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Polishing Gem: Behind the Scenes of the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s Staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean ‘


My concept for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.como) was deceptively simple – embed myself with a community theater group as they rehearsed and mounted a play over the course of several weeks. Practical realities dictated that I be there off and on, for a few hours there or few minutes here, in observing and reporting the experience, but I think I managed a compelling behind the scenes glimpse at some of what goes into the development of a theater production from first table reading to opening night. My theater of choice was the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  The theater’s namesake, John Beasley, is a fine stage, film, and television actor and his small theater is a good showcase for African American-themed stagework, particularly the work of August Wilson. And it was a Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, that the theater prepared and performed during my time covering the company.  On this blog you’ll find more of my stories about John Beasley and his theater, including many more pieces related to other Omaha theaters and theater figures, as well as authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers.  I am posting lots of of my  theater stories now to coincide with the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, and you’ll find several of my stories about that event and some of its leading participants.

Polishing Gem: Behind the Scenes of the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s Staging of August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean ‘

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting a production has its own dynamic. Discoveries happen incrementally over weeks. This creative process occurs not before a paid house but among a theater family in the privileged moments of readings-rehearsals.

It means late nights, running lines, working scenes. Over and over. Until truth emerges. Developing a play is by turns grueling, moving, satisfying. It’s all about exposing and confronting your fears — in service of emotionally honest expression.

It’s not all inspiration. More like a grind. Adrenalin feeds anxiety. Caffeine fights exhaustion. An edge cuts the air. Making a fool of yourself is a distinct possibility. Doubts creep in. Anticipation awaits resolution. Tension seeks release.

The process unfolds hundreds of times each theater season. In big state-of-the-art facilities, in intimate black box spaces, in church basements. Fully realized performances spring from coaching, encouragement, cajoling, berating, freaking, experimentation, work and prayer.

Over several nights at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop a fly on the wall observed this company developing their production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The two-act drama is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience. The JBT’s produced seven works in the cycle. Set amidst 1904 Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem’s a story of redemption.

Like most community theaters the JBT uses largely unpaid, untrained people who fit the work around busy lives-careers. There’s scant time to get things right. Much can go wrong. Chronic tardiness, family crises. Recasting a major part 10 days before opening. As a veteran JBT actor put it, “It seems there’s always something but in the end it all comes together.” Until opening night, the process, not the play, is the thing. In classic show-must-go-on tradition the troupe pulled Gem off. Getting there was heaven and hell.

Jan. 7 – “It’s a lot of work”

The first reading convenes. It’s like Bible study. Actors explore the sacred text — the script — under director Tyrone Beasley’s sober guidance. Hallejuah!

John Beasley, journeyman film-TV-stage character actor, headlines as Solly Two Kings, a loquacious drifter and former underground railroad conductor-turned- pure (dog manure) merchant. John arrives late, brimming with excitement about a new gig — acting in an August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

Joining him in Gem are three regular JBT ensemble players. Retired electrician Charles Galloway is Eli, gatekeeper for Aunt Ester, a sage and spiritual adviser. Eli, also an ex-freedom fighter, is Solly’s best bud.

Andre McGraw, owner of Red Hot Barbershop, is Citizen Barlow, a fugitive come far to get his soul washed by Ester. Carl Brooks, Union Pacific systems analyst, is Caesar, a big, belligerent cop enforcing the white man’s law. Carl has an excused absence tonight. Ty reads his part.

JBT newcomers fill out the cast. Lovely Lakeisha Cox, grad student, plays Black Mary, Caesar’s sister and Ester’s successor-in-grooming. Tom Pensabene, dean of information technology and e-learning at Metropolitan Community College, debuts as Selig, slave finder-turned-slave runner-turned-peddler. Enigmatic Yvette Coleman is Ester. She’s a no-show. Stage manager Cheryl Bowles reads her part.

Everyone’s seated around a wooden table on the bare stage. The auditorium floor is stripped to the studs, awaiting new carpet-seats. Cast-crew wear street clothes. Introductions are made. When it comes his turn Andre jokes, “I’m born and raised in the John Beasley Theater.” Its namesake discusses the play’s musical language.

“It’s tough at first picking up the rhythm August writes in. I think August gives you enough that you won’t have to try to force it. It’ll be there.”

John commands respect. It’s he, as much as Ty, the ranks look to please.

Ty shares a JBT philosophy:

“We believe acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Being yourself is the first thing we’re looking for. Being in the moment. Being present.”

He suggests the players use personal experiences to make their characters extensions of themselves. “Be as specific as possible.” All to better ground one in the reality of the situation. That’s what “brings a character to life.”

He assigns homework. Actors are to flesh out character objectives, backgrounds and relationships, plus research facets of early Pittsburgh.

Ty impresses upon the cast what’s expected. “It’s a lot of work. It’s important to be here on time. It’s a long play and there’s relatively little time to do it in. If you’re here, you should always be working.”

“Let’s get started.”

The reading, opened scripts in hand, proceeds. Even dry, the drama’s inherent power is felt. In-character John tests Lakeisha by making direct eye contact with her. She rises to the occasion, By reading’s end the energy lags and lines suffer. John officially welcomes newbies Keisha and Tom with hugs and handshakes. He and Ty discuss a Plan B should their Ester prove unreliable.

Jan. 8 – “We’ll turn Omaha on its head”

Before rehearsal John covers a pivotal Act II scene with Andre. Ester puts Citizen in a trance that transports him to the City of Bones. Citizen imagines himself in a boat at sea. John says Andre must visualize it.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“You’re going to have to take us to the City of Bones. We see it through your eyes. If you do this right, we’ll turn Omaha on its head –and we’re going to do it right.”

Citizen’s killed a man and the death of another haunts him. He needs to make himself right with the Lord. His inward journey to be justified drives the story.

This night’s about working the prologue, when the agitated Citizen appears at Ester’s house demanding his soul be washed. There’s many takes of a tussle he has with Eli (Charles). The commotion awakens Ester, whose serene bearing calms Citizen. The movements, pacing, blocking require much attention.

“Take it again,” Ty repeats. “Good work,” he says after another.

Our missing Ester’s here. Yvette strains finding the right beat. Ty wants her moving slowly, not feebly. Exuding an aura. He contextualizes Ester in the Wilson canon.

“Aunt Ester is someone that’s talked about in several of August Wilson’s plays. She’s a powerful, spiritual woman and her power comes from her faith. This is the first time she’s seen…People are anticipating her, so when you come out there has to be a powerful, spiritual presence.”

After false starts, Yvette hits her stride.

For the reading actors have underlined or highlighted their lines in their scripts.

Ty demands more from his players. “What I want you guys to do is look each other in the eye as you’re saying your lines. Try to lift the words off the page and really talk to the person…Really communicate. Really work on seeing the images.”

“Let’s take it from the top.”

He looks and listens hard as they work. Cheryl gives stage directions, feeding lines as needed. Ty has comments for everyone. Keisha needs to find Mary’s stubbornness, Charles must avoid indicating his actions, et cetera.

“Good, that’s better, let’s do it again,” Ty says. After a bit he declares, “OK, good, let’s get this on its feet.”

Before walking through the scene he takes Keisha aside, reminding her the words she speaks must be anchored in thoughts-images.

Minimal props are introduced. Blocking addressed. The scene plays disjointed, stilted, lifeless. Ty has actors try different things. “See how that feels,” he says.

 

Jan. 10 – “Let the words do it”

Scene one pits Solly and Mary in a dispute over the pure he peddles. Ty’s been on Keisha to be ornery: “Black Mary has an attitude.” Keisha shoots back, “You want some real attitude? Put some real pure in there.” Laughter.

The action’s fuller, tighter than two nights ago. When Ester enters she asks Mary for the pure. Yvette, realizing what Ester’s supposed to examine, asks, “So that’s what I’m looking at? Is it real dog poop?” She’s teased. “It’s going to be dry. All you gotta do is break it up,” John quips, trading smirks with Ty. They begin again, but Yvette’s still thrown by the doo-doo.

Lakeisha Cox

 

 

While not the director per se John freely instructs, careful not to overstep Ty’s bounds. John goes over movements with Charles, who, as Eli, responds to loud knocking at Ester’s door. “The urgency will determine how fast you walk,” John says. He shows him. “Does that make sense?”

“OK, let’s sit at the table,” Ty says. All the principals gather round. They read scene three. It flows well. The intensity builds. The volume so high John gestures for them to tamp it down. Carl’s feeling Caesar. In a long speech his bellowing voice rises in anger. After he’s done John comments, “You don’t really have to be that forceful. You’re a big man. It’s all there in the words. Let the words do it.” Carl says, “Yeah, I don’t have to make him a caricature.”

“OK, top of the scene,” Ty says. They read it again. Carl’s quieter yet still formidable. John can be overpowering, too. It’s why he works hard “to bring everybody up to my level of energy.”

John confers with Andre, who’s concerned about finding the right note for Citizen. “He’s a full man. He’s carrying that burden with him,” John says. “You working it. Don’t be afraid to try anything because Tyrone will pull you back.”

 

Jan. 14 – “Being here, being now”

John helps Keisha modulate her delivery. Her thin voice pitches up to make  statements into questions. “Try it again,” he says. “Down on the inflection. Keep going…One more time…Better.” “I’ll work on it” she promises.

The Gem set, which Tyrone builds by day, is more filled out. It’s basically a kitchen, dining room, parlor and staircase.

Ty and John discuss replacing Yvette. She’s missed rehearsals. She’s late for this one. “If she’s not here tonight,” John says, “then that’s it.”

John puts the cast through warm ups. “Get yourself loose. Focus on the breath. Slowly breath in and slowly breath out. It relaxes you. It keeps you focused in the moment and that’s what we need. Being here, being now.”

“One of the worst enemies of an actor is tension,” Ty says. He works with Keisha on a yoga position. He’s cast her and the others for qualities they share with their characters. Expressing that means letting go. “She has the power of Black Mary, but she’s shy to let it out on stage.”

Yvette finally arrives. She flounders with her lines.

John and Ty work with the actors on their characters’ motivations.

 

Jan. 15 – “It’s gotta be in your voice”                                                                                                                                                        

Yvette and John work one-on-one. He presses her to make it real.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks him. “Talk to me,” he says. “Make me hear it. Make me hear what you have to say. It’s gotta be in your voice because I don’t believe those other voices.” She tries again. “There it is. Did you feel the difference?”

 

Jan. 18 – “I want to get my soul washed”
The set’s now dressed with furniture-fixtures. The stage speckled with paint and sawdust. Ladders lean against walls, electrical cord snakes across the floor.

Per usual Carl’s arrived early to work his lines. He studies at a chair in the lobby. Others find sanctuary in the overstuffed theater tech booth or back stage amid the flats, costumes and props or in the cramped wings. Tonight, Carl and Keisha animatedly share the back stories they’ve concocted.

As actors straggle in, they run lines, scrounge for eats or just kick it. Charles is distracted. His Navy Lt. Commander son has gotten orders for Iraq.

Ty asks Andre why, as Citizen, he’s timid with Ester. “I’m feeling her out. I’m kind of like hesitant because I don’t know her. I’ve got this picture of her that’s she’s a scary looking lady,” he explains. “No, she’s not,” Ty says. “Why are you in her house?” “Because I want to get my soul washed.”

“Just remember you know that she’s the reason you’re there.”

“Lights up.”

Jan. 25  - “Come take the circle”

Nitty-gritty time. The Beasleys grow more direct. Ty announces, “Come take the circle,” a cue for players to form a tight circle in chairs. “Remember the exercise,” he says. Working in close quarters the actors call each other out on whatever rings false. Ty makes sure no one gets away with anything. In this intimate, in-your-face interaction there’s no where to hide. The extreme scrutiny bares all. It’s a living tableaux of pure concentration and naked emotion.

“I don’t believe you,” Ty tells Keisha, who’s plays opposite Carl. “Do you believe her?” he asks Carl, who nods no. “Then why are you letting her go?” “I’m just asking you to believe what you’re saying,” Ty tells all. Keisha goes again, but stops in frustration, saying, “I didn’t feel it.” Ty chastises her for breaking character.

Keisha’s under extra strain these days as her mother and aunt battle illnesses. She says the play provides a needed vehicle to channel her feelings.

Yvette’s AWOL again. And so it goes…

Jan. 29 – “We’ve all got to be in this”

There’s a new Ester. JBT favorite TammyRa Jackson has replaced Yvette with the opening less than two weeks off. A cosmetologist and mother of five, she concedes she’s anxious joining the cast so late but is warmed by how supported she’s made to feel. John won’t push back the run — not with the house sold out opening night. Besides, he’s confident his new Ester will “put the work in.”

“We brought TammyRa in because we felt she was the only that could do this in this short of time. She’s a tremendous talent. As she commits the words she’s bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, which I figured she would.”

 

 

TammyRa Jackson

 

 

Fresh carpet’s been laid down. A noxious chemical smell permeates the auditorium.

With “C’mon y’all” John beckons cast to work the crucial City of Bones scene at the table. The scene’s not jelled. The time’s short, the stakes high, the nerves raw. Music director Leon Adams hovers over the group to consult on song verses.

“We need to find this thing,” John tells the pensive cast, “so I need you to do as much work as you can.”

They begin. “Feel it, feel it,” he says. “See the stars, Andre,” who rocks in Citizen’s trance. TammyRa’s spot-on with the sing-song spell that puts Citizen under. John and Charles take up the chant. When Keisha and Cheryl speak out of character the chant’s broken, making John upset.

“Wait a minute, what’s going on there? Don’t talk during the exercise. You’ve got to stay in this, Keisha. We’ve all got to be in this. This is a very difficult scene. You’ve got to stay focused…This is a chant, and if you focus in on this you can feel a rhythm come up…If you find that, we’ll be half-way home.”

She’s taken aback. He holds her hand to show he’s not mad.

