Tag Archives: Omaha Performing Arts

Louder Together

August 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lauren Martin was a small-town farm girl from McCook, Nebraska. She loved country music and never expected she would one day lead Maha—Nebraska’s pre-eminent annual music festival.

On Aug. 19, Martin oversees one of Maha’s boldest lineups ever. Headlined by the controversial hip-hop group Run The Jewels, Maha 2017 is poised to be one huge spectacle that promises to bring together a diverse group of concert-goers.

That kind of unity through music drives Martin, who got her first taste of it when she was a college student working on the campus program council at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “All of the sudden, I realized my favorite thing was to bring people together around experiences,” says Martin, who was named Maha’s first executive director in 2015.

While attending UNL, Martin helped bring such performers as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and comedian Kathy Griffin to the university. After graduating, she wanted to continue exploring a career of booking musical talent.  Martin interned at Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records in 2007. The following summer, she found herself working at Live Nation, a global entertainment company in St. Louis. However, the Great Recession of 2008 cut her career plans short, forcing her to move back home and assess her future in the music industry.

“I came back to Omaha and felt like a dog with my tail between my legs because I failed—or because I couldn’t hack it—whatever it was” Martin says.

In 2009, Maha was born, and Martin took interest. Over the next few years, she wore many hats, including working as a house manager at Omaha Performing Arts and as programming director at Hear Nebraska. In 2012, she was given the reins to Maha’s social media accounts. She was also named to Maha’s board of directors that same year, eventually serving as vice president.

As she continued to work with Maha, Martin’s view of music changed, especially how it can affect people and bring them together. This feeling and sense of community is something she continues to incorporate into Maha.

“Now I realize music is something we all share, and it has a power to connect. It’s everything from a release, to a way to express yourself,” she says. “And while I myself am not a musician, I find that music helps me process things. It helps me connect with other people. It’s a passion in a way that music is an avenue for my fulfillment.”

Martin also worked in communications at the Omaha Community Foundation, where she helped implement Omaha Gives!, a 24-hour charity event aimed at raising money
for nonprofits.

Then, in 2015, something big happened—Maha sold out for the first time, thanks in large part to a phenomenal lineup that included Modest Mouse and Purity Ring.

“It caused everyone involved with Maha to realize that, if we want the event to continue and really be sustainable and see what even further impact we could have on the community, we needed someone full-time. That’s when I became the executive director,” Martin says.

She also emphasized that the popular festival, currently held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, is much more than music. The event serves as a medium for other nonprofits to receive attention.

“It’s about raising awareness,” she says, “not forcing anyone to learn about something or expose them to potential trigger topics.”

For example, this year the festival will have information about suicide, the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 in the U.S. Martin says the majority of Maha’s demographic falls in this age range.

“Maha is more than a music festival. It’s a platform for engagement,” she says. “We realized not only can we be a platform for other organizations, but we can help spread education.”

Martin adds that while information is available to event-goers, the staff aren’t trying to make attendees uncomfortable. “Because that isn’t the intent of anyone,” she says. “We’re not impacting the experience by throwing mental health in your face,” Martin says. “We’re not scared to talk about this. We want to be an organization that is listening to what is going on in our community.”

In addition to providing mental health information, other nonprofits team up with Maha as part of its community to culture and social activities.

This year Maha has again partnered with Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam with roots in Chicago that focuses on bringing teens together across all divides. The group was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name.

Another repeat partner is Omaha Girls Rock, a nonprofit that typically draws plenty of attention. The group empowers young women to voice creativity through music education and performance. In general, to “rock.”

“Maha is an event that connects and reflects the community,” Martin says. “In that kind of structure, you get to walk away saying ‘Omaha’s got some really cool stuff going on.’”

As Maha continues to grow, Martin says people are getting even more out of the music festival. To this date, the event has drawn music fans from 46 states, according to its website.

“While the music is seemingly the main event, you come to Maha and get so much more than that,” Martin says. “I thought I was getting involved with Maha for the music, but what kept me involved with Maha was all the people I’ve gotten to meet.”

