Tag Archives: UNO

Dr. Bruce Johansen Keeps Moving

November 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Deep in the labyrinthine Arts and Sciences Hall at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Dr. Bruce Johansen sits at his desk wearing a rather de rigueur outfit for him—a maroon T-shirt with red and blue basketball shorts. His ever-present jewelry is more subdued than usual. He has several rings on his hands and a simple, steampunk-esque earring in his right ear.

Johansen’s signature style is well-known around UNO. He tells his students the reason he started wearing so much jewelry was to distract from his pronounced stutter, which was also the impetus for his writing career.

The 67-year-old professor of communications and Native American studies is also familiar for another reason. Tales of seeing him riding his bike down Dodge Street on his way to campus at 5 in the morning are often repeated among his students in an almost folklore- like manner.

While they might think Johansen rides his bike to work every morning because he’s just that into it, that’s not exactly the case. In fact, he says it’s more out of necessity than a simple love of cycling.

In October 2001, he had an epileptic seizure while driving in Indiana and went off the road. Since then, his wife, Pat, has made it clear she’d rather he not drive. And so, he bikes. Or walks. Or sometimes in extreme weather, she’ll give him a ride in their Ford Explorer.

While biking to work started out of necessity—he says the parking situation on campus was another big incentive—he still enjoys biking for fun. From time to time, he’ll ride downtown or out to Westroads Mall. He says his longest Omaha ride was about 30 miles round trip. But he’s definitely biked farther.

“One day in Seattle,” he says, while hauling out a map of the city he keeps in his office, “I did a circuit of Lake Washington, which is about 60 miles.” He draws his finger around the map, outlining the route he took.

His desire to always be moving might stem from the fact that he grew up in a Coast Guard family. “You’d be surprised where the United States has Coast Guard bases—Philippine islands, Newfoundland in Canada, Puerto Rico…I grew up all over the world.”

Surprisingly, he says his favorite form of exercise isn’t cycling but swimming. He says not only is it good exercise, but also quite relaxing. According to an article in the summer issue of UNO Magazine, he was even a high school state swimming medalist in his adopted home state of Washington. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see him swimming laps—while wearing his signature jewelry—on campus at the HPER Building pool.

“They added it up,” he says, “and all of the time I spent in the HPER pool came up to a year…from an hour at a time or so. I had swum half the world’s diameter overall. It adds up over 30 years.”

Professor Hugh Reilly, director of the school of communication, has known Johansen for at least 25 years. In fact, Reilly considers him a mentor. The two share a common interest in Native American studies, and Johansen was instrumental in helping Reilly develop his thesis, which evolved into Reilly’s first book on the subject.

He thinks it’s a bit unusual for someone to be interested in Johansen’s physicality. He says the professor is chiefly known among his colleagues for his mental capacity and prodigious writing.

“He’s very mentally active…he manages to write two books a year. Who does that?” he asks.

Reilly says he’s sure he couldn’t outswim Johansen. “But I can take him in basketball,” he says. Which makes sense. The 6-foot-2-inch Reilly is half a foot taller.

It turns out, Johansen may have found a new hobby. On a recent trip to India, he and other guests were invited on stage to dance with the Kala Darshini dance troupe. When he tried to decline the invitation, saying he hadn’t ever really danced, he was told, “This is India. We dance here.”

As they were dancing, he was engaged by one of their principal dancers. “I really got into it and completely forgot there was a huge audience there.” He says his partner seemed pretty surprised by his energy and endurance, and at the end of the dance, he was hoisted into the air, spun around, and kissed on the cheek while everybody cheered. He said he felt like a rock star.

So maybe dancing will be his new outlet for all that energy?

“I liked it,” he says. “But see, here I have a very well-cultivated image as a stale old fart.”

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Curling for Gold

November 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Curling anyone? The winter sport often described as “shuffleboard on ice” still gets pegged as a Canadian import. In Husker-hungry Nebraska, the broom-swept sport remains something of an oddity.

That’s about to change.

The 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling sweep into Omaha Nov. 10-18 at the 7,800-seat Baxter Arena. Curling enthusiasts from all over the country will join the uninitiated in viewing a competition to determine which American teams will vie for curling gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Why Omaha? Competitive curlers like Steve Jaixen represent part of the answer.

“Not many people know that Omaha has a very active curling club,” says Jaixen (pronounced Jackson), an Omaha native who became a local fixture of the sport at a young age. “My mom and dad both played at the Aksarben Curling Club.

People remember holding me at the rink as a baby. My entire family has played at some point,” he says.

“We had our own building until 2000 in the old Aksarben Fairgrounds,” explains Steve Taylor, current president of the 59-year-old club. “We had a barn that we’d use every winter. Then, in the summer, the city used it as a pig barn during the fair. So the club was kind of born in a barn.”

Jaixen, 38, played in that pig barn growing up and learned to love this game requiring both skill and athleticism.

While on the juniors team of the Aksarben club, they won at nationals four years running in the late ’90s. The team traveled to Sweden one year to compete in the World Junior Championships, where they lost to Switzerland in the semifinals. He now heads the juniors program at the local curling club.

“To me, curling is more like golf,” Jaixen says. “You’re aiming for a target that’s in the distance, and it takes precision and a perfect touch.”

It also takes a lot of squatting, crouching, bending, sliding, sweeping, and overall flexibility to propel and rotate a 42-pound circular granite rock across a sheet of ice. Two teams—each with four members— compete to get their rock closest to the “button,” or the middle of the target area (also known as the “house”). A player can make the rock “curl” (i.e., turn) more or less as it slides down the sheet.

The brooms create friction that heats up the ice a little bit, enabling the rock to glide farther and straighter.

“One of the things I love about curling is the sportsmanship,” says Jaixen, a father of four who works for a financial company. “Touching the stone with a broom is a violation, but it’s up to the sweeper to be honest and say, ‘Yea, I burned it.’”

Since the U.S. Olympic Trials announcement, coupled with the recent taping by NBC Sports Network of “Curling Night in America” at Baxter Arena, interest in curling has spiked in Omaha. Steve Taylor expects membership at Aksarben Curling Club, which now calls Baxter Arena home, to reach 240 this season.