Next he turns to Andre to say he’s unconvinced by Citizen’s born-again epiphany.

“You’re still acting, Andre. You’re not there yet. You gotta go deeper, man. You gotta believe it. Just like in any ritual, any spiritual thing, you gotta be listening and open…in order for it to really take over, and I think you’ll find it in the rhythm. You’ll feel it. You’ll hook up into it.”

They take it again and again. Leo advises more “embellishment” here, more “swung” there. John reminds TammyRa to “keep the contemporary” out of her voice. She asks lots of questions. A good sign. Her young daughter Nadia hangs by her side as she guides Citizen on his way. John’s pleased after another take. “Just paint those beautiful pictures with those beautiful words. That’s nice, nice work.” He wants TammyRa to do more with the title line and cautions Keisha “not to throw away” a strong line about Satan.

A work in progress.

Feb. 6  - “I think we’ll be ready for Friday”                                                                                                                                          

It’s tech week and 48 hours until show time. The stress shows on people’s faces. The tense actors get costumed.

The seats are in. So are Ty’s notes from the staged run through two nights before.

The company lost yesterday to a snowstorm. “I was confident enough to give them that time to study their script and do their work,” John tells a visitor. “They’re finding their characters. We’ve come a long ways. I think we’ll be ready for Friday.”

A key player’s missing, however. Carl’s father died a few days earlier and he’s still in his native St. Louis for the services. Ty’s assumes the role tonight and may open in it Friday. He’s told Carl to take as much time as he needs.

As cast filter in crew clean up the freshly painted set.

“Actors to the stage please,” Ty says. They gather round and he reads aloud their notes — hand-written critiques, refinements. As is his penchant he works from general to specific. He directs packing Caesar’s gun in a waist holster.

“Overall, it was low energy…The audience is not going to be feeling the show. So keep your energy up everybody.”

His individual notes cover stage positions, cues, intonations, intentions. He demonstrates various actions. His most telling comments concern Andre. “If you don’t have that urgency of why you’re there…then it’s a tough show.”

Before the run-through John reiterates “it’s important we keep up the energy. Just keep the story moving along…”

They work late into the night. No preview tomorrow. Another rehearsal. Then it’s on with the show the next night.

Feb. 8 – “It’s finally here”                                                                                                                                                                    

Opening night.

6:30. An hour to curtain and jitters abound. On stage John runs lines with Carl, who got back last night. John presses him to emphasize each subject. Ty, unhappy the way Carl handles a speech to win over Mary, gets up in his face with, “You got to try to get her on your side. That’s what you’re trying to do here.” “Let me start over,” Carl says. He nails it. “Good, good,” John says.

 

 

 

 

Carl, hours removed from his dad’s funeral, never considered not performing. He says the play’s “a pretty good distraction.” He frets having “missed some valuable time” but is risking it anyway. “Something’s going to happen — stick around.”

John, wife Judy, Ty, Cheryl and production staff scurry to place props. Tom and Charles, already costumed, work lines backstage. The other actors get made up and change in the dressing room.

Past 7 the lobby fills with patrons. “We’re getting ready to open the house,” John announces. “Hold on, man, I need two minutes,” says Mark O’Leary, who hangs a picture and touches up a faucet. “You got it.”

Andre runs over lines to himself in the wings, pacing in a circle. He and Keisha share a tender moment. “A lot of different emotions,” Keisha says. “It’s finally here, so no matter what you’ve just got to go out there and have fun at this point.”

As insurance, TammyRa’s wearing an earpiece that Cheryl will feed lines into.

The house opens and folks stream in, unaware of the activity on set moments before and the beehive backstage.

Cast members squeeze into the small dressing room. They flit in and out. John, bandana wrapped around his head and big ass walking stick held in his hand, offers final notes to Charles and Keisha. There’s the usual “break-a-leg” well-wishes.

“What’s our time like?” Charles asks. “Not much — like five minutes,” says John, who asks Cheryl to round up the others. All the players cram inside. They clasp hands as Cheryl leads a fervent prayer. She refers to how “we’ve come up against everything” on this show. “We thank you God for this time we’ve been able to work together and join hearts and become friends and even family. We thank you for John Beasley and all of his hard work…He struggles to keep this going…but he hangs in there because he believes in us. He could walk away, but he doesn’t.”

“We pray you God that you will give us victory. Amen.”

A chorus of Amens goes up. John cracks, “Anybody got a collection plate here?”

The full house gets their money’s worth. The rich, naturalistic performances the JBT’s noted for are evident. TammyRa’s imbued with Aunt Ester’s old soul spirit. Keisha’s found Black Mary’s stubborn streak. Andre’s got Citizen’s raw yearning down pat. Carl strikes the right balance as Caesar. John shines as Solly. Charles and Tom believably inhabit their parts. Aside from a few awkward pauses, it’s fine theater. Few glitches or flubs. All the hard work’s paid off.

“I was proud of them.” Ty says afterwards.

Just another opening, another show.

Gem continues through March 2.

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference Playwright Caridad Svich Explores Bicultural Themes

May 29, 2011 8 comments

UPDATE: I attended a production of playwright Caridad Svich’s Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Theater as part of the ongoing Great Plains Theatre Conference, and the performance did what any good  theater should do – it transported me to another place emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.  It’s a strong work with deeply resonant themes of loss, grief, war, dislocation, transformation, community, and many more touchstones. Because it is so rich on the page, it would be hard not to mount a production that engages and moves audiences, but I thought director Cindy Melby Phaneuf and her UNO production team, combined with a dynamic cast of actors-singers and two excellent musicians, conceived and executed a visually and aurally stirring dramatic experience that would have captured any audience, anywhere.  It was the kind of night out at the theater that makes me hunger for more live theater.  I will definitely see Svich’s Twelve Ophelias when UNO produces it in the fall, eager to experience more of her multi-layered work. I will definitely catch at least one more play in the Great Plains conference, which runs through June 4. And, who knows, this just might be the motivational or inspirational spark I needed to tackle a serious rewrite of the play I wrote a few years ago and that I’ve left languishing in the proverbial drawer despite some helpful notes and encouraging words from a local theater professional whose opinion I respect.

Continuing my posts in celebration of the Great Plains Theater Conference, here is a very recent piece I wrote for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper published in South Omaha, about Caridad Svich, a featured playwright at the 2011 conference. I did a very long phone interview with Svich and had enough material for a full blown feature profile of her, but my assignment called for a short  700-word piece and that’s what I delivered.  I still think I managed to get some sense for who she is and how she views things in the article, though I would have preferred to have more space in order to flesh some points out and to include other elements of her life and story.

 

 

Caridad Svich

 

Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference Playwright Caridad Svich Explores Bicultural Themes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Caridad Svich, a leading figure of the American stage, is a featured playwright at the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College.

As a playwright, songwriter, editor and translator, Svich explores themes of wanderlust, biculturalism and dislocation. Her experience as the American-born child of an itinerant Argentine father and Cuban mother informs her work.

Her journey as an artist has paralleled her identification with “being a first generation American, trying to sort that out, and living bilingually,” she said by phone from her home in New York City.

“It took me a long time to come to terms with any sense of Latinidad. I think that’s something that came rather late for me, especially as an artist. I really didn’t write my first play that had anything remotely to do with Latino or Latina characters until my last year of graduate school.”

It was only then, she says, she acknowledged “I need to start figuring this out for myself.” Where before she viewed it as something to wrestle with privately, she realized it was permissible, even necessary to explore her identity crisis on the page and the stage. Nudging her in this direction were plays she read by Hispanics. It’s then, she says, she recognized “this is a world I’m attracted to and is a part of me…and I feel a kinship with.”

Participating in the first Latino playwriting workshop of the formidable Maria Irene Fornes (Saritia) became a turning point.

“I wanted to be part of a community of writing that could help me sort that out,” Svich says, adding it helped being around bilingual writers with their own hybrid identities.

Fornes became her “primary mentor.”

Though Svich doesn’t go out of her way to write Latino plays, those cultural themes are inescapably part of her.

“Ultimately I’m a writer, and when I look at the page I don’t prescribe what’s going to happen. I feel like a landscape, a story, a voice, a character will come to me and I’ll follow it wherever it leads, and whether the characters are Latino or not I sort of just take the story where it goes.

“But I feel the fact I am Latino. I am a first generation American that lives with the memories my parents brought with them from their home countries.”

Her work is known, among other things, for its critique of the American Dream.

“Because I am a child of immigrants I’ve always had this double point of view — I see what my parents went through not being from here, subtle levels of discrimination. Even though I was born here, I was treated sometimes as an immigrant myself.

“I feel like there’s always embedded in the work what is the promise that America as a concept holds and what is the reality. I have a couple plays that deal specifically with immigrant characters, but I also have plays that deal with characters who are elsewhere, in unnamed countries outside the U.S., who are thinking about what their America is and the image of America that’s exported to them.”

 

 

 

 

Svich says her critiques are meant to be constructive. Besides, she says, critical examination is “part of the job,” adding, “Part of the position of being an artist is to stand outside — it’s your duty to be able to reflect back.”

She also takes seriously her role as an established playwright. At the Great Plains conference she’ll be lending her expertise to emerging playwrights at panel discussions and workshops.

One of her plays, Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man’s Blues, will be performed May 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s main campus.

She describes this early, bluesy work as “still a touchstone play for me.” Set in the bayou, it’s about a woman mourning the loss of her military husband in a desert war. Haunted by the ghost of her man, the young widow is befriended by a community of women who try helping her through this passage of life.

It’s a love story with songs, influenced by the blues and call-and-response traditions.

A later Svich play, Twelve Ophelias, will be performed in the fall by UNO Theater. She calls this bluegrass oratorio an elemental play set in a primal landscape with the resurrected Ophelia visiting the ghosts of her past for some reckoning.

“I wanted to free her from her destiny in the original Shakespeare and give her new life by like getting over a really bad love affair and moving on.”

For conference schedule, artist and ticket information, call 402-457-2618 or visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu.

Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work

May 29, 2011 9 comments

With the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference going on May 28-June 4 in Omaha, I am posting a variety of stories I’ve written directly related to the event and others having to do with other aspects of Omaha theater. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is based on an interview I did with the playwright Arthur Kopit. It’s a lively, insightful discussion of the playwriting craft and of how events like the conference help nurture emerging playwrights.

 

 

Attention Must Be Paid: Arthur Kopit Invokes Arthur Miller to Describe Great Plains Theater Conference Focus on Playwrights and Their Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

New York playwright Arthur Kopit (IndiansWings, the books for the musicals Nine and Phantom of the Opera) sees “many values” in the Great Plains Theatre Conference going on now through June 3 at various sites in Omaha. But none more than the vital forum it provides new playwrights.

“One is, it connects them with a community of playwrights,” he said. “Playwrighting is a very lonely profession, particularly if you’re not in New York. And even if you are…you work so often in isolation. Meeting with other playwrights enables the writers to see the problems they are dealing with are not theirs alone. It’s very hard to write a good play, so it’s kind of a bucking-up…a strengthening. And it’s nice for playwrights to be welcomed and honored and to realize they’re doing something important, because the development of new plays is a difficult task in American theater.”

The collegial spirit of such a conference has a palliative effect on playwrights.

“It’s an odd profession,” Kopit said. “It’s very hard to figure out why you want to be a playwright. Screenwriters and television writers can say they expect to get a lot of money or to get steady employment, but when you’re a playwright it’s much chancier. So there’s an emotional support from seeing other playwrights and finding out you’re not the only one who has this passion…Second, you’re going to get some very good feedback on your work from other professional playwrights and that’s important. You’re going to see the work of other playwrights — new work — and that is invigorating. Even when the pieces don’t work…you’re learning something. So you’re learning things professionally, you’re making contacts with other writers, directors, actors that may be helpful. ”

The benefits of this community extend to veteran writers as well. “For writers who are more established it’s an opportunity to meet with other writers, and that’s exciting, and hear their work and get comments on their work,” he said. Regardless of how accomplished a playwright is, no one’s immune from creative-craft issues. “Problems with the second or third act, or the first,” he said, happen to everyone. “Yes, absolutely. And each play is different. As Moss Hart (legendary Broadway playwright) once said, ‘You only learn to write THIS particular play.’ It doesn’t necessarily help you with the next play. So, it’s hard.”

A successful playwright, he said, is made not born. “You have to have discipline. You have to work at it. And some days go well and some days don’t. You can’t tell before you begin.” The process, he said, is all “in the crafting of the play,” which he said is why “so much of conversations” at the conference “will be about the crafting. How you get something, how you make it better. The architecture, the structure of the play.” A conference like this, he said, can be instructive to general audiences. “They will learn this is not an abstract situation where someone sits and waits for inspiration. If inspiration comes by, you grab it” but unless you’re “logging the hours” at work on your play, you’ll miss out on your muse.

Letting the public in on the formative process is healthy. “How extraordinary it is for audiences to understand how a play is put together — the complexity of it, particularly in the development of new plays,” he said. He sees the conference as an ideal vehicle for approaching theater from multiple angles. “What is it like to write a new play? What is it like to see a play in progress that’s not been seen before? How do you evaluate it? It’s very hard to do new plays because they have problems and audiences usually like to feel secure…to see something that is good and that has been tested. Audiences too often depend on critics.”

At its best theater reflects the aspirations of people and the times they live in. But great plays resist pat solutions or analysis. “They can’t be editorials. They can’t be propaganda. Really good plays are not easy to define, like all great art,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons theater is important because great plays are open to interpretation. Weak plays are very obvious on the surface as to what they’re about. They’re like sit coms. Great plays explore the gray areas. They don’t look at black and white…good and evil. They’re about human contradiction…the intermingling” of values. “Plays can be unsettling when they don’t give you easy answers, but the purpose of a play is to raise questions, not provide answers.”

