Tag Archives: choreographer

The People Behind the Curtain

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dwyer Photography

Considering that the theme of this year’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball is “On the Golden Road,” a nod to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps it’s time we did pay attention to that man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the people behind the curtain. In fact, six volunteers work together on the ball’s production team for nearly the entire year to make certain that the music, the set, the lights, and the words all meld into one seamless production.

All six have full-time jobs outside of the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball.

In M. Michele Phillips’ case, she has several: “Sometimes I’m acting, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m the wine steward at the bistro at Fort Omaha.” As the team’s scriptwriter, it’s up to Phillips to keep track of the massive script, 45 pages that detail the ball’s many players and their movements.

“It’s such a behemoth!” she says. “There are songs that unify the theme; there are quotes that unify it. Sometimes there are procedural things that change, so you can’t even count on the way things have been done in the past.” Phillips adds that the chairperson of the coronation can have a hundred million ideas or none. “So you kind of have to help them, guide them along. Sometimes their ideas are impossible to execute, and sometimes they’re not thinking as big as they could be.”

When those big ideas do come out, Phillips remarks how Jim Othuse, as set and lighting designer for the ball, is always budget conscious but “always comes up with something really spectacular.”

“Getting [the Pages] to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting.” – Patrick Roddy, choreographer

Othuse, scenic and lighting designer at the Omaha Community Playhouse, states that designing the ball’s huge set does get easier over the years; after all, he’s been doing it since 1979. “That was the year the theme was ‘One Thousand and One Knights’,” he recalls. “I was a little unsure as to whether I could handle such a big project; in those days we had lots of scenic elements, far more than we do now.” Thirty-four years later, his favorite part of the job is still figuring out how to fit in each year’s new pieces.

It’s a sentiment he shares with Patrick Roddy, who by day is a dance instructor at Creighton University. As the ball’s choreographer, Roddy’s had to come up with some creative solutions each year, particularly for corralling 50 youngsters during the Page run. “Getting them to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, we decided to get them out onto the runway, which is about 300 feet long. All the pages were bumblebees, and we played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees.’ I gave them some cues for when they should start a big circle. Everybody had not much faith that I could do it. It’s a huge room, there’s so much stimuli, but, by gosh, they did it. They found their little music cues, they found their spots to spread out.”

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Herding people is a task near and dear to the heart of Stephanie Anderson, the stage director. “Let me think, we’ve got princesses and Heartland princesses and pages and governors and councilors and court of honor and performers and orchestra…” Anderson, a veteran actor-director, pauses. “It’s got to be between 100 and 150 people.”

And the majority of the people who will be on stage aren’t used to performing in front of huge crowds, she adds. “You cannot expect that they’ll remember how to hit marks when they’re facing 2,500 people. Suddenly, the lights are on, and it’s deer in the headlights. It’s very unpredictable, and there’s very little you can do about it.” That can just be part of the appeal of the evening. Anderson states that the young pages are adorable because of their unpredictability. Still, it’s a good thing Roddy plans to give them great musical cues again this year, this time with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“We all get along so great. There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time.” – Tom Ware, sound designer

But if we’re talking about music, well, now we’re getting into Chuck Penington’s domain. It’s his life, after all. He’s a professional bass player, as well as president of PANDA Productions, a music production company in Omaha. As the team’s music director, he recalls that his first association with the coronation was in 1974. “At the time, the music director was a guy named Richard Hayman,” Penington says. “He was the orchestrator for Boston Pops Orchestra.” He recalls that, at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball committee had found an old piece called “The Ak-Sar-Ben March,” a commemoration scored for piano, and they wanted to employ Hayman to orchestrate it. “He said he would do it, but he needed a copyist,” Penington remembers. “So I had a great week with Richard Hayman, copying the parts with him. I got to study his scores close up. It was a very nice opportunity for me.”

Sound designer Tom Ware has his own memories of celebrities he’s met thanks to the old Ak-Sar-Ben Stadium where the ball used to be held…specifically the show where Yanni, performing with Chameleon, winked at Ware’s girlfriend. “I made his monitor feedback,” he says a touch proudly. Even though the story showcases his abilities as the typical sound guy twiddling knobs on a board, Ware (owner of Ware House Productions, Inc.) says there’s a bit more to his job for the ball than that. “I personally do the mix for the whole room, but, wow, getting to that point and figuring out what the show needs with regard to the sound, the acoustics? Are there theatrics and extra sounds that need to go along with that? It’s a mix of music and production.”

With such a job description, Ware obviously works closely with Penington and Othuse, and well, everyone else on the team. “We all get along so great,” he says. “There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time. It’s great to see it all culminate in this show. The individuals are greater than the sum of the parts.”

The 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball will be held Oct. 19 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. For more information about the event, visit aksarben.org.

Courtney Stein

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If all the world’s a stage, then 25-year-old actress, dancer, and choreographer Courtney Stein is definitely a player.

While performing in the musical Once On This Island at the tender age of 5, Stein, who was born and raised in Omaha, says she got “the itch” for theatre. “I grew up in the Ralston Community Theatre, taking part in numerous summer musicals throughout my adolescence,” she adds.

After she graduated from Ralston High School, Stein headed out to southern California for a year to join the Young Americans, a touring performance and music education outreach program. She then returned to Omaha to study vocal music education at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Shortly thereafter, she went to New York University, where she created her own program of study in various culture, dance, theatre, and music, but then returned home once more to graduate from UNO in 2010 with an individualized degree in interdisciplinary studies—specifically, anthropology with a focus on music, dance, and theatre.

