Washburn theater turns corner, thanks to Nancy Lee

Washburn's Nancy Lee was recognized by the Tony Awards Excellence in Theatre Education Award program this past spring. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Washburn High School had gone more than 15 years without hosting a musical before Nancy Lee arrived in 2008.

Since then, the school has hosted annual musicals, drawing hundreds of students.

Many credit Lee, the school’s fine arts coordinator, for facilitating the turnaround. She’s been nominated for the Tony Awards Excellence in Theatre Education Award several years and has earned honorable mention recognition the past two. The status goes to just 20 educators out of 1,100 nominated.

Lee, a native of Iowa, taught at Southwest High School for eight years before coming to Washburn. She said some people questioned whether an urban school like Washburn could sustain a theater program. The school had a choir of 15 students at the time and an auditorium that didn’t get much use.

“Where there are kids, there’s going to be talent,” she said. “You just have to be able to find that talent and foster it.”

Lee credits the school’s theater revitalization to a dedicated group of parents, some of whom created the Washburn Arts Council.

“The amount of support we get is amazing,” she said.

Now the school has five choirs and puts on two musicals a year.


Lee started her own theater company this year and hosted a program for college students this summer in Iowa. The students put on a new show every two weeks.

Washburn’s fall musical is “Heathers: The Musical,” a rock show based on a film. The school will be doing “Hairspray” in the spring.