On With the Show!
A career in the performing arts requires confidence, experience and the courage to withstand rejection. Yet the glow of the spotlight draws a brave few, full of heart and passion, to the stage. Merrill Mitchell ’22 counts herself among the chosen.
As a child, Merrill looked up to Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara — two vocalists who’ve found success in both musical theatre and opera. A small voice from within her whispered, that could be me. She knew many universities ask students to choose a concentration: opera or theatre. But Merrill had a different plan.
In collaboration with the Integrative Studies program at Nebraska Wesleyan, Merrill designed her own major: Vocal Performance Studies in Music and Theatre. Faculty across the Theatre, Music and Modern Language Departments partnered with Merrill to develop a personalized academic roadmap tailored to her career goals. Through this degree program, Merrill will acquire the necessary skills and experience to perform in a variety of languages and styles, effectively placing her one step closer to her dream: to be a marketable performer on opera and musical theatre stages around the world.
Merrill began her college experience at another university but quickly felt as if something was amiss. She contacted Nebraska Wesleyan to discuss her academic and financial options as a transfer student.
“They were very, very welcoming to me.” With support from adjunct instructor in music, Dawn Krogh, Merrill secured a role in Nebraska Wesleyan’s Spring Opera before she’d even set foot on campus — a testament to the availability of performance opportunities for students at NWU. Krogh encouraged Merrill to submit an audition for the production during her transfer process. Merrill jumped headfirst into her first show at NWU: The Liana K. Sandin Opera Series’ production of Riders to the Sea.
The Opera provided Merrill with an “instant family” of castmates, classmates and professors who welcomed her to campus. While transfer students often face challenges finding their place on campus, Nebraska Wesleyan’s commitment to personalized advising, authentic relationship development and purposeful partnerships ensure that students like Merrill find support and connection on campus.
Destined for the Stage
Born into a musical family and raised around a record player, Merrill found herself drawn to performance at a young age.
“You felt it with this girl, when it clicked. We all saw it. She is going to do great things.” - Kristin Chenoweth
“I grew up loving Golden Age Musicals, dancing and pretending to be in them.” Her mother enrolled her in voice lessons and spun operas between Oklahoma! and Carousel on her record player. “I was quite saturated in that sort of music and environment, but I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I had to face the decision of what I wanted to do.”
Merrill credits a spur of the moment audition, and consequent acceptance, to Kristin Chenoweth’s (theatrical superstar of Wicked fame) Broadway Bootcamp as the reason she’s pursuing a career in the performing arts. Through KCBBC, Merrill has deepened valuable connections with industry professionals and gained experience alongside other aspiring performers. In a 2017 concert at the Lied Center, she shared the stage with Chenoweth herself. After the number, Chenoweth spoke highly of Merrill: “You felt it with this girl, when it clicked. We all saw it. She is going to do great things.” This summer, Merrill gave back to the program by serving as an appointed intern.
This exposure to thriving, happy theatre professionals encouraged Merrill to keep moving forward. “I always knew going into the performing arts was an extremely risky business,” Merrill said, “but I saw that people do make it, and they can make it, through hard work, perseverance and following their passions.” The rising senior with an attention-grabbing smile and undeniable presence plans to do just that.
Designed for Success
Nebraska Wesleyan is a haven for students looking to get on stage. Beginning in their first year of study, theatre students are directly involved in a variety of productions: full-length musicals, plays, and student-directed one acts. At other universities, this opportunity is rare. Experience sets NWU theatre graduates apart from others.
“There’s always something to audition for or participate in, which is so special. I think it really gives Nebraska Wesleyan students an advantage in the real world, because by the time they graduate, they will have had lots of opportunities to practice doing what they love.”
Merrill’s participation in both musicals and operas has set her on the path to succeed after graduation. “Integrative Studies has really prepared me to audition for musicals and operas, both at Nebraska Wesleyan and in the real world, because that is my goal: to be a performer who is marketable in both areas.”
