Ellen Struve writes plays and she’s artistic director for the Shelterbelt Theatre. That’s why she served refreshments at a fund-raising performance that filled all 50-plus seats for 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
“All board members take turns working nights. Everybody does everything,” she notes. Ellen poured wine while executive director Craig Bond sold tickets.
Now the theater runs Shelterbelt with Love 11, its annual pre-Valentine’s Day array of nine playlets. Later, after SNAP! Productions shares the space in March, the Belt will return with new plays by local authors.
Ellen’s not the first playwright to lead the theater started by Scott Working in 1993. He’s also a writer and taught the Metro Community College playwriting class that spurred her “big artistic dreams.”
In a lively Reader interview as he launched the theater, Working explained: “I think the playwright should have the last word. And that’s how the Shelterbelt is set up. We empower the playwright.” Nearly 30 years later, he’s “thrilled” about his successor. He believes she’ll “energize the organization and renew the spirit of its mission,” especially by encouraging more work by local writers.
Struve took the artistic leadership last fall, and she’ll push local participation. “I love the writers we have,” many of whom join her in the Omaha Playwrights Group that grew out of Working’s Metro classes. The group of nine or so tries to meet twice a month to read and critique plays in progress.
And then there’s the Moms Club, which should dispel any stereotypes you might fancy about brooding, reclusive playwrights. Sorry, but Ms. Struve is not the girl with the dragon tattoo. She’s the beaming mom with the cherubic smile and robust laugh.
Three of Ellen’s plays have appeared at the Belt, as she fondly calls it. She received a 2011 Nebraska Arts Council Fellowship and was recognized by the Great Plains Theatre Conference as an Emerging Female Playwright.
All this and more while being mom to Reese, 9, and Eddie, 6. Any time she’s not busy as mom and wife to Kevin Pike, “I had better not be waiting around for the muse to strike.”
So what happens when other moms take on her plays? Here’s how the Moms Club came into being:
Amy Lane, mother of Donovan, 7, agreed to direct Ellen’s Mrs. Jennings Sitter and act in her Mountain Lion. Sonia Keffer, mother of Maddie, 13, Josie, 10, and Sophie, 6, played the lead in the former and directed the latter.
“Ellen, being the kind person she is, offered to help us by watching our children while we rehearsed,” Sonia recalls. Amy, director in residence at the Omaha Community Playhouse, adds, “She even made dinner during tech week. Our kids are the same age and best buddies, so it was a godsend.”
So the Moms Club grew naturally, not with heavy planning, starting in 2009. When a staged reading of Ellen’s play, Recommended Reading for Girls, was chosen for the 2011 Great Plains program, Keffer directed and Lane joined Christina Rohling, another young mother, in lead roles. Rohling, who starred in Peter Pan at the Playhouse, joined the informal club.
It’s just women helping women, Keffer says, and it continues to grow. When Les Femmes Folles, which supports women in the arts, interviewed Struve, she confessed, “Being a mother is hard. Being an artist is hard.” She’d just been through two years when “I had shows open the same week as my daughter’s birthday.”
After preparing cupcakes and favors the day before getting on a plane or cooking dinner before running out to rehearsal, she thought, “I bet David Mamet never has to deal with this.” Her advice: “Marry well. I am fortunate to have a life partner who understands family and values creativity.”
Kevin was a fulltime jazz musician when they began dating. While they lived in Chicago, he played saxophone in the Navy Pier Quintet while she worked several jobs, including director of development for the Windy City’s Merit School of Music. She earned a master’s in art administration at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago after her bachelor’s in English at Iowa University where she graduated with distinction.
His computer job with Fed-Ex brought them back to Omaha a few years ago and the return to her hometown revived those writing dreams. When she took creative non-fiction at Iowa, “It never occurred to me to be a theater person. I don’t love being on stage.”
When the Blue Barn brought playwright John Guare to Omaha for its production of Six Degrees of Separation, she was among only six who showed up for his workshop. “It got me back into writing.”
Does it help that the kids are in school? She smiles, nodding quickly and affirmatively. Have Reese and Eddie seen anything you’ve written? Her emphatic “No” comes with another of her easy bursts of laughter.
“They know it’s what I do when I leave at night.” So far, Recommended Reading for Girls “is my only play I will be able to take my kids to.” It features a cancer-stricken mother and her two adult daughters who begin noticing young story-book heroines such as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables in the house.
It received an enthusiastic reception at the theater conference, with one assigned critic so moved she delayed comment until she could control her emotions. “It was overwhelming,” Ellen says. “I was shocked at how many people came.”
Several reading committees are considering the play. When her two one-acts (Mrs. J and Lion) opened at the Belt, reviewer Bob Fischbach declared them “as good as it gets” for local originals. He cited “first-rate skills” at both plot and dialogue.
The play about Mrs. Jennings made it to Broadway, or at least to 42nd Street where the Kokopelli theatre did it above a theater playing a Sondheim revue.
Another creation, a group of monologues about the jazz life called Nobody Gets Paid, was performed last year at the Belt and is scheduled in March at Studio Roanoke in Virginia. That title prompted a question that won the heartiest of her laugh-bursts.
Talking about the Shelterbelt roles of executive director Bond, artistic director Struve and her associate, McClain Smouse, the innocent interviewer asked, “Am I safe in assuming that none of these positions get paid?”
Yes, nobody gets paid, and if the mid-morning crowd at the Peony Park Hy-Vee didn’t hear the question, they probably heard the laughter. Ellen laughs easily and seems to enjoy the mix of art and motherhood.
Asked if she’d seen Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, she quips, “I’m very up on animated movies.” Motherhood also means writing in the morning when she’s not volunteering in the library at Sunset Hills School.
Later, “I do my mom stuff, then put the kids to bed. Kevin goes to his home music studio and I write. Sometimes I stay up to late,” but she can’t pull all-nighters.
A recent email arrived around midnight on “a full day” featuring an Omaha Young Arts Administrators function, chess club and “dinner at my place” with Bond, playwright Zavitz and Eric Salonis, who’ll direct his Intelligentsia in March.
If all this conflicts with your image of the theater near 32nd and California, where Rob Baker once introduced its Shelter-Skelter plays as “the scariest plays in the scariest theater in Omaha,” you should feel badly outdated.
As Ellen points out, “We’re just two blocks away from Midtown Crossing. I love the Belt, I love the size of it,” which “creates such a lovely, warm feeling.”