Tag Archives: theater

From Omaha to Broadway

September 11, 2018 by
Photography by Sally Montana

It might be an unlikely topic for an award-winning Broadway musical, but Come From Away tells the story of a tiny town in Newfoundland that welcomed thousands of stranded airline passengers on September 11, 2001. 

“It’s pretty special. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire career,” says Q. Smith, an Omaha native who is currently starring in the production—in her adopted home of New York City, at a theater located only a few miles from where terrorists crashed passenger planes into the twin towers of the former World Trade Center.

“You know, it’s rare to do a show [about an event] you lived through,” says Smith, who was living in Queens on 9/11. She was heading to a callback audition when her roommate stopped her from getting on the subway. Seventeen years later, she’s on Broadway telling a different story from that day about Hannah, another woman who lives in Queens.

Q. Smith at home in New York City

In 2001, Smith, whose given name is Quiana, had already traveled a long way from the days of performing with her family at Salem Baptist Church in Omaha. She discovered musical theater when two other African-American girls—a detail she says is important—at Omaha North High School introduced her to show tunes. 

“Hey, what kind of music is this?” she remembers asking. 

The girls gave cassette tapes of Broadway soundtracks to Smith, and she discovered Les Misérables. She says her family got tired of hearing her sing “I Dreamed a Dream” over and over again. 

“I found out [Les Misérables] was coming on tour to Omaha, and I freaked out,” Smith says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the best day of my life!’” 

It was the first Broadway show she experienced at the Orpheum. After seeing it, she was hooked on musical theater.

“I don’t remember the show. I just remember the feeling,” Smith says. 

In 2006 she was cast as a “swing,” an understudy who covers several roles, in a revival of Les Misérables. The first Broadway touring show she saw became her first Broadway role as a performer.

The road to that milestone wasn’t a direct or easy journey, but she was persistent and eager to learn. 

“I have strong faith, and everything happens for a reason,” Smith says, reflecting on her path to success. 

The summer before her senior year of high school, Smith was angling to get a car. Her parents insisted she work for it. Pat Metoyer, the owner of Simple Simon’s Preschool and Daycare, knew her from church and asked if Smith would be interested in teaching drama to the pre-K students at the daycare. Smith says she didn’t exactly feel qualified for the job, but she also really wanted that car. 

Teaching the children dance, drama, poetry, and sign language proved to be an empowering experience for her and for her students. It’s also where she got her stage name. The 4- and 5-year-olds couldn’t pronounce “Quiana.” They shortened her name to “Miss Q.,” and it stuck. 

The daycare serves children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, but seeing growth in some of the underprivileged students was life-changing for Smith. 

“Let me do anything I can to save them with this power of art,” Smith thought to herself following an encounter with a grateful mother.

It was the genesis of another aspect of her career: teaching and art therapy. Nowadays, Smith not only teaches master classes and workshops for theater students, she also conducts programs in comprehensive and restorative art therapy. Inspired by her late brother, who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, Smith dreams of providing an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system—one that engages and heals troubled youth through the power of the arts.

Following high school, Smith continued her education in the theater department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and participated in the local theater scene. Originally, she auditioned for some of the most selective theater programs around the country, but says she wasn’t experienced enough to compete with teens who were already seasoned performers. 

“UNO actually has a great theater program,” Smith says. “I was introduced to Professor Doug Paterson, one of my favorite professors. He was always about social justice and social justice theater.” 

She says that UNO made her world a little bigger and furthered her ambition to make the world a better place, but she still wanted more specific training. Smith auditioned again for some of the country’s most prestigious theater programs. Ultimately, Ithaca College in Upstate New York was the only theater school to offer her a spot.

“It was perfect for me. For my personality and my learning,” Smith says, noting that she and another young woman were the first black female students to graduate from the college’s musical theater program. A few years later, Smith broke another casting barrier.

Following roles in regional theater, national tours, and that dream job in Les Miz, Smith became the first African-American actress cast as a lead character in Mary Poppins. She says the supporting role of the antagonist, Miss Andrew, is now regularly played by curvy women of color with natural hair. 

These days Broadway audiences can see her in Come From Away playing Hannah, a character based on an older Irish woman who lives in Queens. Smith plays the character as a black woman, but she says she was able to spend time with the real-life Hannah, who has seen the show and given it her seal of approval. Playing a living person comes with a level of responsibility that doesn’t exist with a fictional character. 

“It’s lovely. I love it. It’s really been a great challenge,” Smith says. “Something that you lived through, that you went through…it’s something else because you have to bring a full heart and mind to it instead of your jazz hands.”

