Jennifer Hemme sets a primary goal as theater teacher at Green Valley High School (GVHS): For every one of her 240-plus students to perform on stage.
“For some of them, the applause is the spark that changes them,” Hemme says of putting on six productions a year.
Her students enjoy far more than that, however.
With GVHS’ theater department regarded as one of the leading high school programs in the nation, Hemme has devoted her career to giving students incredible learning opportunities experienced by few others in the U.S.
Launching New Works
It isn’t often high schools debut on all-new theater productions.
But GVHS has done this 12 times, with Hemme’s program selected repeatedly by Disney Theatrical Group and Music Theater International (MTI) to perform pilot productions.
This is among the most pilot productions performed by any high school nationwide.
These productions often provide opportunities for her students to collaborate with professional Disney creative team members.
“When we were doing ‘High School Musical 2,’ the authors came and got to work with the kids,’” Hemme remembers. “It was really cool for the kids to see what goes into writing a show and how you have to make changes through the process.”
GVHS was even the first nonprofessional organization to perform Broadway show “Mary Poppins” in Reynolds Hall – the only high school production ever performed at The Smith Center.
While directing the pilot production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with the help of the Clark County School District and the Nevada thespians, Hemme opened the show to students statewide.
“I just didn’t feel I could do it the way it should be presented with one school,” she says.
The show included 150 actors, technicians, and musicians from 22 schools, with students from Northern Nevada flying in for rehearsals.
The local musicians’ union even mentored students in the orchestra pit.
“It was a really special experience,” she says.
Rare Learning Experiences
Hemme passionately believes in providing comprehensive theater education.
That’s why she regularly brings in top-tier theater professionals to coach her students on and off stage, such as world-renowned theatrical flying service Flying By Foy.
The school has incorporated Flying By Boy’s training in many productions, allowing Bert to dance off the rooftops and Mary to fly through the air in “Mary Poppins,” Ariel to swim through the water in “The Little Mermaid,” and the “wonkavator” to take Willy Wonka and Charlie on a journey in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“You can’t be good at everything,” Hemme explains. “Using the resources around you and not being afraid to say, ‘Hey I don’t know how to do this, can you teach me so I can teach the kids?’ is important.”
Under Hemme’s direction, the GVHS theater program is also self-sustaining, completely funded by ticket sales.
She applies this to teaching her students about budgeting and marketing for every production.
“I don’t worry about my budget being cut because I have my own budget,” she says. “But with that comes great responsibility, because it means if the show isn’t good, people aren’t going to come. And I talk to the kids about that.”
Defending the Arts
Hemme has fought hard to support her students and their freedom to perform.
To promote a message of tolerance, she chose to stage productions of “Rent: School Edition” and “The Laramie Project” in the same year at GVHS.
“It was a season of controversy, compassion and courage,” she notes. “The only agenda I was trying to push was one of acceptance and understanding.”
Four parents took the school to court to halt these productions, however, making national headlines.
In spite of immense pressure, Hemme stuck by her values, alongside her department, principal and students.
They continued rehearsing until the court decision, which came four days prior to the scheduled opening of “The Laramie Project.”
“We were rehearsing the show knowing that we could potentially not be allowed to present it, which is just crazy,” she says.
Their legal victory resulted in her receiving an MTI Courage in Theatre Award.
“(Performing these shows) was the most special experience, because we had to work so hard to make it happen,” she says.