When Jo Ann McDowell, then-president of Metropolitan Community College, announced the first Great Plains Theatre Conference in 2006, Omaha's theater community wasn't sure quite what to think.
Now they know. The conference has become a highlight of the local theater year and a catalyst for improving the quality of what's staged here.
The conference opens its seventh year Saturday on the Fort Omaha campus of Metropolitan Community College.
Pulitzer-winning playwrights Edward Albee, Doug Wright and David Lindsay-Abaire have come to Omaha to talk about their art with young writers, along with Arthur Kopit, Emily Mann, Theresa Rebeck, Caridad Svich and many more theater professionals with national reputations.
Their impact has lasted far longer than their weeklong visits.
“When we bring the top playwrights in, and stage their major works, these works have had a dialogue nationally with the cultural elite of the country,” said Kevin Lawler, producing artistic director of the conference. “We're bringing that dialogue to Omaha and engaging the local community in it.”
An example, Lawler said, was Lindsay-Abaire's play “Rabbit Hole,” which deals with grief after the death of a child. Post-show discussions, including one with Lindsay-Abaire, opened up a conversation with people who had experienced such grief.
The impact on local playwriting has also been profound, Lawler said.
“We've staged readings of more than 25 local playwrights, original works,” he said.
Aaron Zavitz's “Intelligentsia,” staged last month at the Shelterbelt Theatre, was a conference play lab selection two years ago. Ellen Struve's “Recommended Reading for Girls,” read at last year's conference, will be part of the Omaha Community Playhouse's season for 2012-13.
Other theaters have formed relationships with visiting playwrights that have led to stagings of their works, and even collaboration with them.
The Blue Barn Theatre packed the house with award-winning productions of Lindsay-Abaire's “Rabbit Hole,” as well as Albee's Pulitzer winners “Three Tall Women” and “Seascape.”
Lawler said the conference's free master classes have elevated work done by local directors and actors as well. This year's conference is adding master classes for theater designers and dramaturgs, who research history related to a play and help writers and directors with dramatic structure.
Lawler said the number and quality of original scripts submitted to the conference have skyrocketed since last year.
“We had 644 submissions this year, a 37 percent increase over last year,” Lawler said.
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