They’ll soon be doing Dostoyevsky in the cavernous hulk that once housed the Burlington Depot, but now two actors fling a Frisbee across the vast mosaic floor as light streams in the four-story atrium. They’re passing time before rehearsing the play Raskol, based on the novel Crime and Punishment.

If you’d said nostalgic goodbyes to the Burlington, thank Kevin Lawler and the Great Plains Theater Conference for bringing it back to life.

Planning five productions for Playfest 2012, Lawler, the GPTC producing artistic director, looked for ways to take theater beyond the usual venues and into the larger community. He found the gutted depot and four other locations, from the old creamery warehouse now known as Kaneko in the Old Market and the parking garage at 14th and Harney to a backyard on North 24th Street and the top of a prairie hill on the edge of the Elkhorn campus of Metropolitan Community College—all “culturally unique locations.”

And this experiment—five sites each layered with the work of five local artists and five local composers—is   just one of many innovations for the 7th annual conference that will draw the theater world to Omaha from May 26 to June 2. Among others: a more formal focus on emerging female playwrights with recognition of Robin Rice Lichtig and a staged reading of her play, Alice in Black and White.

The idea for the Playfest spaces came when Lawler visited the Chamber of Commerce, a downtown spot boosting “Big O!” next to the Omaha Park Two’s five-level garage. It wasn’t a brainstorm inside Chamber offices, but crowded parking that sent him to the top.

“I looked out and saw the most unique view of the city I’d seen in a long while.” Century-old buildings of dark stone, modern buildings gleaming with glass. Even an elongated “Big O!” figure in a baseball cap.

So at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 31, you’ll find a mix of text, movement and sound called You’re Looking Good (cabin pressure). It’s drawn from communication between Houston and astronauts , and presented by Brooklyn-based Jeannette Plourde and the GPTC Movement Wing. Lucky ticket-holders will find seats on the sloping ramp of the parking garage.

The bad news is that five Playfest performances sold out in hours long before the conference opened. The better news is that three evenings still promised seats available, at least a few days ago, and that includes Raskol’s playful adaptation of Dostoyevsky at the abandoned train station on S. 10th Street.

And the best news: the five-part Playfest is free. You can get on waiting lists to replace no-shows, and, if rain requires moving the three outdoor events, a few more may squeeze into the alternatives, the Burlington behemoth or Creighton’s Lied Center.

If the sun shines, not to worry. When something wonderful happens at the Great Plains, as it always did the first six years, chances are an outstanding discovery will show up on the schedule of one of Omaha’s theater companies. Last year’s staged reading of Ellen Struve’s powerful Recommended Reading for Girls helped put it before play-reading committees and win it a place next season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Conference recognition for Struve also led to this year’s award of a conference scholarship to Robin Rice Lichtig, supporting her attendance here for the staged reading of her play, one of more than 50 written by the New York City woman.

Labeling her an “emerging female playwright” might seem a stretch, however. She’s a woman and a playwright, of course, but she has fully surfaced and finally escaped the “young” label. Robin sent a quick message while preparing for her Omaha visit than dashed off to a rehearsal for one of three of her full-length plays in current progress…pausing only long enough to pass on a “Hi” from Monica Bauer, the former Omahan whose play about North and South O music ran at the Shelterbelt Theatre last season.

They’ll both have plays at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. And on arrival here Robin looks forward to meeting director and actor Roxanne Wach, another Omahan she has been in contact with—two relationships that underline the far-reaching theater connections enhanced by the GPTC.

Before this conference became the Great Plains event, the “emerging young” Robin attended it under the Frontier name in Valdez, Alaska. Actually, she enjoyed careers as an artist and journalist before earning a master’s degree in playwriting at age 50, when she began writing those dozens of plays.

Now 71 and free of those rookie labels, she’ll see the staged reading of her Alice in Black and White on Metro’s Fort Omaha campus in conditions typical of this jam-packed conference. Two other plays will be presented concurrently during the 9:30 a.m. to noon session on Thursday, May 31, including The King of Cage Street by Michael Oatman, whose work is known to Shelterbelt audiences.

The depth of talent performing at the same time is impressive in those concurrent offerings. For Alice, director Ron Zank combines such local standouts as Randy Vest with two Equity actors, Kim Gambino, who starred in Bugs at the Blue Barn, and Tammy Meneghini, who’ll also star in The Great Goddess Bazaar for the Brigit St. Brigit company this weekend.

In two nearby rooms, the Oatman play about D-Bear, an ex-drug dealer, will feature Javon Johnson in that role with such stage veterans as D. Kevin Williams and Roderick Cotton. The third play in that morning slot, March by Jennifer Maisel and directed by Lee Wochner, includes the likes of professional actor Paul Boesing and Matthew Pyle. It’s a story of bartering for organs with your soul on the line.

Following those three staged readings, the GPTC Stagewrite Women’s Initiative hosts a luncheon panel of Rebecca Gilman, this year’s honored playwright; Constance Congdon, a master playwright and frequent conference contributor, and Kira Obolensky, who wrote Raskol, that adaptation set for the Burlington. Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With will play at that 24th and Burdette site and Congdon’s Tales of the Lost Formicans will present a group of alien archaelogists on that prairie hill in Elkhorn.

Why emphasize women? Because their plays total only 17 percent of the works performed on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters, and even a smaller percentage of major New York productions.

On the other hand, a recent year’s tally showed that 63 percent of Broadway audiences were female and 69 percent of ticket buyers were women. So Stagewrite plans to continue nurturing  female playwrights.

Gilman, an artistic associate of the Goodman Theatre and professor at Northwestern, has won a Guggenheim fellowship, a Pulitzer nomination and other honors. Her play, Spinning into Butter, became a 2009 film starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Obolensky, of course, won’t find actors flinging Frisbees when they perform her adaptation of Crime and Punishment. She also won’t see how much cleanup was done at the old train station  by Lawler and others.

She’ll still see giant graffiti and other signs on four-story walls. One scrawl says, “150 years of solitude,” a play on the 150-years banner once hung by Weitz Construction. Director Julia Hinson and actors enter through the tall cyclone fence of the sort that often surrounds active construction sites. The small riser that provides their stage has nothing behind it but spacious darkness framed by an aluminum doorway sans door.

But they’ll hang curtains and you’ll see Brendan J.D. Reilly as the title Raskol who commits a horrible crime and Eric Salonis as Perfidy, the Columbo-like investigator who pursues him. They’ll give their words time to echo off the vastness above.

And the audience will see why the site was chosen for the 7:30 p.m. performances on May 27 and 28. As the GPTC publicist put it, the historic depot “resonates with the ghosts of Omaha’s past and emits a feeling of crumbling civilizations so similar to the St. Petersburg in Raskol.”

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