 

 

 

 

Classic plays can be revisited again and again, he said, for the very reason “they’re open to different interpretations” by the artists and audiences who tackle them over time.  With each staging, he said, “other aspects of the play come out.”

What makes theater “very different” from film, he said, is that it’s “a collective, group experience. There’s a ritual involved in theater. There’s no ritual in film. And the audience receives the play from actors. That’s why when there’s been a great audience and a great performance actors will applaud the audience because the audience performed too by giving them their serious attention. The actors will feed on what audiences give them. That shared experience is part of what’s powerful about theater. It’s a communion and it’s a community. It’s a love affair.”

Theater has deep reverberations in the collective consciousness, he suggests. “It’s an ancient art. It has an inherent significance to it we instinctively understand,” he said. Like storytelling, plays cut across cultures to express the human experience. All the more reason to celebrate new stories and new plays at a gathering of the cognoscenti. “It brings attention to new plays, it brings attention to the theater in that community and it adds some fire, some sparkle, some new awareness. You know, “attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller says (in Death of a Salesman).

The sympoisum’s built around the New Voices play labs series that reads/performs the work of emerging playwrights from around the nation for critical appraisal by distinguished panelists like Kopit and Edward Albee (A Delicate BalanceWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?). Albee is co-organizer of the conference with Jo Ann C. McDowell, president of Metropolitan Community College, the event’s host.

Luminaries like Kopit and Albee “waive their speaker’s fee,” said McDowell. Before this, she and Albee lured top talent to The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, the model for the first time Great Plains. Kopit never made it north,  “but I know all the writers who’ve been there and they’ve always loved it,” he said.

Kopit said playwrights couldn’t ask for a more nurturing mentor than Albee. “Edward has been extremely generous to other playwrights. He established a foundation for playwrights early on in his career and believes very deeply, thoroughly in the importance of theater and new plays, and this conference is an example of that.” He said it’s “unusual” a playwright of Albee’s stature is so supportive, adding “other playwrights come here because they respect Edward and the great amount of passion he’s put into this.”

As an honored playwright, Kopit’s own work is featured in panel discussions, readings and staged performances. Selections from his Nine (Tony Award for best musical) were presented May 28. Albee led a May 29 Kopit panel. Kopit arrived early to prep local artists performing two of his plays — “making sure the pieces are done properly.” He’s conducted a master class, read from his work, been a respondent in labs and interacted with visiting/resident artists and enthusiasts at social gigs.

After a lab reading of Max Sparber’s Buddy Bentley (presented by current/former Blue Barn Theatre members), Kopit and fellow playwright respondents Albee and Glyn O’Malley questioned Sparber about the work’s character development, motivation, tonal issues, etc. Several fine points were addressed. Far from an inquisition, it felt more like a grad student having his thesis gently challenged. Kopit, who enjoys teaching and directs the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, said, “Oh, yes, many playwrights teach. We love to do this.”

Scenes by Kopit, Albee and fellow playwrights Emily Mann and Mac Wellman will be staged June 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center. A reading of Kopit’sWings (Tony nominee/Pulitzer finalist) is set for June 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland. On June 3, Kopit receives the Edward Albee Great Plains Playwright Award at the fest’s closing Gala at 7 p.m. on Metro’s Fort Omaha parade grounds. On the Albee Award, Kopit said, “I’m honored and it’s exciting. Wonderful writers have been honored by this. But you don’t write for that. You write for the piece itself.”

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

May 29, 2011 12 comments

This is another glimpse at the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, this time through the prism of playwright Edward Albee, who served as artistic director its first couple years. The 2011 conference, running May 28-June 4 in Omaha. I did the following Q & A with him by phone in advance of one of the early conferences. He’s since disassociated himself from the event, which led to some speculation about its sustainability, but after a limbo year or so the event has come back stronger than ever. In the intro to the Q & A I share some of the trepidation I felt going into the interview. I mean, am used to interviewing celebrities and public figures in all different fields of endeavor, and the names and reputations of some of these folks carry even more weight than Albee’s, but he is a writer extraordinaire known to not suffer fools gladly, all of which made me more than a little tense. It went fine, as these things usually do, and his easy charm is a big reason why the interview session went smoothly, though I distinctly recall feeling a self-imposed pressure to not tarry or dally or digress, but to get on with it, to move quickly from his answer to my next question.  If I had been a bit more reflective and deliberate I think I would have gotten more from Albee, but while it’s not a great interview, it’s more than satisfactory looking back on it now a few years later.

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   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly

That old lion of American theater, Edward Albee, wears well the mantle of expectation that comes with being his country’s “foremost” or “preeminent” living playwright. The descriptions of him, used as if official titles conferred by some ministry of theater, appear whenever his name is invoked. Living legend status is part of the baggage that comes with being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. As he might wryly observe, there are worse things he could be called.

Considerations of Albee are far from abstractions for locals now that the Great Plains Theatre Conference  he helps direct is an annual event hosted by Metropolitan Community College. The second annual conference features a full schedule of play labs, readings, panels, lectures and performances.

Before you ever interview Albee, you hear that the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women can be peevish and prickly. That he reads everything written about himself and his work and won’t hesitate to point out errors. That he’s an intellectual of the first order, you don’t need reminding. You hear, too, how deeply he cares about theater. How he generously advises young playwrights. How the future of this art form is often on his mind.

In preparing to talk with him you read his plays. Then you realize it’s folly to engage him in a discussion of his work. No, it’s best to focus on the conference and his efforts at passing on his wisdom to the new wave of playwrights coming up. To draw him out on his long association with Metro president Jo Ann McDowell, who’s responsible for making the conference and luminaries like Albee fixtures in Omaha. The two met when she directed the William Inge Theatre Festival in Independence, Kan. and they went onto organize the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. Last year they launched the GPTC.

Still, you despair: What hasn’t he been asked before? How to go beyond the banal?

When you finally speak to him, by phone, you find an amiable man who, as expected, listens closely. His responses come quickly, precisely on point. His speech is formal, his delivery measured. His glib sense for irony and his dry wit ever present. You’re keenly aware of the analytical mind on the other end of the line. One always a step or two ahead of you. It’s intimidating. It all goes by in a rush.

As you’ll see below, the Q & A resulted in several of my questions being longer than his answers, which is less than ideal, but I think I evoked reasonable responses in most cases. I was likely a bit too timid and deferential and not being as active a listener as I needed to be. Though he was nothing but gracious, I think it’s safe to assume he was not the most willing of participants.

LAB: McDowell says that when she informed you she’d accepted the Metro presidency, she was afraid you might look askance at doing a conference here, but you embraced the idea, saying something like, They do my plays there — we’ll have better audiences in Omaha.

EA: “Well, you know, we did it for 13 years or so in Alaska and it was lovely up there, but it was a little harder for a lot of people to get up there. And I just thought it would be a lot easier for people to get to Omaha then to get to Alaska. And it being a bigger city and having a theater culture already — because Valdez had no theater culture, we had to create it — that it might make a lot of sense.”

LAB: Other than residencies at Creighton University and an awareness your work is performed here, I take it you didn’t know much about this place?

EA: “I’d been to Omaha a couple times over the years. I’d been to the art museum and I’d been to that lovely downtown complex (the Old Market or Old Towne as he calls it) of galleries and shops. I knew Omaha a little bit.”

LAB: But isn’t what really sold you on Omaha, McDowell?  She says she can’t imagine what made you two “click” given your disparate backgrounds and can only guess her demonstrated passion and commitment for theater gained your trust.

EA: “Well there it is, she has great passion and commitment. She gave the impression that she could work miracles, and if you’re in the theater you like people who can work miracles.”

LAB: You obviously have an understanding of what each other wants.

EA: “She and I disagree sometimes on how best to go about it, but it’s her conference more than mine, so she gets to run the show.”

LAB: But isn’t the event informally known as the Edward Albee Theater Conference?

EA: “Well I’ve been doing my very, very best to destroy that impression. It’s now the Great Plains Theatre Conference. There are many who get invited there — major theater people. It’s not just me showing up, You know, I guess my name sells a few tickets or gets a few people there, but I don’t like being used that way.”

LAB: Yet I’m told this is the only event of its type you lend your name to.

EA: “I’ve lent my presence and my participation and I guess the name goes with it. I wouldn’t lend my name unless I felt there was some virtue to it, and we’ll see how this develops there in Omaha.”

LAB: You’re far more than a figurehead. I mean, you take an active role in the meat of the conference — the play labs.

EA: “Yeah, sure, of course. I try hard to do that. One thing I’m not happy with and it’s one thing this conference has to develop is a much broader base of young playwrighting talent, because it’s tending these days to be a little parochial and I’m afraid the quality of plays being submitted has declined from the Alaska days. But we’re going to be working on that…There’s no point in having all of these wonderful professional theater people around to evaluate work that really isn’t worth evaluating, and there’s quite a bit of that I’m afraid. So it’s got to become less parochial. I understand it is Omaha-based and we have wonderful theater companies in Omaha, and they should be involved in doing the work, but we’re going to have to have to get a much more national and international base of young playwrights coming there for the thing to really matter.”

LAB: By casting an ever wider net?

EA: “Yes, of course, which I’ve been trying to do, but I’m going to have to try harder. We’re going to have to do better than we’ve been doing it.”

LAB: Are there other things about the event you’d like to tweak?

EA: “I just want to find out what all this film nonsense is that’s beginning to happen (He refers to a cinema component this year called Fringe Fest.). I don’t feel there’s room for it at all. But, again, that’s just me. I’ll talk to her (McDowell) about it.”

LAB: It may come as a surprise to people that someone of your stature takes such a hands-on role. I’m told no detail is too small to escape your attention.

EA: “I’m a control freak, but so is Jody. You get two control freaks together, you get a lot of control, and a lot of freaking.”

LAB: Why do you choose to take such a keen interest in emerging playwrights?

EA: “Because I think if you’ve had some experience in the arts and you know something about teaching and you know what you’re doing in the arts, you have a responsibility to pass on the information and that expertise to younger people. You need the new, young generation of wonderful creative people and if you can be helpful in keeping them on the straight and narrow and keeping their sights where they should be, then it’s your responsibility to do it. In the same way I feel creative artists should be loud and vocal politically.”

LAB: When you were a young playwright were there experienced writers who served that same function for you.

EA: “Well sure, but those were the playwrights whose work I was beginning to see in Greenwich Village. The great Europeans — Brecht and Beckett and Inoesco and Pirandello and all those people. And then when a whole new generation of us came up at the same time. Me and Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit and Jack Richardson and Lanford Wilson and a bunch of others (including Omahan Megan Terry) were there, and we were feeding off each other.”

LAB: Were there events like the Great Plains Theatre Conference then?

EA: “There may have been one or two, but I didn’t know about them. I was living in New York City, in Greenwich Village, in the theater hotbed, in the center of experimental and adventuresome theater in America, which New York still is.”

LAB: So in that sense every night was like a play lab.

EA: “Of course it was.”

Melinda Dillon and Arthur Hill in original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

LAB: Omaha’s a long way from New York. McDowell’s maintained her commitment to theater wherever she’s been and that’s never wavered despite various political machinations she has to contend with.

EA: “It seems not to have to. Yeah, sure, I understand the pressures, but whenever I think the pressures she is under are dangerous and destructive, I try to put a lot of pressure in the opposite direction.”

LAB: She likes to say she’s been “carrying this thing around with me for 26 years,” meaning her devotion to theater and these conferences. Her support of theater has remained consistent in an era of scant federal funding for the arts in America.

EA: “Certainly, look at the last 25 years. The William Inge Festival was begun by her and then the Alaska Last Frontier Conference and now this. She just keeps right on doing it. Of course continuity is very important. And I appreciate her ability to get funds from the local big wigs. I think that’s very important — as long as the local big wigs don’t have anything to say about what we do.”

LAB: Do you ever involve yourself in the fund raising?

EA: “No, she seems to get that all done before we show up.”

LAB: Earlier you mentioned Omaha’s fine theaters. From what you’ve glimpsed of Omaha’s theater community, how do you appraise it?

EA: “Well from what I’ve seen when they come to do readings of plays they do a fine job. They’ve very talented people. You don’t need to be an equity company to be good. I’m always gratified when I find people are doing what they should and doing it well.”

LAB: As you say, local theater companies are a vital part of the event.

EA: “We just want to be sure we give them the best work we can possibly find for them to participate in. It’s good publicity for them. They’re doing a responsible act and they’re probably being exposed to interesting new plays they probably wouldn’t have known about without the conference.”

LAB: As all of theater is, the event’s very much a collaborative, communal affair…

EA: “What do you mean by collaboration? A play is written, that is the individual creative act. Everything else is interpreted.”

LAB: Well, in the sense that a team comes together…

EA: “That is not a creative act, that is an interpretive act. That shouldn’t get in the way of the creative part of it.”

LAB: The conference mission statement mentions your quest for an important, enduring discussion of theater at the national level. What aspects of theater need addressing on a continuing basis?

EA: “Trying to develop an audience that wants theater that matters rather than safe, escapist stuff. Basically developing audiences and critics who know the difference between junk and excellence. And a conference if this sort can be very helpful.”

LAB: In line with that you have a goal of growing audiences for serious theater.

EA: “The only way to do that is to give them good stuff to see and that’s why we have to keep improving the quality of the scripts by casting our net wider.”

LAB: You’re often asked your opinion on the state of American theater. Last year you were pessimistic in the wake of the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. Since then, Lloyd Richards and Glyn O’Malley (a participant at last year’s GPTC and a director of Albee’s work) have died. All great voices silenced. You seemed to lament the theater can’t recover from such losses.

EA: “Well we can recover from our losses. Losses are always terribly distressing and damaging, but if conferences of this sort can develop a whole new generation of first rate theater people than the continuum is on.”

LAB: But these have been such major losses.

EA: “Well we’ve been having them all along. Look back at every decade — you lose an awful lot of good people.”

