AMERICAN THEATRE | New Plays, Good Food, Great Plains: A Proven Recipe

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AMERICAN THEATRE | New Plays, Good Food, Great Plains: A Proven Recipe

A “Stories of O” gathering at the Great Plains Theatre Commons. (Photo by Thomas Grady)

Theatre in crisis gave way to the promise of a new canon at the latest Great Plains Theatre Commons New Play Conference, May 26-June 1 in Omaha. Works by 10 playwrights from 600-plus submissions got staged readings, each with a dramaturg, director, designer, and feedback from visiting respondents, many of them former GPTC playwrights.

Being in service to developing new plays, GPTC manager Quinn Corbin said, is more valuable now than ever with The Lark, Sundance Theatre Lab, and Humana Festival no more. “It’s an increasingly rare opportunity to have that time and space to work on a new play in this way,” Corbin said. GPTC did pare back its PlayLabs—but not due to budget constraints, Corbin said, but to give more attention to each playwright and play. It makes for an intensive experience.

“Ten plays in a week is a fantastic opportunity to drink from the new-play firehose,” said first-time attendee Amy Guerin, a University of Alabama-Huntsville theatre professor. “I was told it was the place to be for new-play development. These are emerging playwrights. Audiences are getting in on the ground floor of these careers. What I hope to bring back to my students is an even larger connection with the theatre world outside of our little program and our region so that they feel more connected to the ecosystem.”

Said freelance designer Brenda Davis, a first-time participant who expects to be back, “I feel like I have gotten a good look at the future voices of American theatre. I know these plays will have a life after this.” 

An 11th featured playwright, Harrison David Rivers, enjoyed a full-circle moment with his drama Sweet, which explores sisterhood in a Southern Black family. Workshopped in Omaha in 2015, it was produced at the National Black Theatre in Harlem in 2016. This year it found a full staging in the Omaha conference’s PlayFest series, reuniting Rivers with director Denise Chapman. Rivers said he found it “meaningful” to bring back a work partly developed in a region he’s originally from (Kansas) and still resides in (St. Paul, Minn.).

“When you think about new-play development you’re usually thinking about the coasts or Chicago,” said Rivers. “So I think it’s special that it’s solidly in the middle of the country.”

A reading of Kendra Ann Flournoy’s “Bambiland” at Great Plains Theatre Commons. (Photo by Thomas Grady)

The 2024 plays explored themes of grieving, coming home, identity, and connection. Explained GPTC director Kevin Lawler, “Among the things readers are asked to look for is plays that are courageous.” This year, he added, “You felt that deeply.”

GPTC community connector Ellen Struve noted “strong, diverse world creation,” from the immigration limbo of Chloé Hung’s Alien of Extraordinary Ability to urban Detroit’s ravaged housing environs in Kendra Ann Flournoy’s Bambiland, from the multiverse of Ian August’s All the Emilies in All the Universes to the time ripples of Regan Moro’s burn for you.

Workshops and panels rounded out the programming. Panels included dramaturgy and design shop talks and the “liberation creation ideology” of a new group, Home X Noir. GPTC’s Young Dramatists got a primetime slot to shine. “We’re trying to support, as much as we can, a new wave of young theatremakers,” Lawler said. 

“We try not to be too prescriptive,” said Corbin. “It’s more about having the discussions the people in the room want to have. It allows for exploration you don’t always have time for in the ‘real world.’ Exploration is key to new work and collaboration.”  

The conference mostly unfolded at Metropolitan Community College’s historic Fort Omaha campus, whose bistro, patios, gardens, and lawns encouraged pop-up confabs among peers. 

“A lot happens in those unscheduled gatherings,” Lawler said, “because when people get here they’re away from their home environment and they can unplug and really be here, devoting more time and energy than they normally can to working on their art. So conversations are a big deal, because we can’t get everything into the response and rehearsal sessions.”

Davis, who mentored designers and moderated a design panel, said she appreciated the time “for thinking and dreaming about the what-ifs of theatre.” 

gptc 2024 Khalid Long Kendra Ann Flournoy
Khalid Long and Kendra Ann Flournoy at the Great Plains Theatre Commons. (Photo by Thomas Grady)

For 19 years now, GPTC has convened national, regional, and local artists for nourishing development, collaboration, networking, and, not incidentally, food from MCC’s Culinary Institute.

“Once you add food to the mix, it takes it to another level,” said Lawler, who has headed GPTC since 2009. “A ton of conversations happen over meals. It’s a central, soulful, vital act, and luckily we have this super healthy, incredible-tasting food here. That’s a great recipe for conversations.”

In those conversations are the seeds of the conference’s main outcome. As respondent James Anthony Tyler put it, “I always think the real currency in this field is relationships: getting together and breaking bread, talking about our ideology on writing, analyzing similarities and differences in our journeys. It’s inspiring.” Former Cornerstone Theater Company artistic director Michael John Garcés, a GPTC veteran, noted the “organic mix of educators, students, professionals of all stripes—emerging, established, etc.—who gather with each other around really great food, seeing plays in workshop and in production. A lot of it is relational.”

