Circle Theatre has been around for quite a while. In fact, it’s celebrating a thirty-third anniversary this year. That’s some kind of longevity. The new Resident Director, Fran Sillau, is also 33. The past meets the future. A fresh start.
Added to what’s new, the group offered a world premiere in August, Ernie Nolan’s My Broken Doll, adapted from a memoir by Omaha Holocaust survivor 83-year-old Bea Karp.
Circle partnered on the production with the Institute for Holocaust Education. Together they commissioned Nolan to create this version. The DePaul University professor has long been active as an adapter of stories for young audiences, particularly as producing director of Chicago’s Emerald City Theatre.
There were only two performances at the Jewish Community Center, but afterwards the play will tour schools in Nebraska and Iowa.
Sillau’s connection with The Institute goes back to 2007, after he learned about it while doing research prior to directing James Still’s And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank in Modale, Iowa.
Not long thereafter, the Institute invited him to stage the regional premiere at the Jewish Community Center of Emil Sher’s Hana’s Suitcase, also about a Holocaust survivor. And that became the impetus for more productions at the Center where he became musical theatre director and has done 14 shows, most recently Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in June. He points out that the one-weekend-only shows underscore the Center’s community orientation. “It’s an environment where families rehearse and perform together, giving them multiple opportunities to learn an actual musical,” he said.
Sillau, a Council Bluffs native, has long been active locally as a director as well as on stage, especially at The Rose Theater. In fact, he will stage Shrek The Musical there; it opens September 30th. His connection goes back to predecessor Emmy Gifford Children's Theater where, at age 5, he started taking acting classes and, at age 12, appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life. He became an intern and was in other productions. In 201o Sillau directed Go, Dog. Go! the Steven Dietz and Alison Gregory adaptation of P.D. Eastman’s well-known children’s book. Currently Sillau is also The Rose’s Accessibility Coordinator, developing programs for young people with special needs.
The Rose is where he first met Circle co-founders Doug and Laura Marr. A couple of years thereafter, still in his teens, he took on roles for them in their on-going series of plays at Diner Theatre which had launched the group in 1984.
They were in Joe & Judy’s Café in Benson, an actual diner where meals preceded the shows, a connection with food that is still ongoing, desserts and drinks now rather than full meals. Featured then was a series of Doug’s constantly evolving scripts under the rubric Phil’s Diner, “ a charming and inspired concept that attracted a fiercely loyal following among new and veteran theatergoers alike,” wrote Leo Adam Biga in Omaha Weekly. “Marr, who spent his share of time in working-class dives like the ones he wrote about,” Biga added, “found a winning formula…with morality plays infused with his loony humor, heartfelt sentimentality, deep social consciousness and abiding faith.”
It should be no surprise, then, and a delight for people who remember those bygone days, that Phil’s Diner will be revisited in this forthcoming Circle Theatre season. In June 2017 look for Doug’s latest script tentatively titled Still Contemplates Putting an Espresso Machine in The Diner. Recurring characters from 30 years ago will return, having moved on in time, often portrayed by members of the original casts.
“They are contemporary versions of their former selves,” Sillau explained, “trying to come to terms with the lives they find themselves in, asking a lot of questions about our ever-changing world.” The production won’t be in an actual diner this time around but, instead, at Urban Abbey in The Old Market.
“This new play gives a nod to our history,” Sillau pointed out,” the very first independent theatre company in Omaha,” sharing audiences of those days with community groups such as The Playhouse and Chanticleer. Sillau was part of Circle’s later history too, having performed and directed Circle shows at Central Presbyterian Church.
As for the other productions in the forthcoming season, in March, Circle offers Master Class, Terence McNally’s 1996 Tony-Award winner based on opera legend Maria Callas’ voice classes at Juilliard in the early 1970s. TAG- Award winning Laura Marr appears as Callas with four members of the local professional singers’ ensemble Résonance taking on other roles. First United Methodist Church is the venue.
As for the seasonal offering, it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas—The Musical, also at Urban Abbey. Sillau stages this, as well as My Broken Doll. He feels a special affinity for the subject of the latter. He has cerebral palsy. “I do believe that having a disability gives me perspectives that perhaps others might not have.” He’s also reminded us that that the second part of that word is “ability.” And this story, he observed, “is about a person dealing with extraordinary hardships. It shows that each of us can have a purpose in this world.” http://www.nonpareilonline.com/news/teaching-the-arts-gives-sillau-a-sense-of-purpose/article_dd021819-44e8-539f-9cd2-d262f0538310.html?mode=story
Doug and Laura Marr last year decided that they wanted to move on to other creative activities. Circle’s Board of Directors then offered Sillau the job of Resident Director, given both his long involvement with the group as well as his considerable theatre experience.
He underscored the enduring mission: “To create an accessible, relevant way for everyone, especially people who haven’t often attended quality performances at low prices. We want to reach out to a whole new generation and make this living art form accessible to every person of every age.” More at www. Fransillau.com.