DIBS got a chance to chat with Beth Thompson the Artistic Director of the Shelterbelt Theatre, Omaha Nebraska's home for new plays. We discussed taking chances on new work, the misconception of Nebraska, and the incredible talent that lives in the middle of the country.
DIBS: There is a risk in producing shows that people have never seen before. . .
BETH: Absolutely! For some reason, people accept "new work" in a film but are much more skeptical when it comes to live theater. The forms are VERY different and perhaps film trailers ease some of that as people have some idea of what they are getting themselves into but I adore audiences who consistently take a chance on new work. Every play or musical was new at some point so give it a shot, be brave and open your mind to a new story being told live in front of you!
DIBS: What challenges have you faced with producing new work and what's rewarding about it?
BETH: The biggest challenge I find is that people do not seem to appreciate how valuable fostering new work is. Big money donors and arts supporting organizations are more interested in supporting proven material. Actors are more excited about playing a well-known role. Truthfully, I think that they are scared of the work it requires but for me that is what is so rewarding. Anyone can produce/direct/act "proven" material but to dive into something completely new is brave and terrifying but ultimately important to continue to add to the canon.
DIBS: What compels you to do that?
BETH: My favorite element of what I do is the process. To read a script that is in it's early stages and be moved by something in it, is exciting. I ask myself how can I be useful to this piece and if I am invested from this early draft that can only grow. I am not a writer but I deeply love storytelling and to be a part of how a piece comes together is exciting for me. I also love watching a playwright as each element comes together; the casting, design elements and workshopping of the script. As each collaborator spins their magic their play/musical comes to life and it is a really special thing to be a part of.
DIBS: As an Artistic Director when you read through the scripts, what sort of elements do you look for?
BETH: I am specifically looking for material that can be produced in our space. We have limited resources but a lot of heart and creativity so if something absolutely requires a fly system or a car on stage it is not for us. If I read a script and I can picture it in our space, then I will pass it on to the reading committee. If I can't, I don't.
DIBS: As a Director, do you have a certain style of plays you prefer to direct?
BETH: I don't have a particular style that I prefer but the play/musical has to have a strong point of view, characters that I can relate to (whether I like them or not) or see someone I know in, and a story I feel is important to tell. My first question to young playwrights is often, "why do you need to tell this story?" as I believe that makes all the difference in their delivery of the story.
DIBS: Could you describe the Theatre scene in Omaha?
BETH: Omaha has a lively, supportive and varied theater scene; we have professional companies like The Rose and Nebraska Shakespeare, we have the largest community theater company in the United States with The Omaha Community Playhouse which also supports a professional touring company of their legendary A Christmas Carol. We have groundbreaking regional companies like the Blue Barn which produces scripts coming off Broadway as well as the regional scene and Brigit St. Brigit which is dedicated to classic work such as Shakespeare, Shaw and their annual Irish Festival. The Shelterbelt shares space with SNAP! Productions whose mission began with LGBTQ stories as well as those that dealt directly with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and has since broadened to include all underrepresented voices. There are a ton of improv, comedy and smaller companies that devise their own work. Combined with our music and visual arts scenes Omaha is a really busy place for anyone interested in live entertainment!
DIBS: As a state of Nebraska, people seem a little surprised that there is anything going on there. Omaha is a hidden gem with a theatre scene. Please describe it for those who have a misunderstanding about Nebraska.
BETH: The biggest misconception people have of Omaha, or more specifically Nebraska, is that we are all creating theater in a cornfield somewhere. I have directed for the Great Plains Theater Conference (www.gptcplays.com) the past 7 years and earlier this fall directed a new musical for ASCAP's Build a Musical program both of which bring playwrights and composers from all over the country come to Omaha or Lincoln to workshop their work and receive a public reading. EVERY single time, no matter how many emails and detailed conversations are exchanged prior to their arrival, these artists are BLOWN AWAY at the talent that exists here. Some even complain when they are given local actors and end up eating their words by the end of the process. Here is one of my favorite stories: Stephen Bray, co-composer/lyricists for The Color Purple, was one of the respondents for the musical reading I directed this past September and he has worked with the best of the best all over the country and came up to one of my actors after the performance and told him that he should be doing this professionally. Talent exists everywhere and most of those that "make it" was not born on the coast.
DIBS: Have there been plays produced at the Shelterbelt that have gone elsewhere? If so, where?
BETH: I believe there have been a few things we have premiered over the years that have gone on to be produced elsewhere but the one I know of for sure is Monica Bauer's My Occasion Of Sin, which had an off-Broadway run after we did it a few years ago. Also, Sara Farrington's Mickey and Sage was published after our production, in which she contacted me personally to say that us picking it up was a tipping point for the publishing house.
DIBS: Why is it important to produce local scripts?
BETH: Because again talent is not designated to any particular area and we have some amazing voices writing in Omaha. Audiences need to feel connected to the material and growing up or living (or having lived) in Nebraska is a specific experience that they enjoy relating to. I believe that every city should be supporting their local artists, of all mediums!
Beth Thompson is a director, actor and has been the Artistic Director of the Shelterbelt Theater in Omaha, Nebraska since 2013. She graduated with a BA in Theater, with a focus in acting and directing, from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2012. Favorite directing credits include Neighbors, Lovers and All the Others, Revelation, The Singularity, In The Jungle You Must Wait, The Other Sewing Circle, Abby In The Summer and Psycho Ex-Girlfriend for the Shelterbelt as well as Tigers Be Still and A Bright New Boise for the Omaha Community Playhouse’s 21& Over reading series. Favorite roles include Nan Carter in Exit, Pursued by a Bear (OCP's 21 & Over), Dale Prist in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche (Shelterbelt), Mom/Ms. Speigel in Dark Play or Stories for Boys (UNO), and Mrs. Hermannson in Eric Hermannson's Soul (Lone Tree Theater Project) which toured to both the Kansas City and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals in 2011.
Beth, and her work, has been nominated for both Theater Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts awards. She is proud to head the “Before the Boards” reading series, at the Shelterbelt, which presents staged readings of local plays to assist in their development. Her love of storytelling, collaboration and development of new work keep her striving to improve with each new project and learn a little more about herself and the world around her in the process.