Teams from the University of Nebraska system (UNL, UNO, and UNMC), Wayne State College, and Creighton University play under the Aksarben Curling Club umbrella.

Who knows? Maybe curling terms like “bonspiel,” “hack,” “slider foot,” “broom stacking,” “pebble,” and “skip” will become part of Nebraska’s sports vocabulary after all.

Visit curlaksarben.com to learn more about the Aksarben Curling Club.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

Lady G Behind the Scenes

November 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Gretchen Carrol has helped plan the UNO Native Film Festival since the very beginning. Her input has only increased with the festival entering its fifth year showcasing Native American films for local Omaha audiences.

“I’m comfortable dealing with the talent and the budget,” Carroll says. “I handle a lot of the marketing, and I’ve developed great relationships with the talent we bring in.”

Actors who made appearances have included Graham Greene (Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Dances With Wolves) and Gary Farmer (who played the absent father in Smoke Signals, the acclaimed indie film based on Sherman Alexie’s award-winning book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven).

Carroll, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, was born in Boston and moved to Omaha in 1989. Along with her film festival involvement, she is also a radio producer and DJ who goes by the on-air name “Lady G.”

She never set out to become a radio personality. Although she had spoken on some local podcasts, her first radio airtime came about one year ago. As president of UNO’s Intertribal Student Council, she went on 89.3 KZUM’s The Drum—a two-hour show featuring traditional Native music—to promote an upcoming powwow. She was a natural radio personality, and before she knew it, she was filling in as co-host. A month later, she was running the show.

The Drum has since evolved into Intertribal Beats, a three-hour program airing on 89.3 KZUM on Sunday nights from 7-10 p.m. (broadcast from the station in Lincoln) and hosted by Carroll and John “Johnny G” Garnica.

“We still have a lot of traditional Native music,” Carroll explains, “but now we do all genres of music by Native artists.” And the show is about more than just music: “I wanted to make a connection between Omaha and Lincoln Native communities,” she continues. “So I do a lot of announcements for Native community events going on in both Omaha and Lincoln.”

She doesn’t consider herself an activist, but Carroll’s work goes beyond radio production. “When Standing Rock happened [with protesters camping in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline], I just got this calling that I needed to go up there,” she says. “I would come back and update everybody on Standing Rock issues, spread the word about all the things that are happening, and connect people with other people to bring supplies up.”

Carroll is currently enrolled at UNO and works as a staff assistant in the Native American studies department. She decided to return to school during an honoring ceremony for graduates of the program. “I saw non-Natives knowing and talking about my history, and I had no clue,” she explains. “So I was like, I need to go to school.” Since then, she’s made an effort to teach others about Native issues through her work both on and off the radio.

“It’s all about taking what I know and turning around and sharing that with others,” she says.

Carroll is also a poet and was recently invited to share her poetry at the Reconnecting Struggles Workshop at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester, England. She says her poetry started coming out when she sobered up almost four years ago: “I’m trying to break stereotypes within in my culture, too, so I’m really proud that my grandchildren will not see me ever take a drink, and they see that other option.”

Carroll encourages Native and non-Native readers to attend events like the UNO Native American Film Festival on Nov. 4-5 and the Wamblii Sapa Memorial Pow Wow in the spring. “Just get involved with those things, because if you know those things are happening, then you start asking other questions, and you get to meet other Native people in the community, and then you start learning some stuff—that we’re still here.”

Visit unomaha.edu/student-life/inclusion/multicultural-affairs/native-american-support.php for more information about Native American cultural programs at UNO (including the UNO Native Film Festival and Wamblii Sapa Memorial Pow Wow).

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

2017 November/December Family & More

Photography by contributed

Reinert-Alumni Library WWI Lecture Series, Nov. 2 in Heider Hall at Creighton University, 2500 California Place. Two Nebraska authors discuss their books related to events during WWI in Nebraska. Karen Gettert Shoemaker, author of The Meaning of Names, and Ted Wheeler, author of Kings of Broken Things, will read from and discuss their books. 7 p.m. 402-280-4756.
humanitiesnebraska.org

UNO Native Film Festival, Nov. 4-5 at Roskens Hall, 6005 University Drive North. The fifth annual UNO Native Film Festival highlights films by Native American directors, producers, and actors. Among the films to be screened is Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, a new documentary about Native Americans in popular music history. Screening times TBD. Admission: free. 402-554-2248.
unomaha.edu/student-life/inclusion/multicultural-affairs

2018 US Olympic Curling Trails, Nov. 11-18 at Baxter Arena, 2425 S. 67th St. Omaha will host the Olympic Curling Trials for the first time. Athletes will compete for the chance to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Tickets: $70-$100 for all sessions, $30-$45 for the championships only. 402-554-6200.
baxterarena.com

Teen Poetry Workshop, Featuring Louder than a Bomb Artists, Nov. 11 at the South Omaha Library, 2808 Q St. These workshops for both novice and seasoned slam poets will be held by Nebraska Writers Collective’s Louder Than A Bomb coaches and other experts. The event will build up to the Teen Poetry Bash in December. 1:30 p.m. Admission: free. 402-444-4850.
omahapubliclibrary.org

Junktoberfest Holiday Edition at Southroads Mall

Junktoberfest Holiday Edition, Nov. 18-19 at Southroads Mall, 1001 Fort Crook Road North, Bellevue. This vintage and artisan market features collectibles, gifts, hand-made or repurposed furniture, and home décor. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 for both days. 402-669-6975.
facebook.com/junktoberfest

Holiday Lights Festival NRG Energy Ice Rink,Nov. 21-Feb. 14 at 10th St. and Capitol Ave. Portion of proceeds will go toward the Shine the Light on Hunger campaign which supports the Food Bank for the Heartland. Bring the whole family and create memories while supporting the community this holiday season. Admission: $8 (includes skate rental). 402-341-3700.
holidaylightsfestival.com

Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony and Making Spirits Bright Concert, Nov. 23 at Gene Leahy Mall, 14th and Farnam streets. This community-wide celebration held in Gene Leahy Mall culminates with the illumination of the 2017 holiday lights. The lighting display will blanket the Mall and surrounding area with more than 1 million white lights. Following the ceremony, head over to the Holland Center for Making Spirits Bright Holiday with Drew Duncan and the Nebraska Wind Symphony. 6 p.m. lighting ceremony, 7 p.m. concert. Admission: free. 402-345-5401.
holidaylightsfestival.org

