Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
Photo: Playwright Ellen Struve at a practice of her title “Recommended Reading for Girls” is among half a dozen titles written by local playwrights that are on the calendar between now and fall at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
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By Bob Fischbach
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
It took Ellen Struve four years to write her first full-length play, “Recommended Reading for Girls.” But it has taken 39 years — her whole life — for this stay-at-home mother of two to see herself as a playwright.
She loved writing. She loved plays. “But writing as a career option wasn’t something that occurred to me,” she said. “That’s changed. Because there are opportunities here.”
The local playwriting scene appears to be breaking open, finding new life as more and more area stages present works written by locals. At least nine Omaha venues have locally written plays on the calendar in the coming year. At the same time, writers are finding a recently bolstered community of support to help them every step of the way toward an opening night.
Struve is the poster girl for what can happen when it all comes together. “Recommended Reading for Girls” began a five-week run last week at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
The comedy about an ailing mother and her caregiver daughter, literary heroines and the power of family stories has drawn critical praise and standing ovations in its opening weekend.
The Playhouse is the nation’s largest community theater, with professional direction, design and staging. It has not staged a new local script since Charles Jones’ “My Antonia” in 1994.
Struve says she never dreamed that’s where her play was headed. But to get there, she found help from a newly reactivated Omaha Playwrights Group; local actors, directors and theaters pitching in to develop new works; opportunities to learn from nationally prominent writers through the Great Plains Theatre Conference; and professional connections the conference brought to her hometown.
Struve was always what she calls “theater-curious.”
She took a drama class at Westside High School, though she never auditioned for a part. She was too busy with academics and playing the flute.
She majored in music at DePaul University for a year until she decided the world did not need one more classical flute player.
At the University of Iowa, she took every drama literature class she could en route to a bachelor’s degree in English. Still she didn’t see herself as a writer. In 1999, she earned a master’s degree in arts administration from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She got her dream job, writing grant proposals for a Chicago school that provided tuition-free music lessons.
She also married jazz saxophonist Kevin Pike, who works for FedEx. Kevin was transferred to Omaha in 2003 after their daughter, Reese, was born. Son Eddie was born two years later.
Omaha got Struve writing again, secretly at first, but definitely for the stage. For Struve, musically trained and married to a musician, theater is like music.
“Plays have their own rhythms, swells and internal structures,” she said. “They have an interesting relationship with time.”
As Struve was returning to Omaha, Scott Working began teaching playwriting at Metropolitan Community College. Working had founded the Shelterbelt Theatre, which for 20 years has been staging original plays, including several of his.
Struve took Working’s class. She, Working and others from the class founded the Omaha Playwrights Group, an avenue for about 10 writers she said helped her get serious about playwriting through discussion and reading of each other’s works.
In 2006, Metropolitan Community College began the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference, a forum for staged readings of new plays. The conference draws nationally prominent playwrights, such as Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”), to Omaha each spring to work with fledgling writers.
Struve attended every conference, soaking up others’ plays and the professional feedback they got. By 2008, her one-act play “Mrs. Jennings’ Sitter” was chosen for a reading at the conference. The next year, Struve’s “Mountain Lion” was chosen. The two one-acts were staged together in 2009 at the Shelterbelt.
Struve made connections at the theater conference that led to friendships with playwrights from other cities and to stagings of Struve’s short plays in Roanoke, Va., and New York City.
They also steered Struve to a dramaturge, Heather Helinsky of Pittsburgh. Struve describes a dramaturge as a theatrical therapist for writers.
“They won’t tell you what to do, but they listen and ask questions,” she said.
Struve had a germ of an idea for a play in 2009. Her grandmother was in declining health (she died last year). When Struve was in her 20s, the mothers of several friends had died. Family stories and issues of memory bubbled up from a personal emotional well.
The Omaha Playwrights Group sponsored a staged reading of Struve’s “Recommended Reading for Girls” at the Playhouse in 2010. The script was just 70 pages then, but Struve had been working for a year on how to write a full-length script.
“I thought I was writing it just for myself,” she said. “I wanted to write a play I would want to see myself.”
She got feedback from actors who read the parts, from audience members, from members of the Omaha Playwrights Group — even from an anonymous blogger who saw the reading, and whose encouraging words inspired Struve to continue.
After the reading, Struve and Helinsky bore down on the script, rewriting and lengthening. The Great Plains Theatre Conference gave it a second reading in May 2011. Struve invited Susan Baer Collins, associate artistic director at the Playhouse, to the reading for feedback.
“I remember how surprised I was at how well-paced and timed it was even back then,” Collins said. She took Struve’s script to the Playhouse play-reading group, which unanimously chose it in early 2012 for a full staging.
