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LEADING OFF | FIRST FLIGHT FESTIVAL

Leading Off: Lincoln's John Burkhart is proof that life really is a melodrama -- we root for the good guys

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John and Cecilia Burkhart

Husband and wife John and Cecilia Burkhart each had one of the plays they wrote shown at this weekend's First Flight Festival, which runs through July 31 at UNL's Temple Building.

John Burkhart was at his wits end. The job he loved — "the best job in Nebraska," he called it — staging melodrama shows in the tiny theater at Mahoney State Park featured one big conundrum.

Scripts were hard to come by.

It was the the early 1990s — a world without the internet and the technology that made possible the purchase of virtually anything with just a keystroke or two — and without usable scripts, the show, which we know must go on, simply couldn't.

We all play the hero in our stories. And sometimes, we're forced to because no one else is available. Backed into a corner, Burkhart and his pal David Chapelle — no, a different guy — sat down at their typewriters and began pounding out scripts of their own.

Over the course of a couple of months, they could write a season's worth of melodramas — some of them better than others.

"I wasn’t good at it," said the 83-year-old Burkhart.

He was better than he lets on. Those melodramas lit the fuse on a playwright hobby that — nearly 30 years later — will see one of Burkhart's plays presented this weekend at the First Flight Festival, a showcase of short plays celebrating a select few of Nebraska's playwrighting collective.

Aside from Burkhart, other featured playwrights at the festival to be held over the next two weekends at UNL's Temple Building, 1209 R St., include John's wife, Cecelia; Robin Buckallew; Jillian Carter; Tye Chapelle; Joseph Harper; Linda Howard Cooke; Judy Rae; Charisa Ramsey; Tyler Rinne; and Chapelle, who now goes as D.

Flight A of First Flight Festival began Thursday and will run through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Flight B is scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 31, at 2 p.m.

Admission is $20 per flight, or a festival pass (both flights) can be purchased for $35. Tickets are available at the door or at ATCFirstFlight2022.eventbrite.com.

"There are some talented writers around here," Burkhart said. "I’m always amazed at the people and their imagination. They come up with the darnedest stories. Some of them are really good. Some of them really intrigue me."

Burkhart's sojourn first into a life of theater and then to writing is a wacky story — one suited for an entertaining stage tale of its own — that has spanned decades.

After getting out of the U.S. Air Force in 1967 and returning to Lincoln, the 27-year-old Burkhart, working as a lab technician, found himself drinking beer at a Ninth Street bar called the Gaslight.

The wife of the Gaslight owner approached the bar to announce they were rehearsing a play in the back room and needed some men to read lines. 

With nothing better to do — and the fact that all of the women in the bar were in the back room and reading a script wouldn't hinder his ability to enjoy his beer — he volunteered to help with their rehearsals.

"I drank a lot of beer and woke up the next morning with two scripts by my pillow and the note from the guy who was directing," he said.

To that point, his only stage experience was as an extra in an eighth grade play. He never envisioned ever again stepping foot onto a stage, but on a whim, he found himself embracing the opportunity.

"I wasn’t really good at it, but I studied people who were good at it," he said, telling how he found himself suddenly immersed in Lincoln's community theater scene. "I had two lead roles, which was weird because I wasn’t that good."

Again, you get the feeling he was better than his mind would allow him to believe. When he was approached in 1993 to serve as the director of a newly built theater that would host melodramas four nights a weeks in the summer and fall, he didn't need to be asked a second time.

"I loved that job," he said of the 17 years he spent doing it.

Even when it became necessary to start writing scripts, he quickly found enjoyment — along with his groove, because once you understand the formula for melodrama, it all became pretty simple, he explained.

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A melodrama has to have a hero, a heroine and a villain. In the story, "you have to have a rescue-from-a-fate-worse-than-death scene," Burkhart said. "You have good versus evil and good always wins."

When it's done right, the crowd is cheering and the villains are pelted with popcorn because everything is better with audience participation. 

"It’s fun for everyone,"  he said. "… It’s one of those things where you can see the gleam in the children’s eyes. They are having so much fun. That’s why you write melodrama."

Score one for the good guy. We root for people like Burkhart. Unassuming. Full of life. And a creator of joy for so many years.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or psangimino@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @psangimino

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