Jenny Koley says she was born to be an actress.
“It is my passion!” the 33-year-old said with a touch of dramatic flair.
Koley is part of a theater troupe that has been rehearsing in a Sunday school hall for two months to present three plays this week for “Loud Mouths 2013.”
The actors are excited to have an audience. They're proud to be involved in this project, and most of them want to share their stories.
If they have stage fright, they're hiding it well. They chatter and giggle and dance around the area until project director Jim Hoggatt quiets them and leads them in movement and breathing exercises.
“Loud Mouths 2013” is the only playwriting festival in Omaha for people with developmental disabilities. The 17 performers and three playwrights are students in the Art of Imagination program at Omaha's Ollie Webb Center. The program aims to give participants more self-confidence, cooperation skills and camaraderie.
Vitale Push, 20, is dressed in his first costume, a police uniform. He's a smiling, soft-spoken guy who came to this country from the Ukraine. He says his dream back in Ukraine was to be a star, and it hasn't died in Omaha. He wants to walk a red carpet.
Like Jenny, Vitale sees these plays as a chance to show what he can do.
After the warmup exercises, Hoggatt has the actors for the first play take their places onstage and tries to keep the other actors quiet until their cues.
Some of the players are hard to hear. Several speak too softly; others speak very fast or don't look up. Jacob Gehringer cleverly reads his lines from a notebook, an excellent prop for “Junior Detectives,” a play about some sneaky construction deals and kids investigating the shenanigans.
Even with quiet, it can be difficult to hear or understand the actors, so a screen with the dialogue will appear beside the stage on show nights, Hoggatt says.
At this rehearsal, director Barrett Scroggs is working on blocking scenes, plus exiting and entering. He has to keep his actors calm and listening for cues. The run-through goes slowly, but none of the actors objects to going over things two, three, even four times. It's all great fun.
When Addie Jordan or Jenny or Vitale reach a line they know is funny, they vamp for the audience or shout out the words.
“Junior Detectives” playwright Amy Bennett, who watched the proceedings carefully, says her play took a while to write.
“It was hard getting everything to work out.”
But having her words performed is giving her confidence.
“I am going to keep writing,” she said with pride.
The second play, Taylor Hess' “Room of Doom,” involves ghost hunters, a haunted house, an old crime and a ghostly family. Vitale is in this one, too, playing Dr. Ghost, exchanging his police uniform for a scientist's lab coat.
Matty Winkelmann, playing a fellow spirit investigator, knows most of her lines and can't stop smiling. Nathan Sangimino has perfected his ghostly scream.
But occasionally, things get in a muddle.
Laughing, director Josh Mullady calls for less improvisation: “We've got to get the real lines out!”
One action — fainting — isn't any trouble for anyone. Vitale goes down easily. Several times.
“Paul and His Merry Crew” by Tina Maxwell is a pirate tale about a tyrannical captain and his misbehaving crew. The actors have been impatiently waiting for their turn onstage and are bursting to say their lines.
Matt Morrison, who plays the captain, jumps into his swashbuckling part with ease. He confided earlier that Captain Paul is a tiger on the outside, but a pussy cat inside.
For this play, the actors have trouble getting on and off the stage, so they do some extra work.
Once rehearsal is done, the actors gather for notes from their directors.
“Go over the script many times. Not just your lines, all the lines,” Mullady urged them. “You know your lines, it's just knowing when to say them that you need to work on.”
From Hoggatt: “Hurry off the stage and stay behind the curtain so the audience knows a scene is over.”
It's easy to see why his cast is always smiling, because he is, too. In the postmortem, everything is a compliment or words of encouragement.
Hoggatt — teacher, actor, playwright and former director of youth productions at the Rose Theater — now is artistic director of the Ollie Webb Center and runs the Art of Imagination visual and performance arts program. He, Mullady and Scroggs met while working at the Rose, and he called on his friends to help with the plays. They were more than willing.
It's the second year the group has presented original plays by Art of Imagination students. Last year, more than 250 people attended the performances.
“We had a great turnout for tryouts this year,” said Hoggatt, who also directed last year. “Everyone is doing a great job. This year they are more comfortable onstage, more excited, have more experience.”
Morrison, 25, participated both years. He said he likes acting because it gives him a chance to be someone other then himself.
Winkelmann wrote a play last year but discovered she likes to make people laugh.
“I'd rather act than write,” the 30-year-old said.
Hess, on the other hand, loves writing enough that she has trouble not writing too much.
“I intended it to be a movie, but I adapted it to play form,” she said of “Room of Doom.” “I had to change the ending, too. I couldn't have fire.”
Scroggs, a playwright, actor, teacher and master's degree student at Kansas State, said the program combines his interest in acting and teaching, so he was excited to be a part of it.
He sees great value in Loud Mouths.
“The thing I like about drama therapy is it teaches social skills through the characters they play,” he said.
He lists making better eye contact, learning to work with others, gaining self-confidence and becoming less shy as some of the benefits to the thespians.
Koley, who kids around a lot with her fellow actors, is serious when she says acting helps her in her job as a receptionist at the Ollie Webb Center: “It teaches me to be creative.”
That's the point, Hoggatt said — to let the students experience something that is fun and educational, and share it with their families and the community.
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