The Magic Year
Sep 26, 2019 09:35AM
By Katrina Markel
Omaha theater patrons might recognize Raydell Cordell from his numerous seasons performing with Nebraska Shakespeare, or his award-winning performances at Omaha Community Playhouse and Blue Barn Theatre. What audiences may not realize is that he is also a dedicated educator who takes great joy in nurturing young talent.
A product of Omaha Public Schools and a graduate of the theater program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Cordell is currently the site director of the after-school program at Loveland Elementary in District 66. Due to their large special-needs program, the school qualified for a grant from Omaha Performing Arts. The grant allows Cordell to direct student productions of Disney shows through a program known as “Disney Musicals in Schools.”
In one instance, Cordell recalls enlisting the help of the tech team at the Playhouse to create an elephant puppet adapted for a student who uses a wheelchair, so the child could fully participate in a production of The Lion King.
“We’ve really created a loving theater culture there, which is phenomenal,” Cordell says.
In addition to his work with the after-school program, Cordell has been an educational assistant in elementary school classrooms and teaches at Camp Shakespeare during the summer as part of Nebraska Shakespeare. He says that among the most important outcomes of theater education is that it teaches empathy, communication skills, and self-confidence.
He says it gives “youth an opportunity to fully express themselves and that’s what’s important.”
Cordell, who graduated from Omaha North in 2005, credits his own teachers and mentors with helping him find his passion.
“My fifth grade year was my magical year because three specific things happened,” Cordell says.
While a student at King Science & Technology Magnet Center, he was required to give a presentation on a famous African American scientist during Black History Month. Cordell chose Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic signal.
“I drew my traffic lights and I wore a suit that my dad had. I specifically remember Miss Moriarity tell me after my presentation…‘Hey you should really look into theater, like when you get older. Just remember that.’ And I was like, ‘Theater, what is that?’” Cordell says, chuckling.
That same year, his brother was in a production of Grease at Omaha North.
“I remember instantly falling in love,” says Cordell of the high-school musical. He loved the ’50s music and was tickled that the name of the fictional high school, “Rydell,” was similar to his first name.
Then his class visited Morrill Hall on a field trip to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he became fascinated with the statue of Archie the mammoth, based on the University of Nebraska State Museum’s Columbian mammoth fossil display (also named Archie). Inspired by Jurassic Park, he wrote a play about the prehistoric creature.
The plot? “Archie got brought back to life and is like, tearing through Omaha. And my teacher was so into it and she let me do this, so I wrote the script and I cast my classmates and we had an assembly where we did it for the school,” Cordell says. “I had this gumption as a kid. And that summer I enrolled in my first theater class at The Rose, which was [performing] The Jungle Book.”
In middle school, Cordell continued to pursue his interest in theater. He says his older siblings were athletes, but sports didn’t hold his interest. His parents were supportive, encouraging their children to do well in school and be involved in something and Cordell says he is grateful for that.
During a summer program at The Rose Theater, arts educators Kevin Barratt and Brian Priesman introduced Cordell to Shakespeare through a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says that Priesman continued to be one of his theater mentors for many years.
“He’s the one who really got me attached to the world of theater and I’m very thankful [for] him,” says Cordell. “Now, here I am 31 years old, and I just did Midsummer for my sixth time. It’s my favorite show, hands-down.”
Thanks to opportunities at The Rose, Cordell also discovered that he had a flair for teaching.
“My senior year I was a high-school intern and that’s when I started getting into theater education,” he says.
He also credits other arts educators such as Kate Ross Wiig at Omaha North, and UNO professors Cindy Melby Phaneuf and D. Scott Glasser.
“All of the professors there were just so giving and wanted to make sure their students are successful and do well in the world,” says Cordell.
Certainly, their work has paid off, as Cordell is teaching lifelong skills to the next generation of Omahans, regardless of where life takes them.
This fall, Cordell will appear in Red Summer at Blue Barn Theatre. The play addresses a dark chapter in Omaha history, the 1919 lynching of Willie Brown in the Douglas County Courthouse.
Cordell says, “This is a rare opportunity where predominantly the cast is African American. Here in Omaha you don’t see that and to be part of that, I’m ecstatic. And it’s Omaha history.”
This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.