As another Omaha theater season came to a close, something stood out to the Shelterbelt Theatre’s Artistic Director Beth Thompson;
The lack of strong roles and opportunities for women in Omaha theater.
That’s why Thompson and her artistic team have put together Shattering the Glass: A Celebration of Omaha Women in Theatre. The idea came from a meeting Thompson had with Creighton Professor Dr. Amy Lane where Lane brought up BoxFest, an organization that showcases and creates opportunities for women directors in Detroit, Michigan.
“I thought we could take that a step further,” Thompson said. “Let’s comission some of our local female playwrights, hire female directors and ask these ladies to write with female protagonists in female-heavy shows. From the very beginning, I thought of it as Shelterbelt’s love letter to the ladies of Omaha theater. There’s so much talent here from actors, directors, writers and designers; everywhere you look. This is an opportunity for us to contribute a solution rather than simply complain about the issue.”
Joining her in this process are a team of directors and writers including Marie Amthor-Schuett, Laura Leininger-Campbell, Sonia Keffer, Moira Mangiameli, Kaitlyn McClincy, Daena Schweiger and Jayma Smay. Several of the women joined me for a round-table discussion about women in Omaha theater, the love/hate relationship they have with the city, the progress that’s been made in recent years and the ways it can improve even further.
Schweiger, who’s been working in Omaha theater for the better part two decades, said there’s one important difference she’s seen in the past several years.
“There’s a lot more theater,” she said. “It’s seems that more and more people are getting involved. There’s these little nomadic theaters that come up and do one show and then you won’t see them for a number of years. There’s more opportunities to create shows and they are taking advantage of that opportunity, especially in the summertime. It used to be Shakespeare on the Green and that was it. Now a lot of theaters are going almost year-round. There’s more theater opportunities, which makes it ironic that there’s still a need for a show like this.”
Irony seemed to be a constant thread throughout our conversation. Perhaps the biggest irony is the fact that women make up the bulk of artistic leadership positions in the city, yet roles and opportunities for women on stage still lags behind.
“I mention this in my Director’s Notes,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of female artistic directors in this town, yet we’re still having this conversation. Now, I don’t know how much control some larger houses’ artistic staffs have on choosing their season versus their board, which is usually made up of wealthier white men. How much control does the artistic staff have on choosing their season? Also, there’s definitely women and men who just prefer a certain type of male-centric show. They surround themselves with male energy, and that’s totally fine, but I think we can find a place for women too.”
One argument passed by theater commentators across the country is that there just aren’t enough plays out there featuring strong women’s roles or that those plays don’t sell well, despite the fact that women make up the majority of audiences across the country.
“If you’re saying there’s not that many quality female-centric plays out there, you’re not looking hard enough,” Thompson said. “You’re not. You have to open up your net. We ran into that problem this coming season. We found ourselves with four plays that we really liked but they were all by men. I said, ‘We can’t do this.’ I can’t go from a season of all female-written plays to no female-written plays. So we had to open our net. We started reaching out to people to see what they were working on or reading to find the right season. They’re out there, you just have to go looking for them.”
Laura Leininger-Campbell agreed, saying “I also think it’s the theater’s job to educate their audience about what the show is going to be. It’s just a good show, dammit! You’re giving yourself a disadvantage if you’re already feeling behind the 8-ball because you’ve got only female scripts. If you’ve got someone on your board saying that this is lesser known than other male playwrights, then it's your job as an artistic staff to make that play the best it can be because it is a compelling piece. It’s not any less because it’s written by a women. It’s their job to dispel that myth.”
Then there came a time discussing the recent events the Chicago Reader brought to light involving Profiles Theatre and its treatment of female performers over the years. While none of the women talked about events that extreme, they all agreed that everyone in Omaha has a responsibility to stand up for one another and "call out the bullsh*t" when they see it.
“If 40-year-old Laura could look at 20-year-old Laura, I would tell her it was okay to stand up against stuff that’s not appropriate,” Leininger-Campbell said. “That’s something that I would loved to have done. I don’t think it’s just an Omaha thing, I think all theaters are always going to struggle with people who take things just a little too far that cause an actor to feel unsafe. But to teach a hungry young actor that there are things that are and aren’t appropriate in the process and teaching them their rights and when to stand up is important. That Chicago Reader article resonated a lot with me and I think a lot of other actresses feel the same way.”
Schweiger chimed in, “I remember back in the day when certain shows would get reviewed in places like The Reader and women would be called out simply for the way they looked. Luckily, that doesn't happen anymore. Even before I got involved in theatre, I saw that and said, ‘This isn’t right.’”
Marie Amthor-Schuett voiced her frustration over the types of shows that feature minorities in Omaha.