Even after that, Struve did more rewrites in consultation with friend Amy Lane, who is directing the show at the Playhouse. Finding the right ending was a huge struggle, Struve said — but when it finally came to her, it took just 15 minutes to write.
In the meantime, the Nebraska Arts Council gave Struve an artist fellowship in 2011, and the prestigious Eugene O’Neill National Playwriting Conference chose “Recommended Reading” as a semifinalist.
Struve said the generosity and feedback of the Omaha theater community — readers, directors, audience members, designers — was essential as she shaped her play into what it is now.
New plays, even when they’re as good as Struve’s, are harder to sell to both producing venues and audiences than familiar titles.
They’re also harder to stage, since they’re still in development. While established plays have kinks worked out, new plays can be a greater risk both creatively and financially.
But local playwrights and local theaters can be a natural fit. Hometown writers can tailor works to particular acting companies or audiences. They also have intimate knowledge of the area and the stories that are unique to this part of the country.
Kevin Lawler, producing artistic director of the Great Plains Theatre Conference and a playwright himself, said he sees what’s happening now as the third wave of a local playwriting movement. The first was around 1990, when the Shelterbelt and Circle Theaters began staging local scripts. The second came with the start of the theater conference in 2006.
“It’s opening up,” he said, “and not just with the Playhouse.”
Lawler sees a logical progression from playwrights supporting one another to advocacy within local theater venues to developing an audience for new works and, finally, melding the local playwriting scene with filmmaking and other media.
Omaha’s advantage is that it’s small enough for opportunity but large enough in terms of resources and quality. People who create theater can present it relatively cheaply, compared to movies and television.
The Omaha Playwrights Group, which Struve and playwright Max Sparber have revitalized, holds monthly meetings at which guest speakers talk about the local writing scene. Also monthly, evening sessions offer the chance for writers to hear local actors read parts of their scripts. Just hearing their dialogue out loud helps the writers know what works.
Sparber sees a psychological shift taking place in Omaha since he first arrived in the mid-1990s from Minneapolis and the Blue Barn staged his “Minstrel Show.” Back then, he said, Omaha theater insiders often saw outside work as more worthwhile than something generated locally.
Filmmaker Alexander Payne, visual artist Jun Kaneko and Conor Oberst’s alt-rock group, Bright Eyes, made it seem possible for locally produced artists to gain national credibility. The good stuff didn’t have to come from somewhere else.
Struve said staging locally written plays can have a mushrooming effect. Seeing others succeed offers encouragement for writers to try.
“I have two more scripts in the works, one full-length and one experimental,” she said. “It’s a giving-away process. You give the play to a director, who gives it to actors, who give it to an audience. I love seeing what people bring to it. There are happy surprises.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, email@example.com
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Mary Kelly, foreground, and Christina Rohling run through a scene from Struve’s “Recommended Reading for Girls.” The Omaha Playwrights Group sponsored a staged reading of “Girls” at the Playhouse in 2010, when the script was just 70 pages. With additional feedback, Struve polished and extended her work.
The Local Play’s the Thing
At the Shelterbelt Theatre, Omahan Beaufield Berry’s new play “Psycho Ex Girlfriend” is now playing, while Shelterbelt co-founder Scott Working’s play “V of Geese” is going into rehearsal for a 20th anniversary restaging in July.
Brian Guehring, playwright in residence at the Rose Theater, has had many scripts staged here and nationwide since he was hired in 1998. “The Grocer’s Goblin & the Little Mermaid,” which Guehring and co-writer Stephanie Jacobson based on Hans Christian Andersen tales, will be presented next winter at the Rose.
The Circle Theater regularly stages scripts by its co-founder, Doug Marr, known for his “Phil’s Diner” plays. David Sindelar’s “Bang! Zoom! To the Moon!” is scheduled for November.
SNAP Productions has slated Omahan Daena Schweiger’s collection of monologues, “Voices From the Closet,” for staging next spring.
Max Sparber just founded the Dreamland Ballroom History Theatre in Omaha to present new works, starting with one of his own, “Sadie the Goat,” in September.
Lorie Obradovich, founder of the now-defunct Baby D Theatre, will stage her new play about burlesque, “The Movie House,” in July at the Bancroft Street Market.
Joe Basque’s “Defending Marriage” was staged several years ago at the Shelterbelt, as was his “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” which also ran in New York City. Basque has scheduled a Saturday reading for his new play, “The Battle of Battles,” about the rivalry between Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo.
Omahan Molly Welsh’s new play “Penny Gets Bit” will get a reading and feedback at the Great Plains Theatre Conference next month. “Crash! Boom! Pow!,” co-written with Omahan Ben Beck, was staged at the Shelterbelt last July.
The Blue Barn’s Witching Hour, Red Theater and aetherplough are more examples of area theaters that generate and stage original, sometimes experimental works.