Smith was performing in Arkansas when she received a call to audition for Come From Away. The musical was opening at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, often a first stop before shows head to Broadway. It took two years of regional performances, gaps in work, and lean contracts before that Broadway production finally happened. 

“This has been the best year of my life,” says Smith, who also got married this summer. “I wake up in the morning and I’m just so grateful.” 

Gratitude and humility are evident when Smith speaks about the opportunities she’s had, particularly when she reflects on the impact of her current production.

“To remember that there were these people in Newfoundland who took in complete strangers,” Smith says as she explains the significance of the story of the small Canadian town of Gander that welcomed 7,000 stranded airline passengers. “To be able to tell this story at this time means a lot to people.” 


Visit comefromaway.com for more information about the Broadway musical featuring Q. Smith. A touring production of Come From Away will play in Omaha at the Orpheum Theater on March 27-31, 2019.

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information about the Omaha performance. 

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Eliminating The Impossible

March 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Zhomontee Watson first took the stage when she was a sophomore in high school. Completely new to the world of acting, her first director chose her to play the lead in The Princess and the Pea. As a college senior, Watson found herself nominated for Best Actress in a musical in the 12th annual Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Watson netted the nomination (and a win)* in this year’s OEAAs with her performance as the lead character in Sister Act at Omaha Community Playhouse. She says she’s grateful, but it did catch her off guard. Her portrayal of Deloris Van Cartier was in September 2016—just before the cut-off date for OEAA qualifications.

“I did not expect this. Since it was over a year ago, I didn’t expect it to be part of the awards,” Watson says.

Sister Act, the musical comedy based on the 1992 film by the same name, follows Deloris Van Cartier on her journey into the Witness Protection Program after she sees a murder that she shouldn’t have. For her own safety, Deloris is sent to live in a holy convent. She struggles as she learns to adapt to her new life among the nuns.

“In this role I really had to connect to the words. There was no way you could sing those songs without connecting something to it,” Watson says.

Watson notes that most of her previous roles have been characters in established positions of power—such as a principal or mother figure—but Deloris Van Cartier was a different challenge for Watson to tackle. Completely removed from the security of her old life, Deloris must put her trust and safety into other people’s hands.

“I also got to have a sensitive and tender moment in the show where I had to connect with people who I love and who love me,” Watson says.

Sister Act displays a family-like bond between the nuns and Deloris, and Watson says that bond didn’t end when the curtain dropped. She says that her real-life connection to her fellow cast members helped bring her performance to life.

Director Kimberly Faith Hickman remembers Watson for her strong stage presence and work ethic. “She takes on the challenge and always accomplishes what you asked her to do, no matter how difficult it may be,” Hickman says. “You should never miss out on an opportunity to collaborate with Zhomontee.”

Acting has always been a passion for Watson. She doesn’t get compensated for her hours of devotion to the theater, but she does find acting to be an important outlet in her life.

“Acting definitely gave me a home away from home,” Watson says.

As someone who experienced some instability while growing up, acting was a way for Watson to find a support system and consistent group of people. Additionally, she’s found that acting puts her mind at ease.

“I can be myself with not being myself,” Watson says. “I get to dive into another character and leave my life at the door.”

In March, Watson is appearing in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of James and the Giant Peach. Like Sister Act, it is a musical directed by Hickman.

Watson plays the Earthworm in this beloved children’s story. Despite the role originally being intended for a man, she has taken on the challenge of portraying the character.

“She’s a risk-taker. I don’t know if she describes herself that way, but as someone who directs her I see her as a risk-taker,” Hickman says. “She asked if she could sing a part that wasn’t written for her gender and she was fantastic.”

Even through all her positive experiences in Omaha’s theater community, Watson does believe there’s room for improvement. Now, more than ever, she believes that conversations about inclusivity and diversity should be taking place.

While the OEAAs are taking steps to be more inclusive—such as changing their awards to be gender inclusive—there are other organizations that are failing to hit the mark.

“In our theater community now, it’s very important to know that inclusion is a thing and that it needs to remain a thing. It needs to become more a part of the narrative than it currently is,” Watson says.

She hopes that more theaters become proactive in finding diversity for their performances. There’s plenty of talent in Omaha’s minority communities, but theaters must create an inviting space. Watson says that they can’t just expect their theaters to develop a perfect cast—they have to actively seek and promote.

Additionally, she encourages those in the community to be accepting and understanding of newcomers. She believes that theaters can get stuck in a “comfort zone” that includes only casting a handful of frequent actors and actresses. By taking time to teach new thespians, Watson believes that Omaha’s already-impressive theater community can soar to new heights.

