LINCOLN – For a professional musical actor, being cast as a guest artist at his own high school is the role of a lifetime.
Ashland native Jeff Kuhl, who graduated from Ashland-Greenwood High School in 1976, is back working on the same stage where his passion for theatre was first ignited.
He’s also working with a former classmate and neighbor, Janice Jacobs, AGHS theater teacher,
“We grew up together and lived one block away from each other,” Kuhl said between sips of his hot, foamy drink at a Lincoln coffeehouse.
Kuhl, who received the Ashland-Greenwood Foundation Alumnae of the Year award in 2016, also wrote and directed “A Christmas Carol,” the one-act play last fall.
“I like to give back to Ashland because it’s responsible for who I am,” he said.
Being back at the same school where he first started his theatrical journey has a nice, circular feeling.
“I put a few dents on that same stage in my day,” he said laughing.
After high school, Kuhl earned a music degree at Hastings College focusing on K-12 music education. After a few years acting and traveling, he obtained a masters in music theatre at the University of Nebraska.
Kuhl earned a steady paycheck and broadened his acting chops while living and working in the Chicago area. There he spent 15 years as a professional musical actor doing eight shows a week. Some of the musicals he performed in include “Grand Hotel,” “Oliver,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mame,” “Phantom of the Opera,” to name a few.
But, the list is long.
“Every time I’d bow in front of 800 people, I’d think ‘Look mom and dad, how lucky I am,’” said Kuhl. “I got a paycheck for doing what I love to do every week.”
Kuhl said the regional theatre awards he amassed during his Chicago years are now “in my Hollywood bathroom” at his residence in Lincoln.
When he moved back to Nebraska more than a decade ago, Kuhl took a job with Integrated Life Choices. He said ILC provides services for people with disabilities.
“My title is office manager, but that’s just a fancy name for ‘Ask Jeff,’” he joked.
To keep his toe in the theatrical water, Kuhl taught evening and weekend classes to students studying piano, voice, trumpet and theatre for Harris Academy of the Arts. He estimates he taught more than 500 students during 12,000 hours.
“I needed a spark,” he said, and teaching provided that.
“Working with teenagers, I get to use what I’ve learned over a lifetime of experience,” he said. “I’ve learned how to listen better and talk to them, not at them.”
“Also, it keeps me young,” Kuhl added.
Being a guest artist, a role he has had now for the last six to seven years, requires wearing many hats, like casting and choosing the play itself.
Kuhl reads a lot of scripts to narrow down the choices. Choosing the appropriate play for a small town means finding the right ratio of comfort to challenge, he said. Typically, the spring play is a light comedy, not a drama, and is fast-paced and entertaining.
While reading plays, he mentally blocks out movements, makes dialog notes, and considers how the experience will impact the students.
“If the students are engaged in something and they push themselves, they may just find that discovery doesn’t always come in big bursts but in little explosions,” he said.
“It’s all about discovering who you are.”