Said newcomer Chloé Hung, who splits her time between Toronto and Brooklyn, said, “What will stand out in my mind most is the relationships I made with other playwrights. We all bonded very well and created a safe support system with each other. It’s very important as a writer to have other writers you can relate to and share in each other’s journey.”  

Ditto for playwright Alex Lubischer, whose comedy Pivot charted the social and cultural contours of farm life, something the rural Nebraska native, who now teaches in Chicago, knows well. “My favorite part of the conference is the way it brings different playwrights together from different parts of America,” said Lubischer. “Because we can be such solitary creatures, it’s great just getting to hang and talk with playwrights.”

That sentiment is music to the ears of GPTC’s Struve. “I love to see the cohort of playwrights support one another and build one another up,” she said. “We’ve learned that one of the true values of a conference like this is the connections of the playwrights themselves.”

gptc Sweet Audience
The audience at “Sweet.” (Photo by Thomas Grady)

The less-is-more structure also allowed playwrights to see each other’s work. Said respondent Eugenie Chan, a past playwright participant, “One of the things I really appreciate is that there are fewer plays, so you can actually see them. The great thing about that is the houses are fuller for each reading, which is important because that’s how you get the first blush of how people respond.”

Discussions extended to informal cohorts that respondents like Christina Ham joined in. “The conversations we have inside the readings extend to our residence and over meals,” she said. “It also translates to our own craft as well. Lessons we may be telling other writers can feed into our own work.”

Variety is also an important ingredient. “A revolving roster of artists adds a vitality,” said Lawler. “It stays healthy, crackling, and alive as you keep bringing new people into the mix.” James Anthony Tyler said he was “pleasantly surprised by how intentional organizers are with being inclusive. All of the works, even us respondents, are super diverse.”

“The intentionality of community, inclusion, and diversity on all levels is very clear,” said Chan, who’s seen GPTC develop theatre with Black, Latine, and Mayan communities. “That is the long view. That’s dynamic and ongoing growth, not just a fixed model, and that’s important.

Garcés previously introduced community-engaged story circle practices to GPTC. Haley Piper Haas and Colleen O’Doherty apply those practices to their Omaha-based Anastasis Theatre Co. Garcés, who led a 2024 workshop, sees theatre’s future hinging on “making work that tries to find commonalty and ways of reconciling with each other and being creative together.”

“I would argue all theatre on some level is making plays for and in community,” Garcés said. “Doing it with a methodology and purposely to elucidate a particular community’s stories, concerns, passions. Certainly it’s happening in Omaha more and more.”

Lawler welcomes the collegial community-building that visiting professionals like Garcés provide. “The guest artists come here because they want to be of service to other artists and give that support.”

“The conference is an excellent opportunity to weld together our local theatrical community with the national theatrical community,” said Struve. “One reason we’re here after 19 years is the way those two facets work together. We try to cast locally and use local directors but also bring in national artists and playwrights. It both enriches the opportunities here and serves the wider community nationally.”

Omaha theatres that do produce new work source material at the conference. Shelterbelt Theatre, for one, has a long history producing works developed at GPTC, including a play by award-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Celine Song. Shelterbelt’s first play in 2025 will be by Marie Amthor Schuett, a graduate of GPTC’s Commoners playwright residency. 

“GPTC has just added a whole other layer of what’s possible in terms of original new work,” said Shelterbelt executive director Dan Wach. “It’s a gift, it truly is, and we’d be silly not to take advantage of it.”

Earlier this year, Dave Osmundsen’s More of a Heart had its world premiere production at Omaha’s Bluebarn after a 2023 GPTC PlayLab reading. “It’s not just local artists going out into the world but also national artists returning to Omaha,” said Corbin, “so it’s reciprocal.” GPTC veteran Khalid Long worked as a dramaturg and moderator with Omaha Community Playhouse, for example.

gptc 2024 PlayLab Playwrights
PlayLab playwrights at this year’s Great Plains Theatre Commons. Top row: Kendra Ann Flournoy, Ian August, Adrienne Dawes, Kate Mickere, Melissa Maney, and Alex Lubischer. In front: Vinecia Coleman, Chloé Hung, Regan Mor, and Patrick Vermillion. (Photo by Quinn Metal Corbin)

A 2024 GPTC playwright, Adrienne Dawes, knows that she beat long odds having her play Dupe (a meditation on identity, authorship and sisterhood) selected. 

“The scarcity of these kinds of opportunities means the competition is extremely high,” Dawes said. “For every writer here there are 40-50 others that could have just as easily been selected. We are not lacking exciting, original new voices with absolute bangers of new plays communities would love and appreciate. What is scarce is producers and companies actively pursuing and producing new work.”