Her educational goals don’t stop with the stage. Her final year of undergraduate studies has taken up plenty of Watson’s free time, but she’s still managing to put the hours in for rehearsal and performance. Her current plan is to graduate in May and apply for UNO’s graduate counseling program.

“Grad school is a whole different ball game, so I’ll see how time management factors in, but I definitely don’t plan on stopping,” Watson says. “If I can squeeze in a show or two then I will.”

*Article updated after the OEAA winner announcements. 

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.

A Glamorous, Functional Basement Remodel

August 14, 2017 by
Photography by Tom Grady

Seeking a grand basement remodel, a client came to me with hopes of creating a unified space with smaller intimate areas instead of an open floor plan. The original space felt very disconnected with no visual interest.

My solution focused on two separate spaces of the floor plan. Both sections of the basement would feature multiple functions: one area revolved around a sunken kitchenette/bar, and the other was an empty space transformed into a theater/display area.

The first part of the challenge was to create a properly lit display while providing storage within the bar area. We needed to add a dynamic visual element without altering the integrity of the existing brick veneer.

Our solution was to add horizontal reclaimed wood panels that pull the whole space together while providing a pub-like entertaining area. The resulting contemporary space makes use of layers of depth and dimension to provide a central focal point for social gatherings.

The asymmetrical design of the sunken bar area is enhanced with LED lighting, which further enhances the sophisticated environment. Bespoke finishes infuse rustic charm into the modern basement, forming the perfect union of domestic utility and alluring elegance. Displayed sentimental objects stand in harmonious contrast with time-worn salvaged materials and the interplay of light and shadow.

A large circle on the bar wall offers a crucial design element unifying the space. The scale of the circle balances the weightiness of the massive bar. Radiant light offsets and enhances the circle, giving the illusion that it is floating in air. The circle’s LED under-lit shelves provides plenty of space for the liquor bottles, and the offset shelving allows for additional personal items to be displayed.

By adding the walnut shell and lights to the existing metallic wood console table, it became repurposed and connected to the bar area.

Two guitars on an adjacent wall, mounted on a wooden circle, became a piece of art grounding the empty space leading to the guest bathroom.

To satisfy the clients, who are avid sports fans, the most challenging part of the basement’s theater space was to showcase their collection of jerseys while allowing the ability to watch multiple televisions at once. At the center of this design, I strived to cultivate a sensory experience that transcends the utilitarian functionality of the theater setting. Contemporary aesthetics find a careful balance of personal whims and fancies in the second of the basement’s main spaces. Relaxing here, the homeowners feel like they are in a high-end Las Vegas casino private suite while watching their favorite teams play.

The design conceptualization for the theater and display area stems from a faithful adherence to well-defined boundaries. JaDecor wall covering offers remarkable appearance with excellent acoustical properties. The round custom fiber optics and the dark-oak Melinga panels in the ceiling add spectacular visual interest to the space that once was a rectangle tray.

I really wanted the sports theater walls to properly light their jersey collection—which changes annually—while not interfering with the theater environment. Back-lighting the twelve individual panels with LED strip lights cleverly works into the overall aesthetic. The picture lights illuminate the symmetry of the jerseys and provide a side drop for the TV wall.

The purposeful ornamentation of the jerseys provides a dramatic display satisfying even the most discerning homeowner.

The experience of the finished project is such an amazing space to entertain and enjoy life with family and friends.

From the bar to the theater, and across the entire basement, the overall design embodies simplicity and modern functionality, leaving a lasting impression that makes you want to enjoy the space in good company.

The end result achieves the client’s goal of balancing personal expression and functional glamour with youthful exuberance. It is a welcoming space for any time of the day—and any season—for many years to come.

Visit artisticodesign.net to see more of the designer’s work.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Destinations

February 22, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Horse stalls went bye-bye long ago. Now, Aksarben Village is losing car stalls, too. But that’s a good thing, as far as continued growth of the former horse-racing grounds goes. Dirt is overturned and heavy equipment sits on the plot extending north and east from 67th and Frances streets, formerly a parking lot for visitors to the bustling area. That’s because work has commenced at the corner on what will become HDR’s new global headquarters, which opens some time in 2019. The temporary loss of parking will be offset by great gain for Aksarben Village — a 10-story home for nearly 1,200 employees with a first floor including 18,000 square feet of retail space. HDR also is building an adjacent parking garage with room for ground-level shops and restaurants. But wait, car owners, there’s more. Farther up 67th Street, near Pacific, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is building a garage that should be completed this fall. Plenty of parking for plenty to do.

