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Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous

March 6, 2011 21 comments

Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha

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I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result.  The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago.  Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago.  I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente.  If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.

Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.

Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.

Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.

“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”

Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.

“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”

He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.

Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.

From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.

Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.

The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.

“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”

Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.

Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.

“It has really blown up in the best way.”

Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.

The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.

Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.

Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.

Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.

Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.

“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.

“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”

Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”

Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.

“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.

“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”

Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.

“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”

The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”

He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”

What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.

The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.

Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”

Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.

By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.

“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.

“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

August 2, 2010 1 comment

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

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Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management.  I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues.  For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace.  They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside.  Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum.  I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera.  But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre.  I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

More stars than there are in the heavens.

That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.

This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.

 

 

 

 

The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.

The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.

Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.

The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.

The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.

When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.

In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.

Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”

Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.

Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”

The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.

 

 

Duke Ellington

 

 

Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.

Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.

As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”

 

 

Carol Channing

 

 

With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”

Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”

Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.

“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”

Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.

The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.

A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.

Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance.  When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.

The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”

He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”

Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”

The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.

Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”

Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”

Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”

Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”

Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”

Nancy Duncan, Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan, Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons.

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

Harry Duncan

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

Storytelling


Debbie reading to children during Lapsit Story...

Image by San Jose Library via Flickr

The late Nancy Duncan had such a passion for oral storytelling that I felt compelled to write about this form she was a master practitioner of time and again. Nancy was a professional storyteller who was active in various storytelling circles locally, regionally, and nationally.  On this same blog you can find my article about Nancy, Her Final Story, which details her use of storytelling to chart her dying process.  As time allows I will eventually add to this site an earlier profile I did of Nancy, as well as other articles I did about the storytelling festival she helped organize in Omaha.  The following piece is about that storytelling festival and about the art and craft of storytelling itself.  I couldn’t have written it without Nancy’s input and expertise.  Reading it, you’ll get a sense for her boundless energy and passion. The story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, which is no longer with us.  Although Nancy is gone, too, her spirit very much lives on.

Storytelling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

How subversive can you get in this digital-electronic age? Well, consider storytelling festivals, where tellers from near and far gather to recount real-life dramas, chronicle fanciful deeds and spin chilling ghost tales, all without aid of sets, video images, recorded music, computer graphics or special effects. When the yarns start unraveling, an ancient oral tradition is rejoined in an unadorned celebration of the spoken word made story.

More than a diversion for children, storytelling is a traditional art and craft, a communal form of heralding, a personal means of expression and a life-affirming educational/healing tool. Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.

Once upon a time, telling stories was the primary means for people to interpret and pass-on their heritage. “Everybody used to tell stories, but within each oral society or culture one person was designated to be the story carrier and that person would be someone like Homer who memorized it and kept it all inside of them. That role was primarily given to women, but then, when it became a sacred role, men co-opted it. The priests became the storytellers,” said Nancy Duncan, a storyteller in Omaha, Neb. She is an organizer of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival and a Pied Piper for the art form in the state.

With the advent of publishing, storytelling became proprietary. “When stories were oral, they belonged to everybody,” Duncan said, “but then along came the printing press and stories then belonged to authors, so there became this distancing.” Still, the oral tradition flourished in pockets, especially the American South, where Duncan, a native Georgian, grew-up spellbound by her father’s and maternal grandmother’s tales. Today, the oral tradition survives, but only for special occasions, like family reunions or festival, or in designated places, like schools or libraries, or in reconfigured forms, like talk therapy.

 

 

 

 

The Nebraska Festival, along with similar events in other states, have sprung up amid a general storytelling revival sparked by the success of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people are starved to hear stories again or for the first time. “Some come because they just miss the stories in their lives. It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories. Some never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear. They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are. They validate us. It’s like identity maintenance.”

In an era when so much human exchange occurs in isolated, impersonal ways, Duncan said storytelling provides an intimate and interactive experience that is part organic and part mystical. “You don’t tell stories into the wind. You tell stories to people. Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen. It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience. The audience makes the story in their minds. They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives. So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story. And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding. It’s like going on a journey together to a different place. It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny. It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging. It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.” When a teller connects with an audience, she said it is practically transcendental. “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or into an event that they are trance-inducing. The audience goes off with you. You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces. They’re eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack. It’s as though they are dreaming.”

