Tag Archives: Nebraska Shakespeare

Dropping Bombs

August 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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
calls it.

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.

Suzanne Withem

“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,”
she says.

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.

For now.

“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.

Shakespearean Power Couple

May 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Battling brain drain is the subject of much discussion in business circles, but the same challenge applies to the arts and their role in the vitality of any city.

Despite the fact that Omaha boasts an unusually vibrant cultural landscape, especially for a city our size, a metro area of less than 1,000,000 people can offer only so many opportunities for professionals to thrive. Too often the only solution to advancing career dreams in the arts is to pack one’s bags for brighter lights in Chicago, New York, and L.A.

Vincent and Sarah Carlson-Brown have mentally packed their bags many times as they eye invitations and opportunities to move to bigger stages in major metros. But they have always found good reasons to just as quickly unpack their things—and it’s not just because they skipped laundry day and were digging for clean socks and undies.

Nebraska Shakespeare, not to mention the entire community, have benefitted from the fact that the couple’s luggage is gathering dust in a closet.

Sarah is the non-profit’s director of education and Vincent is artistic director.

“We had talked about Chicago, maybe Minneapolis as a good move just so we could get more work,” says Vincent. “But we think it is meaningful to create art and do what we do right here in Omaha.”

The Shakespearean power couple met as students at the University of Nebraska–Omaha and before graduation had become founding members of the Blue Barn’s Witching Hour, the late-night company known for a special brand of boundary pushing devised theatre. At about the same time they began what became a long affiliation with the outfit whose flagship offering is the annual Shakespeare on the Green series.

“That’s not to say that this has been easy,” Sarah adds. “I’ve worked for Omaha Performing Arts in the ticketing office for nine years to supplement our income. We both still take acting and other jobs here and in other cities when schedules allow.”

Despite their “office” gigs with Nebraska Shakespeare, both yearn to be in the footlights at every opportunity.

Look for Sarah in the role of Miranda and Vincent as the villainous Antonio in Shakespeare on the Green’s The Tempest. Sarah will also be an ensemble member in The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), which Vincent will direct. He’s also producing and acting as fight coordinator for both productions.

“A lot of our colleagues and friends took the path of moving on in order to find work.” Vincent says, “A few of them did, but more came back home. It’s important to us to make Omaha better in any way we can. You can’t make a city better by leaving it.”

Nebraska Shakespeare on the Green will present The Tempest June 19-21 and July 1, 3, and 6. The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) June 26-29 and July 2 and 5. Both performances are free and will take place in Elmwood Park. Visit nebraskashakespeare.com for additional information.