Holiday Poinsettia Show at Lauritzen Gardens

Holiday Poinsettia Show, Nov. 24-Jan. 4 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. This floral display features a 20-foot- tall poinsettia tree, model trains, and other nostalgic decorations. On select dates (Nov. 24-25; Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 15-23, and 26-30; and Jan. 2-3) Lauritzen Gardens will be open until 8 p.m. and the gardens will be enhanced with lights in the evening. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free to Lauritzen garden members and children under 6. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Christmas at Union Station’s Tree Lighting Ceremony, Nov. 24 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. Kick off the holiday season with cookie decorating and holiday crafts while listening to live music. Santa Claus will be on hand to help turn on the lights on Omaha’s largest Christmas tree. 4-8 p.m., with the tree lighting at 7 p.m. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (60+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3 and members. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Lights of Aksarben, Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 8, 15 at Aksarben Village, 67th and Center streets. Enjoy complimentary coffee, hot cocoa, and cookies, and view all of the lights throughout the park. Events include music, face painting, horse and carriage rides, and visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus. Countdown to the lighting begins at 6 p.m. Admission: free. 402-496-1616.
aksarbenvillage.com

Ethnic Holiday Festival, Dec. 1 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. Learn how the world celebrates this joyful time of year. More than 20 local cultural organizations display crafts and traditional dress, while musicians and dancers perform throughout the evening. 5-9 p.m. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (60+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3 and members. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Wizard’s Yule Ball 2017, Dec. 2 at Omaha Comfort Inn & Suites Central, 7007 Grover St. A wizarding event for the whole family. Dress up as a Harry Potter character and enjoy music, food, dancing, prizes, live owls, and more. 6 p.m. Tickets: $15 adults, $5 children (4-10). 402-934-4900.
britishfest.com

Ira Glass at the Holland Dec. 2

Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening with Ira Glass, Dec. 2 at Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St. Creator, producer, and host of NPR’s This American Life, Ira Glass talks about his life and the stories he’s collected over almost 40 years of working for NPR. During his presentation, Glass will mix stories live onstage and help his audience better follow his creative process. 8 p.m. Tickets: $20-$48. 402-345-0606.
ticketomaha.com

Holiday Market, Dec. 2-3 at Aksarben Village, 67th and Center streets. This German-inspired outdoor market features more than 55 local artisans, who will offer seasonal goods and activities. Santa will come to the market on Sunday from 2-4 p.m. Please leave pets at home during this event. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 402-345-5401.
omahafarmersmarket.com

Holiday Lights Fun Run, Dec. 10 in downtown Omaha. View the holiday lights in this four-mile fun run. The event starts at 10th and Harney streets, and participants are encouraged to wear jingle bells and other festive clothing. Hot cocoa and cookies will be served after the run.
All paces welcome. 6 p.m. Admission: free.
omaharun.org

Penguins and Pancakes at Henry Doorly Zoo.

Penguins and Pancakes, Dec. 26-30 at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, 3701 S. 10th St. Eat breakfast with some lovable “tuxedo-clad” animals during this annual event, which includes pancakes from The Pancake Man, crafts, and visits from the African penguins. The cost includes a breakfast, a plush penguin toy, and admission to the zoo. Reservations required. 9 a.m. Admission: $25 for adults, $20 for children (ages 3-11), and free to children 2 and under. Members receive a $5 discount. 402-733-8401.
omahazoo.com

Noon Year’s Eve, Dec. 30 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. This Noon Year’s party includes live music, special crafts, and activities, culminating in a celebratory bubble wrap stomp and balloon drop at noon in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3 and members. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Noon Year’s Eve, Dec. 31 at Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, 3701 S. 10th St. Join the zoo animals at this event, which includes activities, entertainment, and a beach ball drop at noon. 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission: $14.95 adults (ages 12 and over), $9.95 children (ages 3-11), and free to children (2 and under). $1 discount to seniors (65+), members of the military, and children of military members. 402-733-8401.
omahazoo.com

Noon Year’s Eve at Durham

New Year’s Eve Bash, Dec. 30 at Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S. 20th St. Families can ring in the new year with kid-friendly activities at Omaha Children’s Museum. 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets will be available for purchase closer to the event. 402-342-6164.
ocm.org

New Year’s Eve Fireworks Spectacular, Dec. 31 at Gene Leahy Mall, 14th and Farnam streets.One of Omaha’s favorite New Year’s traditions, the fireworks are choreographed to open on cue to a musical score developed specifically for this event. Spectators are encouraged to tune in to Star 104.5 for the full effect. 7 p.m. Admission: free. 402-345-5401.
holidaylightsfestival.org

Event times and details may change. Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

This calendar was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine. 

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making

October 5, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Former UNO hockey star Jake Guentzel left school in 2016, after junior year, to pursue his dream of playing professionally. No one expected what happened next.

The boyish newcomer with the impish smile went from nondescript rookie wing prospect to elite scorer during two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. Upon joining the parent Pittsburgh Penguins in November, he made an immediate splash. In his NHL debut, he scored a goal with his first shift. He followed with a goal on his third shift. Two shots—two goals.

By January, Guentzel secured a permanent seat in the NHL team’s locker room. The club showed faith, placing him on its top-scoring line alongside captain Sidney Crosby. The Crosby-Guentzel pairing proved pivotal in Pittsburgh’s second straight Stanley Cup win. Their team defeated Nashville four games to two in the finals.

Guentzel would make NHL playoffs history before hoisting the Stanley Cup overhead: His 13 postseason goals made him the first rookie to lead the NHL playoffs (five of those goals were game-winners); his 21 points tied the league rookie record for a postseason; and he became the second-ever rookie to score a hat trick in the playoffs.

UNO has produced several NHL players but Omaha hockey historian Gary Anderson says, “I don’t remember any who have had the same impact.”

Indeed, the Maverick who signed with Pittsburgh as a third-round, 2013 draft pick (77th overall) became the talk of the hockey world. He paired with future Hall of Famer Crosby to form a lethal scoring tandem on the NHL’s best team. He was in the running for playoffs MVP (Conn Smythe award) won by his superstar teammate.