BENSON

A continental shift has taken place in Benson — Espana is out and Au Courant Regional Kitchen is in, offering Benson denizens another food option at 6064 Maple St. That means a move from now-closed Espana’s Spanish fare to now-open Au Courant’s “approachable European-influenced dishes with a focus on regional ingredients.” Sound tasty? Give your tastebuds an eye-tease with the menu at aucourantrestaurant.com. Also new in B-Town: Parlour 1887 (parlour1887.com) has finished an expansion first announced in 2015 that has doubled the hair salon’s original footprint. That’s a big to-do at the place of  ’dos.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The newest Blackstone District restaurant, which takes its name from Nebraska’s state bird, is ready to fly. Stirnella Bar & Kitchen, located at 3814 Farnam St., was preparing to be open by Valentine’s Day. By mid-January it had debuted staff uniforms, photos of its decor, and a preview of its delectable-looking dinner menu. Stirnella (Nebraska’s meadowlark is part of the genus and species “Sturnella neglecta”) will offer a hybrid of bistro and gastro pub fare “that serves refined comfort food with global influences,” plus a seasonal menu inspired by local ingredients. Fly to stirnella.com for more.

DUNDEE

Film Streams (filmstreams.org) made a splash in January announcing details on its renovation of the  historic Dundee Theater. Work began in 2017’s first month on features including:

Repair and renovation of the original theater auditorium, which will be equipped with the latest projection and sound technology able to screen films in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel 35mm and DCP presentations.

A throwback vertical “Dundee” sign facing Dodge Street.

An entryway that opens to a landscaped patio/pocket park.

New ticketing and concessions counters.

A store with film books, Blu-ray Discs and other cinema-related offerings.

A café run through a yet-to-be-announced partnership.

A 25-seat micro-cinema.

Oh, yeah, they’ll show movies there, too. And Dundee-ers won’t have long to wait—the project should be completed by the end of 2017.

MIDTOWN

In a surprise to many—especially those holding its apparently now-defunct gift cards—Brix shut its doors in January at both its Midtown Crossing and Village Pointe locations. It was not clear at press time what factor, if any, was played by a former Brix employee, who in late December pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft by deception after being accused of stealing more than $110,000 as part of a gift card scheme. Despite the closing, Midtown has celebrated two additions of late as the doors opened to the “Japanese Americana street food” spot Ugly Duck (3201 Farnam St.) and to Persian rug “pop-up shop” The Importer.

NORTH OMAHA

The restoration of North Omaha’s 24th and Lake area continues its spectacular trajectory. In January, the Union for Contemporary Art moved into the completely renovated, historic Blue Lion building located at 2423 N. 24th St. The Blue Lion building is a cornerstone in the historic district. Originally constructed in 1913, the Blue Lion is named after two of the building’s earliest tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a nightclub that attracted many nationally known black musicians, and Lion Products, a farm machinery distributor. The entire district was listed as a federally recognized historic district in April 2016.

According to its website, “The Union for Contemporary Art is committed to strengthening the creative culture of the greater Omaha area by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of contemporary art forms in the community.” Founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew says the Union strives to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change in North Omaha. “The organization was founded on the belief that the arts can be a vehicle for social justice and greater civic engagement,” she says. “We strive to utilize the arts as a bridge to connect our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways.”

The Union will be hosting the annual Omaha Zinefest March 11. Event organizer Andrea Kszystyniak says Zinefest is a celebration of independent publishing in Nebraska. Assorted zines—essentially DIY magazines produced by hand and/or photocopier—will be on display at the free event, and workshops will be offered to attendees.

OLD MARKET

M’s Pub fans had plenty to be thankful for in November following the announcement that the Old Market restaurant would rise from the ashes of the January 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic eatery. Various media quoted co-owner Ann Mellen saying the restaurant would reopen this summer. Construction has been steady at the restaurant’s 11th and Howard, four-story building, but customers weren’t sure M’s would be part of the rebirth until Mellen’s well-received comments. Mellen says the feel—and the food—will be the same. Even if the name may change.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

One of Ours

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“There aren’t a lot of people in Nebraska writing new musicals,” says Roxanne Wach, executive director of Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha theater company is in the middle of its 24th season of producing original work by Midlands theater artists, and Wach reads around 200 original plays a year. But when she discovered the musical Catherland, it stood out from the pack.

A collaboration between Lincoln-based theater artist Becky Boesen and musician-composer David von Kampen, Catherland will open at the Shelterbelt April 21. It’s the latest incarnation of the project after a staged reading was produced at the Red Cloud Opera House in 2015, followed by a workshop at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“I championed the piece because I thought it had such potential. I liked the music to begin with, and that’s a huge hurdle with musicals. I liked a lot of the script and where it’s going,” Wach says. “David has really captured something in the music, and Becky is really talented with her lyrics, and it’s a pretty engaging score.”

