Omega Theater (Theater Workshop Boston, Inc.) is a small, nonprofit organization founded 50 years ago to develop original plays and experiment with audience/actor relationships within the environmental theater genre of the time. The two founders and artistic directors wanted to create plays that would awaken their audiences to important socio-political issues about which they were passionate. Omega Theater, which has been based for most of its 50 years in Jamaica Plain, has also developed a professional drama therapy and psychodrama training programs. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session with Saphira Linden, co-founder and artistic director of Omega Theater. (The session has been edited.)
Q.: Omega Theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. How did the theater company start?
A.: Having recently entered a masters degree in theater and directing, at the University of Michigan, I enrolled in a six-week program to study Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama at Stratford on Avon in England. I came to Boston on my way back to my degree program in Michigan, in order to explore theater opportunities for when I finished my degree. I met Julie Portman, who was then working at Theater Company of Boston, a professional repertory company in Boston.
We connected deeply and shared the vision of creating an experimental environmental theater in Boston, which would develop original plays with issues about which we felt passionate. This new theater was part of the experimental theater movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Theater artists and directors were intent on creating new theatrical forms to explore human consciousness, raise awareness of the social issues of the day, and break down the barriers between audience and actor, the observer and the observed. TWB’s experimental socio-political plays used every aspect of the theatrical environment to create intimacy between actors and audiences, powerfully involving audience members in the issues they were dramatizing, the observer and the observed. We wanted to give our audiences an experience of our message, not by having them sit passively, but by engaging them in other ways.
Q.: What are some poignant memories you have of the company over the past 50 years?
A.: There are three theater projects I would like to mention.
With a passion for being committed to developing works of art and events that express the need for tolerance in the diversity challenges we all face. This is true as individuals, as communities, between religions, races, cultures. This intolerance challenges every part of human experience globally. As a theater company, we developed original plays, many programs in the schools, leadership trainings for organizations and corporations, community arts festivals in Boston, a global multi-arts network to support artist/healers dealing with this in their art.
Two very large theater events and one short play:
–THE COSMIC CELEBRATION: A theatrical pageant, with music, dance and drama, celebrated the unity of the human family. There were 350 people cast into many productions in the U.S. and Europe over a period of 11 years. People were cast into roles that reflected some essence of who they were. A spiritual teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, created the vision and it was our responsibility to translate the vision into a theatrical form and to direct the process. Everyone donated their time, their talent and their desire to help create this vision of unity. In San Francisco, 800 people showed up for the audition process. Thousands of people participated in the productions and tens of thousands in the audiences. Our casts and audiences resonated with the idea of “breaking down the distinctions and differences that divided people.” They joyously participated to create a full theatrical production that they believed could make a difference on many levels.
In the Boston area, the first production opened the cyclorama at the Boston Center of the Arts in 1973, at The Boston Armory in 1977, and at Sanders Theater at Harvard in 1983.
There were so many amazing and challenging moments in these processes with a different cast in each city. We would call each of these moments “blessings in disguise,” which helped us make it to the finish line in each production.
–COMING HOME: VIII. COMING HOME: Jamaica Plain Community Arts Celebration, (Linden, Ensemble, 1987)
This multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary work was created and performed by a multi-cultural ensemble of actors under the director’s conception and guidance. It was designed as a participation environmental theater celebration for families within the whole community. Omega Theater worked with the diverse ethnic, racial, cultural population of Jamaica Plain for the opening of the Jamaica Plain Arts Center.
The script for COMING HOME began with the multicultural ensemble of actor-guides greeting each audience member with a program in one of six colors that they placed around the audience members’ necks, thereby designating which group/train each family member would be a part of during the performance. The audience was warmed up and inspired to connect with the spirit of the play. When the lights went on, a Native American invocation was followed by several vignettes, which wove the threads of Jamaica Plain’s historical, cultural, and spiritual roots. (There was extensive research done before the script was written). This led to the formation of the “Creation Trains” (six groups of families) that proceeded on a tour through the collective ancestry of the community via six different cultural art experiences in six rooms in the art center. Each train of family participants experienced each activity for 10 minutes. The activities included: dancing with Braziliero, an Afro-Brazilian dance theater; singing with Stambandet, a Scandinavian vocal band; painting with Roberto Chao, a Hispanic visual artist; acting and moving with Wang Luoyong in a Chinese Peking Opera experience; writing poetry with Ted Thomas, a black poet; and Irish Step dancing with Patty Abner. The trains were all carefully scheduled to “Come Home” at the same time.
