Profile By: Benjamin Divis
Shortly after she started teaching at UNO, Dr. Cindy Melby Phaneuf was given the task of bringing thousands of people to campus for a Shakespeare Festival without costing the university any money. She succeeded. As co-founder of the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, Cindy helped to bring national attention to the city of Omaha for its amazing performances and friendly atmosphere. She served as artistic director for almost twenty-five years—while also teaching theatre classes and directing plays at UNO—before stepping down to pursue other interests. As her story will show, Cindy never had any intention to achieve such grandeur and never could have predicted the impact she would have on the city and the university. Her plan was not originally to become a champion of the Bard; the plan was simply to dance.
The American theatre community was shocked in 2009 when an economics student from Princeton, Emily Glassberg Sands, published her master’s thesis outlining the likelihood of female playwrights havin...
Cindy Melby Phaneuf was born and raised along with her twin brother, Bruce, in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood. Her parents, Van and June Melby, were both first generation citizens of the United States. Van was born into a long line of butter-makers from Denmark. The strong presence of Roberts Dairy in the Midwest had attracted his family to Nebraska. June was one of six children born to a family of Danish farmers who too had found the rich soil of the Great Plains alluring. Van was a union plumber with a dancing hobby and June was a housewife and community volunteer before becoming an executive secretary at Boys Town once her two children left for college.
Cindy grew up wanting to be a dancer, an interest that she traces all the way back to second grade. Anyone who is acquainted with Cindy
Memories of Ms. Conrey’s kindness and dedication in elementary school motivated Cindy to become a teacher herself. She wanted to help younger people discover their talents just as Ms. Conrey had done for her. Near the end of high school, she was convinced that she wanted to teach second grade until a friend advised her to teach what she loved. Cindy took this advice to heart and left Omaha for Texas Christian University (TCU), where she studied modern dance and ballet.
However, her newfound interest in theatre was not to be ignored. Cindy still auditioned for productions at TCU and found herself engrossed in the teachings of Dr. George Sorensen who taught there. “I was entranced by him. I took every class that I could, took any part in any play he directed” (Interview 2013). Cindy recalls staying through entire rehearsals,
Even though she was raised in Omaha, Cindy had no intention of returning home. After earning her Ph.D., she and Gerry remained in Texas, where he worked as Director of Career Services at Texas Tech. Cindy got her first teaching job at Midwestern State, over four hours away. “I would leave Monday morning at five and go to my university in Wichita Falls, work all week, and Friday I would come home again” (Interview 2013). It was a trying time for both of them, but their luck changed two years later when Gerry was offered a job in Lincoln. Cindy found a faculty position opening at UNO and began teaching as assistant professor of dramatic arts in 1984. The couple found the comparatively short sixty-minute transit between cities much easier on themselves and their marriage.
Cindy had learned during college that
While still a dance major at TCU, Cindy was a soundboard operator for a production of Sleep by Sam Smiley. Its director, a graduate student named Alan Klem, captured her attention immediately with his commanding presence and mesmerizing methods. “I actually fell out of my stool by just studying his every move” (Interview 2013). After earning his master’s degree, Alan left TCU and worked as a founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a huge success, “one of the larger summer festivals in the country” before it was discontinued (Nebraska Shakespeare). When he found himself teaching at Creighton, Alan was approached by then-chairman, Don Doll to do it all again in Omaha. He learned that his former pupil, Cindy, was working at UNO and attended her 1985 production of Eugene O’Neil’s A
In August of 2009, Cindy stepped down as artistic director to pursue other interests. She has since turned her attention to another theatrical subject she has a wild passion for: female playwrights and bringing their work to the stage: “Only about 17-20% of plays in regional theatre and Broadway are written by women. The rest are by men but the women are going to the theatre. They go to the theatre more than men and certainly they’re over half of the population” (Interview 2013). Her statistics are confirmed by a study released the same year as Cindy’s retirement from Nebraska Shakespeare that brought this issue to the global theatre’s attention. Emily Glassberg Sands, who conducted and published the study, was startled by these results, but not nearly so much as when she determined the cause.
The process of bringing a script
Students and anyone who spends an extended time with Cindy can attest that her outgoing attitude is contagious. She sets goals for herself that some might consider outrageous and unrealistic, but Cindy has proven from her efforts that nothing could be farther from the truth. Whether she is bringing Shakespeare to the masses, revealing women playwrights for their brilliant minds, or pushing students to recognize their true talents, Cindy is constantly enriching the lives of those around her. Her own daughter seems to have inherited this attitude toward life. Kristin majored in international relations and is now working at Strategic Command. “She doesn’t want to join the Peace Corps and help a small village, one person at a time. She really wants to work on economic empowerment, something that lasts beyond the short-term” (Interview 2013). Since her return to Omaha,