It’s hard to imagine a story more quintessentially Nebraskan than Catherland, which is set in Red Cloud, the central Nebraska hometown of writer Willa Cather. The musical focuses on a present-day couple, Jeffrey and Susan, who move from Chicago to Red Cloud. Susan has some reservations about leaving Chicago; but early in their marriage, the couple agreed that once she finished her first novel they would slow down, move to Jeffrey’s hometown of Red Cloud, and possibly start a family.

Boesen explains that when people are experiencing culture shock they go through a honeymoon phase. Jeffrey and Susan are in that phase when “someone crashes into the barn outside and their life starts to unravel as a result, and there’s an immediate life or death problem that has to be solved,” Boesen says. “Willa Cather shows up, too. Susan, the novelist, is not a Willa Cather fan, and that’s a problem.”

That would be the ghost of Willa Cather. Boesen says that a lot of her own writing tends to include ghosts, though the ghosts are not always literal.

“I mean like a missing piece of your heart. Anything that’s missing to a protagonist,” she says. “But in this [show], there are legit ghosts, which is pretty fun.”

Von Kampen agrees, “And I don’t really like ghost stories. I don’t seek out movies or books that are like that, but from a creative standpoint, it feels really good.”

Boesen was born in southern Missouri and von Kampen is originally from Michigan, but they both moved to Nebraska as children. They’ve lived other places thanks to their careers, but are now settled in Lincoln raising their respective families. Boesen and von Kampen are full-time artists and arts educators who met briefly in 2013 while working on another project.
Boesen’s company, BLIXT, is an arts management and consulting firm that produces projects for the Lied Center, Lincoln Arts Council, and other entities. Von Kampen is a musician and composer who also teaches at Concordia University in Seward as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly a year after their initial meeting, Boesen talked von Kampen into working as the musical director on a staged reading she was directing.

Von Kampen says, “I remember when (Becky) called, and I was thinking, ‘How can I get out of this?’”

She talked him into working with her, and it went well.

“David said, ‘Hey, don’t you write stuff? We should get together and talk about writing sometime.’ And I said, ‘cool let’s get together,’” Boesen explains.

They discovered their work “sort of sounded alike” and began to share ideas. Boesen had been thinking about her experience as a teaching artist in Red Cloud. Her play, What the Wind Taught Me, ran at the Red Cloud Opera House while on tour, and she says she fell in love with the town.

“You’re driving in Nebraska and all of a sudden you feel like you’re on Mars, because the prairie is like an ocean out there,” says Boesen, who started thinking about Cather and “what it must have been like to live in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in the late 1800s.”

The Nebraska prairie might be considered a character on its own in some of Cather’s work. That striking landscape also has inspired the creative team behind Catherland.

“It’s an exploration of sense of place, what it means to be home, what does it mean to make a commitment, and how does that change over the course of time, and the messy nature of long-term love,” Boesen says.

“I really think they’ve captured something. I’m so excited to be working on it. I just can’t wait for people to see it,” Wach says, impressed with Boesen’s willingness to revise her script. “To have somebody who’s that fearless in the process is a real asset to Shelterbelt in really giving new works their highest potential.”

Wach points out that supporting and nurturing new work by local artists is essential to the vitality of the Omaha theater scene.

“There are very few theaters our size who do new work in a city of our size.” Wach says, “We have a very vibrant theater community, and having new works helps feed it.”

Boesen says she and von Kampen feel lucky to have such a joyful creative process, “We just like making stuff, and we make stuff well together, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Rustic Roots

October 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It took two-and-a-half years of eager anticipation for the new Blue Barn Theatre to take shape at 10th and Pacific streets, as producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer waited impatiently to start creating in the new space. The wait was worth it.

This welcome addition to the booming 10th Street corridor gives her a new playground in which to produce stage magic.

Blue Barn is part of a mixed-use project on the site, which also houses the Boxcar 10 condos and restaurant on the south side, and public green space to the west that the theater opens onto.

The theater’s distinctive design by Omaha architect Jeff Day of Min|Day, with input from international theater space consultant Joshua Dachs, is a whimsical play on the Blue Barn name and purpose. Weathered steel and slatted wood evoke the barn motif. A vertical wall of rebar suggests a curtain. Splashes of blue appear throughout.

Great pains were taken to express the organic qualities that distinguish the way the company makes theater, including the use of salvaged materials and hand-made fixtures by area artists. Elements from the old 11th and Jackson space were integrated. The house was kept small to preserve intimacy with audiences.

