Cindy Melby Phaneuf

Profile By: Benjamin Divis

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Part Four Omaha’s Champion of the Bard

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 Moon for the Misbegotten. He was so impressed that he immediately approached her with a partnership offer. She eagerly agreed, and together they would bring national attention to Omaha in ways nobody would have thought possible.

Cindy and Alan needed support to begin the festival, so they approached UNO Chancellor Del Weber and CEO of the Omaha World Herald, Harold Andersen, for funding and advertising. Dave Shrader, the UNO Dean of Fine Arts, was also quick to lend his support. “In the beginning, we felt liked pied pipers because everyone we talked to said ‘This is fantastic!’ and ‘How can we help?’ (Interview 2010). With UNO, Creighton, and the Omaha World Herald backing their project, the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival was founded in September of 1986 and given a first-year budget of $60,000 (Nebraska Shakespeare). The following June, they had their first performance. “We didn’t know if anyone would come or not,” Cindy recalls (Interview 2010). Indeed, no one could have predicted the turnout. The accessibility of Elmwood Park combined with free admission worked to the project’s advantage. Attendance for Nebraska Shakespeare’s first year was over 12,800 people. Even the actors were caught by surprise. “We had madrigal singers who’d been rehearsing with nobody there and walking all over the green, and [that first day] they started walking down the hill and saw about eight hundred people and got scared and started walking back up the hill again” (Interview 2010). The Nebraska Shakespeare Festival’s first performance was The Taming of the Shrew, which coincidentally had been Cindy’s introduction to Shakespeare back in high school. Her relationship with the Bard changed, starting with the first Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and her passion for his work became fully realized.

Following the success of its first summer, the board increased funding for the second season of Nebraska Shakespeare. The auditioning process became more intricate, attracting actors from out of town (including two all the way from New York). They performed a pair of Cindy’s favorite plays, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to a collective audience of over 25,000 (Interview 2010). That same year, Cindy became a mother, giving birth to her one and only child, Kristin. “I got tenure the same month I had my daughter, so that was a really good month” (Interview 2013).

From there, the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival became more and more renowned nationwide. They managed to consistently attract more than 30,000 attendees (Pelphrey). The website boasts about a family from Sonoma, California, that visits every year. Actors from all over the country have auditioned, and the festival has become a great way for thespians to network. As artistic director, Cindy found great joy incorporating dance into the Bard’s plays. Every year brought with it new shows and new challenges. One particular instance she recalls is working with the Jewish community to make Nebraska Shakespeare’s 1993 production of The Merchant of Venice acceptable and enjoyable for all parties (Pelphrey). Workshops were also incorporated into the festival, bringing a more in-depth approach to Shakespeare for students, adults, and even children (Tape). Because of Cindy’s efforts, Omaha’s reputation as an artistic town has become more widespread. Her contributions to the Shakespeare community earned her the presidency of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America for the 1999-2000 year (Croucher). She got to visit England to host the conference, where she basked in the presence of the Royal Shakespeare Company and even famed classical actor, Nigel Hawthorne. “[It] was really, really fun” (Interview 2010).

Cindy recalls with a laugh that the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival’s success far exceeded her expectations. “Dave Shrader had said to me, ‘Cindy, can’t you do something that will bring thousands of people to the campus without costing UNO any money?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, no problem. I’ll just get right on that!’ But as it turned out, that’s what happened” (Interview 2010).

[1] It should be noted that this, Cindy’s second play at UNO, went all the way to regionals the following semester (Wellings). It was an American College Theater Festival Regional Winner.

 

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Part Five After Shakespeare

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