Johnson County high schools set the scene for national theater success

Updated: 2014-01-01T14:44:18Z


Special to The Star

The choir room at Blue Valley High School was packed. As the petite blonde woman with the big smile sat down on a stool in front of the high schoolers, a palpable hush fell over the room. These students had gathered together for one reason — to hear words of wisdom from a Broadway star.

“Make sure you really want to do this and every day you’ll be working hard,” said Hayley Podschun, who’s appeared on Broadway in “Hairspray, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Anything Goes.”

Podschun, a Blue Valley High graduate, dropped by to chat with the students while she was home in Overland Park. What brought Podschun home this time was performing as Glinda in the musical “Wicked” at the Music Hall. The multiweek run gave the diminutive actress the opportunity to share her journey from suburban Johnson County to the Broadway stage — and her audience of wannabe stars hung on every word.

“It’s always been my dream to play this role,” said Podschun of her role as Glinda. She told the Blue Valley students she had auditioned off and on for the role over a six-year-period before landing the part. “I had told my agent this was the last time I was going to audition … and I got the job.”

While it took a long time to land Glinda, Podschun told her attentive audience that she only had about four weeks of rehearsal before going into the role; she’s been touring with the show for more than a year.

Podschun isn’t the only Johnson County kid to tread the boards of Broadway in recent years. Graduates of several Johnson County high schools have hit the big time of national theater, even Broadway.

Shawnee Mission West grad Eric Huffman, who is touring the country in the musical hit “The Book of Mormon,” is frequently asked about why there are so many talented young people from this area.

“Kansas City is known for its young, up-and-coming performers on a national level,” Huffman said. “If you say you’re from Kansas City in an audition in NYC, it means something. It carries clout. There seems to be a dramatically disproportionate number of young talent that comes out of Kansas City, more than other cities.”

So what is it about Johnson County that produces so many theater successes? A combination of factors is at work, say those in the local theater scene: strong school theater programs, hard-working kids and plenty of outside opportunities to hone their skills. In the theater world, wannabes need to be a triple threat to succeed — being able to sing, dance and act — and Johnson County and the Kansas City area give kids plenty of ways to practice their talents.

But for many, the strong foundation from which they have built their successful careers was the high-quality theater programs in Johnson County’s high schools, several professional performers said in interviews, both in person and via email due to their busy touring schedules.

Chatting with the students at Blue Valley High, Podschun said her high school experience was helpful in her journey to work on Broadway.

“We were just trained on what you’re supposed to know in the real world,” she said. “That’s the level of professionalism that was required.”

David Hastings, who heads up the theater program at Olathe South High School, agrees that the training here is top-notch.

“There is the exposure to so much training and quality theater in Kansas City,” Hastings said. “Part of it is just a numbers game. There are a lot of kids doing theater, so some of these kids are going to go on and be successful.

“But some of it is the passion that people in Kansas City have for good theater,” he said. “We are all trying to produce good shows. Everyone wants to be good. This pushes the ones at the top to really excel and also to have the work ethic and drive to succeed in New York City, L.A. or Chicago.”

At Olathe South, Hastings and one other teacher handle the eight different courses offered in the theater department. The program does five main stage productions each school year including musicals, original works, contemporary comedies and dramas. In addition, South has improv teams and repertory theater performances and an active Thespian troupe.

More than 200 students are involved in theater at South both on stage and behind the scenes, Hastings said. The program has won numerous awards for its work, including this year’s Starlight Theatre Blue Star Award for outstanding overall musical and a 2013 Outstanding School Award from Educational Theatre Association.

While Hastings acknowledges his program’s success, there is more to it than striving for accolades.

“We use theater as a way to teach life skills,” Hastings said. “Our goal is to help each student grow and hopefully find their place in the world. We have had students be extremely successful in theater as in life.”

Yet Hastings can’t deny that the area seems to breed a lot of talent that’s gone on professionally. Why?

“I am always preaching that we are a family. I don’t mean just Olathe South theater, but rather the larger world of theater: in KC and in the country,” he said. “It is a small world. What you do is noticed by others in the community, and that can lead to opportunities around the country. The opportunities outside of school just make the transition to the professional world little easier.”

One of Hastings’ students, Megan Phillips Burkart, credits her high school theater experience with saving her from a troubled youth.

“I was an energetic extrovert and a lot of my friends started experimenting with drinking,” Burkart said. “I didn’t know what to do, but somehow I randomly decided to try out for the fall show. I was cast and was immediately thrown into the crazy theater scene. The time and energy it took to create a show absorbed all of my free time.

“I had been bitten by the theater bug and I spent the rest of my high school years dedicated to the theater department,” she said. “Without a healthy outlet, I’m determined my life would be completely different.”

Burkart studied musical theater in college; when her dreams of Broadway didn’t pan out, she still found a way for theater to play a key role in her life. She earned a degree in communication disorders and is pursuing a master’s degree in speech language pathology.