LAB: Miller, Wilson and company were more than colleagues, they were friends.

EA: “Yeah, of course. Well the older I get I keep having to scratch out more and more names in my address book every week. It’s terrible. I must develop a lot of younger friends. See, I usually have friends older than I am because I learn something from people who know more than I do, but they seem to be going away pretty fast.”

LAB: Have you seen promising new talents emerge from conferences like the GPTC?

EA: “Oh sure, a number of talents have emerged, but you can’t ever tell whether that’s going to be enough to save theater from the forces of darkness, which are commercialism and sloth — intellectual sloth.”

LAB: At a play lab last year I was struck by how many questions you asked the playwright, such as Did you consider this? or What was your intention here?

EA: “Yeah I like to teach by the Socratic Method of asking questions rather than giving answers because I have a lot more questions than I have answers about everything.”

LAB: Do you follow a similar process, internally, with your own work?

EA: “Gee I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about what I do when I’m writing. I try to stay away from too much conscious awareness of what I’m doing. I just let it happen.”

LAB: Is there someone you show your work to as you’re developing it?

EA: “No, I don’t show it to anybody until I’ve finished it.”

LAB: May I ask what you’re working on now?

EA: “Nothing right now. I just finished a long two-act play about identical twins, Me, Myself and I, which is going to be done at the McCarter Theatre (Center) in Princeton, N.J.  next fall. (To be directed by Emily Mann, a visiting artist at the GPTC in Omaha.)

LAB: Has the subject of identical twins fascinated you for awhile?

EA: “Apparently it has. If you go and read The American Dream (an early ‘60s play by Albee) there’s a pair of identical twins there, so it goes back a long time in my career.”

LAB: When you come to Omaha are there rituals you follow to begin your day and to end your night?

EA: “Well let’s see, unless I get to read the New York Times I’m an incomplete person, so I do that over breakfast. I try to go to the gym. I work out every day. At the conference Jody has us doing things 27 hours a day, so it’s very difficult to do anything else. Sometimes it’s even hard to get the Times read. The only things I keep protesting are the social events.”

LAB: A necessary evil?

EA: “Ahhh, I decide about half of them are a necessary evil. I involve myself in what I think the most important things are.”

LAB: What about the host site, historic Fort Omaha with its military provenance, Victorian buildings and green spaces?

EA: “It’s a really interesting campus. They always give me a nice place to live and I’m happy when I’m there. They give me a car, not that I ever get a chance to drive it anywhere. They treat me very nicely.”

LAB: McDowell’s stated she wants Omaha as the permanent home for the conference, which she hopes to endow. Are you fine with that?

EA: “Oh, of course. Why not for heaven’s sake? Sure. I have nothing against Omaha.”

LAB: We spoke of losses before. You suffered a great personal loss recently with the death of your longtime partner.

EA: “Yeah, I did. Thirty five years with the right person, that’s a pretty big loss.”

LAB: I know you were really hurting at least year’s conference. How are you doing?

EA: “Oh, I’m functioning. It never gets better, it just gets different…that kind of loss.”

And with that, one could only say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Albee.” “You’re very welcome,” he said.

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne-Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 5 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

 Anne-Marie Kenny

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in the New Horizons

 

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

Singer Anne-Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself –  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

 

 

 

 

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

 

Janine Reiss

 

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

 

 

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions

May 28, 2011 23 comments

No, my usually eclectic blog has not suddenly changed focus to become a theater blog – it just seems that way because of the Great Plains Theatre Conference happening in my proverbial backyard, Omaha, and my wanting to emphasize a theater theme during at least the initial run of the event, which goes on May 28-June 4.  Therefore, in the span of a few days here I am posting various articles I’ve written about the conference and about other theater goings on and figures here.  My blog is replete with stagecraft stories, along with stories about filmmakers, musicians, artists, authors, and other creatives,  The article below is from a couple years ago and charts a somewhat new course for the conference, then entering its fourth year and now in its sixth, and new leadership for the event.

 

 

 

 

Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

Year four of the Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 23-30, is less about the past and more about the present and future.

This tweaked emphasis comes from two leading Omaha theater figures, Kevin Lawler and Scott Working, new to the GPTC staff since last summer. Each is a playwright and director who’s started theaters from scratch. Lawler helped launch the Blue Barn Theatre. Working birthed the Shelterbelt. They’ve been artistic directors.

GPTC founder Jo Ann McDowell enlisted them for their new roles. The former Metropolitan Community College president oversees special projects for Metro, host of the city-wide event since its 2006 inception. The conference is still her baby. Looking for fresh ideas and more sustainability she brought in Lawler and Working as creative director and Writer’s Workshop coordinator, respectively.

“They founded two of the most important theater companies in Omaha and have great respect from the local arts community,” McDowell said. “Their involvement with local theater goes back many years, which has been very valuable to the conference. Scott and Kevin have moved the play selection and labs to a new level. Their professionalism and theater knowledge is a huge asset.”

Lawler’s a Minneapolis resident who considers Omaha his second home. Working is Metro’s theater program coordinator and a full-time faculty member. The pair worked the conference before in more limited capacities. Already sold on it as a vehicle for theater synergy, they embraced the idea of taking on expanded duties.

 

 

Kevin Lawler

 

 

The mission of celebrating playwrights has shifted from what Working calls “an old boy network” of name-above-the-title scribes to “emerging” artists.” Witness 2009 honored playwright Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer finalist with widely performed work. Accomplished, yes, but theater grunts can more easily identify with her than past honoree gods Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare.

“What makes this conference unique is that it caters or appeals to several tiers of playwrights at different stages of their career — master playwrights with well-established careers, emerging playwrights in mid-career and beginners who’ve only written one or two scripts,” said Working. “The interaction, networking and fellowship between those tiers is really valuable and educational.”

The Masters Performance Series features productions of works by Rebeck and fellow bigger-than-life playwrights Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. New this year is the Mainstage Series, a competitive showcase for more life-sized artists. The series presents five finalist scripts in staged readings by local directors-casts that master playwrights respond to. The winning author earns $1,000. Lawler credits the series with more than doubling script submissions (170 to 423). He said the large script pool (from several states) made “a huge difference” in the overall quality of work. A criticism of past conferences was the dearth of quality scripts.

“We definitely always want to have space for the beginning playwrights, so there’s always going to be plays that aren’t ready for Broadway or off-Broadway, and that’s OK,” said Lawler. “But the great addition is we’re bringing this group of people in who are just about to break into the big time. They’ve been writing for awhile, they’ve had a number of productions, they’re getting very skilled at their craft.”

McDowell said the Mainstage Series “adds a new dimension.” “There’s a big local side to this, too,” said Lawler, “which is that our local theater companies get to meet these playwrights, to work with them on scripts, to become friends.”

Master playwrights also work with less experienced counterparts in workshop sessions covering various craft issues. Besides exposing Omaha theater talents and audiences to new artists and works, there’s no telling where relationships developed here may lead. For example, Lawler said, “there’s a number of scripts this year that very well may get New York productions in the coming years.” He said a play with Omaha ties breaking big in NYC would have ripple effects here.

“The hope is that if one or two of these scripts worked on here go big in a large market that will bring just much more energy back to the conference for people to get involved, and that becomes sort of a centrifugal force itself. That kind of synergy is really great for the local Omaha theater community, too.”

“That’s already really starting to happen. We’ve had major playwrights work with our local companies putting on their productions,” he said.

Lawler envisions a playwright mounting a locally produced show that a national producer then stages with that same Omaha talent. “Imagine that happening for Brigit Saint Brigit or the Blue Barn or Baby D (Productions) or for one of our local playwrights,” said Lawler.

 

 

Scott Working
Scott Working

 

 

Working said the young conference continues “evolving” its niche. Lawler agrees, saying, “The conference in a sense is in its infancy still. There’s a growth process it’s going through.” Lawler knows where he’d like to take the event. “I think the conference should be benefiting local playwrights, actors, directors and theater companies — artistically, financially and also with their connection to the national theater scene — and will be much more exponentially each year.”

Lawler said outreach with the local theater community, who volunteer to direct and act in conference labs and staged readings, is improving. “At a couple sessions we just sat down with them and said, ‘Alright, tell us what can we do better — how can we change things?,’ and we got some great feedback on things,” said Lawler, who hopes one day the conference can reimburse local artists for their time.

For Lawler, the GPTC is a microcosm of Omaha theater.

“Nobody’s doing theater here for money, for fame or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody’s doing it because they actually love doing it and they love the other people involved with it, which is the essence of any good theater. It was illustrated beautifully by the community meeting that happened when the Omaha (Community) Playhouse went through its troubles. That (passion) makes this theater scene one of the most vibrant, exciting. It’s why I keep coming back.”

Where can the GPTC go from here? He points to the Humana theater festival in Louisville, KY that runs several weeks, does full stage productions of major new works and draws huge audiences. It’s a world-class theater happening.

“Maybe we don’t get as big as the Humana but maybe our focus gets stronger and it still brings in this great energy to the city that totally invigorates the theater scene. I think we can eventually create that.”

For registration, ticket, schedule details visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu or call 457-2618.


Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater

May 28, 2011 27 comments

From the moment I learned of the Great Plains Theatre Conference being launched in 2006 in my hometown of Omaha, I knew it was something significant for the local arts scene and a must story for me to write about.  In one fashion or another I have written about various aspects of each of the six conferences, with the exception of one I believe.  That first conference or two drew much attention for the obvious reason that attached to the event were a half-dozen or more theater legends, including Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare, Marshall Mason, Mark Lamos, Tammy Grimes, and Patricia Neal.  These luminaries followed, in a sense, the conference’s founder and Pied Piper driving force, Jo Ann McDowell, who came to Omaha as president of Metropolitan Community College and brought with her a track record of spearheading major theater festivals. Albee was closely associated with the first couple Great Plains conferences but then disassociated himself from the event, as did a couple more of the big names, which cost the conference some lustre and momentum.  Then, McDowell came under fire in her role as Metro’s president, and eventually resigned. In the midst of her embattled presidency, the newspaper I was mainly covering the conference for, The Reader (www.thereader.com), wrote a series of unfriendly pieces directed at her.  The paper also seemed to lose interest in the conference by its third, fourth, and fifth seasons, even though by then the event had rebounded and become stronger in some ways than before, even though it was missing the old lions of the American theater. The story below is the first piece I did on the event and was part of a Reader cover story previewing the inaugural conference. In the spirit of the conference becoming an established event, and the 2011 edition taking place May 28-June 4, I am posting my Great Plains Theatre Conference work as a journalist. You’ll find pieces related to the event itself and to McDowell, Kopit, Guare, Glyn O’Malley, and Caridad Svich, one of this year’s featured playwrights.  You’ll also find on this blog pieces about Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, Billy McGuigian, the John Beasley Theatre, the Theatre of the Oppressed, Diner Theater, Omaha Magic Theatre. Not to mention, profiles of some of Omaha’s own theater  legends: Megan Terry, John Beasley, Elaine Jabenis, Charles Jones, Dick Boyd, Doug Marr, Quiana Smith, Billy McGuigan,  And soon to come: pieces on the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre and Shakespeare on the Green.  Yes, it’s a vibrant theater scene here.
Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater 

©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

May 24, 2011 15 comments

It’s late spring, and that means the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is nearly upon us. The annual playwriting festival is hosted by Metropolitan Community College, whose former president, Jo Ann McDowell launched the event. The mercurial McDowell is the focus of the following story I did for the New Horizons newspaper on the eve of the 2007 fest. She is the epitome of the subjects I gravitate to as a writer because she has followed her passion and magnificent obsession for theater to some amazing places and into the company of some amazing personalities. There’s no question that the week-long conference, which runs May 28-June 4 2011, is one of the artistic high marks each year in Nebraska.  Some of theater’s best established and emerging talents descend on Omaha for the event, and as compelling as they and their work are, McDowell has a story in her own right and she is a formidable figure in her own way.  Her life in theater, never on stage, but always as a facilitator and advocate, is one she wants to tell in book form, and I do hope does commit it to the page one day.  I would be honored to be the storyteller.

Jo Ann McDowell

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

If the mood strikes her, Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell need only glance out the north windows of her expansive office to look upon earth laden with history. McDowell, who became the school’s first female president when appointed in 2005, works out of a stately two-story, brick and stone, wood-trimmed, columned building on the historic Fort Omaha campus.

History permeates Metro’s 70-acre, maple tree-studded grounds in north Omaha. Her administrative suite is housed in one of several restored Victorian structures that date back to when Fort Omaha operated as a U.S. Army supply center in the late 19th century. Fort Omaha was abandoned in 1896 and reactivated in 1905 as the Signal Corps School before closing again in 1913. In 1916 it reopened as the American military’s first balloon school, training aerial observers who served in World War I. During World War II, Fort Omaha became the support installation for the Seventh Service Command and doubled as a work camp for Italian war prisoners. It later became a U.S. Navy and Marine personnel center.

Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus

Fort Omaha is perhaps most famous as the site where Ponca chief Standing Bear was imprisoned and stood trial in a landmark 1879 civil rights case that first established Native Americans as persons under the law. The residence of the fort’s then-commander, General George C. Crook, a Civil War and Indian Conflicts hero, is preserved on campus as a museum called the Crook House. Fort Omaha’s designation as a National Register District helps ensure its preservation.

The surrounding area is filled with history, too — from the Mormon camp grounds and cemetery to the birthplace of Malcolm X.

McDowell appreciates this rich past. “Fort Omaha is a jewel. The history of this fort is so breathtaking and wonderful. It has such beauty,” she said. She can’t help but be steeped in it as she resides in one of the Victorian homes on campus, a former officers quarters that is reputedly haunted. “I love that house,” she said. But she’s more interested in making new history, a process begun as soon as the Kansas native assumed Metro’s presidency. In her brief tenure she’s moved forward the school’s facilities and programs, including: expansion of its noted Institute of Culinary Arts; acquisition/renovation of old buildings and construction of new ones; development of the college’s first dorms; and creation of a theater arts degree.