Visit mahamusicfestival.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Lauren Martin

Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

The Secret of the Shimmy

January 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Inhale. exhale.

The slow Middle Eastern music increases in tempo.

The ladies’ hips sway side to side in rapid repeat. All three wear black spandex pants and V-neck T-shirts. Scarves, loosely wrapped around their waists, accentuate their movements. Bells jingle in time with the rhythm of the beat.

“Don’t give away the secret,” Carol Wright warns as her hips pop. “If they want to know the secret to the shimmy, tell them to come and see Della.”

The other two women laugh as their torsos undulate. Wright closes her eyes in a losing-herself-to-the-music moment, hands on her rolling and rippling hips.

“Is this too fast?” instructor Della Bynum asks from the side of the room. She has been watching this improvisation for a while, a half-smile on her face, relishing the freedom and artistry of the belly dance.

“We will have to find out,” Wright says.

“This is where you just have fun exploring,” Bynum explains.

Anna Lewis, 22, struggles for a moment, “Which way should I go?” 

Lewis has been shaking her hips for about a year now. At 6 years old, she watched her mother and Della’s group perform for her Girl Scout troop. 

“My mom is re-inspired whenever she comes to visit and will always make sure she comes back to Della’s class,” Lewis says.

Bynum steps in to help Lewis and demonstrates a front and back roll to add to the dance. The women continue as a solid unit.

It isn’t the shimmy that is the secret, but it is this connection of women coming together to celebrate themselves and each other. Feeling that connection is one of the main reasons why Bynum stays in dance. Bynum, 67, believes belly dancing creates a bond regardless of age, ethnicity, or size.

bellydancingShe should know. She’s been dancing since she was 8 years old and aging hasn’t stopped her. It is a vivacious, beautiful, and uplifting experience.

“It makes you aware of your senses—how you see, hear,” Bynum believes.

Bynum began with traditional ballet, then shifted to modern dance. She moved from Baltimore at 19 to begin school at Creighton University. A business degree wasn’t important to Bynum. 

“Dance classes were my love,” she says. “But unless you are teaching dance, you are not assured a position to support yourself.”

She continued taking dance classes and studied ethnic forms of popular dances of the 1970s, including African, Polynesian, and belly dancing. In addition, she performed modern dance with the UNO Moving Company. In 1980, Bynum started teaching her first classes at the YWCA and continued to do so for the next 25 years. 

When Bynum retired seven years ago from her day job as a timekeeper for the Omaha Fire Department, she needed…well…something more.

“You need to move more as you age, not less. If you don’t move, you aren’t able to move as well,” Bynum believes.

“You should open up a studio,” a long-time friend and fellow dance instructor told her.

“Hmm…that’s what people do when they are young,” Bynum replied.

With some help from her friend, Bynum did the unthinkable by opening her first studio. After three years, Bynum realized the ceiling was too low for the wavy and slinky arm movements of belly dance. After searching, she discovered a spot in the Center Mall on 42nd Street. After that, it was just a matter of finding economical ways to create a studio.

Bynum teaches four days a week and her crew puts on performances for The Durham Museum, Omaha Performing Arts, Renaissance fairs, and other organizations. The women sew their own costumes for a variety of different styles including tribal, folkloric, and Oriental belly dancing. 

A six-year attendee, Michelle Widhalm, 50, says Bynum is holistic in her approach. It is emotional and spiritualistic.

Bynum’s mantra: breathe. 

“When I tell people I belly dance, it is interesting to see their reaction. Eyebrows raise,” Widhalm says. “Western culture sexualized the dance. For me, it is about the female connection.”

Widhalm was surprised the older generation seemed more open to the idea, commenting only on how it must be a good form of exercise. In fact, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported social dancing lowered the risk of dementia in the elderly by 76 percent—more than reading. It also reduces stress, releases serotonin, and improves overall physical health.

Bynum’s parents passed away in their 50s, which has motivated her to keep exercising. If someone likes it, he/she will keep active. Belly dancing is multi-generational. 

“It’s more of an ageless environment,” Bynum says.

Her oldest client started when she was 80 and quit at 90 due to arthritis.

