Growing up, Laura Leininger-Campbell was an introverted bookworm who dreamt of being an actor and had an imagination that ran as wild as her naturally curly hair. She would go on to establish her own singular course in the arts, with a steadfast love of theater and storytelling acting as her compass.
Leininger-Campbell avidly participated in high school plays before earning a degree in theater from Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. She’d have her first run-in with the legacy of famed playwright Eugene O’Neill there—though it wouldn’t be her last.
“[Connecticut College] had a great theater program and many ties to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center the next town over in Waterford,” she says. “New London is actually where O’Neill lived. His childhood home—the Monte Cristo Cottage, [depicted] in Long Day’s Journey Into Night—is there.”
After college, Leininger-Campbell moved to New York City, where her expectations of an acting career were humbled by the reality of paying the bills. Three years later, she realized her day job with hat designer Tracey Tooker left little time for auditions and the then-nebulous-to-her concept of networking.
“They do a much better job teaching kids to manage creative careers now,” she says. “I ended up getting pretty fried, so I gave up on it, moved back to Omaha, and started over. I told myself I wouldn’t do theater anymore, and tried to make peace with that.”
But her calling kept calling. A role in Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard helped her establish strong ties there, which extended throughout the Omaha theater community as she took on more roles. Leininger-Campbell found herself living the dream on her own terms.
“I was actually enjoying a life of theater and making a living,” she says.
Leininger-Campbell’s next star turn emerged when her career as a playwright germinated. She says it began with several adaptations she wrote for the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival: Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Jewel of Seven Stars.
“At that point, I really liked the idea of writing—taking specific ideas from the [original] writer and putting them on the page in a compelling way,” she says. “My acting background really helped me understand the structure of compelling scenes and what makes for good conflict.”
Playwright Ellen Struve noticed her knack for theatrical storytelling and encouraged her to create original script work.
“Ellen was instrumental in getting me going. She gave me a little notebook and said, ‘I think you have real stories in you. Go write them down.’ She was very influential, and she was the first person I called when I was done. I said, ‘I think I wrote something.’ And that something I wrote was Eminent Domain,” Leininger-Campbell says.
The play employs wit, humor, and powerful emotion to tell the poignant story of a Nebraska family whose farm is threatened by the construction of an oil pipeline. Leininger-Campbell spent lots of time on her own family’s farm growing up. The agrarian inspiration motivated her to write something inspired by news about the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I wanted to write about a farm family…and those memories of people who just remain in your heart. That story fit so perfectly with what I saw happening with KXL,” says Leininger-Campbell. “Much of my impetus to start writing comes from outrage, and once I identify my outrage, I try to understand both sides and expose them so people have something to talk about on the way home from the theater…I tried to depict both sides in Eminent Domain.”
Eminent Domain progressed from a notebook to a reading at the Shelterbelt Theatre to its world premiere, sold-out run at the Omaha Community Playhouse in 2017. Leininger-Campbell’s next touchpoint with the legacy of Eugene O’Neill came when Eminent Domain was named a 2016 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference finalist.
“Laura’s script came to my attention after its public reading at Shelterbelt Theatre, and I fell in love with it immediately,” says Kimberly Faith Hickman, artistic director at Omaha Community Playhouse. “I’m proud and honored to see this story enter the canon of American theatre, and for Omaha Community Playhouse to have been the home for its world premiere.”
“The reaction we had at the Playhouse was great,” says Leininger-Campbell, who’s sent queries nationwide for the piece. “Part of it’s about the pipeline, but really it’s about a family that has to join together in trying times, and I can’t think of a better time than right now, when people are so polarized, to see a polarized family having to cleave together to solve their own problems. It’s a Nebraska story, but it’s an American play.”
Leininger-Campbell credits director Amy Lane for helping to clarify and enhance aspects of the script, and the cast for bringing the show to life. She also cites her husband, author/musician Michael Campbell, who was the first to read the play and later contributed the production’s music.
“He wrote these beautiful, amazing tunes, just on the knowledge of what he’d read about the characters. I was really lucky to have him as a collaborator,” says Leininger-Campbell.
KXL pipeline fighter Jane Kleeb attended the Shelterbelt reading—offering helpful feedback afterwards—and the Playhouse premiere.
While she plans to do some acting in 2018, Leininger-Campbell is fully embracing the role of playwright. This year, audiences can anticipate Leininger-Campbell’s Terminal. The comedy tells the story of a group of people stuck inside an airport terminal who “get on each others’ nerves and slowly their humanity begins to melt away.”
Leininger-Campbell says her biggest wish is more time to write, and while time is a finite resource, she has ideas aplenty.
“I like to identify stories and then just tuck them away to mine later,” says Leininger-Campbell. “I love the process of writing and bringing those stories to life.”
Learn more about Laura Leininger-Campbell at lalaplaywright.com.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.