Tag Archives: Shelterbelt Theatre

Being Ryleigh Welsh

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gifford Park

April 15, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Home.

Until the relatively recent past, a rapid-fire word association game played on the subject of “Gifford Park” would, for many, elicit the most meager of responses. Sure, blurting out “California Tacos” and “Shelterbelt Theatre” would tally points in this exercise, but other responses, even among the more intrepid of urban adventurers, would likely have included variations on the theme of “crack houses,” “prostitution,” and “buckets of 9-1-1 calls.”

Like so many Midtown neighborhoods now being reclaimed by a pioneering and diverse group of new settlers, the once-neglected area is experiencing a dramatic rebirth. The renaissance of Gifford Park, longtime homeowner and community leader Chris Foster explains, had the most fundamental of beginnings.

“The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association [organized in 1988] was founded on fear,” Foster says. “It was really about nothing more than survival. Our streets weren’t safe. Some very dedicated people built on and decided to try other things. They added simple things like an Easter egg hunt in the park. They started a newsletter. Today the fabric of the neighborhood is its community spirit. We care about this place and a tremendous number of volunteers pull together here in Gifford Park.”

 

The children of the neighborhood, Foster says, best represent the focus of the association’s efforts.

“Young kids don’t see color,” Foster says. “They don’t see incomes. They just see people as people.”

Volunteers of the neighborhood association offer a robust tennis program in the park, including free lessons with donated equipment. In the same once-quiet park whose silence was interrupted only by the very occasional thump-thump-clang of a pick-up game of hoops, kids swarm to the soccer events made possible by the donation of used nets. And at the community gardens, special sections are reserved for children so that a new generation can plant the seeds of change in the butterfly-strewn space that itself is a big part of the neighborhood’s metamorphosis.

The garden was established in 2001 and has become a center of both social and agrarian activities for many in Gifford Park. The neighborhood is also home to the the Big Muddy, a collectively run urban farm whose goods often travel only a couple blocks to be sold at the Gifford Park Farmers Market during growing season. Raising chickens is also prevalent in the neighborhood located just north of the Mutual of Omaha campus.

“Sometimes I think that our chicken population is approaching that of the people here,” Foster quips. Neighborhood kids also learn and work at the Community Bike Project, a nonprofit that’s many initiatives aim to provide transportation in a fun setting. One of its most popular offerings is the Youth Earn-a-Bike program. Through the course of six free classes, students receive instruction on bike maintenance, safety, and riding skills. At the end of their schooling, they take home a bike they fixed up in the process, including a lock and helmet, all at no charge.

“Gifford Park is a great neighborhood with an amazing amount of community involvement,” says Charles Mitchell, the shop’s manager who happens to live right next door.” The people who have lived here a long time are really invested in this place, but now younger people and even the kids that we get to work with here in the shop all come together and connect in really authentic ways.”

Decoding the impetus behind a neighborhood’s rise is often an exercise in assessing the “bones” of a community.

Benson, for example, is hot-hot-hot in large part because of its collection of previously underused structures along Maple Street. It’s a place that practically screamed for the new and novel. The formula was deceivingly simple. Just add an eclectic mix of innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs, stir in an uncanny sense for what it is that people seek, and…voila…instant and seemingly
overnight revival.

Gifford Park has few such assets in the way of infrastructure. A mere handful of storefront options are available for any aspiring business-launchers at the neighborhood’s small commercial epicenter, the intersection of 33rd and California streets.

So what accounts for the symphony of nail guns and table saws throughout the neighborhood that will reach a crescendo once temperatures continue to rise? Here it is not about dollars invested. In Gifford Park, neighbors are building stronger communities one household at a time.

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Great Plains Theatre Conference

April 25, 2013 by
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.