Tell me about your path to becoming the Omaha Playhouse Artistic Director. Where did you start your love for theatre?
My family’s from New York, but I grew up in northern Virginia. I started off doing theatre in a community theatre in northern Virginia where I acted and directed in high school. I also helped co-run a children’s theatre camp there. We never went to DC for visits, we always went to New York so I grew up going to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows all the time. The TKTS line was the center of the known universe!
I was surrounded by theatre from the time I was very young. Community theatre was my very first experience. When I graduated college I went straight to New York working as a freelance professional theatre director. I got very lucky and through the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, I landed in their Observership Program. A couple months into the program, I got my first observership as a 2nd assistant director on Titanic. I had my first Broadway show within my first couple months of going to New York. I also had a production internship at Playwrights Horizons at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. It was a lucky couple of breaks.
Where did you study before landing those opportunities?
I graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington. At Evergreen, you create your own curriculum. You don’t have grades, you and your professors give written evaluations of yourself. So, as part of my studies, I spent a year abroad with a small-scale touring professional theatre company called Proteus Theatre Company in Southern England.
It was very much like community theatre. We went touring through Southern Hampshire. We went to small town halls and plugged in our electricity into barns. We would have bingo and birthday parties at the intervals. The whole community would celebrate the theatre coming into town because it was the only time theatre would visit those communities. I did that for about a year as part of my undergraduate studies. I also went to NYU and did a one semester film program that sadly doesn’t exist anymore. It was a program where people from all over the other arts disciplines would come and learn film for a semester. I developed a very active, hands on college experience. As soon as I graduated, I came right into New York and started working.
What is it about theatre, specifically directing theatre, that strikes a chord with you?
I always knew that this was what I wanted to do. It’s storytelling. I love the collaborative nature of it and the surprises involved along the way. I started directing my sophomore year in high school. As soon as I started doing it, I knew ‘This is what I love doing’.
I enjoy helping to lead people to discovering parts of themselves and abilities that they didn’t know about. It’s those surprises when sometimes you’re working on a show and…you have to let the show guide you. You don’t always know where you’re going to end up. You can put all the scaffolding in place and then you have to let go. It’s a practice in zen really, I think. It’s a combination of being able to lead people to discovery, to discover myself and continually learn about stories and about other people, and then sharing those stories with the audience. A theatre show isn’t complete until it goes in front of an audience. The audience participates in the creation.
Yeah, otherwise you’re just a bunch of goofs walking around on a stage doing weird stuff.
And weird stuff for only yourself! There’s no theatre without the audience. That’s part of the thing with directing, you have to prep it so that when the show is ready, you put it in front of an audience and it takes that next step forward. And it changes every single night with every single performance.
I’ve heard it described as: you have a destination and a starting point and the map is blank. You only have one tank of gas and a machete. You’re going to get there, but you don’t know how.
And you have some mile markers and things along the way. You have instincts. You know, instinctively, when you are going completely off the track. And a lot of time you do need that machete, as you say. I think sometimes as a director, you are walking ahead and taking a lot of the thorns and brambles. You’re sort of protecting the cast in that way, so they can play and experiment in a safe way. You set them up for success but you also have to give them an opportunity to succeed, learn, and grow. There are failures along the way, sure, but we learn from them. That’s the fun thing about art. If everything’s perfect, it’s not art. It has to have what we call ‘mistakes’.
And the process is never done.
You never reach a point and say, ‘There it is, it won’t get any better than that.’
And if you do your job right, as a director, you get to walk away. If you become not needed, you know things are going well. You head towards opening night and everything’s working and nobody’s asking questions anymore because everything has its own rhythm and place and everyone is making their own discoveries. You’re not needed anymore.
Do you find that you need to go in and tweak something mid-run?
Well, with Equity shows professionally, you can’t tweak. Once you are open you can’t give notes anymore. You can give them in a long running show after months to make sure you haven’t veered away from the original intention. Even in non-professional shows, you really have to trust the actors. If they have all the tools and we’ve done our work right, then they really shouldn’t need me anymore. On occasion, there are discoveries.
So how did you find the job opening at Omaha Community Playhouse and why did you want it? What was it about the opportunity that spoke to you?
Well the other part of my career track is that I did 20 years of professional directing in New York and around about 2007, a brand new Master’s Program in Applied Theatre at CUNY (City University of New York) opened up. It was the first Masters of its kind in the United States. I was lucky enough to be a part of the very first class.
Applied Theatre is using theatre for social change, transformation, and education. It’s sort of a wide umbrella. That returned me back to the community origins of my practice and about what’s really important to me. What’s important is community engagement. Using theatre as both entertainment and as an educational tool for opportunity.
When I graduated from the Masters program, I went back into my professional world but I was also feeling restless in that I wanted to apply my training to my life’s work. I wanted to find something that combined the professional theatre training that I had with this newly awakened love of mine for community theatre that had always been there.
So I started looking. It’s kind of strange, I had this feeling that I was going to be moving soon, even a year before I even saw this job open up on ArtSearch. It was very peculiar. I was living in this one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn (like everybody is) and I started divesting myself of things and getting ready to move, even though I didn’t have any idea where I was moving to. My friends kept coming over and saying, ‘There are less and less things in your apartment. What are you doing?!’ I would say ‘I don’t know! But I’m going somewhere.’