Closest to her heart is her and her team’s organization-presentation of the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), now in its second year. The conference is modeled after similar events she was associated with in Independence, Kan. and Valdez, Alaska, where she previously headed up community colleges.

The changes at Metro coincide with a sharp increase in school enrollment, up 10 percent (in terms of head count) since her arrival. Its enrollment is now second only to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln among state higher ed schools. Metro has three Neb. campuses, four learning centers and 100-plus off-site locations.

From a second-story verandah her office opens onto, she can see the fort’s old parade ground spread out across a wide field that gently sweeps upward at its edges. During the theater conference a giant tent erected on the great lawn is home to programs/activities. Atop a hill on the west side set a row of tall Victorian dwellings, some converted to dorms, others used as guest houses for visiting artists and one serving as McDowell’s personal residence. “They’re like grand Victorian ladies,” she said. “All of them have been redone. They’re beautiful.”

For one week each spring the green spaces and vintage structures host some of the American theater’s finest writers and directors. Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Obie winners, led by conference artistic director Edward Albee, mix with emerging playwrights and the best from Omaha’s vibrant theater community, for play labs, workshops, panel discussions and performances. It’s a theater gathering and forum.

How apt that a site once rich with the pageantry and ceremony of the military should now accommodate the pomp and circumstance of higher education and serious stage craft.

She did much the same at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference (Valdez) and William Inge Theatre Festival (Independence). Her advocacy put her in close contact with established greats, including the late Arthur Miller and August Wilson, and rising young talents, some of whom, like Will Eno, have now made their mark.

Playwrights from 25 states and one foreign nation are expected in Omaha. Major media outlets, from the New York Times to National Public Radio, are slated to come. “We’ll have people from all over the country here,” McDowell said.

Twenty-five area theater companies are scheduled to participate in this year’s conference — doing readings, staged performances — which is why McDowell likes to describe it as “bringing together a community of theater. Theater is collaboration and partnering,” she said, but never before, she’s told, have so many local theaters joined forces to work cooperatively on such a large scale. “It’s about all of us joining together to celebrate the amazing magic that goes on in theater,” she said.

The 2007 Great Plains event runs May 26 through June 4. Most programs and activities are open to the general public. In addition to Metro, the conference unfolds at other venues, among them the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha Community Playhouse, Creighton University and Holland Performing Arts Center.

McDowell, who places great value on the arts, views the GPTC as a growth opportunity for all who attend.

“There are not enough events/places like this that nurture artists. We nurture playwrights, but we also nurture actors and directors and creative spirits. It’s an educational event. It’s all about educating people about theater — the craft of the playwright,” said McDowell, adding that whoever comes, whether theater professional or devotee, will be “learning.”

“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. I believe we’re enhancing all the arts by enhancing an audience.”

Theatre Conference

Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Jo Ann McDowell at the GPTC

She believes the arts touch something deep in us as human beings.

“Every time we go to the theater or to the opera or to an exhibit,” she said, “it’s a journey. It nurses our soul.”

She said she’s a perfect example of how the arts can help one blossom.

“My whole adult life I’ve been an educational administrator and that’s my career, but what has made me grow and watered my roots is the arts. I love the arts — all the arts. I love creativity. I think it’s made me a better administrator because…I think education has to be balanced. To be a well rounded person you have to have other interests. My passion is education, the arts and public service and those three things have always driven me. I don’t mind spending a lot of my own time and energy on them.”

Her immersion in theater is so deep, whether attending a local show or a New York premiere or hosting a Whos-Who of artists, she calls her position at Metro “my day job. I do my job during the day and then the weekend I do this,” she said, meaning indulging her theater appetite. “It’s passion for me. It’s my down time. It’s missionary work. I’m preaching now, aren’t I?” she said in the emotive, effusive manner of a Tennessee Williamsesque Southern belle.

“I have five college degrees and none in the arts, but I think I’m an arts scholar. You know, it comes out of my love for the arts. I’ve spent a lot of time studying, going to the theater. I was on the state arts commission in Kansas and Alaska. But I have no talent in the arts. My only talent’s going out and trying to grow audiences for theater and to get benefactors to buy into this mission to make it available to people who really can’t afford it.”

When she gets on a roll, McDowell speaks rapidly. Dressed in a blue and white power suit, her light, reddish brown locks flowing to her shoulders, she is at once a take-charge executive and a cool culturist, equally at ease with the macro visioning, micro managing, board wrangling and personal glad handing that go with the territory. Brokering deals and building coalitions are old hat to McDowell, who began her professional career as a lobbyist and public relations expert.

Besides bringing the theater conference to Omaha, McDowell’s succeeded in adding a general theater major at the college, where a new performance space is under construction. She credits the positive response the conference has netted with helping her convince the Metro board that a school once identified with its technical-trade programs, should offer an associate theater degree. One day she envisions a two-plus-two program in cooperation with the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University. She sees Metro’s theater offerings as complements to those at UNO and Creighton.

“We’re getting to be an arts school,” she said. “We’re rooted in the trades, but we’re certainly a comprehensive school and I think theater and the arts are part of who we are.”

She envisions Metro as a year-round “artist colony” whose resources/facilities are made available to theater companies and community organizations. She’s already opened the Victorian homes on campus to visiting artists.

Her passion for theater and for the arts is a legacy she carries from a key teacher in her life who introduced her to the wonders of the imagination.

“I had a great teacher that taught me to love the theater. Her picture’s right up there…” said McDowell, gesturing to a framed photo of an elderly woman in a red suit, the late Margaret Goheen. It’s among dozens of images on the walls of McDowell’s office that capture her beside family, friends and theater legends.

Margaret Goheen

Goheen was an English-speech instructor of McDowell’s at Independence (Kan.) Community College. “She loved the theater,” said McDowell, who fondly recalls attending New York excursions Goheen led. They were McDowell’s first glimpse of Broadway, Off-Broadway and the whole New York theater world. It was heady stuff for a girl who grew up on a dairy farm outside Cherryvale. Prior to college, McDowell’s interests revolved around 4-H. Her folks owned race horses and the family came to Omaha when the thoroughbreds ran at Ak-Sar-Ben.

The elder Goheen opened new possibilities for McDowell.

“She gave me an A in my first speech and she didn’t give As easily. She saw it in me,” McDowell said. “I think about Margaret. How we used to sell brownies forever to get to go to a play in Kansas City or Tulsa. I’ll never forget when she took me to New York for the first time. We’d stand in the back row” of a Broadway house “and afterwards she’d give me like a test. Who directed the play? Who did the sets? She would explain everything about the theater to me. She taught me to love theater.”

Years before, Goheen’s fire was sparked by the same instructor who taught famed playwright William Inge (PicnicSplendor in the Grass), a native of Independence. Goheen later founded the William Inge Festival in the late playwright’s hometown. “She also saw in me that I could make things happen — I could organize,” McDowell said of her mentor. Thanks to Goheen, the first Broadway show McDowell saw was Inherit the Wind at the Palace Theatre. She later honored its playwright, Jerome Lawrence, at the Inge Festival. Goheen asked McDowell to help with the festival.

Goheen’s confidence was well justified as the Inge Fest proved a success. It also introduced McDowell to Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the preeminent American playwright with whom she founded the Last Frontier in Valdez. After a successful 12-year run in the far northwest, she and Albee now co-direct the Great Plains conference in Omaha.

McDowell feels none of it would have occurred without Goheen taking an interest in her. “She had the same theater teacher William Inge had,” McDowell said. “That torch — a torch for a love of theater — was passed to Margaret. Margaret passed that torch to me. I’m passing that torch on. She was great. I was shaped by her. She died…but she’s still very close to me. She’d be proud of her old student, I tell you, because I’ve taken that mission she was on” to new heights.

A Baby Boomer, McDowell found strong women role models in not only Goheen, but her grandmother Anna and aunt Wilma, both long-time educators, and her mother, Lucille, who ran the family farm in wartime. McDowell’s grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse for 38 years. The school is still in use today.

She admires the matriarchs she learned from. “We ‘60s women were the daughters of women who ran the country during the ‘40s,” she said. “Those women went to work. They ran factories, they ran farms, they ran their own homes. They had personal power for the first time. They made money.” When the war ended, she said, women grudgingly went back into the home. “They raised kids like me who were never told we couldn’t do something. I was never told by my parents, ‘You cannot do that because you’re a girl.’ In fact, if anything, I was encouraged.”

Family is the foundation for McDowell’s life. She married her childhood sweetheart while in college and moved to California. The union quickly dissolved, but not before her only child, Suzann, was born. Adrift, McDowell moved back home, where, she said, “I had my family. What a gift to have somebody always there to cheerlead you.” She resumed school and never looked back.

She raised her daughter alone while working, studying and starting her career. Her academic pursuits took her from Independence CC to Pittsburg State to Kansas State, earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate along the way.

“I was so disciplined,” she said.

McDowell, who’s never remarried, has four grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces. She likes having family close by. A grandson lives with her in Omaha. He attends UNO and accompanied her to New York for a theater vacation over Christmas. A granddaughter stayed with her over the summer. A third grandchild is considering Creighton University’s med school.

“I’m crazy about them,” she said of her grandkids. “I’m glad I’m able to help them.”

So tied is McDowell to the region that she still owns the homes she and her mother lived in down in Kansas. The farm she grew up on is still held by the family. Her fierce devotion to family and her warm, nurturing qualities may be why noted theater artists from disparate places feel drawn to her.

How else to explain a farm girl clicking with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee? She said, “What I think it is is he knows I’m committed. And he knows I’ve taken a lot of heat over doing a theater conference.” Swelling with pride, she said “ours is the only event he’s put his name on. One of the greatest honors of my life has been my relationship with Edward Albee. I’m invited to all his openings. His inner circle is very small. I mean, he’s the greatest living playwright. He’s brilliant, but what people don’t know…is he’s a great and loyal friend, and he cares so deeply.”

Being close to her childhood home is a big reason why McDowell left Alaska for Nebraska. Not long before she died, McDowell’s mother made a request — that Jody relocate to the Midwest. The good daughter fulfilled her mother’s death-bed wish when she opted to leave Valdez for Metro in Omaha.

“Mother was the glue. I miss her every moment,” McDowell said. “When she was dying she told me, ‘You’re going to be the oldest generation in our family. You need to come home…’ Well, I am a Midwesterner through and through. The reason I’ve been able to hit the ground running was this was no transition for me. This was coming home. Going to Alaska was a huge, huge transition, but this has been easy. I had never lived but a hundred miles from my mother until I moved to Alaska.”

When she was ready to leave Alaska, she said she told headhunters, “‘I want to get back to the Midwest. I want to go home. I need to go home. My family needs me.’”

Besides losing her mother, McDowell had lost her only sister, whose children had “become like my own kids.”

Omaha wasn’t McDowell’s first choice, but after researching the vital cultural-arts scene here and checking her gut, her coming here was never in question.

“When I started looking into Omaha I went, ‘Wow.’ When I came, everything wowed me. The Joslyn and the Holland…and all these theater companies, the galleries, the Old Market, two medical centers, two universities, the zoo, Lauritzen Gardens, the golf courses. There’s something for everyone here.”

Striking too was the generous philanthropic climate that supports the arts.

The mission she’s made theater in her life is not unlike the zeal she’s devoted to education and to women’s rights. She is, after all, a child of “that magic time of Kennedy and Camelot,” she said. “I’m one of those ‘60s children that wanted to go out and make a difference. I testified before Congress on women having equality and on women’s issues. When I started out women did not get equal pay for equal work…We didn’t have athletic scholarships. Those are things we really fought for. We were trying to get people to think differently about women’s roles.”

She wanted to be a lawyer as a young woman, but at the time, she said, “only three percent of the law school seats at KU (Kansas University) were taken up by women. I’ve lived through a lot of that — those wonderful changes and challenges. I was on the state (Kansas) board for the women’s political caucus. I taught women’s studies. I had my own little television show on women’s issues. I was also invited twice to the White House when Carter was there — once on the Salt II talks and once on the status of women. I was really active. You couldn’t be in that generation and want a career and not be involved.”

McDowell achieved pioneer status at her alma mater, Independence CC, when named president — making her one of the first women college presidents in the nation then. It was a radical thing, she said, “in a town where there were no women in any positions of power.” Her rise up the ranks was legendary — from dean to vice president to executive vice president to president in ’88. She was appointed by the governor to the Kansas Board of Regents, becoming the first community college rep on that august body. “That was a big deal for me,” she said.

She then went to work for Kansas governor Joan Finney, who put McDowell “over all education in the state, K through 12, community colleges and universities. I liked it, but I didn’t like being in government,” she said. ‘I was an educator.” In 1992 she left Kansas, for Alaska of all places, in part because she felt Kansas was too restrictive. “It was very conservative,” she said. And in part because a major corporate funder of the Inge Festival, ARCO, had moved to Alaska and was courting her to come there. “That’s why I ended up in Valdez. I was at Prince William Sound Community College for 13 years.”

The current discontent over the Iraq war and the disconnect between a hard line administration and a wary nation takes her back to her activist era. She said, “This war is reminding me of” Vietnam in “the ‘60s. I just see a lot of deja vu right now.” “Conservative southeastern Kansas” was “not exactly a hotbed” of activism,” she said, as her political and arts involvement ran against the tide there. She said the Inge Festival was considered by some locals “a little avant garde.”

She found a more accepting environment in Valdez, where she and Albee made the Last Frontier a major happening in American theater. “I loved my time there,” she said. So did her did mother, who went every summer as long her health allowed. “She caught a silver salmon that won the salmon derby.”

McDowell’s activism these days centers around the arts and education.

