Tag Archives: acting

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Daniel Dorner

April 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Daniel Dorner performed in the Brigit St. Brigit’s production for An Iliad last fall, he gave a rivetting performance in the role of epic poet Homer and related the tale of the Trojan War with gut wrenching intensity. He was the only actor on the stage, and he seamlessly segued between depicting such legendary heroes as Hector and Achilles. He garnered rave reviews—and deservedly so.

Omaha World-Herald critic Bob Fischbach pegged An Iliad as his fave show of last year, and Omaha Magazine executive editor David Williams lauded his work as a “powerhouse performance” in an online review.

But Dorner is not a professional actor, and before An Iliad he had not done theater work for close to a decade. Rather, he is a media design specialist who creates content for film, video, apps, television, and web sites. He is also a director, developer, writer, and animator, all of which require creative passion and an ability to see above and beyond reality.  “I really like anything imaginative,” says the 32-year-old. “I like presenting something you don’t see in real life.”

Dorner can trace this ability to his childhood. He grew up in Taiwan and didn’t move to the U.S. until he was 12. His time in East Asia proved highly formative. “I grew up with anime and movies like Blade Runner and Prometheus,” he explains. “They had very strong influences on my visual aesthetic.”

That aesthetic frequently features futuristic landscapes and holographic technology reminiscent of sci-fi films. His ability to portray such conceptual imagery has resulted in his work being featured on ESPN as well as other sports news stations and has won him awards like the prestigious 2012 Telly Award, which honors the best film and video productions, online video content and outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs.

But it’s perhaps Dorner’s acting for which he is best known. At age 19, he performed his first non-speaking role at the Omaha Community Playhouse, and meatier ones quickly followed in plays like The Diary of Ann Frank and The Foreigner. Although he began winning awards like the Omaha Community Playhouse’s 2001 Clarence Teal Cameo Award, it was his 2003 lead role in The Elephant Man on that same stage that garnered him one of the most coveted nods: the Theatre Arts Guild award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

Despite the acclaim, work demands and the birth of his two children kept him from theater work for ten years.  Dorner, however, didn’t find it difficult to return to the stage. “I felt very comfortable going back to acting,” he reflects.  “It was a brilliant script, and it pushed me in areas where I didn’t think I needed to be pushed.”

Even so, Dorner won’t return to acting anytime soon. “I act every ten years, and I’m happy to keep it that way,” he notes. “I’d like to focus on writing a novel. I’ve never really tackled that as an art form.”

No matter his creative pursuit, one thing remains certain. Daniel Dorner will continue to generate thought-provoking work that brings people to places they can only begin to imagine.

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Joanna Kingsbury

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Rogue Icons

Originally published in March/April Encounter.

Joanna Kingsbury, a resident of Omaha for the past three years, has dipped her toes into many creative fields: acting, singing, dancing, and DJ-ing. She recently completed a role as Sarah Trecek, the conservative girlfriend of the main character in the local, independent film, Flyover Country.

But now she seeks to add another line to her resume: Air Force enlistee.

On Jan. 5, Kingsbury took a break from singing, acting, dancing, etc., to train in aerospace physiology in the United States Air Force for the next four years. It’s a career move that seems crazy to most, but on a dreary winter  morning, Kingsbury is eager to explain why it’s a perfect fit for her.

“I love being a contradiction so much,” Kingsbury says with a grin.

While an acting career didn’t pique her interest until high school, she’s always felt at home in the arts. One of six children, Kingsbury hails from a naturally creative family in the Chicago suburbs.

“We’re the kind of family that when we get together, we always do a talent show and do like handstand competitions,” says Kingsbury. “We’re kind of just a goofy, crazy artistic family.”

It’s also family that brought Kingsbury out to Omaha in the first place. Kingsbury’s older brother, also a member of the Air Force and a DJ, lived in Omaha alongside other military members with an interest in the arts. Kingsbury visited her brother’s house in 2010, and was surprised to discover a vibrant underground arts scene in this so-called flyover country.

“I was just like, man, it seems fun in Omaha. My brother’s DJ-ing, they’re doing all these gigs, and he has all of these friends that are doing all of these really cool things,” says Kingsbury.

A year later, Kingsbury decided to take a leap of faith, move out to Omaha from Chicago, and hit the ground running. She joined acting groups on Facebook, formed a cover duet band with a man she met on Craigslist, and eventually landed her role in Flyover Country. 

The film, which examines the friendship between main characters straight Russ and gay Todd, didn’t just conveniently land in Kingsbury’s lap. Although she “blew” her audition for the role of Sarah the first time, the director and producer saw that Kingsbury was passionate about the project, and encouraged her to try out for a second time.

This vote of confidence didn’t keep Kingsbury from being plagued with doubts during filming. It was her first time playing a speaking character on film, a character who was saying “some of the worst things ever” about the LGBT community.  But Kingsbury tried to focus on the fun, rather than the fears, that came with stepping outside of her comfort zone. “I love to push myself,” she says.

Thus, whether it’s DJ-ing late into the night at a club or modeling for pin-up magazines, Kingsbury is enjoying her wild ride. Her journey is about to get even tougher over the next four years, as she will be serving her country among the nation’s finest.

