A group of UNO students wanted to put on a play.

Twenty years ago, Ken Blankenship, Alisha Hanson, Ken Jacobs, and Scott Working were looking for a place to perform Working’s first play V of Geese. He had originally written it for the Circle Diner in Benson (now España). When the Circle was unavailable and with not many options left, Working went into one of his usual hangouts, a cafe on 33rd and California called “Kilgore’s” where he would drink coffee, listen to jazz, and eat torte.

“I had gone to listen to music there a few times and saw how the show could work in the space.” Working said, “They had never done a play in there before. I introduced myself to the manager and gave her a script.”

Working then laughed, “She said yes without even looking at it and gave us three weekends. We were more like an indie band than a theatre company. As time went on, we just kept booking gigs in the venue one after the other.”

After their second show, a series a David Mamet shorts, the group known as Shelterbelt found success producing a series of locally written one act plays. “From that point on, we were going to keep it a local as we could.”

The group of UNO students continued to do plays at Kilgore’s. Over the next three years, whenever a new script was created, they booked a gig and did a show. Then in 1997, the owner of Kilgore’s decided to close down the cafe. Working approached the owner about renting out the space and he obliged. The space was familiar. The rent was cheap.

The Shelterbelt Theatre was born.

As time passed, plays opened and closed. Artists and staff, including Working, came and went. But the core of Shelterbelt, new and local plays, remained the same.

Now, twenty years later, the Shelterbelt celebrates their anniversary with the show that started it all, V of Geese.

V of Geese centers around Joan and her brother Ray as they struggle to keep the family diner afloat in a dying town after their father passes away. Ray wants to leave for Chicago as soon as possible while Joan struggles with letting go of the only place she has ever known and seems determined to keep the diner open at all costs.

“She feels her father’s presence in everything,” Working said. “Everything of significance that ever happened to her occured in that building. Her first steps, her first everything. She feels intimately connected and, in turn, responsible for what happens to that place.”

To add intrigue to the dilemma, Joan’s ex boyfriend comes into town for her father’s funeral. He’s been living in Chicago, attending culinary school, and making exciting progress in his life. He tries to get Joan to come to Chicago with him, leaving her all the more overwhelmed of what people and places see puts value into.

Working was asked whether Joan’s determination was a fear of change or a dedication to preserving tradition and family history.

“I think both reasons really resonate. She does truly feel a connection to the place, but it’s all she’s ever known. The unknown (and lack of control that goes with it) is what’s frightening. Do you preserve a legacy or do you try move on to something new and is there a way to reconcile the two?”

To take on the task of directing the 20th anniversary show, Executive Director Craig Bond and now former Artistic Director Ellen Struve put their trust into Steve Hartman, a young director who is a recent graduate of UNO’s theatre program.

“I really appreciate the risk that Ellen and Craig took on me.” Hartman said, “I’m really quite new in this community. I’m not Amy Lane or Susan Clement Toberer, whom everyone knows do fantastic work show in and show out. For Ellen and Craig to take a shot like this is truly an honor. I feel privileged to direct the show that started it all.”

Hartman’s only other full-length play as a director was a production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens for his UNO thesis project. He revitalized the long since forgotten Castle of Perseverance, an outdoor space next to the Weber Fine Arts Building originally designed to be a sort of amphitheatre for the theatre department. After laying dormant for over 15 years, Hartman’s vision brought new life to underutilized playing space.

Now Hartman looks to bring new life to V of Geese.

To help him, he assembled a cast of actors (All UNO students) that he knew could do the script justice.

“I didn’t intentionally pick all UNO students. I cast who I thought was best for the role, people I knew I could work with and who had great work ethic.”

Victoria Luther, Jack Landrie, Nicklaus Knipe, and Kris Fleeman might not be very well known to the Omaha theatre community, but anyone who has attended a UNO production over the past couple of years has gotten a chance see the talent each brings to the stage.

“It’s great to give these guys a shot a like this. UNO has taught them a lot but I still don’t think anyone has totally tapped into their full abilities as actors. I like being able to foster that ability in all of them with roles in which they can really shine.”

With a novice director and an emerging cast, The Shelterbelt Theatre lives on they way they began.

Just a group of UNO students, wanting to put on a play.

“V of Geese” by Scott Working runs through July 28th at The Shelterbelt Theatre. Shows run Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.shelterbelt.org

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