When Shakira entered the scene in the 2000s, shaking those hips that don’t lie, the belly dancing industry boomed.

So what about those ripped abs?

“I had those when I was young,” Bynum says tapping her black-stockinged feet on the floor to the beat of the music. “But it isn’t about that for me anymore.”

Bynum steps in the front of the class in black leggings with a bright orange scarf tied to her waist, a dark blue shirt, and a whole lot of confidence.

Bynum works with the three women on choreographed moves based on an old saying she modified. 

Walk forward, beauty before us.

Walk backward, beauty behind us.

It continues with the side, upward, and downward until the climax.

Beauty within us.

Wright squeals at the end in time with the music, arms raised, and all of them laugh together. 

Oh, and the secret to that shimmy?

Bending the knees, breathing, and relaxing.

Visit delladancing.com for more information.

You Only Live Twice

October 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha’s Orpheum Theater was designed to impress. Those vaulted, gilt ceilings. The 1920s Czech crystal chandeliers and gold leaf and ivory finishes. Its similarities to the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles are intentional. The Orpheum’s architects were inspired by the French Renaissance.

But, the French weren’t the sole inspiration.

The architectural styles found within the Orpheum Theater are as eclectic as the performances on stage. Designed to be a vaudeville house in 1927 by the firm Rapp and Rapp, lush Louis XIV influences mingle and complement other styles, particularly Italian. Look up as you enter the Orpheum by the ticket booth and inside the second set of entry doors. The French grandeur blends with urns and grapes typical of Italian architecture on the ceilings.

orpheum1“What the audience sees is Rapp and Rapp’s interpretations,” says Ed Hurd, who has spent several years researching the history behind the theater. He calls them interpretations because burgundy draperies and some chandeliers inside aren’t typical of French Renaissance design.

Other architectural elements sneak in elsewhere, such as a 1920s Greek Romanesque feel in the Exhibition Lobby and English-looking flowers and symmetrical design found on the ceiling by the ticket booth.

Hurd, as the performance rental director for Omaha Performing Arts, the nonprofit that manages the theater, started digging into the story of the Orpheum in order to better sell the venue to touring artists. The strategy has worked. “Without exception, the artists are amazed by the quality of this theater and the beauty,” says Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts.

“Omaha’s really lucky this place didn’t meet the wrecking ball.” Ed Hurd

Most of the elements found in the theater’s lobbies and its concert hall are original to the building, including the furniture, wrought iron grill work, draperies, marble, plaster sculpture, and the terra-cotta drinking fountains.

It wasn’t always so well maintained.

“Omaha’s really lucky this place didn’t meet the wrecking ball,” says Hurd.

In 1971, the theater had fallen into disrepair—nets under the ceiling kept plaster from falling on the audience. The following year, the building was purchased and donated to the City of Omaha and renovations began. The lobby space grew and a permanent concession area was added. While the city still owns the building, Omaha Performing Arts assumed management in 2002 and began its own extensive renovations. While heavy duty work has been done backstage and on-stage, plenty has been improved in the front of house.

That’s where James Bond comes in. Not THAT James Bond. The James Bond of Custom Artistic Finishes in Omaha, who has been touching up the Orpheum’s interior for years. He was hired to restore and accurately reflect what the building was like, says Squires. The fact that no one notices his touch-ups reflects the quality of his craftsmanship.

Bond is a former artistic apprentice to Salvatore Nespolo, the lead foreman on the original Orpheum renovation in the 1970s. He meticulously applied gold leafing, or gilding, throughout the bottom floor of the Orpheum, restoring the luster once tarnished by smoke damage. The extensive retexturing and color matching on the Lauritzen Lobby ceiling is another example.

“I’m very proud of every bit of the work I’ve done here,” says Bond.

Through the hard work of Bond and others, the ornate theater’s appearance has been restored to the level it deserves.

“What saved this building is the love people have for it,” says Hurd. 60-Plus in Omaha.

Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

DickHolland1

Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

The Essential Conor Oberst

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Conor Oberst, since age 13, has released one of the strongest catalogs in modern American music. His unmistakable voice and penetrating lyrics stand front and center, whether under his own name; the adolescent, yet strangely adult Commander Venus; the defining work of Bright Eyes; the all star Monsters of Folk; or the topical rock of Desaparecidos.

Do You Feel At Home – The title track from Commander Venus’s 1994 debut presents many Oberst signatures: wise-beyond-years lyrics; a controlled, yet shaky delivery; catharsis; and hooks that set the singer-songwriter apart.

Touch – Bright Eyes’ Jan. 1998 debut A Collection of Songs presented the lo-fi blueprint of the confessional songwriting to come, yet their September release, Letting Off the Happiness, is where the magic happened. “Touch” blends the manic vocals of Oberst’s acoustic songs without acoustic: blitzed out drums and “broken” keyboards make “Touch” an amazingly honest, fractured gem.

Something Vague – 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors solidifies the eclectic instrumentation of modern Bright Eyes. “Something Vague” perfectly expresses the confusion and passing of adolescence to early independent adulthood.

You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? – 2002’s Lifted is the album that placed Oberst in the national spotlight, with ambition bursting from everywhere. “You Will …,” is a simple message and melody that not only sticks in one’s head but practically signs a lease on the place.

Poison Oak – Bright Eyes most popular album, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning, is a classic. “Lua” and “First Day of My Life” are Oberst staples; however, his work is rarely more personal than on “Poison Oak.” The humanity and pure emotion Oberst displays across this track is staggering.

Easy/Lucky/Free Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, also released in 2005, explored Oberst’s electronic inclinations. Digital Ash brought a new sheen and darkness to Bright Eyes’ take on electro rock. “Easy/ Lucky/ Free” closes this underrated collection with a meditation on an apocalyptic mortality.

Cape Canaveral– Oberst returned to the stripped down leanings of earlier releases for his 2008 self-titled solo album. Weaving vivid imagery and mysticism, Oberst achieves a new sense of universality on “Cape Canaveral.” Using acoustic guitar as accompaniment, Oberst wisely sings: “Victory’s sweet even deep in the cheap seats.”

Time Forgot – Oberst entered the major label world in 2014 with the well-polished Upside Down Mountain. “Time Forgot” presents us with a familiar Oberst landscape, though with a new sense that with fight and dedication, the tunnel may just have some light.

City on the Hill – Desaparecidos have become one of America’s more relevant rock bands. Despite a 13-year gap between their debut and the 2015 release Payola, Denver Dalley, Matt Baum, Landon Hedges, Ian McElroy, and Oberst have only gained strength. “City on The Hill” exhibits one of the strongest-ever Oberst vocals as he joins the body count of a nation needing, hoping, and fighting for something more.

Oberst will headline the Holland Stages Festival on Saturday, Oct. 17. The free, all-day event celebrates the 10th anniversary of Omaha Performing Arts and the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St., and will be held on five stages inside and outside the building.

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Omaha Performing Arts

October 13, 2015 by
Illustration by Devin Golden

When Tony Bennett took to the stage at Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005, it was just another in the long list of innumerable venues he had played over the course of his legendary career. By the time he left, it stood out as one of the best.

That’s because as he began to sing, he paused, put aside his microphone and said, “I don’t need this.” Bennett was able to perform without technical enhancement, a rarity among performance venues. Not, however, at the Holland. The facility boasts state-of-the-art acoustics, and whether front-row-center or in the uppermost tier, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Making sure there aren’t any bad seats is the job of Omaha Performing Arts, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The nonprofit organization manages both the Holland Center, which opened in 2005 and is home to the Omaha Symphony, and the Orpheum Theater, built in 1927 as a premier venue for vaudeville acts. Together the two dominate the city’s performing arts scene and feature an eclectic array of talent ranging from classical ballet legends to Broadway blockbusters to jazz giants to even political pundits.

That kind of variety was unimaginable 10 years ago when the Orpheum served as Omaha’s primary performing arts venue. It hosted Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, and limited-run Broadway productions as well as community events such as high school graduations, dance recitals, and fashion shows. “The Orpheum’s schedule didn’t allow for the majority of artists and performers we have today,” explains Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts’ president since its founding. “It was a very confining schedule.”