“Rehearsing our opening play I had a moment where I was transported back to our old space and it felt like I was home. We worked long and hard to create a space that felt familiar from our old digs but also inspiring in new ways, and I think we have done that,” Clement-Toberer says. “For awhile during the building process I was a little freaked out that it was too big, but it’s not. Once the walls and the reclaimed wood slats got put up and our comfy chairs from the old space were installed, I clearly saw this new building—with the expanded lobby and adjoining back garden—offers incredible new spaces for us.

“But they still feel like the Blue Barn. I feel like the building is a body that warmly embraces our work.”

Occupying a permanent, dedicated space is a giant leap forward for a theater that rented and repurposed venues for more than 27 years, and even went homeless for a time.

“It’s very exhilarating to know we actually have a full space of our own that we will get to know every nook and cranny and creak in the floor and not have to go anywhere else to create our art.”

Amenities include larger dressings rooms, and, for the first time, backstage restrooms the actors won’t share with patrons. There are also enhanced lighting and sound systems, more expansive wing and storage areas, and a much higher ceiling for flying props and lights.

Clement-Toberer says, “I became adept at creating around limitations. Now my head’s spinning with the possibilities. We don’t have to have any confinement in how we create anymore and that’s the biggest transformation—what we’re able to do on our stage.

“If we want a scene to take place outdoors we can open the back doors of the house out onto the porch yard. We can let the actors and audience feel the wind blowing and see the moon. That to me is a gift.”

The potential configurations excite the director in her.

“I can see us…putting in a long table that runs from the indoor space all the way outdoors and having a beautiful dinner with the show happening around on the green space. I can see seating on the fixed stage and the performance being on the porch yard.”

Indeed, she regards the building and its signature indoor-outdoor flex space as “a set design malleable enough to allow the Blue Barn to grow into it and find different ways of utilizing it. Hopefully we have created a palette and a place that will continue to inspire us as artists as well as our audiences in the different forms we can create and in the different feelings we bring about through the stories we tell.”

Blue Barn hasn’t come to all this without struggle. The building’s a testament to resilience and community support built over time.

“We’re very lucky and full of gratitude that people in Omaha believed in us enough to help us grow ourselves in all the right ways,” she says.

Through it all, Blue Barn stayed true to itself.

“Our voice is a little more grown-up but it’s still speaking the same language we were 27 years ago.It is kind of like having our child grow up, and we still get to play hard and fierce.”

The new theater also strengthens Blue Barn’s position as a regional professional theater now that it meets equity standards.

Clement-Toberer credits Omaha philanthropist Nancy Mammel—who donated the land to Blue Barn and developed the adjoining Boxcar project—“as the real visionary for knowing 10th Street deserved a revitalization.”

This 2015-2016 season Clement-Toberer’s making sure to “savor every moment.”

Visit bluebarn.org to learn more.

BlueBarn1

The Play’s the Thing

October 2, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laci Neal needs several commas to answer the question, “What do you do?”

“I’m a cosplay enthusiast, performer, and historical costumer,” says the artist, actor, burlesque performer, lecturer/presenter, inaugural Miss World Steampunk, and self-described “big nerd.”

Neal’s various ventures come down to one simple fact: “I just love to play dress-up,” she says.

Growing up in the under-350-person town of Kimballton, Iowa, Neal lacked outlets for her burgeoning creativity and often felt stifled.

“I didn’t have many friends,” she says. “I read a lot and stayed up late watching Turner Classic Movies.”

Yearning for more possibility, diversity, and connections with like-minded people, 18-year-old Neal moved to Omaha in 2002 to study theater at Iowa Western Community College—where she says she learned not only the art of theater, but also the art of self-confidence.

“Confidence is huge,” she says. “I think of myself in high school—bullied and never speaking up—and I would never let that fly now.”

Sitting tall, with bright eyes, a kind smile, and a pretty yellow flower tucked behind her ear, Neal explains what drew her to performing.

“Well, I like attention,” she says with a sweet, yet sly, laugh. “But it’s not just that. I had dreams when I was young of being a movie star, but when I started performing theater my perspective on the entire thing changed. I love how all these individuals come together to create one beautiful thing—spending months on a project for just a few moments of being onstage and presenting the work.”

As for burlesque, Neal says that while it takes bravery, it lets her display all aspects of her costumes.

“With a Victorian dress there are layers upon layers upon layers, and how else can I show off all those layers unless I show off all those layers,” she says.

Cosplay, a combination of the words “costume” and “play,” is a performance art typically centered around pop culture characters common in the sci-fi/comic/geek convention culture. Think Star Wars, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings…it’s all-ages dress-up at venues like O Comic Con and others nationwide.