20121031_bs_1722-Edit copy

Today, Stein earns her living as a freelance choreographer and dance instructor, and she also teaches yoga, tai chi, and tap dancing at Bellevue Senior Center. Beyond her freelance work, Stein is involved with several nonprofit organizations, including WhyArts? and Arts for All, Inc. “I teach at a multitude of elementary schools in the metro, through both the Artery’s Dancing Classroom program and through the Omaha Community Playhouse’s educational outreach program. I [also] choreograph several area high school musicals and show choirs, as well,” she says.

But just teaching performance wasn’t enough for Stein; she wanted an outlet to continue the passion for performance her 5-year-old self had felt so long ago. That’s when she looked into the community theatre scene in her hometown.

“We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime.”

“Omaha is special,” she says. “It is home to so many artists—starving and otherwise, who are lucky enough to share their passion in a welcoming environment…We are privileged to have such wonderfully diverse yet mutually supportive theaters.”

One such theater is the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest community theatre in the nation. The theater opened in the 1920s after a group of Omahans—including Alan McDonald, architect of the Joslyn Art Museum, who later became president of the Playhouse—wanted stage performances to return to a community increasingly dominated by the rising popularity of films. In April 1925, the Playhouse’s very first play, The Enchanted Cottage, opened and was directed by Greg Foley, starring Dodie Brando, mother of actor Marlon Brando. The theater later saw the acting debuts of Henry Fonda (father of actress Jane Fonda), Marlon Brando, Dorothy McGuire, and Julie Wilson. For Stein, having the chance to stand on the stage where these legends once stood was an aspiration.20121031_bs_1664-Edit copy

“The first show I auditioned for at the Playhouse was Urinetown, and I actually wasn’t cast.” But Stein was stubborn and auditioned for the Playhouse’s next big musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in 2007, where she was cast as a tap-dancing stenographer. During that role, Stein believes she must have done something the directors liked because she was then cast in the next show, A Christmas Carol, as fun-loving and energetic party girl Lucy.

Though she’s played Lucy for the past five years, this November and December, Stein plays Millie. “[Millie] is married to Scrooge’s nephew, Fred,” Stein explains of her character. “This is the first year since I have been a part of the Carol that I will not be Lucy, [who] is the slightly crazy, very energetic younger sister of Millie.”

Stein is slowly building a solid performance reputation with the Playhouse, as she has been involved in at least two musicals/plays each year. Her list thus far includes:

  • Thoroughly Modern Millie (as stenographer), 2007
  • A Christmas Carol (as Lucy), 2007-2012
  • The Cocoanuts (as Polly Potter), 2008
  • Batboy (as Ruthie/Ned), 2009
  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (as chorus member), 2009
  • All Shook Up (as Lorraine), 2010
  • Fiddler on the Roof (as Chava), 2010
  • Footloose (as Wendy Jo), 2010
  • Nunsense (as Sister Mary Leo), 2011
  • Hairspray (as Amber Von Tussle), 2012

This past year, Stein was even nominated for the Omaha Theatre Arts Guild’s awards for her supporting actress role as Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray. Though it was exciting, Stein says she was somewhat shocked about the nomination. “I’ve played several sweet, ingénue-type roles and never received as much recognition. But I was cast as Amber in Hairspray, a horribly mean-spirited—albeit charming and funny—young girl and WHAM! I’m nominated for a TAG award and an OCP award!” she laughs. “Perhaps I’m not as innocent as I thought!”

Though she has been nominated for several other awards for her performances in Fiddler on the Roof, All Shook Up, and The Cocoanuts and received the Charles Jones Director’s Award from the Playhouse in 2010, Stein feels humbled by awards and tries not to put too much stock into them, as the performance is her true honor.

During her time with the Playhouse, Stein has developed a new ambition beyond just acting, singing, and dancing in the shows—she also wants to work behind the scenes as a choreographer.

Stein as Amber Von Tussle in the Omaha Community Playhouse's production of Hairspray.

Stein as Amber Von Tussle in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of Hairspray.

Last year’s Carol was the first year that Stein was asked to co-choreograph the play with Michelle Garrity. “[We] used a divide-and-conquer strategy to teaching the choreography. The show is such an institution at the Playhouse, and the choreography has remained true to the original, so it was intimidating to say the least.” And this past summer, Stein helped choreograph Hairspray with Kathy Wheeldon. “It was a wonderful experience to see some of my own original choreography onstage at such a prominent theater,” she adds, hoping she’ll have more opportunities to have her choreography in Playhouse shows.

Although it may seem like a career in performance is difficult to get with all of the fierce competition, Stein feels like community theatre doesn’t work that way. “We don’t act for the money, we don’t sing for our supper, and we don’t dance for a dime. In fact, we sacrifice time, energy, and sanity for one reason—an undying passion to tell a story, to convey a message, to leave the world a little different than before. We want to reach an audience.

“In the whirlwind of everyday chaos, theatre provides an outlet for release, a platform for expression, and a vehicle for social commentary. I believe that arts education is essential to the growth of a well-rounded human being and community.”

A Christmas Carol runs from Nov. 16 through Dec. 23 at the Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St.) and will be followed by Yesterday and Today, which runs from Dec. 7-31, and Deathtrap, which runs from Jan.18 through Feb. 10. For more information, visit omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.