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Denise Chapman as Mildred Brown in "Carnation" at the Great Plains Theatre Conference.

O Pioneers! Paving the Way for New Plays in Nebraska

In its 11th iteration, the Great Plains Theater Conference has both grown and grown more tightly knit.

OMAHA, NEB.: There are a lot of new plays and playwrights brewing in the middle of the country, and the Great Plains Theater Conference (GPTC), which held its 11th annual event May 28-June 4, aims to support them. The conference is the youngest sister of the William Inge Festival of Independence, Kan., and the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. All three were founded by Dr. JoAnn McDowell, whose personal friendships with some of the nation’s great playwrights inspired her to create these events. And they’ve shown up: Edward Albee, Romulus Linney, Terrence McNally, and August Wilson are among who’ve participated in the programming.

If Last Frontier is the pretty sister, elevated in a pristine Alaskan landscape, the Inge Fest would be the refined and thoughtful sibling, situated in small-town Kansas. Continuing the analogy, Great Plains may arguably be the wild sister of the bunch: growing loudly, gaining a storied reputation, and becoming a shining star on the national scene.

Kevin Lawler, artistic director of GPTC, has continued the original mission of playwright support from those early years, creating a nurturing environment for new work to be seen and heard. The event features many parts: workshops, mainstage readings, PlayFest, and PlayLab.

Five of the conference’s six days are devoted to PlayLab, for which Omaha-based actors and directors, as well as a few national imports, perform staged readings. Audience members then give feedback and ask questions, and a panel of experts responds to the play.

Says associate artistic director Scott Working, many playwrights “have certain seemingly concrete choices in their heads that stay with them until they get to experience actual actors reading their scripts. Sometimes the new voices are unexpected. I think it’s fascinating when people find new approaches for a character they’ve been living with for years, especially when they come in blind.”

Working, who also heads the theatre department at the conference’s home, Metropolitan Community College, reads every script and helps pair writers with directors. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha,” he says. “I think that intuition pays off when the playwright and director meet; sometimes they’re kindred spirits.”

There were 21 PlayLab playwrights this year, in addition to readings of work by the festival’s mainstage writers: Tori Sampson, Caroline Prugh, Gabrielle Reisman, Elizabeth Heffron, and Ben Hoover.

Ibrahim Miari in Naomi Wallace's "The Retreating World" at the Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Ibrahim Miari in Naomi Wallace’s “The Retreating World” at the Great Plains Theatre Conference.

GPTC also emphasizes the role of the dramaturg, and this year many dramaturgs led workshops, talkbacks, and panels in addition to working with the playwrights. Heather Helinsky was the first dramaturg to join the conference, at first as a guest of another longtime attendee, playwright Connie Congdon.

“It all started with the idea of a playwright/dramaturg road trip with Connie,” Helinsky recalls. Now, six years later, Helinsky is the head of the dramaturgical team at GPTC. “We hope the workshops, energy, and support gives writers the residency to work on the next piece,” she adds.

Scripts are chosen through a series of blind submissions; past participants include Hilary Bettis, Lindsey Ferrentino, Harrison Rivers, and Celine Song. Song, whose 2015 piece The Feast was recently produced at Omaha’s Shelterbelt Theater, was back this year in PlayLab with her play Tom & Eliza. Song has built the majority of her career in New York, and appreciates the further attention she’s gotten after her years in Omaha. “Great Plains has opened all the doors outside of New York for me,” she says.

In addition to the focus on playwriting, Lawler began including technical arts in the conference a few years ago. This year, lighting designer Justin Townsend led aspiring stage and light designers into the forefront of the playmaking conversation, and sound designer/musician Mark Bruckner also returned for his fourth year to add music and live Foley effects to several of the readings.

As if full days of play readings weren’t enough, the nights were filled with more theatre. The week kicked off with the Fringe, an evening of raucous short plays curated by San Francisco-based Andrea Hart. There was also PlayFest, a festival-within-a-festival where everything from full-length plays to devised works are performed around Omaha.

Josh Wilder’s play, Leftovers, was a mainstage production at GPTC in 2013, and was back as part of PlayFest this year. Directed by Los Angeles-based actor/director Levy Lee, Leftovers is set in inner-city Philadelphia, where an unusually large dandelion has cracked through the sidewalk of Jalil and Kwamaine’s mother’s house, as the two brothers wait for the arrival of their deadbeat dad. Originally set for an outside performance on an Omaha porch, Leftovers had to move inside due to weather and was performed on a meticulously built set, including a giant, animated dandelion, designed by Steven Williams.

This year was resplendent with African-American theatre. Omaha-based director and community leader Denise Chapman’s one-woman show, Carnation, was part of PlayFest. Set during the infamous Omaha Riots of the ’60s, the play is about Mildred Brown, editor of Nebraska’s first black-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star. Chapman also directed the mainstage presentation of Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a MuhFucka. Set in a fictional African town, the play follows four teenage girls wrestling with societal beauty standards.

New York-based choreographer David Neumann brought his dance company to perform I Know Everything Better Now, a passionate piece about life during and after the passing of Neumann’s parents. With text by Sibyl Kempson, the production, which was part of PlayFest, was an emotional highlight for the conference.

Lawler says that one of his goals for the conference is to seek out new venues and produce more site-specific theatre. Naomi Wallace’s The Retreating World, directed by Elena Araoz, benefited from this objective. The Retreating World, the middle part of Wallace’s trilogy The Fever Chart, was performed in Gallery 1516, a museum whose vastness gave the audience room to take in Wallace’s work while still being incredibly intimate and up-close. Wallace was this year’s featured playwright, and a panel of her collaborators—Araoz, Mark Bruckner, Jodi McAuliffe, and Kia Corthron—discussed the Kentucy-born, U.K.-based writer’s influential life and career.

The conference concluded with a gala recognizing the GPTC team. Longtime conference supporter Eve Simon received the Dr. JoAnn McDowell Award for excellence in theatre support, and there was lots of food, music, and dancing.

As the years go by and the web of theatremakers in the United States grows both larger and closer at the same time,  the people who return to Metropolitan’s historical campus agree on one thing: No matter where you’re from, Omaha and Great Plains feel like home.

“It really feels like coming back for the family,” Celine Song incants as a new friend honks to pick her up for her drive her to the airport.

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