Not only will we have the opportunity to meet and work with distinguished theater artists, but we will form relationships with new playwrights and further strengthen local ties. Every theater in Omaha will benefit from this conference in ways not yet imagined,” said Blue Barn Theatre founding member Hughston Walkinshaw, who will act and direct at the fest. “I am delighted to see an event of this magnitude here. I can only assume positive things will result from such a gathering of famous and aspiring playwrights,” said Creighton University drama teacher Alan Klem, a playwright and panelist. “I can tell you from personal experience how hard it is to get feedback of any kind on a new play. So, to have a play read in the presence of such esteemed playwrights, directors and theater practitioners is total nirvana for an aspiring playwright.”
Aside from feedback, the event’s play labs, master classes, panel discussions and staged readings will provide forums for visiting-resident artists to interact. It’s these crosscurrents that hold promise for: area theaters to find new works to produce; collaborations to form between companies; and new stage ventures to arise or existing ones to expand. Much of the shop talk/networking may occur after hours.
The woman who brought the model for the event here, Metropolitan Community College President Jo Ann C. McDowell, saw such developments grow out of the prestigious Last Frontier Theatre Conference she and Albee formed in Valdez, Alaska, her last stop before assuming the Metro post 10 months ago. The New York Times’ arts section featured it in 1999. National press will cover the Omaha event.
“When we started the theater conference in Valdez there was a large (theater) program in Juno and an emerging theater department in Anchorage and then when we ended up at the end of that run I believe there were like 20 that came out of it. The arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News said we renewed theater in Alaska and I know we did,” said McDowell, who led the Last Frontier event for 12 years.
Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jo Ann McDowell
She assumes what happened in Valdez will happen in Omaha, as “all these new playwrights coming here will get to know” Omaha theater artists. “They’ll all hang around after working together and these theater companies will see new work they’ll want to do and so they’ll invite those playwrights back here. And every year we’ll see these same folks get together. You will see collaborations and growth.”
She designed Last Frontier with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Edward Albee and the two have fashioned the Omaha conference after it. When she left Valdez the theater giants she “built relationships” with, led by Albee, threw their support behind her and the Great Plains event, just as they did when she left Independence, Kan. and its William Inge Festival for Alaska 13 years ago.
Wherever McDowell goes, her celebration of theater follows the “vision” of Albee, whom conference participant Joel Vig, a Broadway actor, describes as “a nurturing force for playwrights.” “It’s a week for leading theater artists to get together and to immerse themselves in their craft. Harvard would be proud to have this event.” she said. The host site is Metro’s Fort Omaha campus, where guests will stay in Victorian-era dorms she calls “cozy” and the June 3 gala, emceed by Oscar and Tony winning diva Patricia Neal, will be held under a giant tent on the great lawn, all to further the theater “family” and “community” that Kopit, and others refer to.
“There’s a lot of synergy with all these scholars and academics from all over the country coming together, plus the luminaries, plus the new playwrights, plus the actors and directors,” McDowell said. “It’s an educational event. It’s all about
educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright. It’s all about craft.”
“These sorts of conferences can be enormously exciting and inspiring. As an artist they are a great opportunity for people to make contacts, see new work, get useful comments and direction,” said Minneapolis playwright Max Sparber, whose Buddy Bentley will get a staged reading at the event. “The enrichment that happens and the long-term effects are amazing, and you can see them from year to year in the friendships and connections. There’s any number of things that can happen from having this kind of confluence of good forces,” said Vig, who will introduce Neal for her May 31 “As I Am” speech about her life in and out of acting.
The conference encourages work by new writers and showcases that of veterans.
“A theater that does not nourish new plays and doesn’t do new work is moribund. You have to have a mix. You have to have tested plays and you have to have new work and an audience that participates in it. The healthiest theater community builds up a loyal audience to various theaters,” said noted playwright Arthur Kopit, the conference’s Edward Albee Award recipient, whose works Nine and Wings will get staged readings. “American theater is not New York theater. It’s all around the country and that’s the truth of it. It’s very important to connect with the rest of the country and so it’s important plays emerge from different regions of the country that are reflective of those people’s aspirations and dreams and fears and hopes.” “What I want to do is have a venue where we create a whole other generation of artists,” McDowell said.
More than new works, new perspectives will be in the offing.
“I have often felt Omaha would benefit greatly from being exposed to theater from elsewhere in America. But for occasional touring productions of Broadway plays, Omaha sees precious little of what goes on in theater communities outside Nebraska,” said Sparber, a former Omaha resident whose work has been performed extensively here. “The Omaha theater community is a very active, engaged, wonderful community, with a few world class small theaters, an exceptional community theater, some magnificent actors, some terrific writers, and an avid audience, but it has been waiting for a kick in the butt like this one.
“It just hasn’t been able to take the next necessary steps — toward developing semi-professional theaters, toward bringing in touring productions, toward developing a base of audience member/donor patrons. I think the community is eager to take the next steps, if uncertain about what those steps might be. This conference is an excellent opportunity to begin discussing and exploring possibilities for Omaha’s development as a theater community. More so, Omaha now has the chance to explore what its theater community means in the broader context of the American theater community.”
Theater doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Neither will the conference. Its open-to-the-public programs will add an audience dynamic to the “collective experience” Kopit said distinguishes theater. “There’s another outcome of this Edward (Albee) and I have spoken about — we’re growing audiences for theater,” McDowell said. “That’s one of our missions. What we do is teach people to be real theater enthusiasts.”
Vig said the arts depend on angels like McDowell, especially in an era of low federal funding. “It takes an enormous amount of dedication to bring off something like this and Jodie is a great force at bringing together people.” “It takes people with passion like Jodie McDowell who see the need for these kinds of gatherings,” Kopit said. “If I have any skills it’s making things happen and being committed. I’m very passionate. My only talent’s going out and trying to get people to buy into this mission and to make it available to people who really can’t afford it — students and artists,” McDowell said. “As a country we have to support our arts and I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them. It’s been a gift in my life.”
She also sees this as a great marketing tool for Metro. “I hope the conference will get people to change their image of us and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy. I think it will put Omaha-Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way.” In her perfect dream the college will build a theater of its own and form a theater arts department around its current theater technical degree program. “I think as Metro grows over the years there will be a theater,” she said. “Give me a little time.” She diffuses speculation about the conference’s future should she move on. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade. This is a perfect home for this conference and I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”
Ultimately, she said the event is much larger than Metro, emphasizing the college “could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, artists. Twenty area theater companies are participating. “It’s about all of us coming together. Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community in Omaha having a family reunion.”
- Jo Ann McDowell’s Theater Passion Leads Her on the Adventure of Her Life: Friend, Confidante, Champion of Leading Playwrights, Directors, Actors and Organizer of Major Theater Festivals and Conferences (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright Edward Albee wins MacDowell Medal (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- All Trussed Up with Somewhere to Go, Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts Takes Another Leap Forward with its New Building on the Fort Omaha Campus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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