She’s proud to be part of a movement of people of “a certain age who are,” she said, “going to change retirement drastically. One of my board members asked, ‘How long do you plan to work?’ and I said, ‘As long as I’m able.’ As long as I’m healthy and I’m so inspired and I have passion for what I do. Burnout is a word our generation has a hard time understanding. I see people that are just doing amazing things. We’re a generation that wants to contribute.”

A play lab at the GPTC

Her lasting contribution to the Midwest may be the Great Plains conference. She hopes it “will put Omaha and Metro on the map in kind of an exciting way” — the same way the theater fests in Valdez and Independence have brought attention. She hopes to endow the conference, something she did with the Inge, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. A video salute honored her part in the festival. Seeing the video “was so emotional for me,” she said.

As the Great Plains conference and Metro theater program grow she envisions inviting prominent playwrights to be in residence there.

Private/public funding, including ARCO oil money, helped underwrite the Inge and Last Frontier. The same way she sold those — as engines for “economic development” that “fills hotels” — she’s selling the Great Plains. Last year she said she hoped “the conference will get people to change their image of us (Metro) and will get us invited to that circle of people involved in arts philanthropy.” It’s already happened, as she’s lined up some of the area’s largest donors/organizations to support the event, including honorary chairs Fred Simon and Dick Holland, and sponsors Creighton University, Cox Communications and the Cooper Foundation. She plans to seek foundation grant funding to secure the event’s future.

She looks to leave her mark at Metro with the Great Plains. Ultimately she said the event is larger than any one institution: “The college could never do it alone.” She appreciates how Omaha’s arts community “has reached out” to embrace the event, providing spaces, stages, volunteers. “They’re very generous, arts people. It’s about all of us coming together,” she said. “Once a year, I hope, it will be all of the theater community having a family reunion.”

Wherever McDowell’s gone, her arts passion has flowered. Her efforts have earned her much recognition. She was presented the Alaska Governor’s Arts for Distinguished Cultural Service Award in 2003. The Dr. Jo Ann C. McDowell Theatre Scholarship is given annually to a University of Alaska, Anchorage student majoring in theater. Twice she’s been honored nationally by Phi Theta Kappa, including receipt of the sorority’s Michael Bennett Lifetime Achievement Award. Pitt State and KSU have accorded her their highest alumni awards.

Now back in the Midwest, McDowell’s not only come home, but her precious conference — a continuation of the Inge and Last Frontier — has found a home too. “I’ve been dragging this thing around with me for 26 years and this is where it’s staying,” she said. “I finally found a home. This conference deserves Omaha and Omaha deserves this conference, because it’s a marriage. It works.” Putting down roots for herself and the conference should ensure its place here. “This is my last presidency. This is my last stop. I hope I’m here a decade,” she said. “I hope we can build something so that if I do decide to retire then I can stay involved.”

All of it — from the great artists she’s come to know to the magic moments in the theater she’s enjoyed to the young talent nurtured in the process — gives her joy.

“It’s been a gift in my life. As long as I’m breathing, I’m going to be doing this.”

For Great Plains Theatre Conference details, call 402-457-2618 or visit www.mccneb.edu/theatreconference.

By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties


What follows are short profiles of Omaha area Jewish war veterans I wrote for the Jewish Press and its Passover edition. All of the veterans profiled here served in World War II, with one gentleman serving both in WWII and the Korean War.  To a man, these veterans’ recall of events from 55-60 years ago is excellent.  I had the chance to meet with most of these men in person. Several of them get together every Monday at noon at a local bagel shop to kibitz and kvetch.  The men and the conviviality of this “brunch bunch” will be the focus of an upcoming story I’m writing for the Press.

 

 

By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

As a group, Omaha’s Jewish World War II veterans performed duties spanning the spectrum of that immense struggle. They served in virtually every military branch and theater of war. They fought in historic battles. They supplied troops with vital war materials. They earned commendations, ribbons, medals.

The men featured here are only a small sampling of Omaha Jews who saw action. Some have siblings that distinguished themselves in wartime. For example, Stuart Muskin is profiled here but his brother, Leonard Muskin, could just have easily been. Leonard, who resides in Calif., received a Navy Cross and a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism as the pilot of a carrier-based torpedo plane during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands.

Lloyd Krasne’s younger brother Bud was a weather observer and his older brother Milton was in the supply division that kept Gen. George Patton‘s 3rd Army fueled.

Every veteran has a trunk-full of stories. In the case of Lloyd Friedman, he was in the presence of three historic figures from WWII: Gen. Patton; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; and President and Commander in Chief Harry S. Truman. Friedman, Muskin and Marvin Taxman fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Milt Saylan was present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.

Lloyd Krasne ended up in war-ravaged Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.

Kevee Kirshenbaum served on minesweepers in both WWII and Korea, along the way interacting with Soviets, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans.

It turns out anti-Semitism was not an issue for most of Omaha’s Jewish war vets.

Some saw loads of combat and others saw none at all. Some were married with children, others were single. All put their lives on hold, however, to answer the call of duty. To a man, they’re grateful to have simply survived.

By Land: The European Theater

Howard Silber, An Infantryman’s Perspective

Howard Silber experienced anti-Semitism growing up in New York City. Early on he learned to stand up for himself with words and fists.

A fair high school athlete and student, he was denied admission to Columbia University when the school met its quota of Jews. He played football and studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where his freshman coach was legend-to-be Paul “Bear” Bryant and the head coach was legend-in-the-making Frank Thomas. A roommate was future Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.

Silber was a semester shy of graduating when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at 21. After training with coastal artillery and parachute glider units he ended up a grunt in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, 7th Army.

He encountered bias at bases and camps in the States, but once in southern France his faith didn’t matter in a fox hole. His company’s first action resulted in eight members of his platoon being killed. “A baptism by fire,” he soberly recalled. Years after the war he and comrades paid for a monument to the eight and Sibler and his wife Sissy Katelman visited it.

The push through France went over the Vosges Mountains in the midst of the region’s worst recorded winter The Americans were not properly geared for the conditions and German resistance proved fierce in spots. In early engagements enemy ranks consisted of conscripts — an indication of Germany’s desperation.

“I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13,” he said. “I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”

His company later ran up against a hardened SS outfit. “But we managed to fight our way through,” he said. “I saw some hand-to-hand combat….”

After breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain, Sibler’s company proceeded around Strasbourg. “Integrated into our army corps,” he said, “was the French 1st Army — made up mostly of North Africans. They had come across the Mediterranean with (Charles) de Gaulle. They were good fighters.”

 

 

 

 

Heading north, Sibler and Co. approached the Maginot Line, with orders to break through, but the Germans were dug-in behind well-fortified positions.

“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” Sibler said. He’ll never forget the bravery of an African American anti-tank unit: “When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.” The artillery barrage slowed but then a German tank advanced and with the platoon’s bazooka team knocked out, Sibler took action. “I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction. I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but it half buried me in my fox hole. Our platoon medic got me out of there. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up.”

The Battle of the Bulge erupted the next day. His “million dollar wound” spared him from further fighting. He recovered at a hotel turned hospital in the resort town of Vittel. There, bigotry reappeared in the form of a chaplain who said something ugly to Sibler. After complaints were lodged the chaplain did not return.

Back home, Sibler was a reporter for New York newspapers before joining the Omaha World-Herald. In his 34-year Herald career he covered the Starkweather murder spree, he went to the South Pole, he reported from Vietnam and he became the first journalist to fly in a B-52 bomber. He interviewed Joint Chiefs of Staff commanders and senators, but may be proudest of his Band of Brothers legacy.

Louie Blumkin, The Long, Slow Slog

It sounds like a legend now, but when Louie Blumkin was away in the U.S. Army his mother Rose, worried by slumping sales at the furniture store she’d opened a few years before, wrote her son she was thinking of selling it. He persuaded her to stick it out until his return, and the rest is history. Under his management the Nebraska Furniture Mart became a phenomenon of folklorish proportions.

But there was no guarantee Mrs. B’s boy would make it home. A state diving champion at Omaha Technical High School, Blumkin was considered an Olympic-caliber athlete. That dream faded as America drew closer to entering the war against the Axis powers. Blumkin enlisted in 1941. After field artillery training and serving as a gunner on a 155 millimeter howitzer he was promoted to corporal and battalion company clerk. The work suited his inquisitive mind.

His battalion was en route to the Pacific Theater, with a planned stopover in Hawaii, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was turned around to return to the west coast, where he received orders to go to Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he became junior warrant officer of his battalion. He transferred to the 974th Field Artillery and went overseas with his unit in 1942. After training in Belfast, Ireland and in England, he awaited orders for the invasion of Europe.

To help ease the tedium and tension until D-Day, he put on diving exhibitions at Chaltham, England for his fellow GIs.

His group landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the invasion and in the teeth of still stiff German defenses moved inland, first east and then south. In a 1984 interview he gave his niece, Jane Kasner, he described the slow, bitter slog.

 

 

 

 

“Many times we met with very tough resistance, but we overcame all of our obstacles…For several months, although our progress was slow, we liberated several French cities” and “received a very warm welcome from the French people.”

In one action a fragment from an explosive injured his hand.

By year’s end the weather turned and for a time so did the campaign’s fortunes. By then his unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Armored Division.

“Winter set in while we were in Southern France” and to the north “the Germans were making their counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, in a maneuver which was supposed to drive our forces to the English Channel. Our organization was called to help relieve the Americans in their plight against the Germans…”

When the weather finally cleared enough for Allied planes to attack enemy positions the German offensive was stopped and its last gasp effort to reverse the tide turned back. Blumkin saw first hand the enormous concentration of Allied war materials flooding into the region and recalled thinking, “There is no way the Germans are going to win this war.” He was part of the contingent that crossed the Remagen Bridge, a key link between France and Germany. His unit went toward Austria while others went to spearhead the push into Berlin.

Along the way, Blumkin and his mates came across Dachau concentration camp survivors.

“It was an extremely emotional experience for me, one which I will never forget because of the conditions of both the camp and the individuals,” he said.

His wartime experience ended with Displaced Persons duty — transferring Italian refugees or DPs from Innsbruck, Austria to Riva, Italy. He returned home in time for Christmas in 1945 and after reuniting with his “street smart” mother at the Mart, he became president and CEO during a period of remarkable growth.

Marvin Taxman, D-Day 

As a U.S. Army Reserve Corps member, Marvin Taxman was allowed to remain in school at Creighton University until called to active duty in early 1943. He was 22.

He wound up in a glider company, 327th infantry 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles — and by September sailed to England. In April 1944 his unit was part of a secret D-Day landing rehearsal on English shores. The maneuvers turned lethal when German torpedo boats attacked, killing hundreds of American soldiers and sailors. The incident was not made public for years.

On D-Day itself his company hit Utah Beach aboard landing crafts — with the objective of moving inland to relieve paratroopers who jumped overnight and to secure bridges across the Douve River. Mission accomplished. Things turned hairy the next morning when, he recalled, “on a patrol my platoon attempted to cross the river on rafts and were repulsed by machine gun fire.” That’s when Taxman got in the water and swam back to shore. He and another American directed mortar fire on the German position as cover for their comrades — saving lives.

His exploits made Yank, the Army news magazine, and Omaha newspapers.

Fighting ensued amid the awful, impenetrable hedgerows.

“The Germans would be dug in behind those hundred year old hedgerows and until you knocked out their machine guns they could move to the next…It wasn’t easy,” he said.

The 101st’s next major action came during Operation Market Garden in September. Taxman recalled “serious foreboding” at this airborne invasion of Holland happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The operation failed.

He was among a fraction of men in his glider company to ground safely amid heavy  fire. Surrounded by German units, the GIs were in a tight fix until British tanks arrived. His platoon advanced on a target bridge when shrapnel from a mortar round cut him down. The officer who assisted him to safety was killed. Taxman was taken to an Antwerp field hospital and then onto a regular hospital in England.

By late December he rejoined his decimated company in Bastogne just as the Allies broke through at the Battle of the Bulge. In April he attended a seder prepared by French Jews. “They proudly announced the plates we ate from were fashioned from the wings of a downed German aircraft,” he recalled.

In liberated Paris he ran into several Omaha chums, including Warner Frohman, Lazer Singer and future brother-in-law Nick Ricks.

“Together we toured the Louvre, the opera and the Folies Bergere. Those were not to be forgotten days.”

 

 

 

 

Across the Rhine into Germany Taxman’s outfit was moving toward Munich when they encountered Dachau survivors.

“It was gruesome, but we had no idea of the enormity of it,” said Taxman, who was detailed to help sift out German soldiers among the flood of refugees on the roads.

By mid-May the war in Europe was over but more adventures awaited Taxman. He visited Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. He filed reports for a division newspaper. He was put in charge of a troupe of Hungarian singers and dancers. Redeployed to France, he took a class at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, where he was befriended by French Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding in the mountains. He listened to their tales of woe and attended Yom Kippur services with them at a theater.

He married and raised a family after the war and he continues to enjoy a career in the wholesale optical business.

Stuart Muskin, In Patton’s 3rd

When America entered World War II Stuart Muskin enlisted in the U.S. Army while still a University of Nebraska senior. He was able to complete his degree before reporting for basic training.

He got the cushy job of regimental clerk and saw what looked like a good deal:  volunteering for overseas duty earned 30 days leave. He got his leave alright but still owed Uncle Sam  So, with the war at its peak, he shipped out in late spring 1944 as part of a light machine gun squad in Company C, 3rd Infantry Division.

En route to England the D-Day invasion had commenced. Upon landing in Liverpool the wounded from Normandy were being brought in from across the Channel, the dull booms and thuds of artillery barrages thundering in the distance.

After one day on the island the Yanks headed for France. Aboard the landing craft Omaha he arrived on already secured though badly scarred Omaha Beach.

“It was still torn up from just a week ago when the Allies invaded,” he said.

