Local playwright helps establish Omaha theatre community

Omaha native, Jo Ann Schmidman has taken on many occupations in the field of theatre. She has been a playwright, actress, artistic director, and one of the founders of the, now closed, The Magic Theatre here in Omaha located on 325 South 16th Street.

Schmidman’s interest in theatre began when her elementary school took her class to the Junior theatre performances and she thought it looked like a lot of fun. Her parents were also interested in theatre and took her to New York a few times together to see musicals.

“I tried to do theater in high school. It was more, if you weren’t tall or blonde and if you didn’t look like an ingenue or a leading lady you didn’t get the [leading] part, so I didn’t look the part. I played a lot of French maids in high school,” Schmidman said.

Schmidman was attracted to the theatre rather than going out for a sport. She wanted to pursue it further, so she explored different theatre schools. Schmidman spent a summer at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, during high school for a theatre program.

“They had a neat summer program for theatre. You know high-school reinforced it and I did it in college it was my life,” Schmidman said.

After high-school, Schmidman attended Boston University, where she started directing the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for her own entertainment.

“At the particular school I went to, I learned acting techniques, directing techniques, and we read classic playwrights. I was introduced to Megan Terry and the 60’s playwrights. You know there were probably 50 fabulous writers that were all creating in the 60s at places like Café Le Mama, Café Chino, the Living Theatre, and the Open Theatre,” Schmidman said.

According to The International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP), the percentage of women playwrights represented by theaters listed in the study ranged from 29 percent in 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 to a season high of 37 percent in 2016-2017.

“We absolutely changed people’s lives,” Schmidman said.

While Schmidman was a playwright, she would help to build the plays and would start with a theme.

One play called Running Gag created by Schmidman and her colleagues, was started with the theme of running. When it was fully developed, they performed the play at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid [, NY].

Schmidman and her acting group were able to perform for the athletes and the spectators and she said that “it was just amazing to be able to experience that.”

“In late 2017, American Theatre magazine reported that, out of 513 not-for-profit theaters across the U.S., only 26 percent of their new plays and revivals were written by women, with 62 percent written by men and 11 percent co-written by women and men,” ICWP said.

Her job as an artistic director helped to coordinate the entire production. More specifically, she started the dialogue and figured out the overall mission for the theatre. The theatre group wanted to use music, visual arts, architecture, lighting, word, and sound in their performances.

“The artistic director makes those sorts of decisions and tries to find people that are also interested in moving those ideas forward and create performances around them,” Schmidman said.

Omaha Magic theatre’s mission was to, “push theatre to the edge, to push boundaries in new directions to reinvent for a current audience what theatre could be.”

“There was nothing happening in Omaha in 1968 and when we started [The Magic Theatre], it was in the old market,” Schmidman said.

The type of theatre The Magic Theatre did was performance art it is also known as experimental theatre or fringe theatre.

“We did [plays] a few times that were previously written but for the most part we would either write our own shows, hire playwrights to come in or [for] composers to come in and create a script around a company of actors that we had in place,” Schmidman said.

Shmidman believes that The Magic Theatre had an impact on community in Omaha.

“We absolutely changed people’s lives. They loved it. We kept our ticket prices low,” Schmidman said.

People who went to the Magic Theatre in Omaha had to pay once and they could return to the theatre as many times as they wanted to after that.

For Schmidman and her colleagues it wasn’t about making money, it was about turning people onto the idea that every time they saw a show, they would see a different show even though it was scripted and directed.

The Magic Theatre was founded by Schmidman, colleagues of hers from Boston University, directors, actors, and a couple of people who fundraised. The Magic Theatre did a Megan Terry show their first year and a Sam Shepard show the same year.

One of Schmidman’s favorite plays that she helped to create was the last one they made, called “Star Path Moon Stop”. The theatre brought it all the way to Korea.

“Our theatre wasn’t about how you look. It didnt matter if you were thin or fat or short or tall,” Schmidman said.

“It was about movement [and] about changing your address. Moving beyond your family, making your own family, and physical movement,” Schmidman said.

They stopped performing “Star Path Moon Stop” in 1997. Schmidman tried to find people that would carry it on, but she was unable to. They gave the archives to the University of California Berkley and are housed there to this day. Schmidman says not to do theatre unless you have a passion for it.

“You really have to be kind of crazy and believe, totally believe, in the power of the theatre and have this passion for making new art,” Schmidman said.

The Magic Theatre would often work on their plays for six months before they would put them on.

“Often it would get long, and we knew we wanted to have only an hour performance, so we wouldn’t wear out the audience,” Schmidman said.

The Magic Theatre was not commercial.

“Our theatre wasn’t about how you look. It didn’t matter if you were thin or fat or short or tall,” Schmidman said.

The Magic Theatre did a play about women in prison early in the beginning of the company.

“At that point it was all men. Yet the play was about women and so they decided, beards and all, they were going to explore what it was to be a woman in prison and perform the female roles,” Schmidman said.

Schmidman was in many plays including, Star Path Moon Stop, Astro-bride, Belches on Couches, Running Gag, and Approaching Simone, while working with The Open Theatre located in New York City. While working with The Magic Theatre in Omaha a few plays she did with them were Mutation Show, Night Walk, and Terminal.

Schmidman and her colleagues figured out how to book tours around the United States, Canada, and Korea to support the theatre. It wasn’t because, “we were trying to sell something commercial. It was about the passion involved.”

Schmidman’s advice for those who want to go into theatre is that, “if you want to make art, you are who you are and what is vibrating inside of you, your passion, and forget anything else and just follow that dream. Dream big. Make it a priority and go for it.”