Said Ham, “The conference is absolutely vital because of the other conferences going away and being shut down and providing limited opportunities for playwrights to be able to workshop their work and really get it out there.” Hung called the paucity of new work avenues “extremely concerning,” adding, “We won’t have any new American classics unless we develop them now.” Chimed in Kendra Ann Flournoy, “Spaces like this not only allow for generation but discussion, skills building, and opportunity to move on to a life of production and other forms of sharing.”

GPTC continues to cultivate new work due to stalwart donors whose support has not waned since the pandemic. “There are some very strong relationships we have with Omaha philanthropic and theatre community leaders who see the need for this kind of investment in stories,” said Struve. These advocates, she said, “certainly helped Great Plains stay the course through these times.”

Lawler said he knows GPTC is fortunate to have donors “who understand the importance of diverse, honest, in-depth stories being generated and what that means for the health of the community.” He added, “They’ve been pretty visionary, and not just for us but for the cultural life in the city. They understand the power of theatre is getting community together to share stories in person.”

Bill and Sandi Bruns of Omaha are longtime devotees—indeed, they call themselves “professional audience” members. What brings them back year after year? “It’s a chance to see this creative process, the interaction between the various artists, you don’t normally get to see,” said Bill. “It’s a very stimulating educational experience.” They start simply by attending, but, said Sandi, “We started giving money and supporting it in other ways.” This couple, who also travel for theatre, have seen GPTC plays find new homes elsewhere. “It’s so much fun to see things come to fruition,” said Sandi.

More broadly the conference gets support from the NEA and now the Shubert Foundation, as well as from five family-led Nebraska foundations who comprise the Producers Circle. Said Katie Weitz of the Weitz Family Foundation, “It takes a long time to develop a play and then to produce a play. Nurturing the spark of a story or the outline of a play is a critical stage. We know these creative endeavors are part of building greater understanding in the world and critical for creating a more just and compassionate society.” 

Shubert senior program director Amy Dorfman Wine sampled the conference and liked what she saw. “It was a wonderful opportunity to hear newer voices unfamiliar to me as well as those of more seasoned playwrights,” she said. “It was fantastic to hear rooms abuzz after readings, panels, and productions,” adding that GPTC’s mission aligns well with Shubert’s mission of supporting theatre “that impacts the national repertoire.”

Eugenie Chan admires what Lawler and co. have sown and reaped. “It’s great to see the community support in the audiences,” she said. “You can’t underscore enough that you’ve got people who want to see new work in development. I think it’s built-in.”

gptc 2024 vampire panic
A reading of Kate Mickere’s “Vampire Panic!” at the Great Plains Theatre Commons. (Photo by Thomas Grady)

Hosting a theatre conference in Nebraska poses some challenges, but the relatively remote location, far from the distraction of agents and producers, also has advantages. 

“It is helpful to have a little bit of a safe haven in the Midwest that doesn’t feel it’s as competitive or driven by the industry,” said Corbin. “It allows a little bit more experimentation in a different way than if you feel all eyes are on you and you have to have a finished polished product for people to see.” 

Said Ham, “It gives the playwright the opportunity and less pressure to just focus on the work of the play.” Added Tyler, “One of the best things you can ask for as a playwright is the time and space just to focus on your work.” Chan hails from San Francisco, Ham from L.A., and Tyler from Brooklyn, and all three echoed others in appreciating the opportunity the conference provides for getting outside their “bubble.”

GPTC outreach efforts show up in different ways. As one of the four arts organizations sponsoring the Four Directions Native Playwright Residency, GPTC hosted this year’s resident, Drew Woodson, during the conference. The event served as the first of his four week-long experiences.

“More people traveled to experience the conference than ever,” Corbin said, “including playwrights whose work was not accepted. It’s nice to have them, as they add to the fabric of the conference.”

Perennial partners University of Nebraska Omaha and Creighton University sent participants. GPTC’s recent inroads with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan bore results. A University of Oklahoma cohort led by professor and GPTC intimacy consultant Kate Busselle came for the third time. She said the conference’s use of dramaturgs gives the school’s dramaturgy program majors a real-life look at the discipline in practice.

All participating conference artists, some 200 in all, are paid. Yet all GPTC programming, which extends year-round to residencies, workshops, readings and productions, are free and open to the public.  

The conference is a launching pad for not just visiting artists but Nebraskans as well: GPTC alums from Nebraska enjoying breakout careers include playwrights Don Nguyen, Wai Yim, Noah Diaz, and Beaufield Berry; producer Sierra Lancaster; and performers Nadia Ra’Shaun and Kelcey Watson. “I always love to trace the development of young artists through the conference,” Corbin said.

At the closing gala Lawler reminded everyone—not that they needed reminding—why new work matters.  

“Stories are the way we all get along together and pass on generational wisdom,” said Lawler. “It’s life compressed. Playwrights this week have done that brilliantly. The depth, complexity, and soulfulness of what you brought has been astounding. And we need it badly.” 

The new work developed there, he said, “collects and spreads outward—the stories stay, they move out into the country, across the world.”

Leo Adam Biga (he/him) is an Omaha-based freelance writer and the author of the 2016 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

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