Before he knew it his squad squared off in the Battle of Saint Lo, fighting Germans hedgerow to hedgerow. The combat was costly to both sides.

“I wrote a letter to my mom telling her, ‘Goodbye, you’re never going to see me again,’ but then I thought to myself, That’s dumb to say that, so I tore it up and wrote another letter back to her telling her everything is fine.”

The brave front didn’t change the fact he feared for his life. “I was by myself, I didn’t know anybody, a Jewish kid, and I was scared as hell.”

He ended up in a Nebraska unit of Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army.

“You’d think a guy like Patton you’d never see him — we saw him all the time, he was always around,” said Muskin, “and people would yell out and call him every name in the world and he would smile because he liked a soldier that was mad.”

Patton kept his troops on the go.

“One day we walked 28 miles with packs on because we were moving and we were not getting any resistance, and that went on for maybe two or three weeks,,” said Muskin. “Finally we got to Nancy, France, the trucks rolled in and the French girls jumped all over us and all of a sudden snipers up in the buildings were shooting at us, and it emptied out just as fast.

“The next day we crossed the Meurthe River and the Germans flew over us like they did a lot of times broadcasting that our wives and girls are getting screwed back home and we ought go home. That was the first time we knew there was a big resistance by the Germans.”

Taking the high ground  was crucial to breaking through, but the enemy wasn’t giving up anything without a fight.

“They started throwing mortars down,” said Muskin.

While he could tell by the sound where an artillery shell would land, a mortar round was too unreliable to predict. In late September a mortar-fired projectile exploded near him, fragments and splinters hitting him “in a lot of different places — my arm was the worst, and my leg.” “Fortunately,” he said, “I got picked up and brought to a big tent hospital.” It was there he had a fleeting but surreal encounter.

“There was a guy walking around with fatigues on tapping guys on the shoulder and asking, ‘How you doin’ soldier?’ and I look around and it’s Bing Crosby. He was visiting the troops.”

Once Muskin registered the unmistakable face and voice he remarked what an unusual circumstance this was, whereupon the crooner-actor replied, “It’s no big deal — what you guys are doing is.”

From there Muskin was slated to be flown to a hospital in England but Operation Market Garden tied up all available air transport. Instead, he went by train to a Paris hospital. After three months recouping he rejoined his unit on the front lines, still in France, teasing them, “Can’t you guys move without me?”.

His last major action came in the Battle of the Bulge, when a last ditch German offensive cut off thousands of Allied forces amid the harsh winter in the Ardennes Forest. His squad got pinned down by German machine gun and tank fire. As Muskin and his men pulled back a tank shell exploded near him and metal shredded his bandolier and bloodied him but only slightly wounding him.

 

 

 

 

Muskin, a staff sergeant, announced to the squad, “Boys, I’m going to get home alive if I can get through that.” His unit advanced as far as the Elbe River, where aside from a skirmish they waited out the end of the war in relative calm. Hordes of captured German soldiers marched past them.

Back home, Muskin was a traveling salesman before he bought into a children’s wares business that took off as Baby Town, later renamed Youngtown. He married, raised a family and feels grateful to have lived the good life at the ripe age of 88.

Lloyd Friedman, In the Presence of Ike, Old Blood and Guts and Give ‘Em Hell Harry

Lloyd Friedman’s five-year military odyssey began in late 1940. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ROTC graduate helped oversee a black regiment in the 25th Infantry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He returned to Omaha ready to resume civilian life when Pearl Harbor put him right back on active duty.

The next three years he was assigned units tasked with patrolling and defending the west coast. He went from the 134th National Guard Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division to the 137th Infantry Regiment.

As D-Day neared in June 1944 Friedman, by then a captain, became regimental adjutant under Col. Grant Layng, which entailed being “his gofer or shadow.”

Friedman was one of two Jewish officers in his regiment. While in England his unit was inspected by Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

His outfit hit Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion but they  discovered an area still hot with enemy activity.

“The Germans had the cliffs fortified,” he said. “That was pretty rough, We fought a little bit there but we got out of that. Normandy, above Saint Lo, was made up a lot of hedgerows. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at.”

In an account for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Friedman wrote:

“On the first day of combat we lost the colonel to machine gun fire. I was not with him. It was tough to see friends wounded and die. The lines did not move very fast.”

Then, he wrote, “I saw in the air the most bombers ever. They practically leveled Saint Lo, and even a few stray bombs landed on our troops.”

Every time the regiment got orders to move, Friedman went with the advance party.

“My worst job,” he wrote, “was reconnoitering for the new headquarters as the lines moved forward. There were times I got ahead of the front lines. On one occasion my jeep driver and I were going up a road, dodging brush and debris. After passing, we looked back and saw that they covered mines…We breathed a sigh of relief.”

More relief came with the break out across France. His company was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. He got to see the irascible, flamboyant commander up close.

 

 

 

 

“He was a buddy of our new colonel and visited us for so-called ‘lunch’ one day. I will never forget his two pearl handled pistols.”

At times Patton’s forces moved so fast they outstripped their supply lines.

“As we neared Germany things slowed down,” Friedman wrote. “We had some fierce fights across the border (Mosel River). By Christmas…we were sent to Metz for what we thought would be a well-earned rest. We were so wrong. Immediately we were moved north to outside Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge). Those were horrible days. Between the cold and driving the Germans back, it was miserable.”

“We were near Berlin when VE Day came in May (1945). Our regiment was sent to Boppard on the Rhine for occupation duty. On July 11 we assembled near Brussels and were picked for the honor guard for President Truman who was en route to the Potsdam Conference.”

Friedman, who was never wounded, won five battle stars, including the Bronze Star.

During an R &R stint on the French Riviera he ran into Omahan Stanley Slosburg and upon returning to the States he met another Omahan — Stuart Muskin, who served in the same division but in a separate regiment.

After the war Friedman married and became a buyer and merchandise manager for Herzberg’s before making his career in insurance.

By Sea: The Pacific Theater or Bust

Milt Saylan, On the Battleship USS South Dakota

When Milt Saylan entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 he was 24, married, a father and the owner of his own grocery store in Charter Oak, Iowa. The Omaha native developed a taste for the food business working summers at an uncle’s store.

Compared to many he served with in the Navy, he said, he was “an old man. I was a little different than some of the young punks that went in. We called ‘em kids — they were young, single, with no responsibility.”

Saylan had his own store four years by the time he became a seaman apprentice and, he said, that experience naturally “put me in the galley” — first at Shoemaker Camp in Calif. and then aboard the battleship USS South Dakota.

As a meat cutter he readied enough chops, steaks and roasts every day to ensure there was enough for the next day’s chow.

The South Dakota became part of Naval lore through a stunning series of engagements against Japanese forces — sinking several vessels and bringing down multiple planes in major sea and air battles. It was the most decorated ship in WWII. So as not to make it a special target, the U.S. military withheld its name from the press — its exploits chalked up to Battleship X or Old Nameless.

“We were the flagship of the 13th fleet,” said Saylan.

 

 

 

 

The South Dakota earned battle stars at Guadalcanal and in action in the Coral Sea, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Midway, before eventually sailing into Tokyo Bay. From the deck of the South Dakota Saylan and his fellow 2,200 crewmen witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the USS Missouri tied up alongside it.

There were times he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the war. One of those was when kamikaze attacks wrecked havoc on the ship at Okinawa.

“We got hit and we lost 37 men,” he said, the memory still making his voice quiver.

During combat he manned a battle station. His job: help corpsmen tend wounded and get them into sick bay. During the Okinawa attack he went to the forward part of the ship, where the kamikazes struck, and amid the carnage helped carry the wounded away on stretchers.

He wasn’t close to any of the sailors who lost their lives that day but burying that many comrades at sea left its mark.

The South Dakota, which supported carrier strikes against Tokyo, made its way ever nearer Japan in anticipation of the planned Allied invasion. When the atom bombs ended the war the battleship made its way into Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender. As a precaution against a Japanese ambush, said Saylan, the crew was in full battle gear. Nothing untoward happened.

 

 

 

 

He said the “very somber” ceremony on September 2, 1945 proceeded aboard the Missouri with the assembled crews of the Missouri, the South Dakota and other ships topside to observe the historic moment. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William Halsey and Southwest Pacific Area supreme commander Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. contingent in accepting the surrender of their Japanese counterparts. It all went off without a hitch. Saylan and his shipmates followed orders by not expressing any emotions that might dishonor the Japanese.

Saylan was discharged as a first class petty officer.

After the war he remained in the grocery business and by the mid-1950s he retired. Bored after a few months, he took over a window wares company that became a big success. His son now has the business.

Saylan’s visited the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls SD.

Kevee Kirshenbaum, C.O. of Minesweepers in WWII and Korea

Kevee Kirshenbaum had the distinction of being assigned six different minesweepers in two separate wars during his U.S, Navy service.

He was a University of Nebraska sophomore when he joined up in 1942. His first assignment came as an ensign aboard a sweeper sent to the Aleutian Islands. At Cold Bay, Alaska he helped train Soviet naval personnel in minesweeping techniques as part of the top secret Project Hula, which was to ready the Soviets to  invade Japan from the north.

Once while traversing an igloo-like tunnel on base he ran into an old chum from Omaha — Lee Bernstein. When they see each other today they’re still amused at meeting each other in such a desolate spot.

Kirshenbaum went from one extreme to the other in the Philippines, where he said, “we swept mines all the way along the coast down close to Borneo.” He said sweepers lived by the motto: “where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”

 

His worst WWII experience came while anchored in Subic Bay during a typhoon. Ordered to get under way, the ship’s fluke caught on the open hatch of a sunken boat. That left the ship riding out the storm like a top on a string.

“We stayed there for 48 hours, just going around in circles. You never saw so many sick people.”

His group made preparations for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. It was then he took command of his first ship, the YMS-49, in Shanghai, China.

“My best experience of the war really was when I had command of a ship. The war was already over — what we did was sweep the mines in the Huangpu River. We didn’t find any mines there but we found an awful lot of bodies. You would see Chinese boats going by with a hook picking the bodies up.”

Becoming a C.O. at only 22, he said proudly, “was an accomplishment.”

Some fears he harbored were soon quelled.

“When I went aboard ship I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my being Jewish. The Navy had as a whole very few Jewish personnel. Then there was my age. I knew some of these guys knew more than I did. Half the crew was much older than I was and more experienced. But luckily enough I didn’t have any problems. The crew was very good and respectful.”

Back home he finished school, joined the Navy Reserve, went to work and got married. Then the Korean conflict broke out and he was assigned minesweeping duty again. In Sasebo, Japan he served on a ship and transferred to train the South Korean Navy, which helped shake off the rust of four years away from active service. Later, he went to Korea to command the USS Redhead, which swept mines in hostile waters, even past the 38th parallel. The mine fields were thick with danger and his ship and others came under fire by shore artillery batteries.

 

 

 

 

Mines, especially the magnetic kind, were the main threat. A replacement ship venturing where the Redhead would have been was sunk by one. His most harrowing duty came sweeping Wonsan Harbor at night when the Redhead set off a magnetic device whose blast destroyed the vessel’s mine cutting gear. Luckily, the hull was intact and the ill-conceived operation cancelled.

The small, wooden minesweepers were the runts of the fleet but being small had the advantage of being resupplied every few days, which meant fresh eats.

Looking back on all the responsibility he assumed at such a young age, he said, “I felt good about it.” He’s most grateful for coming out alive. The retired entrepreneur feels fortunate to have had the chance to lead “a successful life.”

Stan Silverman, A Dry Dock Navy Tour

Homefront contributions to World War II often get lost in the haze of history. But the men and women who worked the factories, fields, docks, warehouses and countless other jobs vital to the war effort made it possible for America to execute its battle plans and achieve final victory.

Long before Stan Silverman ever entered the service he worked on a ditch digging crew opening the earth with shovels to accommodate water mains at then Offutt Field on the old Fort Crook base. The site is where the Martin Bomber Plant would be built and where Offutt Air Force Base would house the Strategic Air Command.

His family ran a grocery store on Vinton Street and he and his folks lived above it.

The Central High graduate earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University at a time when quotas limited the number of Jews accepted into higher education and certain career paths.  “That irritated me,” Silverman said.

While at Iowa State he said the school’s physical chemistry department secretly played a significant role in the Manhattan Project by purifying the uranium for the atomic bombs ultimately dropped on Japan.

After college he went to work as a chemical engineer for Phillip’s Petroleum Company in Kaw City, Ok., where he fell in with a mix of engineers, Native Americans and roughnecks. He learned to play a mean game of poker there. Oklahoma was a dry state then and Silverman said when he’d come home to visit he’d stock up on liquor to bring back to his parched buddies.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and though he looked forward going to sea it never happened. His wartime service consisted of training school assignments from Indiana to Mississippi to Chicago to California. As an electronics technician third class he worked on radar, sonar and radio equipment that was big and bulky in the days before transistors and microchips.

He got married while in the service and his wife Norma, who did clerical work for the 5th Army Corps in Omaha, joined him at various stops.

His arrival on the west coast coincided with VJ Day and the memory of the jubilation over Japan’s surrender is still vivid.

“I was in San Francisco, where they had a helluva celebration. People went wild.”

 

 

 

 

The war was officially over but he was still Uncle Sam’s property and the wait for his discharge made the time drag by.

“I was sitting there not doing a helluva lot.”

The one time he was assigned a ship the orders were cancelled before he got aboard. He was a statistician on Treasure Island, where a military unit was set-up. The closest he came to shipping out was riding a Navy launch across the bay.

All in all, he said his time in the service was agreeable. He never ran into any any-Semitism and he was able to practice his faith and attend High Holiday services.

After his discharge in early 1946 he worked a variety of jobs the next several years, including men’s furnishings at J .L. Brandeis. Helpjng him get by was a $25 a week stipend from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Allowance fund.