His former coach at UNO, the recently retired Dean Blais, marvels at Guentzel’s exploits.

“It’s hard to explain,” Blais says. “I don’t think anyone would have forecast that. He played well in the American League, but he was up and down, and when that happens you don’t expect great things.”

Not from someone who would have been playing his senior year at UNO.

“Then he goes into Pittsburgh, has a pretty good season, and in the playoffs he’s a couple goals or points away from maybe winning the Conn Smythe. For Jake to step in and do that is pretty special,” Blais says.

Sharing it all was former UNO and current Penguins teammate Josh Archibald. They became the first Mavs to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Guentzel’s performance recalled what local icon Bob Gibson did as a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher in World Series competition half a century ago. Like Gibson, Guentzel is now an Omaha sports legend. The city has a legitimate claim on him, too. He was born in Omaha when his father coached the Omaha Lancers. His two older brothers, Ryan and Gabe, also played collegiately.

He’s the second Omaha native to reach the NHL (Jed Ortmeyer in 2003 was the first).

The local connection extends to Guentzel’s father assisting one season at UNO under Blais (in 2010-2011), while the younger Guentzel also helped lead UNO to its only Frozen Four in 2015.

Mere weeks removed from gaining hockey immortality with his improbable heroics, he unwinds from the spotlight with family in his other hometown of Woodbury, Minnesota.

“It’s hard to put into words what happened,” he says. “It was hard to soak it all in at some points. With each win, the media got more and more crazy. It was definitely a crazy journey.”

photo by Richard Gagnon, Omaha Athletics

Preparation meets success

Guentzel’s skill and mindset proved well-suited for hockey’s biggest stage.

Mike Kemp, UNO associate athletic director and former Mavericks coach, praises his “high hockey IQ.”

“What makes him a special player at the highest level is his ability to think his way around the ice,” Blais says. “His biggest asset is his playmaking ability and his ability to get to the net.”

Former UNO teammate Justin Parizek says Guentzel has long-mastered the mental aspects of the game: “He thinks the game really well. He’s always a couple steps ahead of the play.”

UNO hockey broadcaster Terry Leahy admires Guentzel’s pedigree: “He just knows the game, and that comes right from his father and his brothers. He was just built from the ground up. His dad had a huge influence on that. His two brothers were really good college hockey players.”

Parizek envies the extra push Guentzel got at home: “His whole childhood he was pushed trying to keep up with his older brothers. Keeping up with bigger, stronger guys gave him that competitive edge. His dad’s a really good coach, and having that 24-7 extra coach in his ear has given him insights into how he can do things better.”

Archibald says it’s no wonder Guentzel was ready to shine: “He’s been preparing his entire life for that moment. Everybody along the way has put their piece in with him, and he’s taken it all in.”

“He was definitely groomed well,” says another former UNO linemate, Austin Ortega.

Even Guentzel’s father, University of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel, says the moment is “never too big” for his son.

The rising star credits his family for giving him what he needed to excel. “They instilled ‘you gotta work every day.’ It definitely implanted in my brain,” Guentzel says.

He’s grateful they shared in his shining moments—from that memorable first NHL game to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“It’s definitely a family thing. I realize all the sacrifice they put in for me over the years in everything they did. They’re always there for me,” he says.

Guentzel’s dad and siblings never got this far in hockey, but they’ve been with him each step of the journey.

“Whenever I need something, I can look up to them and realize they’ve been through similar situations over their hockey careers,” he says. “They’ve definitely been huge for me, and it’s definitely cool to share this with my family.”

When dreams come true

Growing up, Guentzel dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup, just like thousands of other kids.

“But to have it come true my first year in the NHL is definitely crazy. I mean, I never would have expected that. It’s pretty special,” he says.

Securing the championship against Nashville, he says, was “a night I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Archibald says the occasion of two Omaha hockey products being part of a title team didn’t escape them.

“For both of us to play together at UNO and then to take that next step together in Pittsburgh was a great experience,” Archibald says, adding that as the Stanley Cup got passed around, “there was a moment on the ice when we were standing next to each other, and Jake looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re here. To do this together is the best thing in the world.’”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Mind over matter

As the playoffs wore on, more hype came Guentzel’s way. Except for texts referencing his newfound celebrity, he says, “I tried to stay away from that stuff. You don’t want to get caught up in what people are saying. I just try to focus on what’s at hand.” As for media, he “gives them what they want” and moves on.

The well-grounded athlete applies a pragmatic approach to the game.

“Each level you go up, the competition gets harder,” Guentzel says. “You have to do whatever it takes to get there—if it’s staying late after practice, doing extra work. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. Growing up, you go through bantams, high school, juniors, and college. I’ve just stayed with it. I’ve tried not to think ahead of what’s happening in the moment. It’s the way you have to think. If you don’t think that way, you don’t really want to play, and you don’t really love the game.”

Others attest to his dedication.

“Everything he’s accomplished is due to the hard work he put in himself,” Ortega says, “and he got rewarded.”

Archibald knows well the sacrifice: “It doesn’t come easy. You have a lot of pressure on your back. But he pushed through everything. I think one of the things that helps him is being one of the hardest workers in the room.”

Guentzel feels his approach is consistent. “It hasn’t changed much,” he says. “People are going to be coming after you, so you’ve got to make sure you’re ready every day for everyone’s best.”

What some term “pressure to perform in the clutch,” he considers “a chance to do something special. I think as a player you like those moments. They’re fun to be a part of,” he says.

Of his Penguins debut, Guentzel says, “There were nerves for sure, but you just gotta stick with what got you there. There was a lot of emotion running through me that night. I was just trying to make the most of the opportunity, and remembering that all the hard work I’ve put in has finally led to my dream coming true.”

He felt at home in his new digs. His space in the Pittsburgh locker room was just beside Crosby, who took the rookie under his wing.

“It’s cool that they all kind of take you in and make you feel comfortable right away,” Guentzel says of his veteran teammates. “I think that’s why they have so much success.”

His own even-keeled attitude helped with the season grind, too.

“You want to be a good player in the league, so you’ve got to do the little things and keep working on them every day,” Guentzel says. “You’ve just got to stay with it, stay positive, because you’re going to go through tough patches.”