Less than three years after appearing in her first opera, Merrill was accepted into the prestigious Berlin Opera Academy. The program vetted over 4,000 auditions and offered Merrill a role and an understudy. As a potential German minor, she was elated at the opportunity to study and perform in Germany, but pandemic restrictions kept her from traveling overseas. The Academy has graciously offered Merrill her role and understudy again for next summer. While she plans to keep the opportunity on her radar, Merrill’s sights are firmly set on the future.
“I’m going to keep applying and doing as much as I can to get as much experience as possible before graduating,” she asserts, noting on-stage experience as a key component to growth. Merrill was also accepted into New York University’s Steinhardt Classical Voice Intensive and attended virtually with the aid of a grant from the Pearle Francis Finigan Foundation. The two-week summer intensive for highly motivated young singers stands out on Merrill’s already impressive resume.
“I think it’s important to have as many skills as you possibly can, just to stay afloat and keep going as a performer.”
The Show Must Go On
It’s an interesting time to be a singer. In a matter of months, an activity with virtually no risk became one of the most dangerous to participate in. Even so, NWU’s Theatre and Music Departments provided unique, valuable and safe experiences for their students.
The Music Department took steps to maintain the safety of their students. The doors to practice rooms stayed open, available to students and equipped with fans and sanitation wipes. “Students could still practice what they love in that space,” said Merrill, whose voice could be heard echoing through the halls of Rogers Fine Arts building on any given day last semester.
Similarly, the Theatre Department worked to educate and stimulate students during the pandemic. “They were wonderful in offering opportunities that were virtual, like NYC@NWU,” a virtual guest artist series designed to replicate the spring break excursion to New York City that would have occurred in a typical year.
“That was so fabulous. To see these professionals inspired a sense of hope in everybody,” said Merrill. “Even though it is sort of a dark time for the arts, there are still people out there who are working, and who will be there when we begin again.” The experience, made possible by a generous grant from the Pace Woods Foundation, exemplifies Nebraska Wesleyan’s commitment to academic innovation.
“There has never, ever been a time in the Theatre Department when I’ve been idle or twiddling my thumbs looking for something to do. There’s always something to audition for, always something to participate in,” said Merrill. A typical season now features over 40 productions, directed by students and faculty alike. In her time at NWU, Merrill has portrayed Hansel in an operatic production of Hansel & Gretel, the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol, and Medda Larkin in Newsies. She also gained backstage experience while serving as the Music Director for last season’s mainstage production of Fun Home.
Offstage, Merrill has flexed her artistic skills, designing posters and programs for Hansel and Gretel, and contributing in-show illustrations for Fun Home. “I think it’s important to have as many skills as you possibly can, just to stay afloat and keep going as a performer,” she said.
Hello, New Mainstage!
Come October, when alumni make a long-awaited return to campus for Homecoming, Merrill will be on the newly renovated McDonald Theatre stage, prepared to welcome them. She’s taking on the titular role of Dolly Levi in Wesleyan Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Hello, Dolly! — the first full-capacity performance since February of 2020.
“Live audiences are so fun! I’m excited for our cast to experience that, and to find joy in bringing joy to a world that’s been shut down for a while.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity and so excited to be in Hello, Dolly! this fall,” said Merrill, who has been absorbing songs from the show since she was a child. After experiencing a season with limited patron capacity, she’s also looking forward to sharing the magic of theatre with a full house: “Live audiences are so fun! I’m excited for our cast to experience that, and to find joy in bringing joy to a world that’s been shut down for a while.”
The renovations to McDonald Theatre, including new seating, a suspended stage and lighting advances, were made possible through a $1 million grant from The Sunderland Foundation along with several gifts from generous alumni and friends. The updates ensure that NWU theatre students can learn and perform in an environment that is comparable to that of professional theatres, effectively preparing them for life post-graduation. “I think it will bring confidence and security to the performers,” said Merrill of the renovations, “It will enhance their ability to be creative and spontaneous.”
As NWU looks to Act II of the Elder Theatre Center renovation, students can already feel the wonderful impact of donors: “As theatre students, it is a really wonderful feeling to know that we have support, care and consideration behind us.”
Learn more about ongoing theatre renovations: nebrwesleyan.edu/give/special-projects