Tag Archives: play

Play Lab

April 27, 2015 by
Photography by Hudson Gardner

It’s easy to think back to our own childhoods and compare them to the world our children currently live in. Perhaps you feel that your children aren’t as safe or don’t have as much freedom in their creativity. Maybe you’re wishing a fresh summer activity would pop up providing area parents those opportunities

Enter Play Lab, a concept dreamed up by Omahan Teal Gardner. It’s a mobile, free, and open play workshop for kids. Gardner herself provides materials that she feels could stimulate a child’s imaginative play. Fabric, ribbon, cardboard, safety vests, and bike tubes are just a few of the items she has amassed.

In addition, parents and supporters can donate materials that they feel children might enjoy. “The idea is that giving kids a lot of loose parts and the impetus to go out and make or do what they like will provide a scenario for their play that provokes problem solving and creative thinking,” Gardner says.

The concept, she admits, is not a new one. Nonetheless, it does seem like she is on to something quite special. Gardner’s first Play Lab was held in an art gallery. It’s an environment that Gardner admits is usually pretty hands-off, especially for kids. After a three-day Play Lab, however, it became evident, she says, that the project was special enough to try again.

Without a brick-and-mortar building or staff, Gardner relies on the help of volunteer collaborators and various Omaha venues to keep Play Lab in operation. She says that while they appear most consistently at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market, Play Lab has also appeared at such places as ARTsarben and The Union for Contemporary Art. In July and August, they will be at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.

Better still, Gardner says that children don’t need a specific environment to trigger their imagination. In fact, it’s easy to create Play Lab in your own home if there isn’t one being provided in your area. Simply supply your children with a “junk” box and allow them to create new worlds. “The attitude that makes Play Lab the most fun is just the willingness to follow an idea through the many transformations that happen within play,” Gardner shares.

In fact, it seems that children are able to make just about anything fun—laundry, for instance. One particular memory that Gardner reveals took place on a hot summer day. She filled up a kiddie pool with ice and, as the ice melted, a few children decided to begin washing fabric—one of the many loose parts available that day. An assembly line began and soon every item of fabric had been washed, wrung out and hung to dry. “I just love that story because it illustrates a group of kids choosing to do something together, something that they made up, the success of which was measured by the kids themselves,” Gardner says.

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Kathy Tyree Channeling Her Inner Diva

February 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “diva” has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, suggesting to some a haughty I-want-it-all-and-want-it-now scene chewer who treats other humans like varmints.

For most, though, the word remains untarnished. The diva is still the shining star, the bigger-than-life glory who commands a room while displaying elegance and charity beyond the bright lights.

Kathy Tyree is most certainly the latter type of diva.

So, too, was Ella Fitzgerald, the legendary jazz diva who Tyree will shape-shift into for Ella, which opens at the Omaha Community Playhouse on February 28.

“Ella Fitzgerald was every bit the good diva, a marvelous performer,” Tyree says during an interview at a mid-town coffee shop. “My job is to channel my inner diva. But I think I’ve earned my diva stripes. It’s an immense challenge, but I feel I’m up to the challenge.”

“She brought the house down in Hairspray. She’s going to bring the house down again.”
— Susie Collins

Tyree has more than earned those stripes in 30-some years of powerhouse singing throughout the region. She is arguably Omaha’s premier cabaret singer. Among numerous other roles, she played Aretha Franklin in Beehive, widely considered the longest-running show in the city’s history.

That show’s director, Gordon Cantiello, says he’s confident that Tyree is “by all means a big-time diva in the good way.

“The other girls in Beehive had to work hard to keep up with her,” Cantiello says. “She commands a room. She’s 110 percent all the time. She’s a director’s dream.”

Susie Collins, who will be directing Ella, agrees and adds that Tyree “has a very special, powerful way of expressing herself through her music.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her. There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”
—Kathy Tyree

And yes, she said, Tyree can command a room like a true diva. She did just that in a Playhouse production last summer. “She brought the house down in Hairspray,” Collins continues. “She’s going to bring the house down again.”

