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BRAVO! May 2010

A Gathering of Stars

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The 2010 edition of the week-long Great Plains Theatre Conference, focused on playwriting, runs May 29th through June 5th.



In 2005 a spirited wind named “Jody” came sweeping down the Plains and took Omaha by storm. Jo Ann McDowell arrived from Valdez, Alaska as Metropolitan Community College’s new president. The vigorous course she charted included founding the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) in 2006.

The event boasts McDowell’s deep theater ties to leading American dramatists. Wherever she’s gone, she’s brought theater doyens with her, notably Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. GPTC creative director Kevin Lawler said she “just kind of dropped them down in Omaha to create a pre-built artistic infrastructure.”

“It’s very important [that] educational institutions provide these kinds of opportunities for people to develop their craft, their skills and their enthusiasm.”

Her theater fervor began in her native Independence, Kansas, where she directed the William Inge Festival. Later, she formed the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska. She always aligns theater to higher education: the Inge Festival with Independence Community College, the Last Frontier with Prince William Sound Community College; the Great Plains with MCC and its historic Fort Omaha campus.

“It’s very important that educational institutions provide these kinds of opportunities for people to develop their craft, their skills and their enthusiasm,” she said.

The conference revolves around a juried selection of plays by authors from around the country. At play lab readings works are responded to by veteran playwrights. The best judged works have Mainstage readings or staged performances. Plays by guest artists, including this year’s honoree, Pulitzer-winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Fuddy Meers), are featured as well. In the lyceum tradition, guest artists discuss their work and field audience questions.

“Some of the greatest things at the conference have nothing to do with plays, they have to do with the interaction of people,” said Lawler, “The essence of theater is community, a love of telling stories and the community they’re involved with. The master artists who come are giving back to the emerging playwrights.”

Volunteers from the local theater community, he said, “make the conference happen,”
as directors, stage managers, lighting technicians, actors, and gofers.

Lawler admires MCC’s commitment to “helping develop the theater community and cultural fabric of the city. That’s a helluva thing for an institution to do.”

In Year Five, the GPTC is firmly established and growing. McDowell, MCC president emerita, has handed the conference reins to Blue Barn Theatre co-founder Lawler, whom she feels is well-suited to lead the event.

“Some of the greatest things at the conference have nothing to do with plays, they have to do with the interaction of people.”

“He’s one of the most brilliant theater people I’ve ever known,” she said, “The other thing he has is the ability to raise money. Kevin understands what the conference means, and it’s hard to put in words, but once you get it, you know it, and he’s got it. In 10 years he will grow this conference beyond anything I could have done. Of all three conferences this will be the jewel in the crown because of Kevin and the community of Omaha and the wonderful theater people there.”

McDowell’s leaving Metro but will still nurture her baby. “I look forward to continuing my association with the conference well into the future,” she said.

It’s apt she stay involved, Lawler said: “The conference wouldn’t be here without her and those people she brought in. Her energy, which is dynamic and sort of legendary, is the type of energy it takes to get something like this launched.”

The event is recognizing her theater angel role for this conference and the others she’s served. “Thirty years of honoring and getting to know the greatest playwrights that ever walked this Earth has been an unbelievable gift to me throughout my career,” she said. “It’s a milestone I’m proud of. There’s so much joy in my life because of these relationships.” When she came here she found a city willing to support her passion.

“I knew Omaha was the kind of community that would embrace the conference, and it has. Almost from year one we had the most prominent arts benefactors in the community that supported us. Dick and Mary Holland, Fred and Eve Simon, Fr. (John) Schlegel and Creighton University, the Omaha Community Playhouse, so you can’t get much better than that starting out.”

“The groundwork she laid in Omaha,” said Lawler, “is being cultivated.”

“You know, it always takes like five years for any endeavor to start to become part of the social consciousness of a city, and that’s beginning to happen, which is great,” he said, “I think it’s just getting on the radar of the general community.”

He and McDowell say a new generation of patrons is adopting the GPTC.

“What’s really exciting is that Todd Simon and Paul Smith gave great support last year to the conference, sponsoring the Mainstage series, and this year they stepped forward and raised the funds to sponsor all 42 play lab playwrights.”

Where previously playwrights paid their own way, including registration, housing, and food costs, that’s all covered now. “They just have to get here, so that’s a massive sea change,” said Lawler, who added the underwriting has had a ripple effect. “It immediately raised our attractiveness as a theater event nationally. Word spread like wild fire. The Great Plains has now entered into that top echelon of conferences.”

As a result, he said, “submissions have taken a huge jump nationally, because I think the reputation of the conference is spreading really fast. The quality of the scripts keeps going up. There’s a sort of gravitational a force the conference is starting to develop now. That’s really great because people are starting to seek out the conference who want to come and be part of it, send their work in. That just makes it stronger and stronger.”

Some things have also been refined. “We’ve cut back on how many plays we do so that we can do them a little bit better, give them a little more attention, not be quite so frantic trying to put things together,” said Lawler.

Two plays of local import are at this year’s event. Waaxe’s Law, by ex-Omahan Mary Kathryn Nagle, is a dramatic retelling of Chief Standing Bear’s Fort Omaha trial. Lawler provided notes to Nagle for a rewrite and secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant to fund four performances, including May 30 at Fort Omaha. “This one little project has blossomed into this huge thing,” he said. Omaha native Monica Bauer’s play, An Occasion of Sin, is based on her experience taking music lessons from the late Omaha jazzman, Luigi Waites, during the height of racial tensions here.

Lawler’s sure Omahans will come out in ever bigger numbers for “rich, soulful, intellectual, vibrant” theater experiences like these. After all, he said, “theater is about sharing stories and this is a city that loves stories.”

For schedule details, visit www.mccneb.edu/theatreconference/.

-end- metroMAGAZINE

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