“Every meaningful experience in my life has involved the arts,” recalls Mackenzie Dehmer.
Spend even a short time in Dehmer’s presence and it’s quickly evident: a certain joyful enthusiasm is a constant in her busy life as director of the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Henry Fonda Theatre Academy, director of the Omaha Symphonic Chorus’ annual gala, private vocal coach, and lead singer for the Top 40 cover band Velvet Crush. That may be a mouthful of a sentence, yet it only scratches the surface of all that this 33-year-old Omaha native has contributed to the city’s music and theater community over the last several years.
“I’d always been a dramatic child,” she confesses, “always performing, always looking for a way to find an audience.” Today, Dehmer is still performing (most recently as Fiona in the OCP production of Shrek), while also sustaining a robust performing arts curriculum for children and adults in the Henry Fonda Theatre Academy.
“Teaching life skills through stage skills,” is how she views it. “When we’re teaching people to sing, or act, or dance, or be funny on stage, were not just teaching them those skills, we’re teaching them collaboration, confidence, and empathy skills that can be applied to all areas of life.”
The academy, which she’s directed for the last two years, offers a diverse selection of performing arts courses for seriously aspiring performers and those who are simply curious. Courses in everything from voiceover acting, tap dancing, improv, and cabaret attract a wide demographic of ages and backgrounds. Many courses conclude with a final performance.
“I cannot count how many times I’ve seen a student learn something about themselves through being in a show,” she says. “And it may not even be a stage skill; it may be the ability to try something new, or the ability to relate to someone who they didn’t identify with before. I think that is so important, especially now—to see the world as something larger than your own little bubble.”
Dehmer’s education in the arts began almost at birth. Her parents, both music teachers in Omaha, filled the home with everything from choral to contemporary music.
“I knew music was going to be a part of my life forever,” she remembers, “probably before I could even rationalize that as a thought.”
At 12, she was traveling the world as a member of the select children’s choir Bel Canto, “singing more challenging music than I ever sang in college.”
A trip to London with the choir introduced Dehmer to the magic of musical theater. “My parents had taken me to traveling Broadway shows; I’d been to the opera and the symphony in Omaha. But when I saw Kiss Me Kate in the West End, I remember walking out of that theater and turning to my friend, saying ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I had never been so clear about what I wanted to do with my life and what was important to me.”
Dehmer attended college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, studying classical voice. While in K.C., another pivotal musical experience came from a rather unexpected place.
Dehmer explains: “A friend dragged me to this place called Bar Natasha and made me audition to work as a singing cocktail waitress.” For the next two years, she balanced the tasks of nightly performances while actively serving patrons. “I probably learned more from Bar Natasha about being a performer and having confidence in my skill than I did from college,” she says.
After college, she worked with Omaha’s Grace University, eventually helping develop a full theater program, including a major, minor, and teaching endorsement. When the university closed its doors two years ago, the opportunity with OCP presented itself.
“It’s strange to look back,” she reflects, “In the moment you feel like you’re just jumping from one thing to the next, but today it all seems like a very clear path that’s brought me to here.”
The one constant remains her commitment to music and that infectious enthusiasm for her work. “You can call the things we’re teaching at the Henry Fonda Academy soft skills, but they’re really not. They are pivotal. These are the things that add value to life, that open up the world in ways no other art form can. To me, that’s magic.”
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.