And those life lessons from the Olathe South theater program provided Burkart and husband Nathan with the encouragement to launch their L.A. theater company, now in its second season.

“I learned in high school that theater provides a healthy way to release energy,” Burkart said. “It provided me with a confidence that has fueled me through many situations in my life. I am a confident woman, and I owe it all to that fateful day I auditioned for a silly high school play.”

Blue Valley North grad Alyssa Wall just returned from Paju, South Korea, where she performed in original musicals at the Gyeonggi English Village. While in high school, Wall was active in both the theater and music programs.

“The years I spent at BVN were beneficial and helpful in preparing me for a life in theater,” Wall said. (My teachers) “Max Brown and Mary Bodney gave me incredible opportunities to perform in the shows at BVN, and I am grateful for their faith in me and the support they gave me as I pursued my passion. … BVN also focused on a well-rounded education and I feel very strongly that it served me well.”

Wall earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theater from Texas Christian University. Since then, she’s performed professionally in New York before her year-and-a-half gig in South Korea. After the holidays, Wall plans to return to New York continuing her performance career.

Like Wall, former Blue Valley North classmate Ryan Worsing said his high school experience nurtured his desire to perform at the highest level. And he is: on Broadway.

“There has always been an expectation of excellence for the students at BVN,” Worsing said between performances in Broadway’s “Chicago.” “No matter the class or extracurricular activity, the teachers and faculty expected greatness from us daily. All the while, they provided us with the skills to work to our greatest potential, educating and influencing us all.”

Kristin Sudeikis said her high school years at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Leawood were great preparation for her current professional dance career. The sister of Hollywood star Jason Sudeikis, she started her own dance company and choreographs and teaches master classes all over the country.

“I was able to choreograph the musicals beginning my freshman year with ‘Grease,’ ” Sudeikis said. “All of the opportunities I was given to create at Aquinas helped me gain experience big time. … The dance team coach had a lot of faith in me — that meant the world to me. All of those formative years were huge for me to be able to perform and choreograph and teach,” she said. My gratitude for each of those people runs way deep.”

Shawnee Mission North, that district’s oldest high school, has had an active theater program for years. Now in her 29th year, Maureen Davis runs the program with the help of two other teachers — Ben Bartlett — a 1998 SMN graduate — and Chris Palmer.

Together, they work with hundreds of students both in the classroom and in extracurricular productions. North does 15 productions a year including musicals, dramas, comedies and improv shows and student-directed shows. The program has won numerous awards.

“Our goal, as theater teachers, is not to create theater majors, but to give student life skills in communication so that they can succeed on whatever path they pursue,” Davis said.

And they provide opportunities like the one Shawnee Mission North senior Katia Arians has experienced.

Arians recently directed the play “Searching for David’s Heart” for the school. While she’s not sure whether she will pursue theater as a profession, Arians has already gained a lot from the North theater program.

“For me, when I was young I was a shy child, and it’s brought me out of that,” Arians said. “And with presentations, it makes more a lot more confident. Improv has helped me be able to answer things and think on my feet.”

Nathan Darrow is one of many Shawnee Mission North success stories in the professional performance world. With a master’s degree from New York University, Darrow has performed on stages in Kansas City, New York and London. He’s also made his mark in television and film with “House of Cards” and “Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories.” Darrow credits his high school theater teachers for igniting that special spark.

“Maureen Davis and Margaret McClatchey led a drama department at North that was remarkable in its energy, its standard, and its spirit,” said Darrow in an email interview. “It sort of seemed like anyone who walked down to that wing of the school would be put to work if they wished to be.”

Darrow said his teachers were willing to let any student who was interested be part of the theater program.

“They poached from everywhere — they grabbed athletes, musicians — didn’t matter,” Darrow said. “They would find a job for you. Then, of course, you had to come through. …

“For me, it felt like the environment was a bit more high stakes, which was exciting and, I think, ‘educational’ in the best sense. Learning responsibility as a member of a team. And having a blast while it happens.”

Darrow said he was given incredible opportunities at Shawnee Mission North.

“I was encouraged and challenged,” he said. “I worked hard but it never felt that way. It felt to me almost endlessly exciting.”

Attending high school at Shawnee Mission West offered Eric Huffman a rich atmosphere to learn and explore.

“West was a lovely place to learn about theater in a safe environment,” Huffman said. “It was a time to try new things, to stretch my wings, all while surrounded by close friends who were just as passionate as I.”

Huffman credits Shawnee Mission West choir teacher Laura VanLeeuwen for motivating him and others.

“She was nurturing and inspiring both as a teacher and as a person. I think she has cranked out many remarkable students that excel in areas far beyond music.”

During his high school years, Huffman participated in various outside theater groups as well including Music Theatre for Young People before heading off to University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. During winter break of his senior year, Huffman auditioned for “The Book of Mormon” at an open call; within six months he landed the second national tour of the production — a mere two weeks after graduating.

