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Omaha Magazine

High School Theater: Rehearsal for Real-Life Careers

Apr 05, 2021 04:52PM ● By Kara Schweiss

Theater is “project management at its absolute best,” said Robyn Baker, who teaches drama at Millard South High School. She said that experience in high school can lead to a variety of viable career options.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jeff Nienhueser, who serves as director of Papillion-La Vista South High School’s drama department.

“I think theater is such a great way for kids to explore so many things,” Nienhueser said. “Theater can teach, theater can entertain, and theater can be a lot of different things. That’s the wonderful thing about theater: there’s something for everyone.”

Over the years, Nienhueser has seen some of his drama students go on to work in theater, but he’s seen far more take the skills they learned in class or stage productions and apply them to other sectors. 

Photo by Aidan Cho

“One of the life skills theater teaches kids is that they have to learn to work with everyone. I talk a lot about that. One of the lessons everyone has to learn is how to work with people,” he said. “Of course, it also teaches them basic communication skills, how to collaborate, group thinking, and problem-solving.”

Adrian Whitsett, a 1998 Papillion-La Vista High School graduate, is one of Nienhueser’s former drama students. He’s now a reporter/anchor for WCPO in Cincinnati, but Omahans remember him as part of KETV’s broadcast news team from 2008 to 2015. 

Whitsett said his high-school stage experience taught him to be comfortable in front of people and learn to block out distractions, which serves him especially well in field reporting. 

“You learn to be able to speak well, and enunciate, and sort of emote when you need to,” he said. “Broadcasting, in some senses, is not that much different from acting. You don’t play a character, but you are also not supposed to put in your own biases and your opinions. In a weird way, you are sort of masking that so you can get the truth and the facts out there.”

Photo by Aidan Cho


Whitsett’s classmate Liz Lilla was also a theater student under Nienhueser. Today she has a doctorate in physical therapy and owns Metro Stars Gymnastics. She said her participation in high-school theater (where she met husband Erik) both on- and offstage was a great way to learn people skills.

“That group of friends led by ‘Nien’ was so important to me…It was not about who gets the lead in a performance, it was more about building relationships,” Lilla said. “He was so good at that, making sure everyone felt included and part of the group.”

Working with others to meet a common goal was an important lesson she later applied to real-world entrepreneurship, she added. 

“In our business, customer service, working with parents, working with my staff—it’s all about relationships. These are all the things you explore in drama; you have to understand emotion and how to work with others. To me, theater was like a big puzzle where everyone has their own piece, and when you put them all together it makes something pretty cool,” she said, adding that Nienhueser also set a good example of working together with others. “He and our choir teacher, Mr. [David] Cecil, were like the dynamic duo and set such [a] good example for us kids about what it’s like to be confident but also humble and work together. I always appreciated their teamwork.”

Photo by Aidan Cho

“The outgoing kids naturally assimilate. For the shy kids, it’s hard at the beginning. But I’ve had so many shy kids that took a class and loved it, went on to be in every play, and found a family in theater,” Nienhueser said. “My theater kids are so supportive of everybody, and it’s a pretty welcoming place.”

“Everything I did on that stage was as part of a team whether it was with other actors or the director or people who were creating the set,” Whitsett said. “You learn a lot about other people’s job function in getting something together, and it directly translates to what I do today; there are so many other people behind the scenes.” 

Baker said high-school performing arts curriculum has “come a long way” from a time when there might have been a few drama classes available to support one fall play and one spring musical. 

“In a normal year we will do six to seven shows. We have about 13 to 14% of our student body who are involved in theater productions every year,” she said. “The arts are required for graduation. Lots of students take theater, music, and art to fulfill those requirements and then they often find that they stay because it’s such a wide, vast field.”

Nienhueser teaches drama classes each period, plus oversees an all-school musical, an all-school play, and several student-
directed one-acts each year. This spring the school will stage the classic show Sound of Music. He is in his last semester of a 37-year career in drama education. Nienhueser taught in McCook, Nebraska, before coming to Papillion-La Vista High School, and in 2003 (the school’s opening year) he joined Papillion-La Vista South High School and started its Titan Theatre. In 2013, Nienhueser was named to the national Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame. 

“As it’s gone on over the years, especially in bigger schools, [theater has] become a staple of school culture,” he said, adding that the Papillion-La Vista school district has been “amazingly supportive” of the arts.

Baker has also seen the theater program grow in her district over her 26-year career.  

“Millard South has a full range of performance and technical theater classes, and we’ve woven in some business management as well,” she said. “Millard South was one of the first schools to pilot the theater tech apprenticeship program with Metro Community College and the Omaha Community Playhouse way back in 1995.

“People think it’s ‘just acting,’ but the industry is so wide and broad,” she said. “We’ve had so many alumni who’ve not only have gone on to acting careers, but also are producers, filmmakers, voice artists, animation artists, and designing and running the technical projections and robotic special effects for national touring shows.” 

Whitsett said performing arts students in his day were seen as “nerds, for lack of a better word,” but are regarded much differently today. “I think we were ahead of our time and we took our lumps and the ridicule because it was something we enjoyed doing. I’m better off for it.” 

Baker said drama instruction is especially valuable in today’s world of social media posts, text messages, and other short-form communication. 

“In the theater classes, kids put their phones away,” Baker said. “They’re in the moment and they’re invested,” she said. “In the times we’re in, I see students who need the arts more than ever.” 

This article originally appeared in the 2021 edition of Family Guide. 

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