Coming up big

In the playoffs, he kept making big assists and goals.

“I watched all the games at home with my family,” Parizek says, “and sometimes we were like, ‘Are you kidding me, he did it again?’ It was a surreal run for him, and I couldn’t be more happy and proud.”

Guentzel’s scoring binge was out of character for someone reluctant to shoot in college.

“When I was at UNO, coach got upset with me that I was passing too much,” he says. “I was kind of a playmaker, and I always looked for the next play. As my career went on, I started to shoot more. I think I finally realized if I shoot more maybe I can score some more goals.”

“He’s a pass-first guy,” Blais confirms. “For three years we tried to get him to be a little bit more selfish, and when the opportunity’s there, shoot it.”

Making that transition in the NHL is unusual.

“That’s a credit to Sidney Crosby,” Guentzel says. “You’re just trying to find areas on the ice where he can get you the puck because he can pretty much get it to you wherever you’re at. I was very fortunate.”

Blais agrees Guentzel found the right mentor.

“I think when it really clicked is when he started playing with Sidney Crosby,”  Blais says. “It’s one thing playing for Pittsburgh, but it’s another thing for Sidney Crosby to want this 22-year old kid to play with him. That’s pretty special when the best player in the world wants Jake Guentzel as his linemate because he knows Jake plays the same way.


And I’m sure Sidney Crosby said, ‘Hey, Jake, when I get a pass from you, I’m going to shoot, and when you get it from me, you shoot.’ I mean, that’s the way it works. I think when Jake learned how to move and shoot the puck at the highest level is when he took off. Credit to Jake and his coaching staff but probably the most influential was Sidney Crosby.”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Finding a coach and expanding his game

Despite not being the scorer his coach wanted, Guentzel treasured playing for Blais: “He was huge for me. I can’t thank him enough for all he did for me. He rounded out my game. He made me realize that to play every day you have to be at your top. That’s a big thing he impacted me with. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t play in Omaha for him.”

Leaving after his junior year did not come lightly. “It was tough leaving Omaha for sure,” he says. “I just thought I was ready for the next challenge. It all worked out.”

Blais says being the close hockey family the Guentzels are, they made the decision jointly and he fully supported it. “Jake’s always been that player that has reached the highest level. He did it in college and now he’s doing it in the NHL. He’s one of the top players I’ve coached in all my years of coaching.”

UNO broadcaster Terry Leahy recalls Guentzel “began his college career the way he began his NHL career. “He had an assist right off the bat his first game as a Maverick—and he was on his way. The biggest memory I have of him is that his anticipation and passing skills were unbelievable.”

“He started out like gangbusters,” Blais remembers. “He broke Greg Zanon’s assist record his first year. Even though other teams were keying on him with their best players, Jake still managed to get his points. Even in the NHL, playing against the other team’s top line, Jake still managed to make plays and to get his goals.”

“He’s a complete package mentally and physically,” Leahy says. “He can fly, shoot, pass. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wearing a [captain’s] letter for the Penguins in the not-too-distant future. He’s very mature…and he’s a pot-stirrer. He can chirp [trash talk] with the best. He was a little restrained his first year in the NHL, but there were moments in the finals you could see him starting to get under some Nashville skins. That’s definitely a part of his game. He’s got that baby face, but he can spring those horns pretty quickly after a whistle.”

photo by Mark Kuhlmann, Omaha Athletics

His UNO hockey family

Guentzel is happy his playing, not talking, is raising UNO’s national profile. “I only think it’s going to make the school become even more of a hockey place and have people realize Omaha’s on the rise,” he says.

“It’s a huge step for UNO hockey,” Archibald agrees. “It kind of puts it on the map in an unprecedented way.”

Leahy says with Guentzel and Archibald in the finals “UNO was on display through the whole run.” The fact that they are Stanley Cup winners “will be huge for recruiting.” UNO’s Mike Kemp and new hockey head coach Mike Gabinet have echoed such sentiments.

Austin Ortega takes inspiration from Guentzel’s example. “Seeing him do so well has definitely given me a little extra motivation and expectation to reach that goal and do what he’s done,” Ortega says.

Guentzel has not forgotten his UNO hockey family. “I keep in touch with them almost every day. They’re close friends. They’re definitely special to me,” he says.

“He has a lot of support back in Omaha and wherever his old teammates are,” Ortega says. “Myself and two other guys saw him for games three and four in Nashville. He was just the same old kid that we knew.”

“He’s not going to change, he’s not going to be cocky or arrogant about it,” Justin Parizek says. “He’s still going to go about his business and be the great guy he is and treat everyone the same.”

photo by Joe Sargent, Pittsburgh Penguins

Making his mark

Dean Blais can still hardly believe what transpired.

“To get his name on the Stanley Cup, to get a championship ring, to go from making $80,000 to $800,000, plus the Cup bonus. Not bad for a kid right out of college,” Blais says. “Everything looks bright for his future.”

Guentzel doesn’t think he’s arrived yet.

“I’ve still got to establish my spot,” he says, speaking with Omaha Magazine in June. “I’m still a young guy. I’ve got to go and try to make the team out of camp. You never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve just gotta try and make a name for yourself and do what it takes to stay at that level. You can’t take it for granted because there’s someone right behind who’s going to try to take your spot.”

Archibald senses Guentzel is hungry to “go back out there and prove to everybody he can do it again—I have all the faith in the world he’s going to be able to do it.”

“You gotta enjoy it, because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Guentzel says.

Visit nhl.com/penguins for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Have Marcey

September 14, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

When North Omaha native Marcey Yates talks about music, his face lights up and it’s as if everything makes sense in his world. From conversations swirling around hip-hop to his wild tales of past encounters with various artists, the 31-year-old lives and breathes his passion for music—and it all started at church.

Yates grew up on 49th and Fort streets, just north of Ames Avenue, where religion played an integral role in his community. The young Yates would often spend time with grandparents, who lived on 19th and Sprague streets, not too far from the home he shared with his mother and father. His grandfather was a pastor at the Church of God and Christ, and would routinely take him to service, where Yates started singing.

“I would say religion was big in my family and the black community,” Yates says. “It was definitely passed on through generations. Church got me into music on both sides of family, and it kept me in church until I was in high school. I sang in the choir.”

