Suzanne Withem has to size you up before she decides how to tell you the name of her next play.
After all, you don’t drop an F-bomb on just anybody.
Withem has spent the better part of her life on stage and behind the scenes, and this fall she takes another big step as a big name in Omaha theater circles when she directs Stupid F@#%ing Bird at Omaha Community Playhouse.
That’s how OCP is promoting it, at least.
What does Withem say when she tells folks about her upcoming project, billed as a “sort-of adaptation” of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull?
“It depends who I’m talking to,” she says with a laugh. “In most of my artistic conversations, I say f…”
So there, she drops it. “The Queen Mother of dirty words” as A Christmas Story’s Ralphie
Withem says it with gusto—this is adult theater, after all. Besides, there’s plenty more to Stupid F@#%ing Bird than its effing title.
There’s plenty more to Withem, too.
She first set foot on stage as a 5-year-old dressed in pink and cartwheeling across the stage in a Ballet Omaha production of The Nutcracker. By middle school she was Gertrude in Hamlet, then performed at Papillion-La Vista High School and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she earned a B.A. in theater. That’s also where her aspirations turned serious, especially after a turn as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.
“That’s the first time that I got to delve into production and really feel like an artist and not like I was just someone memorizing words and blocking,” Withem says. “I felt like I really had created a character and had a clear understanding of the script.”
She’s fed her own desire ever since, teaching, acting, stage managing, and directing with a wide variety of theaters: OCP, Nebraska Shakespeare, Bellevue Little Theatre, Opera Omaha, Bridget Saint Bridget, and others.
For the past three years, she’s turned more and more to directing. This February that included direction of Bellevue Little Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing.
“As I’ve started working with more and more seasoned actors, I love hearing what they have to bring to the table, and that goes back to that collaboration thing. What I love is working with my peers,” she says.
Somewhere along the way, though, Withem grew to love something even more. Something beyond scripts, sets, and other stage stuff.
“Education is the thing I care most about,”
Which is funny, she adds, given that “I swore I would never, ever go into education.”
In other words, she’d never be like her parents.
Her mother, Diane, taught in public schools for 34 years and now is an adjunct in the UNO English department. Her father, Ron, also was a high school teacher but later became a state senator and one-time speaker of Nebraska’s Unicameral. Now he’s associate vice president for the University of Nebraska as director of its governmental relations.
It’s not that Mom and Dad expected her to follow them to the classroom. After all, they were the ones who piqued her interest in the arts.
“My mom would take me to the ballet, and the opera, and the theater. When we traveled we’d go see productions. Both have a strong appreciation for the arts. It started there,” she says.
Her first job after graduating from UNO (she was one of the few in her cohort to get a job in the field after graduation) was at the Rose Theater. She figured it would be a foot in the door opening to a great stage career. But it also involved educating others about theater.
“I got to act a little bit,” Withem says, “but they kind of tricked me. Maybe I just didn’t read the fine print.
“What ended up happening is I fell in love with teaching in a way I didn’t think I would.”
She returned to UNO and earned an M.A. in English. She taught students in the Writing Center there. She taught high school drama classes. She became artistic director for RESPECT, an organization that works to build healthy relationships through theater. And she landed a job at UNO as coordinator of its Master of Arts in Critical and Creative Thinking program.
But the theater still pulls strong. She recently had personal business cards printed after growing tired of writing her theater chops on the back of her UNO card.
“Educator, Director, Stage Manager, Writer.”
That might be a f@#%ing mouthful, but now she has something that sums up all that is Suzanne.
“What comes in front of me has pretty much been always just the right thing,” she says. “As far as where I’m going to be in five years or 10 years, I am kind of waiting to find out.”
Visit omahaplayhouse.org for information about Withem’s play.
This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.