Omaha also lacked a venue with the sound quality necessary to showcase singers and musicians to full effect. “One of the problems we had in the performing arts was that the music hall at the Civic Auditorium had fairly poor acoustics,” explains John Gottschalk, the organization’s chairman of the board. “You can’t have performers if you don’t have a place where what they do on stage isn’t getting out to the audience.”

HollandGraphicDick Holland, who, along with his late wife Mary, provided the main bequest for the $102 million performing arts facility that today bears their name, elaborates, “We had no good place for the symphony orchestra. The symphony is an expensive damn thing to have. And it needs full support to have first class musicians.”

The Holland Center provided that support and opened up the Orpheum’s schedule, making it possible for Omaha Performing Arts to offer a wider selection of performances. “We bring in the kinds of performances that would not appear here otherwise,” Squires notes. “We really seek to bring in top artists and have brought in a wonderful array. That’s a large factor in our success.”

Deborah Ward, director of marketing and communications for the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, loves that success. “Omaha Performing Arts has really enhanced not only downtown’s cultural landscape but also the entire city’s,” she comments. “It’s provided unique performance venues and equally unique performances and has been really clever in the acts it’s brought in. We recently did research for the Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls markets. We specifically wanted to know why those people come to Omaha. We found that 11 percent come for arts and culture.”

Less quantifiable are the educational benefits to the community, which are just as important and exist as one of Omaha Performing Arts’ primary missions. “We look for community opportunities that don’t always exist,” explains Squires. “We use performances to partner with the community and find ways to connect and build community engagement.” This includes master classes taught by performers, student matinees, discounted tickets for underserved communities, and a host of other offerings. In 2011 the Broadway show Wicked, for example, provided an opportunity for an anti-bullying summit involving cast members, school students, and the Anti-Defamation League. This year, the organization is introducing Carnegie Hall Musical Explorers, a program that builds basic music skills for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“The experience for our community is wonderfully enriching, and people understand that,” notes Gottschalk. “We have these professionals in town and the great gifts they give to people in terms of their time and talent. When a young person walks into a great hall, they’re inspired.”

As Omaha Performing Arts celebrates its first decade, Squires can’t help but be enthusiastic about its future. “As we get into the 10th anniversary, our real focus is to engage the community,” she says. “There’s still so much we can do.”

Holland agrees. “We’re damned proud of what we’ve done. We’re going into the coming 10 years terribly enthusiastic about everything and about growing more.”

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Being Ryleigh Welsh

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ryleigh Welsh, 15, didn’t have too many plans for the summer. She’d entered one of her songs in the Omaha Performing Arts songwriting competition. She worked on her International Baccalaureate curriculum. She returned to Omaha Girls Rock and hit up some open mic nights. She took ukulele lessons every day. All that after performing in a spring play with SNAP! Productions at Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha Central sophomore has already accomplished more, artistically, than many folks twice her age. At 12, she released her first album, Being a Unicorn, and at 14 starred as Lottie Adams in the SNAP! Productions dramedy Harbor. She’s even headlined her own “Ryleigh Welsh and Friends” night at Barley Street Tavern, with her name on the marquee and everything—though she had to play first because she’s a minor.

Her life sounds like a juggling act, but she seems to handle everything with uncanny ease—particularly her music, which is catchy as hell.

“I was never really a crying, screaming child, so all I did was write songs,” she quips.

“I’ll come up with a couple lyrics, write that down, and then mostly it’s just playing chords over and over, filling in words with the chords. Eventually it comes together.”

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When that happens, she says it takes about five minutes to finish a song, a pace that rivals that of a young Bob Dylan when he first hit Greenwich Village.

The young artist also has the best resource a beginning songwriter can have: a seasoned musician/mentor to help edit her material, who also happens to be her mother.

Molly Welsh is a staple of Omaha’s art scene. She’s acted in, and directed, several performances; played guitar and sung backup for multiple high-profile Omaha bands, including All Young Girls Are Machine Guns; and has worked for the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts, Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and Film Streams. Ryleigh is the beneficiary of a household suffused with creative energy.

