Education Spotlight: Kansas Connections

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Divel (right) helps with a student’s costume

Lisa Divel helped found the Great Plains Theatre (GPT) in 1995 in Abilene, Kansas, serving first on the exploratory committee. She has worked at GPT 15 of the last 20 years, including acting in a dozen shows. We asked her perspectives on professional theatre and education; her current full-time job is teaching high school theatre in Chapman, Kansas.

Q: Does GPT do outreach into schools?

Divel: Yes – the educational outreach program is wonderful. My experience with students was one of main reasons I was on the original exploratory committee. GPT performs classic literature geared towards middle and high school students, encouraging them to attend live theatre. They also visit local elementary schools.

GPT has a children’s theatre performed by adults; for youth involvement there is the Plain Great Players and an improvisational comedy troupe called The Best Medicine.

Q: How do you help students explore professional theatre?

Divel: I keep my students updated about local audition opportunities, for both professional and nonprofit companies. I’ve had a number of chances to perform with my students over the years. That’s a wonderful experience…moving outside the teacher-student dynamic. One of my students, who was with me last summer in GPT’s Big River, was also cast with me this summer in Damn Yankees at GPT. In fact, GPT’s artistic director, Doug Nuttelman, is a former student of mine who acted in GPT’s first production.

Q: Any advice to theatre pros working with young performers?

Divel: GPT has embraced my students as performers in the past, and I’m very grateful for that. Even a few words of positive feedback can be very inspiring. And I’d tell audience members to realize that not everyone onstage is a unionized actor. Some may be students just starting out.

Q: How is participation in your school’s theatre program?

Divel: In 2009, our town and high school were destroyed by a tornado. The storm scared away most wild animals – I didn’t see a bird for 2.5 years – and many residents. Drama participation dropped; we lost almost all our props, sets and costumes in the twister. Lacking an auditorium, our theatre department became very transient. I kept telling the students, we don’t need a stage, just people. We did one show outside and we staged a melodrama in a gym – that was a lot of fun. The audience could throw popcorn at the performers and we did other things we couldn’t do in an auditorium.

Q: What changes are you seeing among students?

Divel: Today I see more students working after school, leaving fewer students involved in extra-curriculars. It’s discouraging to me. Some students would like to participate in activities, but they need the money. Others work to pay for cars. It’s less common for students to identify themselves as members of our school’s football team, drill team, etc. Now they’re often working members of Team McDonald’s!

Our annual variety show, Class Night, has been an end-of-school-year tradition since the 1950s. Years ago, almost every student was involved – either performing or helping with lights, scenery and costumes. Class Night was a real unifying experience. But in recent years, only about half the students participate. People are more transient today; approximately 45 percent of our student body comes from the U.S. Army’s Fort Riley nearby.

Q: What career advice would you give an aspiring artist?

Divel: I’d tell them, “Your parents are probably worried you’ll never be able to support yourself, and live a gypsy life off welfare. But the time to try is now, when you’re young and have the freedom to move around. On the other hand, theatre is something you can do the rest of your life as a hobby. Theatre’s about you…it’s about all of us.”

We need people of ages, colors and abilities – each show brings a different set of needs. That’s exhilarating and exciting!

This summer we’ll continue our dialogue with Lisa Divel and learn more the next act she’s planning for her life: retiring from teaching to focus on theatre.

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