THEATRE BRINGS US together and builds community. That’s the message Brannon Evans hopes people take from her theatre experience, which the Nebraska senior shared in an essay for the 2019 Thespian Democracyworks competition. A senior in Troupe 5483 at Millard West High School in Omaha, Evans was selected as this year’s winner from among a record 68 entrants, earning a trip to the annual National Arts Action Summit in Washington, D.C.

This year’s essay prompt was “What’s your theatre story, and how has it made a difference in your life?” Evans wrote about her involvement in her high school’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird as a sophomore and how that process helped her wrestle with issues of race and self-identity, providing a sense of empowerment. Her message caught the attention of the current Broadway production team of To Kill a Mockingbird, who awarded Evans a $10,000 college scholarship, made possible through a grant to the Educational Theatre Foundation, in honor of Theatre in Our Schools Month.

2019 Democracyworks winner Brannon Evans with United States Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

2019 Democracyworks winner Brannon Evans with United States Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Photo by Katie Ferchen.

Next year, Evans plans to major in theatre at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I love performing, so I want to continue to work on my craft,” she said. “I also plan to keep advocating any chance I get and go back to volunteer at my school or with Nebraska Thespians. I hope I can continue to touch people with my story, and I want to keep being a voice for students who feel marginalized. I want to show them what’s possible. One day I hope to be a teaching artist, working with students on their talents and giving them confidence to chase their dreams.”

What inspired you to enter the Democracyworks contest?
I was on my way to a meeting with my teacher and one of my mentors, and I was telling them about my passion for theatre and how I was unsure what to do next. I did not have an exact idea of what I wanted to study, or even if I wanted to pursue theatre as a career and, if so, in what capacity. I was at my wit’s end. They began asking me questions, and one of them mentioned Democracyworks and how they thought I might be interested. A few weeks later, they followed up with information. I read the essay topic and knew I had to write about it. I can’t really explain it. I had just finished a couple of different theatre projects, and I knew I had to get my feelings out and share what I had to say.

In your essay, you talk about the impact of participating in your school’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. What was it about that story that was so meaningful to you?
The most meaningful part of that show was the message that anyone can be a hero. Going into the show, the cast talked about race and sexuality and all of these issues we were insecure about that made us feel alone. Putting on the show reminded us that we weren’t alone — that we needed to stick together. It was a reminder that if we saw racial prejudice or prejudice in general, we had a voice and could stand up for what we believed in. Boo Radley was a regular Joe, and I think that made the show applicable to our own lives.

You presented your winning essay at the National Arts Action Summit in March. As the competition winner, you also participated in advocacy training and visited legislators. What were your biggest takeaways?
My biggest takeaway was how much of a voice I (and other students) have. I was very nervous going in about how much of an impact I could actually make, but the training on how to be a student advocate was priceless. Being able to apply those skills on a national level was incredible. It was amazing to share my story in hopes that others could be afforded the same opportunities I have.

You’ve taken a leadership role in your Thespian chapter. What are your proudest accomplishments?
My proudest accomplishment as a State Thespian Officer was expanding the scope of our chapter this year. Nebraska is very spread out, and one thing I wanted to do was find a way to include more students from smaller parts of Nebraska and give them the same opportunities those in Lincoln and Omaha have. We reached out to schools that didn’t have Thespian troupes and visited them to talk about the benefits. We also went to schools that had troupes that were not very active and helped students re-energize them. The main thing we saw was that the students had passion and wanted to be more active but did not know how to voice that to their teachers. My fellow state officers and I helped them start those conversations. This resulted in new schools at the state festival with more interest in attending next year.

We also had a successful state festival. It was very rewarding and humbling to help put that together and make sure it ran smoothly.

As a senior, do you have advice for those beginning their Thespian journey?
My favorite part of being a Thespian is the people. I love the idea of so many different people, with different strengths and talents and stories, all coming together to work on one production or project. Especially in such a divided world, it gives me a sliver of hope.

I think the main thing someone needs to know is both to speak up and not take anything for granted. You have a voice, even if you do not think anyone is going to listen or care. Just sharing your story is one of your most powerful tools. It’s one of my favorite aspects of theatre, because of how freeing it is for you and how empowering it is for others. Also, never take anything for granted. My favorite quote is “Expect nothing, appreciate everything.” Any piece of advice or opportunity you receive, especially as an actor or actress, is valuable.

Learn more about Thespian Democracyworks, sponsored by Samuel French, online.

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