Ella is a new challenge for Tyree in that, for one, “there are an immense number of lines to learn.” The one-woman musical is “a very honest and open look at her life.” The musical goes far beyond the music.

Set in Nice, France, in 1966, Fitzgerald’s manager suggests she engage in more banter with her audience—a fashion for singers at the time. Her conversations on and off the stage through the musical increasingly delve into deeply personal topics, including the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands 
of her stepfather.

“In shows like this you can get a script that’s kind of glued in there—that’s very forced,” Collins explains. “You have a very skilled playwright here [Jeffrey Hatcher]. The script is just excellent.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her,” Tyree says. “There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”

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At the show’s heart, though, is the music and the larger-than-life voice and presence of the diva.

“The diva develops her own style out of her own personality,” Tyree says. “Ella Fitzgerald was uniquely Ella. A diva is the only person who sounds the way they do. You know immediately who is singing when you hear the voice.”

Tyree has built her own personal style from many influences. In some cases, she’s standing on some unlikely shoulders.

You might guess she was first inspired by the towering voices and personalities of Diana Ross and Lena Horne. Aretha Franklin, sure. Cher, who Tyree loves for her versatility. Luther Vandross. So smooth.

But Mick Jagger? Really?

“He’s always going—so passionate,” she says. “I love what he does with a song.”

And Rod Stewart?

“I love performers who are sincere and real,” she says. “That passion is authentic.”

Ella Fitzgerald, she says, was one of those sincere, genuine, authentic, and passionate singers who brought her best each night to her performance and her audience.

That’s what Tyree wants for every second she spends on stage as Ella Fitzgerald.

“I’d like to think I have my own style, so it’s interesting to work to channel Ella Fitzgerald—try to take on her unique style,” Tyree says. “What’s not at all different is that burning desire to give the audience everything you have. Ultimately, a diva wants to give the audience something to remember. So we’re going to work to give the audience something to remember.”

A Pet’s Paradise

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When many people think of pet boarding, they envision a city of kennels resembling a prison housing dozens of bored, cramped pets. But these days, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

A growing number of pet care facilities now offer posh boarding accommodations, as well as a slew of activities and playtime options for your furry friends. Whether it be for a week-long stay or daily daycare, these pet hotels and spas provide your animal fun interaction with other four-legged friends and caring staff members who will pamper your pet just as you would. So while you and your family are vacationing this summer, don’t fret; the family pet can be taking a “vacay” all its own.

Three of the most well-known independent pet hotels and spas in the Omaha area include Cottonwood Pet Resort, Bark Avenue Grooming and Dog Daycare, and The Paw Spa Pet Resort.

Guests at the The Paw Spa Pet Resort take a refreshing dip in a bone-shaped pool.

Guests at the The Paw Spa Pet Resort take a refreshing dip in a bone-shaped pool.

Cottonwood Pet Resort in Waterloo sits on 11 acres of land with a 10,000-square- foot indoor area. Family-owned by the Dvorak family since 1992, Cottonwood works much like a hotel—pets check in and check out of pet suites, which vary in size from modest to quite roomy. All dog accommodations provide sheepskin rugs for bedding and outdoor access to exercise yards. Some suites, like the Cabana, offer private access to an outdoor patio and include TVs tuned to the Animal Planet channel.

Cottonwood also offers a dedicated area for cats—completely separate from the dogs—where feline friends can either lounge in their individual suites or romp with other cats in the playroom. Cat areas are equipped with climbing options and perches, as well as TVs and music. Cottonwood also boards exotic pets, such as rabbits, parrots, guinea pigs, and turtles.