“It’s not always that convenient for people,” Huffman said. “I was lucky that this particular show was casting at that time. It has nothing to do with talent, just being in the right place at the right time.”

Several of the successful graduates from Johnson County area schools said their Kansas City roots still play an important role today.

“There is no question that I am lucky to be from Kansas City,” Sudeikis said. “The teachers, coaches and friends that I learned from still influence me today.”

When they do get a little time off, these professional performers relish coming “home” and sharing a little about their experiences.

Podschun enjoyed the hour she spent at her old high school talking with students who hope to follow in her performing footsteps. Her advice?

“I think be involved in everything,” Podschun said. “I had a lot of vocal training (but) what helped me grow was being involved in rep theater and doing so many plays. Do lots of things.”

The good news is that, in Johnson County, they can.

Theatrical education thrives outside of schools, too

Outside arts organizations in Johnson County and the metropolitan area play a significant role in helping local performers make it in the big time.

Groups include Music Theatre for Young People, Christian Youth Theater, Culture House, Theatre in the Park and StageworX.

There is also training at area dance studios like Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice that serves as a breeding ground for young talent. These groups provide opportunities to gain experience at a young age.

“Kansas City is an exceptional place for encouraging and supporting young people in theater,” said Alyssa Wall, who recently returned from performing in South Korea. During her high school years, Wall participated in Music Theatre for Young People and Miller Marley.

“I would not be where I am today without the many avenues in which I was able to practice and perform as a child and young adult,” Wall said.

One of the reasons Cary Danielson-Pandzik started Music Theatre for Young People in 1984 was to provide her own children a performing outlet for musical theater. Since that time, the program has grown and now works with children in second grade through high school. Music Theatre for Young People does several productions a year as well as summer camp experiences.

“MTYP provides young people who have enthusiasm, passion and dedication to musical theater an opportunity to grow through unique one-week performance experiences,” Danielson-Pandzik said. “Each show in our season is auditioned, cast, rehearsed and performed in seven days.”

The company’s next production is the musical “Hairspray,” which will be performed Friday through Sunday at White Recital Hall at UMKC.

Those who participate in Music Theatre for Young People productions work with professionally trained vocal, dance and acting coaches in a setting that requires them to learn quickly.

“They learn at a young age what hard work is,” Danielson-Pandzik said. “By working with professionals to put up a show in seven days, these students are prepared for anything the business has to offer.”

Music Theatre for Young People has a long list of alums who have gone on to professional careers in the theater. “The amount of confidence they gain through their MTYP experience and high school productions is invaluable in their blooming careers,” she said. “The pride in their work and dedication to whatever task they face attributes to their success.”

Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice has been training young performers for more than 50 years. School director Brian McGinness, a former professional dancer himself, said the school provides an expansive program of classes and performance troupes that build upon what students get in school. Partnering with other arts organizations exposes students to other opportunities, as well. There’s also the alumni factor.

“Shirley Marley feels it is the fact that when one of our current students witnesses the success of alumni, an ‘I can do that too’ attitude takes hold,” McGinness said.

He’s quick to acknowledge the role area high schools play in these students performing success.

“If it were not for the schools’ dedication and inspiration, many students would not be introduced to the joy of the performing arts,” he said. “It is a culmination of community education, parental support and passion form the child that guides them to reach for the stars and be the best person they can be both on and off the stage.”

Eric Huffman studied dance with Miller Marley and performed with Music Theatre for Young People. “Kansas has fabulous training available,” he said. “I have no idea how Kansas City turned out the way it did, but it really seems to be a full head and shoulders beyond many other cities.”

For more than 44 years, Theatre in the Park has provided yet another learning and performing outlet using local talent in its summer musical productions. “TITP provides an opportunity for students to perform in one of the largest nonprofessional theaters in our region,” said Theatre in the Park producing artistic director Tim Bair.

Theatre in the Park allows high school students the opportunity to work with other people — both students and adults — they otherwise would not connect with in the school environment, Bair said.

The area offers numerous summer camp theater programs also, including StageworX, which offers programming for kids ages 3 to 18.

Director Suzanne Campbell said StageworX program is tailored to the developmental needs of each child, offering performance opportunities as well as work behind the scenes.

“We also care a whole awful lot about their excellence off the stage,” she said. “We want to grow excellent performers, but we believe in growing great human beings. That is where world changers are born.”

Shawnee Mission West grad Eric Huffman, who is touring the country in the musical hit “The Book of Mormon,” said the sheer number of outside performance opportunities in Johnson County and the metropolitan area made a difference for him and others.

“When I first got to college freshman year, it was common for classmates to ask what kind of experience each other had, what our backgrounds were,” said Huffman, who graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. “It became clear very quickly that I was light years ahead of everyone else in terms of the sheer number of productions I had been a part of. … I firmly believe that the best training in theater is doing. You can learn all you want in a class, but the only place to truly grow is onstage. The amount of time that I had spent onstage had clearly paid off.”

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