Take, for instance, the song “Reality Avenue,” (search her name and Boombox Productions to have a listen) which Ryleigh wrote in 2011. She says she “kinda had it all jumbled because I was so young…it was like ‘What are you saying?’”

Molly knew. “I could tell what she was trying to say, but none of the words were in the right order that would make sense to a person listening to it.” So Molly helped Ryleigh clarify the song. The result is a catchy, ukulele-driven tune with such lyrical gems as “You planted a yellow seed for me / to grow a bubblegum tree, and I don’t live in a house on Reality Avenue.”

When asked if she’s internalized any mantra to keep her going, Ryleigh pauses, then rattles off the title of an obscure book from the ‘60s which she recently read: How You Live Is How You Lose Your Mind. But she doesn’t look quite satisfied with that answer. Though fun-loving, she wants to do her best at everything. So she substitutes something better.

“My mantra is: I do what I want. I’m punk rock.”

Ballet Nebraska

September 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.

How is it that Midlands Choice has come to make an investment in, of all things, a ballerina?

Sure, the bottom line of any insurance entity is driven by risk management—the investing of premium revenues to hedge against claims.

But taking stock in Claire Goodwillie, a company dancer with Ballet Nebraska?

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Erika Overturff

The Midlands Choice example is repeated all across the metro as area businesses support a broad array of arts nonprofits, ones that dwell in everything from tutus to tempura.

And the table is set for a new era of collaboration between business and the arts  because philanthropic giving in America has finally returned to pre-recession levels.

Contributions, which totaled $358 billion in 2014, surpassed 2007’s pre-recession level of $355 billion. Additionally, giving was up from all major sources—individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests—according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation of Chicago.

“Eight out of nine types of charitable organizations we measure saw increased contributions, and that’s good news for the philanthropic sector as a whole,” W. Keith Curtis told Omaha Magazine in an email. Curtis is chair of Giving USA Foundation and president of the nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group. “The 60-year high for charitable giving in 2014 is a great story about resilience and perseverance.”

Themes of resilience and perseverance define the Ballet Nebraska story.

Erika Overturff was 27 years old when the ballet company of which she was a dancer and resident choreographer appeared doomed. She had no money. She had no business acumen.

That was 2009. Flash forward to 2015 and Overturff, now 33, founder and artistic director of Ballet Nebraska, is leading the region’s only professional dance company into its sixth season.

In a city known for its “can-do” spirit, this story could be about almost any local arts nonprofit, but the unlikely saga of Ballet Nebraska is told here because it is perhaps the most improbable of tales, one that best reveals what a business community and the arts can do when they share a common vision.

Like settling into your seat with a program before the lights dim at any performing arts venue, it’s probably best to start by reviewing the cast of characters:

The Connector

Hal Daub knows people. Especially in a city of six degrees of separation that is, in reality, much more like two or three degrees, the former Omaha mayor (1995-2001) and U.S. Congressman (1981-1989) who has served on countless nonprofit boards and is now a partner at Husch Blackwell…knows people.

“When I was first introduced to Hal and he offered to help,” Overturff says, “I assumed that meant he was going to maybe make a few calls and do a little name-dropping.” Daub, it turned out, would become a key player in the often delicate pas de deux that is the coupling of business and the arts. “He not only made those calls, but he set up the appointments…and then he came along to personally introduce me and stand by my side in front of those who would become some of the most generous funders of Ballet Nebraska.”

“The reason I am so fascinated by what Erika has done,” says Daub, “is that Omaha is a city that has clearly evolved to become a place that is not just metropolitan, but truly cosmopolitan.” And investing in the arts, Daub believes, makes good business sense. “The social environment of a city—its arts and entertainment—is critical in attracting and retaining the best workforce. Ballet Nebraska, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts…those and so many others are the organizations that help keep the best talent in Omaha.”

The Advocate

Michelle Clark is Union Pacific’s general director of information technologies, which means she probably knows more than a little about computer viruses. As a three-year board member of Ballet Nebraska, she’s also seen how supporting the arts can go viral.