With 43 years in the pet grooming industry, Sue Wilke was one of the first to offer doggie daycare services in Omaha. Nine years ago, she went to Washington, D.C., to learn about dog daycare because there were very few in Omaha at the time. Today, she owns two Bark Avenue locations in town: the original location at 156th & Maple streets, which specializes in daycare and grooming; and a second at 137th and C streets, which provides long stays and boarding. The business provides complimentary transportation between its two locations for the customer’s convenience.

Camera-shy cats hide in the playroom at The Paw Spa Pet Resort.

Camera-shy cats hide in the playroom at The Paw Spa Pet Resort.

While visiting Bark Avenue’s C Street location, canine guests can play all day with others their own size in three different indoor playrooms or lounge in individual suites. Suites range in size from 5×5-ft. to 8×8-ft. and feature laminate walls and glass doors and fronts, which allow easy visibility and enhance cleanliness. Multi-dog suites are available if your pet has “brothers and sisters” you’d like them to stay with. The new facility also features a 2,000-sq.ft. secure, fenced outdoor area. Dogs are taken outside eight times daily for a minimum of 20 minutes each visit. Daycare playtime with staff is also available upon request.

Wilke says her business strives for socialization and minimal stress for its guests. “We want the pets’ experience to be as close to home as possible. We just want what’s best for the dog.”

The Paw Spa Pet Resort is the newest pet spa and hotel in Omaha. The facility specializes in overnights, daycare, and grooming of pets and features a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled air-circulation system, which helps to prevent airborne illnesses. The Paw Spa offers brightly colored, 9×9-ft. suites that come equipped with TVs and Kuranda beds, which are slightly elevated and chew-proof. Owners are encouraged to bring toys, blankets, or anything else that may make their pet feel more at home to leave in the suite.

Kevin Irish and Sheila Kusmierski in a play area at the resort.

Irish and Kusmierski in a play area at the resort.

Co-owner Kevin Irish says, “We’re animal lovers. We have three dogs and a cat,” who hang out with the animal guests to promote socialization. “I always wanted to be a vet,” he says, “and this is my second shot at a career with animals.

The Paw Spa also features a 1,000-sq.ft. indoor doggie play area for exercise and mingling, complete with palm trees, toys, and a special turf that guarantees cleanliness for animal guests. Next door is a second enclosed area for the swimmers, where canine guests can take a refreshing dip in the bone-shaped, 85-degree indoor pool (no deeper than two feet deep for safety). “We have hip-waders for the little guys,” explains Irish. “This lets them learn to swim in a controlled environment.”

Both play areas are constantly supervised by staff and are equipped with cameras so pet owners can view their animals from home or while on the road. Paw Spa’s Kitty City provides cats with condos that have separate compartments for food and bathroom breaks, and even a digital aquarium for entertainment. Cats can also hang out and climb the large, indoor structure in the Catio.

All three pet spas provide personalized attention, 24-hour monitoring by staff, on-call veterinarians, and frequent potty and playtime breaks. With accommodations like these, your beloved Fido or Fluffy will definitely be in good hands while you enjoy your summer vacation guilt-free.

Great Plains Theatre Conference

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Plays and playwrights remain the heart of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago, he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.

The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theatre artists responding to the work in group and one-one feedback sessions.

“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out, and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theatre community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.

“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now we’re able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”

Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.

“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group, and two of her own plays read at the conference have been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre, Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.

“It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.” – Kevin Lawler, artistic director

“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off,” says Lawler.

He adds that other local theatres also source plays and contacts at the conference.

“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.

“There’s a great exchange that happens.”

Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater expanding what theatre might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.

Works by featured guests are performed, including a water-rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon. The drama is slated to be presented on the edge of the Missouri River.

The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year, “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art, and food of those communities.

“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theatre is just priced out [of some people’s budgets]. That doesn’t work.”

“Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” – Ellen Struve, playwright

StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding is being sought for year-round women’s programs.

Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.

Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has allowed it to grow. Actors, directors, and technicians from the theatrecommunity help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.

For the conference schedule, visit mccneb.edu/gptc.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.