After graduating from Benson High School in 2003, he went on to take a few classes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before leaving for Arizona, where he enrolled at the Conservatory School of Recording Arts and Sciences. By this time, his older brother Jeff had already introduced him to underground hip-hop and artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Slum Village, Jay-Z, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. He felt it was time to learn how to make his own signature style of music and establish himself as a credible MC/producer.

“I wanted to focus more on the tech side of music and the other side of the industry,” he explains. “I learned how to make this a business and not just be a rapper. I was able to get a lot practice working on my skill and style doing shows. I got turned down in Arizona, but I had some great experiences. I met Canibus [rapper], who told me about his beef with LL Cool J, and once I was with Method Man passing around a joint in the VIP section.”

Shortly after, the self-proclaimed hip-hop head relocated back to Omaha in 2012. Since then has put much of his energy into the hip-hop collective Raleigh Science Project, which he founded in 2009.

“I established the Raleigh Science Project after my last son [Raleigh] was born,” he explains. “It started as my imprint for my music, but I expanded into a collective after bringing artists on board who shared my vision on hard work and good music. [We had] a focus on building up the hip-hop scene in a positive light, so I wanted to strip the negative vibe associated with hip-hop in my community. That means consistency, quality, showmanship, and being professional.”

The father of three is currently working on the annual New Generation Music Festival—now in its second year—an all-inclusive concert that promotes community awareness, drives traffic and support to other local nonprofits, and provides a platform to retain local talent.

“Our mission is to provide a world-class music festival that promotes inclusion and provides economic opportunities for local businesses, organizations and artists,” he says. “We want to cultivate local talent and artistry as a means to a more secure and sustainable economy in the urban core communities. There are so many resources out here that the people don’t know about because information isn’t made readily available
to everyone.”

Aside from the festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 16 at Aksarben’s Stinson Park, the busy creative is working on a documentary about the life and times of Marcey Yates, a solo EP, a mixtape series titled Chicken Soup, and the Flamboyant Gods II project with local rapper Mars Black.

“I’m constantly working on a new project,” he says. “I want to be one of the hardest-working guys in
the industry.

“Music is the only freedom that is really free,” he continues. “There are no rules to making music. It’s total creativity and a space you can go to anytime. Music is your life soundtrack for every genre in your life—from comedy to drama to suspense. When I get depressed or really bugged out, I create music to pull myself out of the sunken place. Everyone should have a creative hobby or passion because what is important to you, you will cherish and be passionate about.”

Visit op2mus.bandcamp.com to hear Yates’ work.

Roots Down

September 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Keith Rodger where he got his sharp musical tastes and his answer will be simple—from his mother. The 28-year-old Omaha musician, recording engineer, and co-owner of Make Believe Recordings grew up with an eclectic range of influences, which truly shaped his preferences.

“My mother always had a solid taste in music,” Rodger explains. “She gave birth to me as a teenager and I think that had a huge difference on what I was exposed to compared to other kids my age. She was never a musician, but always had an ear for interesting music. She introduced me to the reality of Prince’s lyrics, the anger of Prodigy’s sound, and the essence of Bjork’s personality. There were few limits in our household.”

He also credits his older brother, Alan, with inspiring him to pursue music despite the fact they grew up in separate households.

“When he visited with a guitar and amp one day is when I really wanted to become a musician,” he recalls. “He also introduced me to computer software that was used to make beats, which was what really changed my life forever.”

As he stumbled through various phases of what he refers to as “extreme attachment” to a bevy of different musical genres, he quickly realized there was an infinite amount of exploring to do. He tasked himself with learning the history and adapting to the culture as a young, inquisitive student.

Rodger eventually met Motor City native Rick Carson, another aspiring entrepreneur who was obsessed with music and had recently completed a course in recording/audio engineering at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. The two would establish Make Believe Records and Make Believe Studios in 2012.

“I met Rick in a dusty basement when I was in a band called Lightning Bug while recording our first record,” he says. “I really enjoyed his vision for the music industry and Omaha. What he was trying to build aligned with what I was interested in pursuing as a career. We came from completely different backgrounds and share very different interests in music, but our goals and views are very similar.”

Make Believe Records has been steadily working its way into the publishing realm. The masterminds behind the label have hit a point where their catalog is ready to be launched into the musical stratosphere. With artists like rapper Conny Franko, hip-hop duo BOTH, and soul group Sam Ayer & The Lover Affair—as well as Rodger himself—on the roster, there are several full-length projects on the horizon.

Similarly, Make Believe Studios is buzzing. Carson recently engineered Grammy Award-nominated artist Terrace Martin’s 2016 album Velvet Portraits, and recently mixed and mastered Danny Worsnop’s 2017 effort The Long Road Home. There’s a sense of exciting things coming together behind the scenes.

“We are busy, busy, busy,” he says. “We have some projects coming through this year that I never would’ve imagined getting the opportunity to experience.”

For now, Rodger, Carson, and Tristan Costanzo are hard at work on one of their latest endeavors, the Kismet production team, which recently scored a documentary series for boxing promotions company Top Rank about boxer Terence Crawford and his team at B&B Boxing Academy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ve also been working on an EP and film titled Evoleno,” he says. “This has been a project years in the making. It took me several attempts to try to lock in a concept that was worth pursuing to become my first release. Over time, I got the opportunity to work with a wide variety of musicians that helped me shape my ideas into the concept it has become.”

“I also recently locked in a very small crew for this film to keep our ideas consistent and confident without our own bubble,” he adds. “I tapped Miguel Cedillo to direct and Maria Corpuz as one of our main characters. These people believe in the project as much as I do, and I believe we will make something that challenges everything we know about making a film that is timeless.”

Rodger has undoubtedly blossomed into a key player in Omaha’s consistently evolving music and art scenes. From touring with The Faint as a stage technician and DJing for Omaha Fashion Week to writing music and co-helming the Make Believe Records empire, his tireless work ethic parallels that of any successful artist or entrepreneur. However, he always sees room for improvement.

“I think it’s growing into a scene that is more diverse sonically,” he says. “I’ve noticed there are more younger people embracing new types of popular music, and putting down guitars and picking up synthesizers. My inbox is usually filled with musicians asking me about sound design and I find it exciting and refreshing.