“I’ve always played dress-up and kind of been in my own little world, but didn’t discover there were others who did it until 2004 while researching a costume,” she says of stumbling onto the cosplay and steampunk communities.

“I’ve always loved the Victorian aesthetic—corsetry, making historical gowns and garments—so it was fun to discover that there are thousands of people who do this, it has a name, and I’m not just weird in liking to wear full Victorian garb every now and then,” she says.

As for her many loves and commas, Neal says, “They all kind of go together.”

“It’s all performance,” she says. “Ways of having some kind of role to play—whether it’s a role in a play or burlesque or a badass superhero. I can be whoever I want, any day of the week.”

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Just a Little Respect

January 16, 2015 by

I can’t believe this,” Troy says.

“Sorry, Troy,” Nate replies.

“Yeah, me too…f**,” Troy says, using a homophobic epithet as he walks away.

And that starts it all.

Nate’s voice is full of defeat, shoulders slumped, face downcast. Even with glasses, tattered baseball cap and a plaid shirt, Troy is menacing compared to a shorter Nate.

Put yourself there. What would you do next?

This is just one scenario RESPECT, an anti-bullying group here in Omaha, poses to teenagers. Using short theatrical productions, RESPECT hopes to educate youth on how to handle abusive relationships. Standing Up, by Nick Zadina, is just one example of 14 plays these professional actors perform for schools around Nebraska and Iowa.

Executive Director Patricia Newman founded RESPECT as a problem-solving and communication tool for children of all ages. Bullying won’t ever go away, she says, but it can be decreased by education.

Newman, a clinical child physiologist, is hoping students will stop unhealthy and violent patterns early before reaching adulthood. “Kids can self-identify and change their bullying habits,” Newman believes. “The more times you hear it, it clicks.”

Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19.6 percent of high school students have been bullied sometime during the school year. Newman recalls being picked on as a child because she was poor and from a divorced home. Luckily, she says teachers made the difference by making her feel special. “The power in the classroom is amazing,” Newman says. Millard West junior Cody Janke says Standing Up was realistic and “not your average corny play you see in school.”

Once the play finishes, the actors allow students a few moments to write down anonymous questions on notecards. Greg, one of the 10 professional actors for RESPECT, pauses before responding to one student’s question, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Greg (RESPECT actors asked that only their first names be used) mentions how someone at school had once left a death threat in his locker after he talked to the bully’s girlfriend.

“I was terrified and a freshman so had no idea what to do,” Greg recalls. He ended up reporting the incident to counselors who helped the bully with his anger and jealousy.

The class is quiet and not quick to volunteer, so the RESPECT actors change things up by role-playing. One of the actors plays the part of the bully as he knocks books out of another actor’s hands.

“Okay, okay, so what would you do?” he asks the class.

One brave student, freshman Dan Catania, volunteers to role-play as the bystander. His shaggy brown hair covers his face as he picks up the books scattered on the floor.

“Dude, why did you do that?” Dan asks the actor. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

With an infectious grin, he apologizes and tells Dan “good job.”

With 251 programs each year and around 40,000 students, Newman hopes stepping into the action will teach kids from preschool to college to empower themselves and come up with their own solutions to make their lives safer.

After the RESPECT team leaves, most of the students agree bullying occurs mainly in middle school. Janke, a high school football running back, believes many teenagers outgrow these negative tendencies. Tall and muscular with a bit of a five o’clock shadow, he admits to being the bully once in middle school, although feels some of it was provoked. Now that he is older and more mature, he says he feels it isn’t worth it to put other people down.

Many students also say girls tend to be worse in middle school than boys. One of the freshman female students says boys are more willing to talk it out, while girls do everything on social media or behind someone’s back. Although statistics show boys are 1.7 times more likely than girls to bully, girls show a higher trend of victimizing others through rumors. “They (girls) are vicious,” she says with a laugh. “Guys are just like, ‘Bro, what are you doing?”

Newman agrees bullying today is deadlier because of the intensity and how quickly it happens on social media. She hopes RESPECT will give students one more tool to transform something negative into a positive.

Newman shares a touching letter she received from one boy:

“Thank you. You may have saved my life.”

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Performance Man

December 25, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

By day he’s a mild-mannered assistant director of learning and development at Omaha’s Hyatt hotels. By night and during weekends, though, Doug Hayko is one the city’s most well-known—and perhaps most infamous—performance artists, one who frequently makes people uncomfortable in the most thought-provoking ways.