He was with the Container Corporation of America in Chicago before moving back to Omaha to work for the City’s smoke abatement division. He was later at Quaker Oats. He eventually joined his father-in-law Ben Seldin and brother-in-law Ted Seldin in the Seldin Company, a commercial real estate, multi-family management and development organization. At 88 he still goes to the office every day.

By Air – The Philippines, New Guinea, and Stateside

Bernie Altsuler, A Love of Flying

Bernie Altsuler was only 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but he was already a married working man. The Omahan was inducted in the service in Calif. because at 19 he’d gone to Los Angeles with a brother in search of new horizons. His fiance joined him there and the two were married.

As he had some college — he attended Creighton University — he was put in base operations logging flight records. When assigned a training command unit at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM, his wife came with him. Rookie pilots trained in twin-engine Beechcrafts.

He said his only encounter with anti-Semitism occurred there.

“I was working on the line — that’s where they brought planes in — and there was a master sergeant, and boy he laid into me. He gave me all the problems you could imagine, but I was only there six months before I got transferred. I loved Albuquerque but I was sure glad to get away from that guy.”

Altsuler then ended up in Fort Sumner, NM as part of a command training navigators. He was there 15 months and once again his wife accompanied him.

“My wife was a shorthand expert and she became the base commander’s secretary. That’s probably why I stayed there 15 months,” he said.

After another training stop stateside he shipped overseas in 1945 to the Philippines, where fighting had ceased. All the zig zagging his ship did to throw off enemy subs slowed the voyage to a crawl and he remembers “one of the longest craps games there ever was” played out over 39 days.

He said troops from Europe began filtering in as the Allied Pacific force geared up for the anticipated invasion of Japan. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled the invasion to everyone’s relief.

By now a sergeant, he went from Tacloban, Leyte to Zamboanga and the 18th Fighter Group, which consisted of a P-38 squadron that only months earlier had escorted B-24 bombers in live missions over Japan.

 

 

 

 

“Our squadron commander was an ace — he had shot down five Japanese planes.”

As part of his duties Altsuler had frequent contact with pilots, whom he admired.

“They were all cocky young kids,” he said. “We got to know them very well.”

Despite no combat, there were still risks. Accidents happened. He remembers a couple planes cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames.

He developed a lifelong love of flying in the service, his appetite whetted by junket flights he hopped.

“We had a C-47 in our operation overseas that we’d fly all over the Pacific to many different islands picking up supplies, and I went along.”

Within a few years of his return from the war he earned his pilot’s license and instrument rating in a Piper Comanche along with his friend, Harold Abrahamson.

Ironically, he said during his nearly four years in the service he never bumped into anyone he knew from back home until the day of his discharge. He stayed in L.A.  a few years before returning to Omaha, where he opened his own wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business. He later sold it and retired.

Jack Epstein, A Long Way from Home

The son of an immigrant fruit peddler, Jack Epstein was married and attending then-Omaha University when drafted into the service in 1943, ending up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a company clerk in remote outposts, he never saw any action but was a part of the huge logistics apparatus that fed the Allied war machine.

Military life didn’t exactly agree with Epstein, yet he persevered.

“I didn’t take to the Army very good, but I managed to do OK with it because of the fact I knew I wasn’t in danger and I had something to do all the time. I was busy. Time went pretty fast,” he said.

His wartime odyssey overseas began with a voyage aboard a merchant ship from southern Calif. to Brisbane, Australia. From there he went to Milne, New Guinea, where he remained the next 27 months. The only time he laid sight of the enemy was when Japanese surveillance planes flew high overhead.

 

 

 

 

New Guinea natives were rarely glimpsed.

He never came under fire but he did contract malaria. The rainy season there soaked everything for weeks on end. Mosquitoes had a field day. The oppressive heat rarely let up.

Epstein was part of a unit comprised of two officers and 28 enlisted men. “We took charge of all the 100 octane gasoline on that base for airplanes,” he said. The gasoline came in 150 gallon barrels unloaded from supply ships and then stored and secured on base. Thousands of barrels were stacked on site. The fuel serviced fighter planes as well as troop and cargo planes.

“We serviced all of them,” he said.

Planes came and went all day, every day. “From the Philippines they came, from Okinawa they came, from all over. They were in and out — they didn’t stay,” he said. The roaring engines were a constant companion. “Maybe that’s the reason I can’t hear so good (today), I don’t know,” he ventured.

He was tasked with inventory control.

“I was the company clerk you might say. I kept track of the ins and outs of the barrels that came in and the barrels that went  out .”

As staff sergeant, he said, he became “very close to the two officers. We played bridge most of the time we were there.” Finding diversions on an island in the middle of nowhere, he said, was vital for maintaining one’s sanity. Besides playing bridge there was fishing, but reading and writing letters was his main relief.

“I wrote my wife every single day and she wrote me most every single day and it was really great as far as the camaraderie we had with each other.”

He still marvels at how their letters arrived without interruption, as did the air field unit’s supplies of everything from canned foods to typewriter ribbons.

“One reason we won the war was our supply lines,” he said. “No matter what you wanted we had it — about anything you could imagine. Our supply was unbelievable.”

By war’s end he was sent to Okinawa, where he endured two typhoons, and then back to the Philippines. En route home by ship he suffered chills and fever from his malaria. It took two years before he was over the symptoms.

After three years of separation he and his wife reunited and raised a family. Epstein ended up in the distillery business. At age 88 he still goes to work every day.

Lloyd Krasne, From Audubon to Tokyo By Way of Leyte

Lloyd Krasne clearly recalls hearing over the radio the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was driving a truck into Omaha to get supplies for his Ukrainian immigrant father’s grocery story in Audubon, Iowa. Krasne soon joined the war effort as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.

“They needed people very badly, so it was rush rush, rush,” he recalled.

Initially pegged to study cryptography he wound up learning power-operated gun turrets. Seizing an opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School he put in and made the grade and after completing the course in Aberdeen, MD he was commissioned an officer. He did more schooling in aviation ordinance before assigned a unit in Calif. charged with training B-29 crews on operating the bomber’s state-of-the-art gun systems.

He said as the conflict progressed and America’s production of war materials advanced, the Army Air Corps found itself in a constant state of flux as new planes came on line that required different support.

With his unit scattered to the far corners, Krasne was transferred close to home, first to a base in McCook, Neb. and then to one in Harvard, Neb.

 

 

 

 

He made second lieutenant. In early 1945 he got overseas orders, prompting he and his fiance to get hitched before his departure. The couple went to Salk Lake City, Utah and then to Calif. before he shipped out to Manilla and then to Hollandia, New Guinea. No sooner did he arrive then new orders sent him right back to Manilla, where he was reunited with a commander in Tacloban, Leyte.

“Across from the house we quartered in was a little hut on stilts. There was a plank from the front door going down to the ground and in the morning here’d come a couple chickens, a pig, a couple kids — that’s the kind of economy it was.”

On Leyte he attended a memorable Yom Kippur service in a cockfighting arena. He learned years later a fellow Jew from back home — Nate Katelman — was there too.

Krasne said anti-Semitism faded in wartime, when differences seemed mute in the face of life-and-death stakes: “You were in this together. You wondered what would come next.” However, he did witness racism toward blacks that disturbed him.

He said his C.O. showed him the plans for the invasion of Japan — kept in a locked safe — that thankfully never had to be executed. After Japan’s surrender he went to Tokyo to serve in the army of occupation.

“We saw a country that was torn up,” Krasne recalled. “The main buildings were made of stone and they were alright but the areas constructed of bamboo and paper the fire bombs had reduced to nothing. Whole blocks were empty.”

After initial distrust, the Japanese warmed to their American occupiers, but persisted in their blind obedience to authority. “It was quite an observation because the people were still oriented that the emperor is god and can do no wrong and whatever he says goes,” said Krasne, who saw citizenry dutifully bow to policemen.

“It brought home the fact these people were oriented differently than anybody we’d ever met. It was quite an experience.”

Though he meant to quit the grocery business when he returned home he found it the only sure thing and remained in the field the rest of his working life.

Old Warriors Never Die, They Just Fade Away

Like veterans everywhere, Omaha’s Jewish vets run the gamut when it comes to how much or how little they’ve invested themselves in things like post-war reunions and commemorations.

Some, like Lloyd Krasne, Stuart Muskin and Kevee Kirshenbaum, have been to numerous reunions. Muskin, Kirshenbaum and Bill Cohen of Omaha traveled on a Heartland Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Some of these same men attended a tribute two years ago honoring Omaha area veterans and Holocaust survivors. Some concentration camp prisoners met their liberators.

Other vets want little to do with any fanfare over those times.

Some have scrapbooks and mementos, others — nothing.

For most veterans, Omaha’s Jewish ranks included, wartime service was something they spoke little of after returning home and getting on with their lives. It’s only in the last two decades, as major anniversaries of the war were observed, they began openly telling their stories.

All lost something along the way. Buddies. Time. Innocence. Their humble attitude about going to war, which Lloyd Friedman summed up with, “somebody had to do it,” helps explain why they are the Greatest Generation.

Several vets get together Mondays at the Bagel Bin. They may be gray and fragile now, but there was a time when they cut dashing figures and did heroic things. As their numbers grow ever fewer, they represent a trove of history not to be forgotten

An Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Shutters after 139 Years — New Use for Site Unknown


Recently, I stumbled across some information on the Internet that surprised me because the United Methodist Church Nebraska Conference website was announcing that a historic social service and community center in Omaha, the Wesley House, was closing. This was news to me, which I found odd since I am in the news business in Omaha and the organization said to be closing was one I was quite familiar with. Yet, I had heard nothing about it and to my knowledge nothing had appeared in the local media reporting this development.  A couple phone calls quickly confirmed that the Web announcement was true and that I was indeed the first journalist on the story.  It has to be one of the first times here or anywhere that an organization serving the community for nearly 140 years, as the Wesley had, was going by the wayside without any mention of it in the press.  The following story I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) rectifies that, providing readers a bit of context for the enterprising role the center played at one time, how it lost some relevance and stature in recent years, and why the powers that be decided it was time to close the Wesley after all this time.
Wesley House

 

 

Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Community Center Shutters after 139 Years - New Use for Site Unknown

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha’s oldest social service agency closed earlier this year with a whimper, not a bang. The Wesley House Community Center, a United Methodist Church mission since 1872, has ended 139 years of service, confirmed Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, interim executive director and head of United Methodist Ministries in Omaha.

The agency’s two-acre, twin-building campus at 2001 North 35th St. will be sold, she says. And it’s unclear who will purchase it.

Wesley served the African-American community for the last half century. At its peak, it offered youth and adult programs and spun off a black-run radio station, a community bank, a credit union and a pair of economic development organizations.

But Wesley lost traction in the 1990s. Later, when management came under fire, primary funding support was pulled. By the early 2000s, Wesley barely hung on as a youth center. In 2005, Paul Bryant came on as executive director to shore up the nonprofit’s reputation and finances. He largely succeeded through the youth leadership academy he launched.

In October, Bryant tendered his resignation with the understanding Wesley would continue.

“Last year was our absolute best year at the Wesley House. Things were hitting on all cylinders,” he says, adding that the agency’s annual fundraising dinner and golf tournament were successful.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

However, financial pressures remained. He says the academy struggled competing with larger, better-funded programs with more facilities. It scrambled just to meet operating costs. Besides, he says, “it was time to go, my work there was done. I felt a calling to take this work and expand it outside the walls of Wesley House into the schools.” He’s doing that under his Purpose Leading brand.

Bryant says he offered to remain through 2010 to assist the transition once a new executive director was hired. On Nov. 12, Ahlschwede was appointed. Bryant says he was then asked to clear out and disband the academy by Nov. 19.

Ahlschwede says she and the board intended to keep the center open, but closer examination revealed it wasn’t financially sustainable.

“The type of program Paul envisioned was much more difficult to fund than we realized,” she says. “You’ve got program costs to have things be adequately staffed and nurtured and tended, but you also have overhead, and the property itself comes with a significant amount of overhead because they’re big, old buildings.”

She says the board considered converting the site into an urban farm and food-justice campus, “until we realized the significance of the financial shortfall.”

 

 

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

 

 

With Bryant — the center’s chief programmer and fundraiser — leaving to form his own nonprofit, the board soon decided to close the agency.

“They probably got a first-hand look at what it took to keep that thing afloat — I raised close to $2.5 million in the time I was there,” Bryant says.

Ahlschwede says she and the board concluded it was time to break the decades-old cycle of underfunding and revolving programs.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster here and at some point you can’t ignore it anymore,” she says.

She’s aware a legacy’s come to an end.

“It’s hard to end things and to say no to things,” she says. “When you talk to United Methodists who’ve been around about Wesley House, everyone sighs and is really sad because there’s been all these dreams and a long, rich history with many visionary and charismatic leaders, including Paul.

“It was very difficult. the board really struggled, because the dream and the reality weren’t matching up, and that is heartbreaking.”

Bryant learned of Wesley’s demise from The Reader.

“This is quite shocking to me it’s closed and it’s going to be sold,” he says. “It was so much more than a gym and swim program. In Omaha, at one time, it was the point agency for change.”

While the center received donations from Methodist congregations, even in outstate Nebraska, he says, “It really didn’t feel like we had the whole weight and support of the United Methodist Church behind it.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney shares a heavy heart over the news of Wesley’s closing.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, when it actually was doing unprecedented things,” says Maroney, who worked there on three occasions.

In a twist of fate, OEDC, which began at Wesley, is weighing a purchase agreement for the site. If OEDC decides to buy, Maroney says, “we would do the best we could to ensure it continues to add value to the community going forward, and no one knows exactly what that means. But we didn’t want to see an abandoned property or an inappropriate use. We wanted to make sure that whatever goes in there is hopefully embraced and supported by the community.”

Bryant and Ahlschwede express confidence in Maroney’s stewardship should OEDC proceed. The OEDC board is expected to decide before June.


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