When I saw this job opportunity come up on ArtSearch I said, ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for.’ I really wanted to go to a community where I could make a difference, find some way to give back. That’s my reason for being. I feel like if there’s a reason why we’re here, its to give back. And the thing I have to do that with is theatre. That’s the little thing I have to offer. So then I applied and here I am!
When you got here, what was it about OCP that spoke to you?
I think it says something about the family at the Playhouse. Everyone interviewed me! Every staff person, the entire board, everyone! I had an opportunity to meet everyone. I felt like people really wanted to have a conversation with me and the reason they were so interested is because they truly cared about The Playhouse. They really care about honoring the history of The Playhouse while looking forward and adding to this wonderful 90-year tradition. So it really was the people first.
Second was the facility. It is so beautiful. I got a chance to see Les Miz here. I read all the articles about the people that were participating in it. I’m not someone who tears up very easily but at intermission of Les Miz when the audience started cheering, I saw a whole community cheering for their community members.
This is what community can be, what it can do, and what it can achieve. Of course the production values for Les Miz were astonishing as well. It was that whole combination of things. You just had to say, ‘Wow! Look what our people are doing up there!’ Les Miz, itself, is such an incredible achievement for the community. Finally getting to perform it after so many years of wanting to do it. There was this wonderful sense of ‘Look at our community! We did it!’. It was an amazing experience to watch, especially for my first OCP show.
What are the things OCP is doing that you really think are top notch? Where do you see more potential for growth and change? What do you want to try that’s new?
There’s so many things that are working very well. ‘Find Your Stage’, for one. That’s continuing forward into our 90th season. The diversity of programming is really important to me. Keeping that mix of edgier (though I’m not fond of using that word), newer work in the Howard-Drew and showcasing the more recognizable blockbusters that are more accessible to a wider audience in the Hawks Mainstage.
So you want to see more contemporary shows in the Howard Drew?
Well, not necessarily. We’re trying not to use that term too much because, for example, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is on the Drew Stage. It’s tricky trying to give that stage a name because I don’t want people to feel like they shouldn’t give it a try. They should! Just keep an eye on the disclaimer. If language bothers you, be aware that there will be some of that in the Drew. It’s not necessarily about doing heavier, more mature work all the time, but about expanding our offerings. We want to bring more types of theatre to audiences by way of the Howard Drew.
We’re also going to be continuing and expanding the Alternative Programing. We want to continue the programs that are already in place and expand to new ones in the coming months and years. The collaboration with Great Plains Theatre Conference for local play development is a great example. Kevin Lawler is going to be helping direct that new initiative. And what sets it apart from the rest of their conference is the development side. It’s more than just a reading. It’s getting in and getting messy in a room, which is what you need. It’s the first step of many for our Alternative Programming.
Will you find ways to use Applied Theatre in this type of programming in the future?
Absolutely. We want to find ways in which we can not only be a community theatre, but a theatre that truly impacts the community. We also have the American Association of Community Theatre’s New Play Festival. We’ve been selected as one of the seven theatres for the 2016 cycle.
Seven plays will be chosen in a contest and the theatres will decide which one each space is doing. It’s a great step for us. Being the largest community theatre in the county, we want to engage in dialogue with the other community theatres around the country. Starting the conversation was very important to me. And we get to have a world premiere on our stage in 2016!
There are a lot of dynamics in the theatre world that are constantly changing. What do you want see the Playhouse doing in 5 to 10 years and how do you want the Playhouse as an organization viewed not only locally but nationally?
Locally, I would like the Playhouse to be known as a place where the whole community is welcome and engaged. I really want to keep the community at the heart of the Playhouse. People should feel like it is their theatre, not only for entertainment but also for participation.
Nationally, I’m not sure yet. We are working on a lot of unique things. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan is growing again and becoming very strong. I hope that continues to reach a growing and increasingly diverse audience throughout the United States and not only with A Christmas Carol but with additional tours as well. That would really be something. Part of that is returning to the mission of the Caravan which is bringing a sort of educational side of the Caravan to Western Nebraska and the surrounding areas. We want to serve other parts of Nebraska as well as other areas across the nation.
I want more people to know about the Playhouse nationally. To be aware about what a community theatre can be and what it can do. It’s funny because as I was prepping for the job interviews, I was talking with people in New York about it who of course asked, “Why are you leaving New York?!”
Once they figured out and understood why I was going to Omaha and saw what the Playhouse is doing, they were surprised that they hadn’t heard of it. People were so positive about it because nearly everyone got their start in community theatre.
There’s this sort of assumption in some area of the United States, for some reason, that community theatre is this amateurish, poorly-funded, poorly-produced thing like we’re the neglected stepchildren of the regional theatre circuit.
The Omaha Playhouse blows that assumption away. I would love it if we could help engage the wider theatrical audience in that conversation so we can reveal the potential of community theatre nationally. I think there is a real need for community building in the United States. There’s a desire for strengthening communities. Community-based arts programs are a wonderful way to do that. I think community theatre is one of the best ways to go about that. Of course, I’m biased in that thinking.
I would love for us to not only be an example (because I think we have a lot to learn from others) but to be a player in the dialogue of what community theatre is, what it can be, and what its purpose is.
What is its purpose?
I have a variety of answers. This isn’t a cop out, I promise, but I want to engage the staff and patrons in that question. I want to hear from our community what they think it is.
What are we doing and why?
I think we’ll find that answer on the stage.