Tag Archives: Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater

Jennifer Castello

May 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Castello lives by a simple philosophy: “Art is power.” As a writer, educator, and actor, the Omaha native has tapped into all areas of her deep imagination to carve out her path. She unequivocally believes creativity was put here to bring out a person’s voice, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I think art has worked best when someone isn’t being listened to, then grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and through art that person says, ‘Shut up and look,’” she says. “When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that at the end of the session, residency, or workshop, the students are equipped to express themselves—be it in a story, in a song, or just in everyday life. Art is self-advocacy. Art is power. Art is resistance.”

Castello began her writing career at the ripe age of 4, when her grandmother discovered how often she was coming up with original stories.

“She pulled out a stack of papers, stapled them together, and told me to make a book,” she recalls. “The pride she took in the stories I told her made me feel like it was something special to be a writer. She was a teacher, and it was also through her and that pride that I realized I wanted to be a teacher, and make some other kid feel just as special as she made me feel.”

At 18 years old, Castello scored her first teaching job, participating in the Teacher Academy Project program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and eventually got her teaching license. Now, she freelances at a variety of local organizations, including the Omaha Community Playhouse. 

“I go out into schools and community spaces and engage students in creating something,” she explains. “If that’s creating a clever way to win a drama game, learning how to make their own characters with makeup on their faces, or write their very own script, that’s where my heart is. When I was a kid in Omaha, teachers reached out to me and taught me that my brain had a purpose and a worth, and I’m always trying to pay it forward.”

In terms of her acting, Castello credits her father.

“He signed me up for a class at the Emmy Gifford Theatre,” she says. “Then when the Emmy Gifford turned into The Rose, he made me audition for one of the main stage plays and I got in. It was a community for me to hold onto when things got rough, and I’ll forever be grateful for that community.“

As an author, the Central High School grad was compelled to write The Messiah of Howard Street when she was still an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago. It was inspired by the colorful characters that have become a staple of the Old Market district.

“I had read My Antonia in my American English class,” she explains. “This wasn’t the first time I read it, I’d read it at Central High my junior year of high school. But comparing and contrasting a Chicago classroom to an Omaha classroom, I realized how fantasized Nebraska is in the minds of people who don’t live here. I mean, there are some obvious stereotypes we’ve all heard, but also the idea that there are rolling fields, and peace, and nature, and all that, it was just weird.”

Like so many other Central High teenagers, the Old Market was Castello’s meeting spot during adolescence. But over the years, she had many other experiences on and around Howard Street that helped shape her life.

“One of my first tastes of freedom was walking down to the Old Market and going to all the shops, getting Ted & Wally’s, and eating way too much spaghetti. Mom would take me to Little King before a dance recital, my best friends held my 18th birthday party as Zio’s, I sang and performed there, and I actually had my first date with my husband at Spaghetti Works.”

Armed with a Master of Science in secondary education from UNO and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, she recently held a one-act festival, finished a semester-long scriptwriting residency at Central High, and has become a member of the Nebraska Arts Council teaching roster. In short, Castello stays busy.

“In undergrad, my professor warned me I might not be able to make a living in the arts,” she says. “But being a teaching artist and an arts educator has been something I truly enjoy. I really appreciate being able to do it every day. I get to help kids play pretend. That’s like…the dream.”


To learn more about Castello’s work, visit jennifercastello.com

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.

Stephanie Kurtzuba

August 8, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com. Omaha Magazine

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