But Kingsbury is adamant that being in the Air Force, where discipline and perseverance are championed, will make her a better actress and singer. Her goal is to make the Air Force Choir, and naturally, she is relishing her unorthodox route.

“I know it sounds totally ludicrous to anyone that wouldn’t be in the military, but you can be in the military and you can pursue artistic things,” says Kingsbury.

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Forever in Black

January 4, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Whether it’s your first time inside the glittering Orpheum Theater or your fiftieth visit to the sleek Holland Performing Arts Center, attending a live performance is an exciting event. The lobby fills with eager patrons and the buzz of conversation as a floor captain directs a couple to the gift shop while their tutu-clad daughter hops up and down with anticipation. A man in elegant evening wear checks out a hearing device from a volunteer while a couple in cowboy boots hover at their assigned door, which is—finally!—opened by a smiling usher. Each of these patrons has been made to feel welcome by an official Ambassador for Omaha Performing Arts [OPA].

For its March 2013 return run of The Lion King’s 32 sold-out performances, 383 Ambassadors volunteered a total of 6,804 hours. This past August, Disney Theatrical Productions presented a rare award, a handcrafted lioness mask honoring the outstanding achievement of The Lion King’s success in Omaha. Ambassadors were a central element in the success of that and any run at either the Orpheum or the Holland.

One of the black-clad volunteers, Sue Mouttet, was recognized for working 94 events during the 2012-13 season. Think of the math on that. That’s the equivalent of Mouttet spending one out of every four days of the year dressed in one of her black Ambassador’s outfits.

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

“I became an Ambassador in 2005, the year the Holland opened,” says Mouttet. “I enjoy every assignment I get because I love the public contact.” Many people think of Ambassadors simply as ushers, but their duties are as varied as Omaha Performing Arts’ line-up of performances. One of the jobs of female Ambassadors is directing intermission traffic through the rest rooms during lobby-packed intermissions. “It may sound funny, but it can make a big difference in one’s [a patron’s] experience,” Mouttet says. [Editor’s Tip: For much shorter restroom lines at the Orpheum, take the short flight of stairs down from the lobby and use the lower-level facilities.]

Mouttet has a special understanding of theater—she is an actor who’s played several area stages. This background helps her better explain the nuances of the evening to ticketholders. Why can’t we be seated early? The doors must wait while cast and crew make their last-minute checks so you will enjoy a killer, perfectly staged performance.

Joni Fuchs, OPA’s Front of House Manager, oversees 450 volunteer Ambassadors. She was hired for the position two years ago but had been an Ambassador since 2006. Like many in her small army of volunteers, she came at the suggestion of friends and joined a mixed group of people who share a love for performing arts and helping others. Many are retired, but others come from jobs in business, education, and trade. The minimum age is 18; the oldest Ambassador is 90. And each one is greatly appreciated. “They provide an invaluable service to Omaha,” says Fuchs. “They are the face of Omaha Performing Arts.”

Ambassadors like Mouttet take their responsibilities and commitments seriously, but they also enjoy such perks as seeing OPA’s array of outstanding Broadway, music, and dance performances at two stellar venues. Ambassadors may watch performances during periods when they’re not otherwise needed, and they also earn points that they can exchange for free tickets.

“No matter what we do,” Mouttet says of her varied and many duties, “we serve one patron at a time and we go, go, go!”

Dave Wingert Walking on Sunshine

December 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He addresses his fans as “doll,” “girlfriend,” and the occasional, Zsa Zsa Gabor-esque “dahling.” And those are for his male callers.

“C’mon in, pussycat,” the man known as “Wingy” beckons with a broad smile. “We’re on the air!”

It’s a damp, gluey-eyed, pre-dawn hour, but Dave Wingert is already deep in a groove. The perpetually perky Big O 101.9 FM personality effortlessly manipulates a dizzying array of sliding control panel buttons while simultaneously juggling coffee, headphones, mic, and a trio of computer mice below a quartet of monitors. It’s the most improbable of ballets, all perfectly choreographed for the sole purpose of transitioning into the bouncy intro of a Men at Work tune, the one about a man in Brussels who was full of muscles.

Such dexterity is a skill the New York City native honed in a broadcasting career spanning six decades. First coming to Omaha in the ’70s, he had four radio and two television programs before spending the next 20 years in Seattle hosting the nationally syndicated Dave ’Til Dawn show.

LBJ was in the Oval Office when Wingert landed his first gig, an unpaid one on Ohio University’s campus radio station. “I wanted to be an actor,” he explains, “but the radio studio in the basement of the school’s theater building caught my attention. My very Jewish mother had an [insert wagging finger] ‘Over my dead body’ attitude about acting. She insisted I do something that promised a regular paycheck.”

Wingert found that regular paycheck and many more among an alphabet soup of radio station call letters but never abandoned the stage. He has been featured in the footlights of countless community theater, Off-Broadway, and Actors’ Equity stage roles, garnering several awards along the way.