In the finale, all performers and audience members experienced an envisioning exercise together of the ideal community art center, writing and drawing gifts offered in a candle-lighting ritual with beautiful drums and flute in the background. This was followed by an original song and dance created for the occasion – “Coming Home.” The celebration ended when a very large cake was wheeled in as the different artists led versions of “Happy Birthday” in different languages.
The production included 50 culturally diverse artists who represented the highest standards of professional excellence in their art forms within the community.
—MOTHERBLOOD: a short play written and performed by myself and Susan Nisenbaum Becker is an encounter between two mothers, one who is the other Palestinian, both of whom have survived significant losses. They struggle with each other, a wide range of feelings regarding their complex personal and political situations. This is a meeting changes these two women’s lives. We created our play to be a powerful educational vehicle for learning about the major issues in the Middle East conflict. As we were deeply moved by the urgency of this crisis, we worked from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives.
After spending two years to develop the play and receiving feedback from both Palestinians and Israelis, we felt confident that the sides were equally represented. We first performed the play at a conference in Israel with an audience composed of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Europeans and received positive feedback from the general audience that we had represented both positions comprehensively and fairly.
The most moving moments were when we were invited to the homes of Palestinians, who had never hosted an Israeli or a Jewish person (both of us are Jewish) and we were welcomed to an extended family gathering. Also, we were taken in a car with Israeli women who were guarding the checkpoints that Palestinians had to go through to get home. We witnessed a bus being stopped, which could have been delayed for hours. The woman driver of our car made a call to the ‘right person’ and the bus went right through.
In both of these examples, we were moved when these women we were with, participated in generous acts of kindness, both Palestinian and Israeli women.
A film version of MOTHERBLOOD is now being made by filmmaker Julianne Reynolds.
Q.: What challenges have presented themselves on running the company during the years and how were they overcome?
There are always financial challenges in any small theater organizations. We followed a principle of never going into the red. We would just stop spending until we could bring in the next source of income. Perhaps the most dramatic challenge was that we lost our artistic arts fund, which we had accrued for many years through Bernie Madoff’s investment fund. When his extensive fraud was discovered, we lost $40,000 intended to be used to write a book about our work and possibly to fund another theater project. So the book project was put on hold and figuring out how to earn money for that project and others took precedence. Miraculously, after several months, the book began to write itself after and before business hours. People donated their time for editing, for photography etc. The book is over 500 pages, has the work of 39 students and colleagues and without extra money, the book was born.
In spite of this deranged man who made off with our money. When something is meant to be, it is meant to be. We also received extra support from people who were moved by our loss. In another case, someone created a scholarship fund to support new students in our transpersonal drama therapy program.
The second big challenge was losing three of my significant colleagues: Julie Portman, who began the theater with me, Penny Lewis, who began the Drama Therapy program with me and Sarah Benson, who was our gifted musician and sound healer. They all died of colon cancer and one with pneumonia and cancer.
- : How does Omega Theater plan to celebrate the anniversary?
A.: The first way that was important to me was to find a way to honor specific theater artists who participated in the theater’s evolution. So we created newsletters twice a month this year. We published a photo and written piece that each person being honored was invited to write. We asked them what they did with us—a productions, education programs in the schools, professional training programs. We asked them to write what was meaningful to them and how their current work may have been influenced by their participation in our theater. It was wonderful to re-connect with so many people and to appreciate their memories and amazing experiences. We hope to put together a booklet of these pieces and give them out at our celebration and at conferences, etc.
Kirsten Hinsdale, a graduate of our drama therapy program, earned her RDT credential (registered drama therapist). She is creating a documentary film on the theater’s history during this 50th anniversary year. Our hope is to do a celebration when the film is completed. She is a gifted artist in many art forms.
Q.: Anything else you would like to add?
A.: Personally, I genuinely feel a lot of gratitude and am in awe about the many very gifted theater artists who have worked with us in so many different artistic projects. I am not exaggerating when I say, we have been blessed with not only good, but truly extraordinary artists and human beings, who care about using their talent for the highest good and to help others in need. I believe that we were called together to use our talents, vision and ideals to create theater and education forms together, to do our small part in making a better world, one performance, one person at a time.