PLAYBILLDER Spotlight: The 'Ensemble Is Everything' In This High School Production of Hairspray | Playbill

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Education News PLAYBILLDER Spotlight: The 'Ensemble Is Everything' In This High School Production of Hairspray

Plus, it took two alumni to get this big, blonde, and beautiful Nebraska high school musical on its feet.

Welcome to PLAYBILLDER Spotlight, where Playbill highlights shows and events from educational institutions around the country (who have used Playbill's program-building service). By welcoming these PLAYBILLDERs center stage, we hope to give our readers a more in-depth look at theatre programs that are fostering the love of the performing arts in the next generation.

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This week's spotlight is Omaha Burke High School of Omaha, Nebraska and their production of Hairspray. Set in 1962 Baltimore, the timeless musical follows Tracy Turnblad in her pursuit of her biggest dream: to dance on the Corny Collins Show. When her greatest desire comes true, Tracy goes from social outcast to sudden star. Tracy must use her newfound popularity and power to dethrone the mean Teen Queen Bee, catch the attention of the local heartthrob, and integrate a TV network all without stopping the beat.  

Theatre Director Emily Mokrycki shared with Playbill why this show marks her proudest moment as an educator, the ways in which she sees the arts healing students post-pandemic, and how Burke alumni were integral to this production's success. 

Tell us a little about yourself. How many years have you been teaching? 
Emily Mokrycki: I have teaching for 20 years, 7 years at a middle school where I started the drama program and 13 years at Burke High School.

What is your proudest moment as an educator?
I have many, but honestly this production is one of them. One of the reasons I love theatre is that it not only entertains us, but it also encourages us to explore and learn about perspectives and life experiences different than our own. Hairspray was a challenging journey at many points along the way, but watching so many students brand new to theatre find confidence throughout this process and others step into lead roles for the first time and just shine makes me feel like such a proud drama mama. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to see so many students and their families feel welcomed to the department through this show and its message.

Can you share a little bit about the value you see in having a performing arts program in schools?
The arts are vitally needed in all our schools to teach creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, ability to receive constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication, and accountability—which are all part of the portrait of a graduate we are building our students toward. It is a way for students to find a place to be seen and heard that isn't always found in other classes.

Omaha Burke High School's production of Hairspray Dylan Vobejda

What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of teaching the performing arts to today’s students?
After COVID, it has been a challenge to get students fully engaged back in school and class. We are still feeling the after effects of virtual teaching and the lack of connection we had during the pandemic, but with that comes what is rewarding about this profession. Theatre, and all of the arts, are the way students are finding their way back. Students are learning to connect with other humans and share part of themselves with the world around them through being involved. It takes effort to get them there, but it is always worth it in the end.

How does your school’s performing arts programs impact your community?
This show was especially well-received by our community and extended community theatre here in Omaha. I had a variety of teaching artist professionals come and work with my students leading inclusion workshops, vocal lessons, and technical theatre. Our performing arts program and these students remind our community that the future is in the hands of these students and they are ready for the challenge.

What are your dreams for how your drama department can grow?
I want to continue to create more diverse and inclusive experiences for my students.

Omaha Burke High School's production of Hairspray Dylan Vobejda

Tell us a little bit about the production. What made you pick the show? How do you choose shows for your students?
We have a diverse population at our school and I have been wanting to celebrate and highlight that in the shows students and our community see on stage. This was the perfect show to do just that. I also look at what shows the senior class has already experienced as I want them to have a variety of styles and stories when they graduate.

I also chose this show knowing that I had two former students as part of my production and directing team to help create an authentic story. Taylor Adams, a 2016 Burke graduate, graduated from Creighton University with B.A. in Theatre in 2020, and plans to pursue an MFA in Theatre Direction starting this fall at East 15 Acting School in London. They helped lead acting lessons with our student playing Edna and built wigs for some of the lead in the show. Nadia Ra'Shaun, a 2017 Burke graduate, joins us from New York City having toured with the national tours of Hairspray and The Book of Mormon. She served as assistant director and choreographer. Both brought such unique and needed perspectives to this process. I am beyond grateful for their willingness to come back to serve the students of Burke, and to continue to push me to grow as a director and person. I would not have been able to produce this show without them.

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Omaha Burke High School's production of Hairspray Dylan Vobejda

What are the kids loving about the show? 
They love the dance and energy of the show. It is the most dance we have ever had in a show, and we have done Crazy For You, which had eight tap numbers! 

I think although the content can at times be challenging, they are excited about the story and message we are creating together. The message being that we all need to open our hearts and minds to others, to listen, and to use those experiences to inform our future choices. Together we can do so much more to overcome what has divided us in the past.

What message do you have for your students as they take the stage? 
I always remind students that "ensemble is everything" because we are only as good as we are together. It is truly the ensemble that makes a show impactful and meaningful. I want them to remember to have fun while performing because that energy will extend to the audience. It is important to be present in each and every moment, that is the power of theatre—it is live and experience in the now.

Omaha Burke High School's production of Hairspray Dylan Vobejda

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