The enduring appeal of storytelling may be rooted deep inside us: “It seems genetically programmed into human beings to think in story. We story everything that happens to us and, if we don’t, we forget it. Storytelling is the most efficient way to think about anything and to not just think about it but to help us understand our experiences. So, in that way, it’s the essence of history. It’s also a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem. It’s very healthy,” she said.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in March Duncan (who had a mastectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy) has been crafting a story dealing with her illness. “I want it to be a very funny story because breast cancer is very funny, really, and very tragic, but at the same time transformational. I mean, I can feel already changes happening in me because of this. And it’s all based in the community of people out there, like me, with cancer. We have a relationship other people don’t have.” Frankford, Mo. resident Gladys Coggswell, a national teller at the Nebraska Festival, was plagued by nightmares from a childhood assault and only found peace in the stories her great-grandmother and, later, her husband told her. “Stories helped me survive some of the crises in my life by making me feel connected to the world and helping me know I was not alone in my pain,” she said.

In addition to healing qualities, there is anecdotal evidence storytelling is an effective medium for captivating students as learners and readers. Both the International Reading Association and the American Library Association advocate storytelling as educational tools. This spring and summer Nancy Duncan is conducting workshops with Omaha Public Library children’s librarians and media specialists to develop their storytelling skills. A workshop participant, South Omaha Branch Children’s Librarian Linda Garcia, said, “Children’s response” to storytelling “is unbelievable. Once they’ve tasted one or two stories, we get them hooked” on reading. Storyteller Lucille Saunders, a retired Omaha Public Schools teacher and a part-time media specialist today, said, “I’ve discovered that by using the techniques of storytelling  – voice, gestures, eye-contact — I can more easily engage students in the lesson. It’s more interesting for them. It gets their attention.”

 

 

 

Not all stories are welcome. Duncan said she is banned from performing in two area school districts by fundamentalist-controlled school boards who fear her sometime storytelling alter ego, Baba Yaga, a cranky but wise witch adapted from Russian literature. “A lot of people are afraid of any stories dealing with the dark side. But the consequences they talk about are important for young people to learn.” To gauge what audiences might accept or reject, she tells test stories. “If they’ll go with me on those stories, they’ll go anywhere.” Duncan, who conducts school residencies, finds some youths today lack the active listening and imagination skills stories demand. She feels these “lost kids” are overweaned on TV. “Their bodies and brains are programmed for something to go either bleep or bloop every two minutes. They’re jittery and wiggly. They look away. They show no affect during the story. They don’t even have the ability to visualize. It’s tragic because if they can’t imagine, how can they make moral choices?” She is encouraged, however, by how well most kids respond, including some budding young tellers now performing in public. Among them is Sarah Peters, 13, a student at Platteview Central Junior High School. Peters, who will be telling at the Nebraska festival for the fifth time, enjoys creating stories based on real-life incidents — like fishing outings turned survival tests by flooding river waters — only embellished a little. What does Peters like best about telling? “I like coming up with stories of my own and knowing when I tell one of my stories to people they can pass that on to other people.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more reverberation it has. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students (“thinking rebels”) to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors. To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.” Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives. “This time, the adults were in tears. The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection. They wanted to known each other better.” Unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller. According to Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story. You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling. You can’t separate the teller from the story. That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”

Among the featured tellers at this weekend’s Nebraska Festival: diminutive Don Doyle, of Mesa, AZ, tells stories from the Celtic tradition; Kentuckian Mary Hamilton draws on folktales from her family’s deep roots in the Blue Grass state; Bill Harley, a Seekonk, MA resident and commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, is known for his humorous children’s tales and songs; Denver’s Pat Mendoza finds inspiration for his stories and songs in his eclectic adventures as a Vietnam veteran, exp-cop and Kung fu teacher and his Irish-Scottish-Cuban-East Indian background; and Corrine Stavish, of Southfield, Mich., is a noted teller of Jewish folktales. Other scheduled performers include a state senator, a family counselor, a poet laureate, a high school student and several mother-daughter teams. Anyone with a hankering to tell can weave a yarn during the swapping session and anyone wanting pointers can attend workshops and coaching sessions. Perhaps the most popular program is Friday’s 9:30-11:30 p.m. Ghosting on the hillside facing the Administration Building.

As far as Duncan is concerned, “storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world. It’s not just for children. It’s for anyone. We all have valuable stories to share.”

A Woman Under the Influence

July 5, 2010 1 comment

Leontyne Price, American opera singer

Image via Wikipedia

Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre.  The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her.  She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer.  The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position.  I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County.  I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater.  My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.

A Woman Under the Influence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly

After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.

“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”

Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”

That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”

Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”

Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.

“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”

“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”

She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.

Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.

She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.

“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”

Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”

 

 

Hattie McDaniel

 

Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.

After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.

“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”

Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.

The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.

As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.

All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.

“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.

 

 


Robinlyn Sayers

 

 

It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ‘em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”

Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating  for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.

Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.’” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”

She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.

As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.

Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”

She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast.  If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”

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