Lakeview Alumni Comes Home


Aydin DiBell and Michael Burns

In anticipation of her return to the Mahoning Valley for an upcoming performance in the NYC based vocal
group “America’s Sweethearts”, November 10th at Packard Music Hall as part of the Warren Civic Music series, 2002 Lakeview graduate and professional performer Shaina Vencel reminisced about her early years in Cortland. 

Vencel spent her teenage years performing with the Lakeview High School Drama Club under the direction of Tom Hitmar, singing in Madrigals under the direction of Jane Page, spending Fridays as a Voice Major at Arts/EXCEL, and taking voice lessons with Rosemary Raridon at the Dana School of Music. 

Vencel learned a great deal from Hitmar in her time at Lakeview. She said, “We were the first class to be with Mr. Hitmar as our drama director all five years because we had 8th grade in the high school building back then.

She spoke about her favorite parts of each high school production.

Vencel said of 9th grade, “I was in Anything Goes! It was my first proper Broadway-style musical and I was overjoyed. I was cast as Charity, one of Reno Sweeney’s Angels. I didn’t know the show very well before performing in it, and I remember seeing my name on the cast list that was posted on the doors to the auditorium and just being SO EXCITED that I, as a freshman, had an actual character name instead of just ‘ensemble’.”

Sophomore year was one of Vencel’s favorite years. She was in  Voices 2000, consisting of small scenes and monologues all from the points of view of teenagers in the 90s. Vencel said, “This play was the first time I felt like I truly affected the audience as an actor— my first taste of what it really means to do this art. It was an amazing, very addicting feeling. I had two big monologues and I remember the student audience being absolutely dead silent (which is a feat within itself! Props to LHS for being so cool at the time!) I felt as though they were REALLY with me at the moment – and afterwards I had classmates I rarely spoke to telling me I made them cry….I didn’t expect it, and I’ll never forget that feeling.”

Lakeview’s support for the arts made all the difference in Vencel’s trajectory in life. She added, “Looking back, I wonder if anything would have gone differently in my career if I didn’t have the support of my classmates during my young, impressionable years. A lot of my friends today who did high school theater were teased and bullied…and I am forever grateful for having felt so very supported by my fellow LHS classmates.”

In her junior year, Lakeview presented Little Shop of Horrors.  Vencel learned that every role matters in a production. She said, “I had a blast as one of the urchins.  We were really so lucky to have Mr. Hitmar both as a director AND as a scenic designer…his sets were the envy of all my theater friends from other schools. I still can’t believe he built all three plants – usually they are rented! What’s very cool is that I got to return to ‘Skid Row’ to perform as Audrey in a production of Little Shop of Horrors last summer! [2002 Lakeview graduate] Max Jackson, who played Seymour at Lakeview, came out to see it, and I won a regional BroadwayWorld award for Best Actor in a Musical for my performance. It was a really lovely full-circle kind of career highlight!”

In Vencel’s senior year, she acted in two productions. On Stage Door she said, “I played Terry Randall, the leading role—my first one at Lakeview! I was incredibly honored and excited, and my biggest (and funniest) memory is being terrified that I had to kiss the little brother of one of my best friends at the end of the play!”

That same year, Vencel acted in Steel Magnolias, which she considers the magnum opus of the shows she did at Lakeview. She said, “I learned A LOT about acting from Mr. Hitmar during rehearsals for this show. We had to really listen and react to our fellow actors, and truly live out this story. It was an incredible opportunity and learning experience he gave us, and it changed all of us forever. I have to hand it to my dear friend Amber Dorchester as well. Amber is an INCREDIBLE actress, a true natural onstage, and I learned so much from just watching her all five years of being at Lakeview. I’ll never forget listening to her deliver her monologue so beautifully – a 17-year-old as a 40-some-year-old explaining through tears how she sat with her dying daughter and made the decision to turn off life support…Amber was sobbing, we were sobbing…and we maintained this connection to the story through the entire weekend of performances. It was my first real taste of ‘real’ acting: really living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Steel Magnolias was an experience none of us will ever forget, and something we will hold dear to our hearts for the rest of our lives.”

Vencel urges everyone in the drama club to enjoy every moment and remember that with each show you do, you will never, EVER, have that same experience again, with THESE people, in THIS scenario, and in THIS time. Every moment you have onstage with your fellow Lakeview actors and crew is so very special. Whether you end up doing this for a living or something completely different…if you love the art, never stop doing it. Especially in the Mahoning Valley, there is incredible community theater that you can ALWAYS be involved in, no matter where life takes you. I can honestly say that I think the quality of community theatre productions in Trumbull & Mahoning county is equal to that of some professional theaters in other areas. Take advantage of that! This art is so very important. As Mr. Hitmar used to say, we get to show the audience what it is to be a human being.