It’s No Act: Theatre Simpson Produces Success On Stage and Off

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To fully appreciate why Simpson’s Theatre Department is so successful, you could sit in on a class, watch a performance or visit with a recent graduate.

Or you could watch the department’s impact on young people before they have chosen a career path or college to attend.

This fall, Theatre Simpson marked the 20th anniversary of its Annual High School Theatre Festival by hosting 280 high school students for the day-long event.

The students were taught by current faculty members and students, as well as alumni, on everything from the basics of a great stage fight to applying stage make-up.

No matter what area the students were most interested in, they could find a workshop designed to improve their skills. The students were also invited to watch Theatre Simpson’s performance of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

“It definitely gives high school teachers a great program for their students to enhance their education through workshops and a live theatrical production,” said Jennifer Nostrala, professor of Theatre Arts and chair of the department.

Nostrala and Tom Woldt, a former Simpson faculty member, decided to begin the High School Theatre Festival in 1996 after receiving a positive response to special high school matinee performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

But it’s not only the high school students who find the day of workshops a learning experience.

“This is a great experience for our students,” Nostrala said. “For those conducting the workshops they have to learn how to successfully plan and execute a workshop. I think that they reinforce what they have been learning in classes and through productions by having to teach the material to someone else. They also get to share their love for theatre with other students who have a similar passion.”

Several Simpson Theatre alumni either helped teach a workshop or visited, including:

*Mackenzie Sheehan ’08, marketing manager for the Des Moines Symphony.

*Chelsea Donison ’09, a free-lance assistant director for the film industry. She is based in New York.

*Lindsey Oetken ’12, an actress who recently completed a tour with the Missoula Children’s Theatre. She also directs.

*Natalie Hining ’13, who received her M.F.A. in scenic design from the University of South Dakota, works at Iowa State University as a theatre specialist.

*Shelby Burgus ’13, production manager for StageWest Theatre Company and an office assistant for the Indianola Record-Herald.

“It was such a great time having the alumni participate in the festival this year,” Nostrala said. “It gave our current students a chance to connect with the alums. The high school students had a chance to explore arts-related careers through the work of our alums. And for our alums, it gave them the opportunity to give back to the department.”

It also gave them the opportunity to describe Theatre Simpson’s virtues to any young person choosing a college.

“Small schools produce great theater,” Sheehan said. “Simpson provides you with the tools to excel. In a small setting, I was able to act. I did small roles and larger roles. I was able to costume design. I stage-managed. I have such a holistic understanding of theatre arts from my time here because of the opportunities that were available to me. At a larger school that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Added Oetken: “By the time you leave Simpson, you’ve done everything.”

All of the students credit the department’s faculty members for encouraging them and pushing them to excel. Oetken said Tom Woldt, the former faculty member, still attends all of her performances.

Hining said she eventually switched to a theatre major. Why? “Because of their attention and their passion and the way they treated their students like family. I couldn’t ask for any more attentive professors. They were always concerned, not just about your schoolwork, but about your life in general – how you were doing as a person, not just what you were doing for them.”

The alums agreed that the Theatre Simpson experience changed them.

“My four years at Simpson were so defining for who I am,” Sheehan said. “It helped me the person that I was always supposed to be. I was able to shine. I was able to have a place here. I was an important part of the Simpson community. I wasn’t just a face or a number. I had a purpose here.”