“Employee generosity is furthered by the use of the company’s matching gifts program,” Clark explains. “This creates a sense of pride for employees, and Union Pacific is supportive of the communities in which we live and work. The employees of Union Pacific are very generous and have supported fundraising drives not only for Ballet Nebraska, but a number of organizations such as the Women’s Center for Advancement and JDRF.”

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Employees should never underestimate their power to play a key role in advocating for nonprofits within their organizations.

“I am passionate about the art of dance, especially ballet and Ballet Nebraska,” Clark says. “Dance inspires my creativity and provides insights to see beyond the obvious. My hope is that by providing individuals with the awareness of opportunities to experience and support the art of dance they will find their own inspiration to apply to their own life.”

And just as stubborn computer viruses are often cloyingly messy to eradicate once discovered, Union Pacific’s relationship with Ballet Nebraska has a “stickiness” of its own. Clark was preceded on the Ballet Nebraska board by Gayla Thal, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The Bulldog

Don’t let the gentle demeanor of Midlands Choice vice president Greta Vaught fool you. Supporting the arts is often a visceral experience, and Vaught’s passion for dance exerted itself on multiple levels in the early stages of growth at Ballet Nebraska.

“Midlands Choice has always been supportive of my work in the community,” says the board chair of Ballet Nebraska.

“We like to listen to our people when making such decisions,” says Midlands Choice President and CEO Thomas E. Press. ”It is important for us to know that our giving has real meaning for them, their families, and their communities.”

“I looked at what Erika was trying to do,” Vaught continues, “and I thought it was brave, but impossible. But all along the way I just kept going back to the thought that if one of my daughters [Mia, now 15, and Hannah, now 19] wanted to try something so bold one day that”…insert long pause…“I’m sorry, this is making me cry. I would just hope that people with experience and connections and dollars would shepherd my daughters along like so many people have done with Erika and Ballet Nebraska.”

Okay, so maybe “The Bulldog” wasn’t such a great character name for this role after all.

The Artist

“I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning when I decided to try to launch a dance company,” Overturff says. “We were lucky in that we got our nonprofit status right away, but I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and really nothing about raising funds. I was moved by every $5 check that came in, but it took a lot of mentoring, advice, and counsel to get us to where we are today as a fully funded, professional performance company.”

Ballet Nebraska now has a paid staff of 22, including nine salaries paid to company dancers. Today, Overturff’s once-nonexistent business connections run deep. Personal contributions from the likes of philanthropists Richard Holland, and Fred and Eve Simon, further fuel the growth of ballet in Omaha. Foundations also play a major role in funding. A recent gift of $124,000 from the Iowa West Foundation is the largest in Ballet Nebraska history.

“Talented professionals from all over the world that have trained their whole lives to pursue a career in dance now come to Omaha in the hopes of performing with Ballet Nebraska as we serve the state and western Iowa in performances, education, outreach, and more” she says. “A ballet company—any performing arts company, any arts organization—is about its people…the artists, the staff, and hardworking, selfless volunteers. But it is the people of Omaha, from the smallest donations to the relationships we have with such great businesses, that makes it all happen.”

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Joan Squires

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joan Squires was living a cozy life in Arizona where she was president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony. But when Omaha Performing Arts leaders called 10 years ago, she couldn‘t resist the challenge.

OPA wanted her help in operating two theaters in Omaha—the venerable Orpheum and the yet-to-be-built Holland Performing Arts Center. Who could pass up the chance to operate a theater built in 1927 that was undergoing a $10 million renovation? And who wouldn’t want to participate in the building of a $102 million performing arts center in Downtown Omaha?

Squires saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “There was a committed board and key leadership. Also at that time, no one in Omaha was bringing in shows.”

OPA’s new president arrived in 2002 to find a staff of one and a lone computer housed in the offices of Heritage Services; the philanthropic foundation was OPA’s fundraiser. The Holland Performing Arts Center was only a sketch on an architect‘s drawing board. The Orpheum Theater was still owned by the City of Omaha. And few people knew much about OPA. “One of our greatest challenges was branding the institution,” Squires says. “We had to go from not in existence to fully operational in three years.”

