Now into it’s 8th year, the Great Plains Theatre Conference continues to evolve into one of the premiere theatrical experiences both locally and nationally. The conference gathers top national artists and playwrights that respond and give feedback to new works from across the country while also hosting workshops for emerging writers to help craft their voices. Equally important, Producing Artistic Director Kevin Lawler states, is the expanding role the conference is taking on as a backdrop to embracing and enhancing local communities.
“This conference will not only be great theatrical event, but also a celebration of North and South Omaha.”
The process of selecting the plays to be workshopped is a daunting one. At the beginning of the conference cycle, the staff receives over 560 submissions from hopeful writers. A national committee of readers is hired to rate every submission in a blind reading. The blind reading is important, Lawler said, to ensure that plays are being judged on their artistic merit and not simply on an author’s name recognition.
“With this process, it doesn’t matter who you are. You could be a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright last year and you’ll still be judged on the merits of the play that you’ve submitted. There’s a lot of playwrights out there who are really talented but they're trying to break into a field that’s very difficult to break into. Usually they are screened out of a lot of processes just because they don’t have a huge career reputation, but they still might have a brilliant play. We’ve seen over and over again at Great Plains the emergence of breakthrough work because of this process.”
This year, 29 plays were chosen from the top-rated group to be read in front of an audience and panel of national artists. Each writer then receives feedback on their work to help in the play’s maturation and progression. The conference is only the beginning for several of these works. Since the conference’s inception, more than 20 productions of Great Plains scripts have taken place in Omaha. A number of scripts continue on to workshops and productions in New York, Chicago, and other large markets.
“When you add up the incredible plays that local theatres have been able to cherry pick that otherwise would never have come here, it’s pretty astonishing. Some of them are plays that are going to go on and be huge across the country and we get the first production of it.”
Area theatre goers need only look at this past year to see some of the quality shows that came about from the conference. Recommended Reading for Girls, CRASH! BOOM! POW!, and A Night with the Family are just a few of the many scipts that started at Great Plains, eventually finding their way to full productions on Omaha stages.
The conference also serves as an opportunity to network for many artists. “Actors are making connections with directors who are bringing them out to New York to act in a piece,” Lawler said. “Directors are being asked to go out to different theatres across the country. Playwrights are connecting with dramaturgs. That kind of networking and interaction along with the education that our local theatre community gets is just priceless.”
Another key component of Great Plains Theatre Conference is the free evening events known as PlayFest. This year, two events called ‘Neighborhood Tapestries’ will bring community leaders from North and South Omaha to share their stories along with local artwork, food trucks, and readings.
“There’s a kind of thinking right now about how theatre connects to communities and about how some of those elements might be broken down at the moment. I think a lot of what we are doing is trying to redefine that. It’s a very community oriented event. Connecting people in a way they don’t normally get in regular production scenarios. By making this a free festival, that invites a huge amount of people who would never go to see theatre.”
The best part for Lawler is the evenings spent conversing with artists from around the country and members of the community, sharing stories and celebrating the spirit of what makes theatre so unique.
“Those are really amazing times, just as valuable as everything else we do. Those conversations that have been had at the end of the day after the work has been done. Those are the richest conversations amongst artists. It feels gratifying to be there at the point in time. To know I’ve been a part of a huge team of people that have helped enable that to happen.”
The Great Plain Theatre Conference will take place May 25th through June 1st throughout Omaha with most events taking place on the Fort Omaha Campus of Metro Community College. For complete details, visit www.mccneb.edu/gptc.