The 44-year-old became interested in performance art while studying theater at Creighton University. “It was pretty basic,” he remembers, “but I had an affinity for unique performance pieces.” He continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he again focused on theatre as well as the history of theatre and its more academic side. “I was interested in techniques that did something to engage the audience in different pieces,” he explains, “and I was really interested in doing and embracing and watching pieces that were fused with societal issues. Here were really profound, engaging issues.”

But Hayko found that performing in a university environment was doing so to a limited audience—one who already understood what performance art could deliver intellectually—rather than to the general public, with whom he could more profoundly engage. For that reason, he left graduate school and put performance art on hiatus and instead moved to southern California where he began working for Hyatt.

In 1998, though, Hayko returned to Omaha and in 2005 staged an ambitious adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Bemis Underground. It involved layers upon layers of text, with each audience member taking something different from the experience. That’s something Hayko strives for with every performance he gives. “Even though we can’t catch it all,” he emphasizes,  “we all carry away something unique.”

Since then, Hayko has offered numerous such experiences, each exploring a situation designed to create provocative encounters, such as East of 72nd: Disrupting the Omaha Landscape in Six Acts (2007), Toxic Lawncare (2010), and Experts at the Museum of Alternative History (2013), each of which represents a small selection of his work. At times, Hayko’s performances have been controversial, such as Sickened at the Shelterbelt Theatre in 2008, which featured the artist curled in a fetal or a kneeling position smeared in fake blood while holding a doll.

Controversial or not, each piece has Hayko’s inimitable sense of intensity. The artist remarks: “Even if it’s a one-time performance, my hope is that it sticks with people and continues conversations long after the piece is over—not the next day, not the next month, but something they recall, and talk about. Isn’t that what any artist wants —for art to have legs and continue to be talked about?”

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God Bless Us, Everyone!

December 4, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As the Omaha Community Playhouse prepares to transport theatergoers to Victorian England with their annual production of A Christmas Carol, 8-year-old Mackenzie Reidy is getting ready to be catapulted into the world of theater for the first time.

The bubbly La Vista native scored her first-ever acting role in this year’s production, and it’s a big one—she will be playing good-hearted Tiny Tim, the boy who personifies the show’s whole message of Christmas spirit. But with a toothy grin and a sense of fearlessness, Mackenzie is more than ready to spread the cheer.

Mackenzie caught the theater bug suddenly last year when she surprised her mother, Melissa, with the announcement that she wanted to audition for Papillion-La Vista Community Theatre’s production of Annie. While Mackenzie didn’t get a part in the production, she enjoyed the process and decided to give theatre another shot after Melissa saw upcoming auditions for a production of the Charles Dickens classic. While Mackenzie was gung-ho, Melissa and her husband approached the auditions with a cautious optimism.

“It’s a fine line between having faith in her and preparing her for reality. There were a lot of kids there, and obviously a lot of kids who have done it before,” Melissa says. “So I figured, if anything, maybe a choir part, not Tiny Tim.”

Susan Baer Collins, one of the show’s directors, remembers Mackenzie’s first audition well. Baer Collins mentions that one of the biggest problems with casting children is that many are
too shy. But after Mackenzie belted out two verses of “On Top of Spaghetti,” and “sang like a demon,” according to Baer Collins, the show’s directors knew Mackenzie would have no problem with confidence.

After Mackenzie’s cheesy approach won over the directors, she was called back for a second round of auditions. Melissa began to suspect that Mackenzie might have a larger role in the production than originally anticipated when the directors had Mackenzie read for Tiny Tim. But she says she was still floored when the Reidy household came home to a voicemail from the Omaha Community Playhouse—quickly followed by a scream from Mackenzie.

While the Omaha Community Playhouse’s main stage production of A Christmas Carol has never had a female Tiny Tim, it is standard on tour. Tiny Tim has to be small enough to be easily carried by Bob Cratchit, and Baer Collins says that many boys who come into audition are too tall or too large for that.

But it’s not enough to just be tiny—a Tiny Tim has to be preco-cious yet convincing enough that it’s believable that resident humbug Ebenezer Scrooge can be won over by the waif.

“People talk about Tim as being “God-like”, and you know in spite of his infirmity, he’s always thinking of others, so you’re looking for a kind of value that someone can project,” says Baer Collins.

Mackenzie has some large shoes to fill—the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production has seen 40 years’ worth of actors fill the role of Tiny Tim—but she has no qualms about getting up on stage. She says that she’s most excited for being able to act on stage and to make new friends.

While Mackenzie says she wants to try out for more plays, for now she’s simply relishing her time in the spotlight. When asked what her dream role was, she responded with a wry smile and, “Well, that’s kind of the role I just got.”

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