Stepping into backstage spotlight reveals life’s passion
Story by Shelby Gerken ‘24
Senior Iona Stites made her debut in the Omaha theater community, but not on stage. Stites worked behind the scenes as she co-directed her first musical, “Pipeline,” at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP). The play ran from Oct. 6-Nov. 5.
The play follows the protagonist, Omari, an African-American boy through his story through his relationships, struggles and school life. “[The show] asks the question and tells the story of how and why does the pipeline lead from school to prison,” Stites said.
“I want to be a director and I don’t know if I want to do it with film or with theater, I saw this [opportunity] and I was like ‘why not?’ I saw [an advertisement] on their Instagram page, and I applied. At first, they wanted to go with someone further in their directing career, but then the guy who was chosen [to be a co-director] had a family issue, and he had to quit. Then they called me and asked if I would like to interview again. After the interview they told me to call them back when I got the chance, and they offered me the position.”
Stites has been a student stage manager for the Marian musicals and plays since her sophomore year. The fall musical, “Mamma Mia!,” was Stites’ third show as a student stage manager.
“I’m going to SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design, so I know that’s what I want to do with my life, so I just did it. I talked to [Marian Director] Mr. McCandless, and he would give me a recommendation and he encouraged me to [apply for the fellowship],” Stites said.
Stites is the only high school student in the OCP’s Assistant Director Fellowship. “Typically [the fellowship] is paid, but they have a ‘can’t pay under 18 policy,’ and since I’m 17, it’s not paid. But they were looking [at the funds] and I suggested for next year, because now they want to [use] more high school students, that they maybe offer some scholarship funds and take whatever money they would’ve used [for salary] and put it toward a scholarship fund.”
Stites feels that previous experience as a student stage manager helped prepare her for “Pipeline” and vice versa. The new skills she gained from OCP helped Iona prepare for “Mamma Mia!” Rehearsals were happening simultaneously for both shows.
Stites says, “Going into it, being a stage manager prior, it helped me understand theater a lot more and also anticipating needs that actors may have, I helped a lot with lines and staging. I actually learned a lot from our stage manager [at the OCP] Grace, about how to be a better [student] stage manager. When it comes to taking notes and making sure everything is there [for the show].”
Although Stites has been involved in the theater community for seven shows, she had to learn and adapt to her new role.
“Stage managers do so much for the show, they organize and prepare everything for the entire production and keep it running smoothly. Directors make the final call, but stage managers carry it out. It was just a different experience, it was a lot different than what we have at Marian. It was a smaller cast, smaller stage and less staff. Whereas there are four student stage managers for “Mamma Mia!” Even when I made mistakes I was just like ‘ok, I’m gonna learn from this.’ I just want to try to learn as much as I can right now because that’s where I’m at in my career,” Stites said.
Although “Pipeline” closed on Nov 5., this isn’t the end of Stites’s career at the OCP.
Stites says, “I have workshops to [attend] throughout the year to do with the other assistant directing fellows. I’m going to try [to be involved with other shows at the Playhouse] because the fellowship lasts for the rest of this season. I did some summer camps there helping out with the little kids and that’s how I got introduced to the OCP and they got to know me. That’s one thing I’ve learned through this is that connections are important, especially in this field.”
Stites has trailblazed a new path for high school students in the metro area at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Through her pursuit of success in her passion, she gained new and valuable experiences that reassured her confidence and career path choice.
“I gained self-assuredness that I can succeed in this profession, in filmmaking or directing theater, mostly because our director, Breanna Carodine, went to college for directing as well and it made me realize that I am able to do this. I just have to work hard, and I do want to work hard. This made me realize that this is my passion and this is what I want to do,” Stites said.