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Tony Schik, Emily Mokrycki, Brooke Phillips

The Nebraska Thespian Society held its 2020 festival this past weekend at the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Double Tree Omaha. Nebraska Thespians is one of the chapters of the Educational Theatre Association which sponsors the International Thespian Society.

I spoke with the NTS Co-Chapter Directors, Emily Mokrycki and Brooke Phillips and Beveridge Magnet School Troupe Director Tony Schik about the festival. Emily is also the Troupe Director for Omaha Burke High School and Brooke is the Troupe Director for Millard West High School.

Emily, can you tell me a little bit about the Nebraska Thespians Festival?

Emily: Nebraska Thespians is part of a greater organization called International Thespian Society (ITS). It's been around since 1929, so it's been around for 91 years. It's an Honor Society for kids who do theatre well. There are chapters in all of the states in the US and also in 13 countries. It's a really great organization that helps support teachers with resources connecting us together and connecting kids together. Nebraska Thespians is our local chapter. We've been doing a state festival for I don't know how long. I've been the Chapter Director for the past two years, but I've been involved for the last five or six.

Brooke and I actually function as Co-Chapter Directors. Some states have one person, others have two. We feel like we are a really good fit together. One has a strength that the other doesn't, so we work well together.

Can you tell me about the speakers you've brought in this year?

Emily: Yes. We usually bring in a guest artist. Last year we brought (Omaha native) Dan Tracy, who was on the national tour of ONCE. This year we brought in a guest artist named Brian Curl. He has done a lot of Broadway work. He just worked pre-Broadway on AUSTIN'S PRIDE. He's a choreographer. He loves working with students and helping them find value in what they're learning here as theatre students even if they don't pursue the arts after high school. We met him through the international organization. He's a powerful speaker who knows how to connect with kids.

We brought in Hans Weichart who is part of our Educational Theatre Association (EDTA) which is partnered with International Thespian Society (ITS). EDTA supports teachers. Hans in on staff with ITS.

We also have a man named Jim Palmarini who came of his own accord. He's on staff with EDTA. He's very passionate about advocacy of the arts. He's done a lot of work in Washington D.C. up on the hill with our own Brannon Evans, who is a Democracy Works winner from last year. She is a graduate of Millard West and currently attends University of Nebraska at Lincoln. She's done a lot of advocacy in teaching kids how to speak out and advocate for theatre in their school and on the national level as well.

Last night we saw the All State Play. How many are included in this cast?

Tony: There are 39 cast members. They put out a notice that they were doing an All State show and opened it up for different schools to apply for it. There were 11 different vignettes to choose from. Schools were chosen based on whether they were doing shows at the festival or not. Jeremy Stoll and Emily sent out script. It was kind of nice having these little vignettes for small school students to work on. We came together early Thursday and rehearsed in the Holland for a good three hours. That's when the show all came together with all of the pieces.

Was each mini play specific to one school?

Tony: Each was assigned to one school but based on the whole play. LOVE, DEATH AND THE PROM is a series of vignettes. It is so great because there are no connecting characters, but there is a connecting theme. I think that was a great way to involve multiple schools. That's what it is about.

How many students do you have attending this year?

Brooke: We have about 700. That's down a bit from last year probably because of the timing of the festival being so close to the holidays. We like to keep it around 800.

Is there a cost associated for the kids?

Brooke: It's about $125 per student. Each school kind of determines how to handle it: if the kid pays for it, or if they fundraise for it. We do have a cost bringing in all the guest artists, the meals, a cost to rent the Holland and the Double Tree Hotel, and then the students have to pay for their hotel rooms.

Is there anything associated with the banners I've seen other than each school designs and constructs one and puts them on display?

Brooke: We have a banner competition. One of our guest artists will evaluate and choose their favorite banner. It's based on matching the theme and celebrating their school. It's also a way for us to show some pride out in the hall and lobby throughout the weekend.

Last night was the intro. What's planned for the rest of the weekend?

Emily: Tonight there's a banquet. We will have an awards presentation before the evening production. Every year we award an Administrator of the Year, a Teacher of the Year, and the Mel Schumacher Grant.

Brooke: Mel was a former Chapter Director and high school theatre teacher in Kearney who passed away a few years ago. This grant honors theatre educators. We give them a free registration their first year.

Everything is all scheduled out on an app called Guidebook? Is this where everyone would sign up for all of the workshops?

Emily: They just show up. This year we have a special guest artist from an organization called Open Jar. It's a New York City summer intensive. That workshop the students need to sign up for in advance. We are also doing one where seven students are getting shuttled over to Creighton University to do a costume workshop with Laura Kaup. Other than that, the kids can just show up.

We also have Next Generation Workshops which include Critics Works (BroadwayWorld), Musical Works (Mackenzie Dehmer), Play Works (Ellen Struve), and Film Works (Jason Levering, who started Omaha Film Festival heads up Film Works). These are things that kids have to sign up for in advance. And Devised Theatre. We do a Devised Theatre piece. There is also a competition for the International Theatre Excellence Award. (#thespies) It's a competition where kids do monologues, solo musicals, duet musicals, duet acting. They get adjudicated and if they get a certain score, they qualify to go to international level at the International Thespian Festival. It's a weeklong festival in June. For the last 25 years it's been in Lincoln, Nebraska, but this year it's moving to Bloomington, Indiana. Last year was the last year in good ole' Lincoln. We're sad because it was in our backyard.

The competition includes technical so they can do light design, costume design, and they get adjudicated on their tech presentation. There's a rubric that was created on the international level that we use to score them. The great thing about it is that we say it's a competition, but it's not really, because everyone is getting their own adjudicated score. So it's "here's a superior rating," "here's an excellent rating," or "here's a good rating." It's not like there's one single winner. If you get a superior rating, you get to go to international.

Brooke: I should mention that we will have a closing ceremony where the top performers in the individual events will be showcased. The judges will pick those that really stand out, they will go to a callback and we will select eight performers to showcase their piece.

Emily: Play Works are student written plays that were submitted and selected. Ellen Struve, our guest artist, works with them, casts the show from the kids who auditioned here, and there is a reading of the students' works. There was also a student who wrote a musical. Mackenzie Dehmer of Omaha Community Playhouse works with that. So, we have a lot of local adjudicator artists which are part of the festival, which is great because it kinda gets the kids connected in the community.

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