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“I’ve always considered myself an actor who just happens to do radio,” says the member of the Nebraska Broadcasting Association Hall of Fame who now serves on the board of Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. “Whether behind the mic or on stage, it’s just like sitting around a campfire telling stories. Storytelling helps us understand how we—all of us—are alike. Storytelling erases our differences.”

The radio celeb known for his conversational, authentic, and hilariously over-the-top banter admits to not always being so comfortably at ease behind the mic.

“Do people like me? Am I doing okay? How did that last show go?” he recalls of his earlier days in radio while, in the background, the Thompson Twins insist, as if on cue, that someone “Hold Me Now.” “I had a million unanswered questions,” says the man who now peppers his program with self-help segments that have a deeply personal meaning for many in his audience. “Now I’m at a place where I no longer question myself; I just enjoy being myself. I’m okay with that.”

It’s a sentiment that also seems to be more than okay with legions of loyal followers.

“What’s big for me now is a sense of belonging, community, the satisfaction of making a difference,” he adds. “My ability to help the Blue Barn raise big money for a new theater, for example, is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my return to Omaha. My role there is to connect with the community just like my role here at the station is to connect with the community. The only way for me to do that is to just be me.”

Wingert reaches for his headphones as the interview closes and he lapses into his best Yiddish to offer a cheerful “Bye-bye bubbe! Come back any time!”

And with that, Wingy was back on the air, this time playing the infectiously upbeat Katrina and the Waves number that could easily pass for his personal theme song—“Walking on Sunshine.”

The Making of Nebraska

November 15, 2013 by
Photography by Martin Magnuson

When you watch Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film Nebraska, keep in mind that each and every acting part was cast in a collaboration between the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker and his casting director, John Jackson.

Under the name John Durbin, Jackson long ago established himself as a character actor in Hollywood and beyond. IMDb.com lists 61 credits in the filmography of the Council Bluffs native and resident. Jackson returned home in 1988 to run a local casting service while taking acting gigs here and on the coast.

For Payne’s first feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), Jackson was hired to do Omaha location casting. He filled 32 speaking roles, plus all the extras. From the start, Jackson says, “We had a great working relationship. The same thing happened when Alexander came back to work on Election (1999). And then he began slowly to include me. The New York casting people would send him tapes and he’d say, ‘John, why don’t you watch this and tell me what you think,’ and that built.”

On About Schmidt (2002), Jackson says Payne entrusted him with ever more responsibility and increasingly sounded out his advice. “Until finally the producer of Schmidt said to Alexander, ‘Why do you hire these people in New York and L.A.? Why don’t you just get this guy?’ Meaning me.”

Jackson was back home directing and playing a supporting role in a Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company production when Payne called to say he was casting Sideways (2004), and he needed Jackson in 
California immediately.

“So that started a process of me being in L.A. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” recalls Jackson. “Then Friday morning, I’d get on a plane, fly back home, land, grab something to eat, go to the theater, do the show Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Then Monday fly back.”

Jackson says Sideways “was a new experience for both of us in many ways.” It found Payne shooting his first feature away from Neb., and it marked the first time Jackson served as the filmmaker’s sole casting director, a role he has continued for The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013).

“In honing our working method over the last 18 years,” Payne says, “we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want. Also, I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors.”

The pair filled a large number of roles in Nebraska with real-life farmers and small-town bar denizens. As with any project, they painstakingly searched for the right needle-in-a-haystack fit for characters. Payne’s particularly proud of the challenges overcome in casting Nebraska. To make it all work, he asked lead actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte to “flatten” their performances to be in synch with the low-key non-actors.

Jackson says the cast immersed themselves in the story’s “magnificent simplicity.” He says his job was to “build the world” Payne envisions for the characters in the script. “We paint with people. We want it to be as authentic as possible.”

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Alexander Payne (left) provided by Alexander Payne. John Jackson (right) by Martin Magnuson.

Payne is often praised for his casting, and he always deflects credit to Jackson, whom he calls “my secret weapon.” Jackson now finds himself in-demand as a CD and is currently casting two new films, Car Dogs and 
Phantom Halo.

“Everybody told me when I left L.A. in ’88 I was throwing away everything I’d built,” Jackson says, “but I never believed I was throwing it all away, and it was because of moving back here the greatest thing from a creative and professional stand-
point happened.”

He says Payne engenders loyalty by “building a rapport that ends up showing up in the work.” The entire crew is encouraged to speak their minds.

“If Alexander and I didn’t have that commitment,” Jackson continues, “I would cave to the pressure of the producers who say to me, ‘You need to convince Alexander these are the people he needs.’ Instead, I’m like, ‘That’s not my job, my job is to support, encourage, and grow his vision.”

Nebraska will premiere Nov. 22 at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater. A Nov. 24 Feature V fundraising benefit for Film Streams will feature Studio 360  host Kurt Andersen interviewing Payne, Dern, and Forte on the Holland Performing Arts Center stage.

In their “give and take,” the pair always aims to serve the script and its characters ahead of commercial considerations. It’s all about fleshing out the universe of the actors who best inhabit those characters.

With a work like Nebraska, Payne says, “It’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.