Her first action was to help set goals: 1) Assume management of the Orpheum from the city, 2) Prepare a strategic plan for the development of the organizational and administrative structure for OPA, and 3) Participate in construction of the Holland.

“In 2004, we opened Ticket Omaha [a local ticketing service for the arts]. Tickets were on sale six months before the Holland’s first performance in 2005,” Squires says.20130102_bs_8722 copy

A Decade Later

Today, the OPA president has a staff of 90 full- and part-time employees and 500 volunteers. She oversees the 175,000-square-foot Holland Performing Arts Center and the renovated 2,600-seat Orpheum Theater that reopened in 2002. And Omaha Performing Arts now is the largest nonprofit arts organization in Nebraska.

Seventy-five percent of funding is now from earned revenue and 25 percent is from contributions.

Rankings in two industry publications in 2011 gave Omaha bragging rights. The Orpheum was ranked No.1 in Midwest ticket sales by Venues Today and No. 16 worldwide by Pollstar. The Holland was ranked in the top 10 nationally by Venues Today, an impressive ranking for a performing arts center that didn’t exist six years earlier.

“There were those that said Omaha could not support the facility,” remembers John Gottschalk, OPA chairman since its formation in 2000. Squires has oversight of a $18 million operation. “And in six years she has never missed her budget. Never.”

Squires’ success in luring top talent has brought a financial benefit to the area, attracting visitors, creating jobs, and increasing tax revenue. A 2011 survey by University of Nebraska economists concluded that the two theaters had a cumulative economic impact on Douglas County of $128.49 million over five years and a $98.31 million impact on Nebraska.

The widely praised acoustics of the Holland bring out the best of the Omaha Symphony. Broadway shows now seek out the Orpheum. Performances have included Wicked, Jersey Boys and Disney’s® Lion King, which returns in March.

Check Squires’ iPhone and you’ll find an eclectic collection of music. But Broadway tunes rule. “From childhood on, I’ve loved Broadway musicals,” she says.

OPA’s mission includes presenting educational programs for all ages, from student matinees to master classes to workshops taught by professionals.

“An addition at the Holland designed for teaching dance classes was added about three years ago,” says OPA Vice Chairman Richard Holland. The performing arts center was named for him and his late wife, Mary.

10 January 2013- Joan Squires office is photographed for B2B Magazine.

Photo in Squires’ office of her with Debbie Reynolds (left) and Warren Buffett.

Squires has her finger on the pulse on Broadway theatre life and currently serves as a voting member for Broadway’s Tony Awards®. Active in Broadway League committees, she is a member of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. She is an advisor for the Broadway Dreams Foundation.

The Life of Joan Squires

Joan was born and raised in Shippensburg, Pa., where her father ran a family business. Her twin brother, John, is the fourth generation in the business. Joan received her undergraduate degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and became a music teacher for three years. She loved her students, but teaching wasn’t her life’s mission.

She moved into arts management, earning a master’s degree in both business and music arts administration from the University of Michigan. She served as an intern for the National Endowment for the Arts and participated in a yearlong fellowship under the sponsorship of the League of American Orchestras.

Squires has worked in arts management for more than 25 years. Previous positions were with the Milwaukee, Utah, and Houston symphonies. She has received many honors including the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor and the YWCA’s Woman of Vision. In 2012, she received a Governor’s Arts Award from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Squires has a short commute to work. She lives in a downtown condo about halfway between the two theaters that she oversees. Her husband, Tom Fay, was a vice president of the Arizona State University Foundation before they moved to Omaha. A native New Yorker, he played the oboe for 17 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony and held a second career in arts management and academic fundraising.

Fay and Squires have been married 22 years. She has three stepchildren and three grandchildren. Her husband has been supportive of her demanding career, says Squires. “He said he had his career, and it was now my turn.”

Squires said despite all the long hours she logs at work, it’s all worth it. “At the end of the day, standing in the back of the theater and watching the audience react, I think I have the best job in town.”