“A lot of the stories I see on stage in Omaha where there’s a black character, they are struggling because they are black,” she said. “Can we move past that yet? Not that those stories shouldn’t be told or that we shouldn’t appreciate history and what people have gone through. Can’t we just have a story where there’s a character on stage that just happens to be black? It feels like everything today needs to be an issue play. Theater repression can only go so far.
“Do more plays with gay characters in it. Do more plays with people of color in it. I’m a triple minority. I want to see more of those stories. I saw Seven Homeless Mammoths Wandering New England at SNAP Productions the other weekend and I was blown away. I said, ‘Thank God!’ because I needed that story. And saying plays like that don’t sell is bullsh*t because Fun Home raked it in on Broadway. Find the good plays or commissions that work. There are plenty of people to tell those stories, you just have to bring them together. It shouldn’t have taken us so long to get to the point of Fun Home. ‘Oh, there’s a lesbian character!’ It’s 2016 for crying out loud. It’s doesn’t have to be any specific minority, it just has to be a good story.”
But for all of their frustrations with Omaha, there was even more praise for an artistic community that has nurtured and pushed each of them as artists.
“I think that there’s a lot of networked collaboration, support and encouragement for everyone in the community,” Leininger-Campbell said. “As an actor, I’ve been lucky enough to get support from so many folks in the theater community, especially people like Ellen Struve. She encouraged me to write. She could be spending all her energy just writing plays but she spends so much time in this community helping other female writers develop. She really looks at a macrolevel past where we need to be.”
Struve, the former Shelterbelt artistic director and current board member whose plays have found success all across Omaha, was a point of tremendous affection for all involved in Shattering the Glass.
“It had been awhile since I had done anything but she was always nudging me to write more,” Schweiger said. “Finally, I broke through and ended up writing something for SNAP. It was just that little nudge from her to give her something and not let writer's block be an excuse.”
“She’s the reason I have this job and doing what I’m doing,” Thompson said.
“She invests a lot into the community and is always around,” said Amthor-Schuett. “She knows how to be around in a way that’s not intimidating too. If you need to sit and have a conversation, she’ll do it.”
The conversation turned into praise for all kinds of women across Omaha theater including Blue Barn’s Susan Clement-Toberer, Omaha Playhouse’s Susie Baer-Collins, Creighton’s Dr. Amy Lane, Brigit Saint Brigit’s Cathy Kurz, and many more.
The conversation came to a close with each woman discussing why they do theater in Omaha.
“It’s the best form of therapy,” Amthor-Schuett said. “It keeps me sane and grounded and reminds me that I do have something to say. Sometimes I think the world silences you or you silence yourself. Theater forces me to communicate. Sometimes this little part of me breaks out that I fall in love with and I say, ‘Oh, there you are! Why do you shove that side of yourself away?’ That’s why I keep doing it.”
“It’s my favorite form of storytelling,” said Thompson. “Whether I’m an audience member or I am directing, that show is once in a lifetime. The experience of what happens, especially in a space like Shelterbelt where you can see the audience and make eye contact, that experience will never happen again. There’s something so special about that. I’m blessed to be a part of it. Also, this community has become my family. I don’t have any family in town, no parents or siblings or cousins who come to see my shows. This community has saved my life in more ways than they will ever know.”
Leininger-Campbell said, “Even when everything is going off the rails in rehearsal and there’s some seemingly incredible obstacle that prevents you from getting from one place to another, it might seem impossible but it’s going to resolve itself because the show will go on. It’s a little microcosm of what life is. Even though you’re in the gutter at the moment, it’s going to resolve itself. I love that. At the end of it all, I could come home screaming and crying saying ‘I’m never going to do this again,’ but two weeks later I’m saying ‘That wasn’t so bad.’ I appreciate that so much and it’s a good lesson for me in my daily life.”
Then Moira Mangiameli chimed in.
“When I was in Our Town [at the Blue Barn Theatre] every night at the end of the show I would sit up there on my chair on the hill as the lights went down. You would hear people sniffling and crying, and certainly there was lots of laughter throughout the play as well. But as Nils Haaland walked off stage and the lights went down, you would hear everyone in the theatre deeply exhale all at once. That’s why I do theater. It’s the only medium that can elicit that particular response; the sense of profound belonging to the universe. It’s knowing that I just sat there for two hours and watched and was touched in a way that doesn’t happen when I go see a movie or listen to music. It’s the only artform that connects us in such a profound, deep way.”
Shelterbelt Theatre’s Shattering the Glass: A Celebration of Omaha Women in Theatre runs from July 8th-31st at 3225 California Street. For ticket information, call 402-341-2757, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.Shelterbelt.org.