“I truly wish there were more women creating electronic music,” he continues. “I always try to encourage parents to allow their daughters to learn how to program and edit in a DAW (digital audio workstation). Fair balance between genders, race, and cultures helps create better ideas within communities.”

The ambitious Rodger finds surrounding himself with creative individuals, staying focused on his goals, adopting routines that exercise his mental and physical health, and teaching others is the way to reach his ultimate nirvana. He’s ready to put in whatever amount of work it takes.

“Omaha still has a long way to go as far as musicians’ and DJs’ careers being taken seriously by people outside of the music industry,” he says. “We plant seeds and starve during their growth, but when they bloom, we will have a garden to feed families. Music is about to change very drastically for consumers and creators. I’m very excited about the future and want to be a part of it when it happens.”

Visit soundcloud.com/kethro to hear some of Rodger’s music.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Keith Rodger

Eye Vibe

August 30, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Twenty-six-year-old Omaha native Michael Garrett isn’t simply a photographer—he’s a visual communicator. “I’m a photographer, graphic designer, content creator, and  overall creative,” he says.

The son of a hardworking single mother, the University of Nebraska-Omaha senior grew up around 18th and Pinkney streets and the now-defunct projects near 30th and Lake streets. Eventually, he transferred to South High School, where he experienced yet another segment of Omaha’s  diverse demographic. Despite his challenging circumstances, he managed to beat the odds and will soon be the first college graduate in his family.

As the founder of MGPhotog and co-founder of The Creative Genius collective, the burgeoning entrepreneur is clearly becoming a master of his own destiny, and he understands photography is more than meets the eye.

“Photography is oversaturated. I think it’s due to social media,” Garrett says. “Everyone feels they can do it. But in doing so, they don’t really know what it takes to be a photographer. The goal should be more than taking a picture. As a visual communicator, I treat it more like an experience. And what I’m trying to capture, it depends on the client, but I go in with a strong idea of what I want to do to communicate visually. When you see it, you should feel exactly what I want you to feel from the image.”

With a firm grasp on what it takes to set him apart from other photographers and graphic designers, Garrett takes the time to truly get to know his clients, which he believes is one of his defining characteristics.

“I kind of put me as a person first,” he says. “If I need to do work with a client, I meet with them and go into who I am, just so they’re a little more comfortable with me. To me, I’m building a relationship. I feel good communication is more effective and delivering the work becomes a little easier once you have that open communication with your clients.”

It all started the day he was fired from his job at a bank. Four years after he graduated from high school, Garrett was at a crossroads in his life and not quite sure what he wanted to do next. Getting fired, he says, was the best thing to happen to him. It was from that moment, he realized what he wanted to pursue.

Michael Garrett

“It was a random thing,” he says. “I got into an argument with my manager, and she wasn’t too fond of the things I said. The same day I lost my job, I went to the camera store at Nebraska Furniture Mart and bought a camera. I figured it would give me something to do and get my mind off of losing my job.”

It didn’t take him long to put his camera to use. He was a huge sneakers aficionado and  loved taking pictures of them. As an avid collector, he jumped on the Instagram trend of posting an array of specialty shoes online. Subsequently, owning a camera made perfect sense. His love affair with the lens had begun.

“Sneakers on Instagram took off,” he says. “That started it all. As far as my work, I model some of my work after some [photographers], but I’m very versatile. I can shoot a wedding, food, children, shoes—everything.”

In 2013, he was invited to a celebrity basketball game at the Mid-America Center. At the encouragement of a few of his predecessors, he quickly realized he could make a living out of his passion.

“I met a few other photographers at the tournament, and they took me under their wings. They said I should start charging for my work. From there, it took off.”

While he predominately grew up with his mom in a single-parent household, Garrett says it was difficult not having a male role model around.

“It affected me in a way, but I had to learn to be a man about things,” he says. “I had a bunch of mentors in school because I was active. I did journalism, basketball, track. I had male figures there, but they weren’t an authoritative figure outside of the sport. I could do what I want, but on the leadership side, it was good.”

His life circumstances forced him to grow up quickly, which undoubtedly led to his fierce work ethic. In addition to school, graphic design, and his photography business, he also works part-time at the Boys and Girls Club as he continues to garner more and more attention for his work. The sky is the limit, he says.

“For me, I’m more in love with the process of communication…I’m just living. I want to leave my plate open to the possibilities.”

Visit facebook.com/thecreativegeniuscollective for more information.

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

Dropping Bombs

August 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Suzanne Withem has to size you up before she decides how to tell you the name of her next play.

After all, you don’t drop an F-bomb on just anybody.

Withem has spent the better part of her life on stage and behind the scenes, and this fall she takes another big step as a big name in Omaha theater circles when she directs Stupid F@#%ing Bird at Omaha Community Playhouse.

That’s how OCP is promoting it, at least.

What does Withem say when she tells folks about her upcoming project, billed as a “sort-of adaptation” of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull?

“It depends who I’m talking to,” she says with a laugh. “In most of my artistic conversations, I say f…”

So there, she drops it. “The Queen Mother of dirty words” as A Christmas Story’s Ralphie
calls it.

Withem says it with gusto—this is adult theater, after all. Besides, there’s plenty more to Stupid F@#%ing Bird than its effing title.

There’s plenty more to Withem, too.

She first set foot on stage as a 5-year-old dressed in pink and cartwheeling across the stage in a Ballet Omaha production of The Nutcracker. By middle school she was Gertrude in Hamlet, then performed at Papillion-La Vista High School and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she earned a B.A. in theater. That’s also where her aspirations turned serious, especially after a turn as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Suzanne Withem

“That’s the first time that I got to delve into production and really feel like an artist and not like I was just someone memorizing words and blocking,” Withem says. “I felt like I really had created a character and had a clear understanding of the script.”

She’s fed her own desire ever since, teaching, acting, stage managing, and directing with a wide variety of theaters: OCP, Nebraska Shakespeare, Bellevue Little Theatre, Opera Omaha, Bridget Saint Bridget, and others.

For the past three years, she’s turned more and more to directing. This February that included direction of Bellevue Little Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing.

“As I’ve started working with more and more seasoned actors, I love hearing what they have to bring to the table, and that goes back to that collaboration thing. What I love is working with my peers,” she says.

