Kendra Werner Celebrates 25 Years of Musicals
Kendra Werner Celebrates 25 Years of Musicals
Kendra Werner poses with some of the cast members from Grease
As the saying - goes if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life. West Chester East High School Choral Director Kendra Werner is a testament to those words. Werner, who has been a music teacher in the West Chester Area School District for 30 years, directed her 25th musical this year, which was Grease.
Werner's role with the district began in an unofficial capacity in 1985 as a student teacher under East's then choral director H. Ray Hunsicker. While student teaching, Werner assisted Hunsicker as his accompanist and helped out with the musicals. When Werner graduated from West Chester University in 1987 with her master's degree, Hunsicker recommended her for a permanent position with the district. At first, Werner taught choral music part time at Peirce Middle School and gave instrumental lessons at Fugett Middle School. The next year her teaching duties expanded to include instruction at East Bradford Elementary School and then in her third year she landed a full-time position. Werner has been the choral director at East for the last 15 years. In addition to directing the choir and the school's musicals, she teaches general music, music technology, and music theory.
The first musical Werner directed at East was The Pajama Game in 1991. Other productions included West Side Story, Hello Dolly, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, and Bye Bye Birdie to name a few.
For Werner, picking a favorite show is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. "One of my all time favorites is probably Once On This Island," said Werner. "It's a beautiful love story between a poor, young island girl and a rich, young island boy. Their lives collide one night when the boy is injured in a car accident during a storm. The girl nurses him back to health, and they fall in love. However, because of their differences, their families don't want them to be together. It is ultimately a story about accepting one another for who we are and being a common people. It's a story that can be applied in any scenario."
"The night of the final performance was amazing," added Werner, her eyes filling with tears. "I looked out at the audience, and there was not a dry eye in the house. I went home that night and fell asleep with tissues pressed to my face. That show made a huge impact."
Another of Werner's favorite shows that made a big impact was Hairspray. The show is set in the early 1960's in Baltimore, Maryland, and centers around Tracy Turnblad - a quirky, plus-sized, teenage girl who embraces stardom after landing a spot on a local television dance show. Tracy uses her newfound fame and influence to advocate for racial integration on the show. Werner said it is another show where the theme centers around acceptance.
"The year we performed Hairspray we did a lot at East to try and build an inclusive school community and build a better culture all across the board and not have subdivisions. The show really brought such a different climate to East. I have a thick stack of emails and letters from people commending us for our choice that year and the job that we did. It was a major accomplishment."
Directing school musicals is a labor of love for Werner. "When we are rehearsing for the musical, the hours are long," said Werner. "On those days, I come to school when it's dark, and I leave when it's dark. But it's a good time. To see where the kids were on audition day to opening night is just amazing."
Each year's musical is just as exciting as the last. Werner said the makeup and chemistry of every cast are different and the kids always surprise her.
"The young lady who played 'Motormouth Maybelle' in our production of Hairspray was unbelievable," said Werner. "It was her first time on stage. She cried when she sang her big number 'I Know Where I've Been.' I looked over at her father, and he was wiping tears from his eyes. It's moments like those that make all the hours worth it."
Musical productions take a lot of work and Werner has a team of dedicated professionals that help her. Choreographer Rose Dowlin has been by Werner's side for most of Werner's tenure. Dowlin has been teaching dance in West Chester for the last 30 years and is currently with The Rock School West on Paoli Pike.
"Kendra is very sweet and caring," said Dowlin. "You can tell she really cares about the kids as people and not just what they do in her classroom or on the stage. We get along really well and work well together. She does her thing, and I do mine, and together we help the kids put on a great performance."
Werner, along with Dowlin and current theater director John McGraw from Downingtown Area School District, work together seamlessly to help the students at East perform the best shows possible, but the productions are not without their challenges.
"Paying the bills and getting enough volunteers to help out are probably the biggest challenges we face," said Werner. The theater department is self-supported, so we have to hold fundraisers to get the things we need to put on the shows. It's all worth it though."
Werner passionately shares her love of music and musical theater with her students, an opinion shared amongst many of her colleagues. “Kendra enthusiastically works with her students to perfect music repertoire for a choral concert, or to refine the staging and performance of musical numbers for theater productions,” said David Ehrhart, Supervisor of World Language, Fine Arts, and Career Educations for the West Chester Area School District. “She works diligently with her students to polish and perfect all performances, and students respectfully strive for excellence in all that they do. I am extremely proud of the work that Kendra does with her students; she and her students consistently perform with a very high level of poise and confidence.”
When asked if there was anything else she could see herself doing with her life, Werner responded "No, there really isn't. I feel very blessed and fortunate that I always knew that I wanted to be a music teacher. No matter where you go, there are good days and bad days. There is stress; there is joy. There are highs and lows. You just have to believe in yourself."
The East High School Theater Department performs three theatrical productions each year – the Fall play, the Spring musical, and Spring one-act plays. Werner said her team has not yet decided what the Spring Musical will be for the upcoming school year.
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