Somewhere along the way, though, Withem grew to love something even more. Something beyond scripts, sets, and other stage stuff.

“Education is the thing I care most about,”
she says.

Which is funny, she adds, given that “I swore I would never, ever go into education.”

In other words, she’d never be like her parents.

Her mother, Diane, taught in public schools for 34 years and now is an adjunct in the UNO English department. Her father, Ron, also was a high school teacher but later became a state senator and one-time speaker of Nebraska’s Unicameral. Now he’s associate vice president for the University of Nebraska as director of its governmental relations.

It’s not that Mom and Dad expected her to follow them to the classroom. After all, they were the ones who piqued her interest in the arts.

“My mom would take me to the ballet, and the opera, and the theater. When we traveled we’d go see productions. Both have a strong appreciation for the arts. It started there,” she says.

Her first job after graduating from UNO (she was one of the few in her cohort to get a job in the field after graduation) was at the Rose Theater. She figured it would be a foot in the door opening to a great stage career. But it also involved educating others about theater.

“I got to act a little bit,” Withem says, “but they kind of tricked me. Maybe I just didn’t read the fine print.

“What ended up happening is I fell in love with teaching in a way I didn’t think I would.”

She returned to UNO and earned an M.A. in English. She taught students in the Writing Center there. She taught high school drama classes. She became artistic director for RESPECT, an organization that works to build healthy relationships through theater. And she landed a job at UNO as coordinator of its Master of Arts in Critical and Creative Thinking program.

But the theater still pulls strong. She recently had personal business cards printed after growing tired of writing her theater chops on the back of her UNO card.

“Educator, Director, Stage Manager, Writer.”

That might be a f@#%ing mouthful, but now she has something that sums up all that is Suzanne.

For now.

“What comes in front of me has pretty much been always just the right thing,” she says. “As far as where I’m going to be in five years or 10 years, I am kind of waiting to find out.”

Visit omahaplayhouse.org for information about Withem’s play.

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

Stranger Things

July 6, 2017 by
Photography by Justin Barnes

Jennifer Pool is doing her part to keep Omaha odd.

“I do weird things with my costumes,” says Pool of her costume designs. “I definitely like to make them strange.”

This affinity for the atypical is why Omaha Under the Radar co-founder Amanda DeBoer Bartlett approached Pool about doing costumes and design for the annual experimental performance festival’s production of Eight Songs for a Mad King (July 5-8).

No, Game of Thrones fans, Eight Songs for a Mad King does not depict Daenerys Targaryen. Nor does it have anything to do with The Donald. The 30-minute Sir Peter Maxwell Davies monodrama portrays the “tragic madness” of King George III as he toils to train his beloved caged bullfinches to sing.

Pool is excited to collaborate again with DeBoer Bartlett, whom she first met through her fashion design work.

“We originally connected around the avant-garde fashion/costume stuff I do,” Pool says. “So, when this show came up and they needed something kind of strange but rooted in some historical accuracy, she called me—because quasi-historical and really weird at the same time is my wheelhouse.”

According to Omaha Under the Radar, Eight Songs for a Mad King implements a “multitude of complex extended vocal techniques covering more than five octaves” for which they’ve crowned Kansas City baritone John J. Pearse to play the royal role. Pearse will be accompanied by an ensemble of Omaha chamber musicians.

When we spoke, Pool was still formulating design ideas for Eight Songs for a Mad King while also creating costumes for the Bluebarn Theatre’s spring production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and finishing the capstone for her MPA in nonprofit management at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She graduated before going into tech rehearsals for Priscilla.

As for the aesthetic of Eight Songs for a Mad King, audiences can expect designs to follow the production’s essence—unhinged, strange, and erratic—reflecting the cacophonous score that careens alongside the protagonist’s mental discord and delusion.

“What drew me to this project is the opportunity to take a well-known historical figure and visually deconstruct that in a way that mimics his mental deterioration. To play with that in terms of design and see if there’s any sort of commentary to be made,” Pool says. “I love anachronisms, like the idea of an 18th-century British monarch wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt—that’s not necessarily what I’ll do here, but just an example of that kind of anachronistic setup. I’m more interested in historical reference than historical accuracy because I think that’s more intriguing.”

As with all her theatrical work, Pool emphasizes the importance of making design choices that propel the story, serve the audience, and create the intended experience.

“I really look at the story and try to figure out what compelling visual cues I can give the audience to offer insight into the action and help them fully experience what’s happening in front of them—while also moving the story along,” Pool says. “That’s especially important [with this production] because it’s operatic and experimental, and that’s weird for some people. So my job is providing a point of entry into the piece through costumes and other visuals.”

Pool, who earned her bachelor’s in theater from UNO and her MFA in theatrical design with emphasis in costume design from the University of Georgia, is a lifelong theater devotee. She has clear childhood memories of being “utterly obsessed” with Annie and attending various local productions with her musical-loving parents. Interestingly, the former Bluebarn Witching Hour artistic director has actually been doing experimental theater from a young age.

“In third grade, I staged an immersive production of Sleeping Beauty in my backyard, where it was staged everywhere and people had to walk around to see the different scenes,” Pool says.

She credits her undergraduate studies at UNO for making her theatrically well-rounded.

“I performed, directed, did costumes, stage management, worked the box office—everything,” she says. “I find that really helpful now, because when people are like, ‘Um, we don’t have a set designer,’ I can jump in and make something work. I got a really broad-based theater education at UNO and had lots of opportunities to get involved.”

After the hectic schedule of Priscilla and grad-school-part-two subside, Pool will take some much-deserved me-time this summer to “sit by the pool and read Star Wars or something.” But first, she’s got another crazy train to catch with the Mad King.

“What’s awesome about Omaha Under the Radar is it sets the expectation that you’ll be interacting with stuff you don’t necessarily know,” Pool says. “Like, you haven’t seen 14 productions of this or you haven’t seen the movie version. It’s literally under the radar, or even totally off the radar sometimes, and this festival trusts that Omaha audiences will not only be receptive to that but excited about it. It’s awesome to be part of something that’s really asking Omaha arts audiences to just go there with us.”

Visit undertheradaromaha.com for more information.

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

Jennifer Pool