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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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Kenn Miller and some of the many students he inspired.
Kenn Miller and some of the many students he inspired. (Photo: Mike Petersen)

Nicolet's Miller moves on to life's next act

Theater achieves the ultimate ruse.

The art form uses scripted words to tell a story, facades to suggest location and costumes to transform actors into characters; all of which conspire to take the audience member to another time and place, to experience something outside of the banal. It’s a deception that culminates with applause.

It takes a team to accomplish this charade and at the top of it all is a master illusionist, the director.  

Since 1982, Kenn Miller has dazzled audiences as head of the Nicolet Theater Department. He has acted not only as director of multiple yearly productions, but also as educator, faculty member, mentor, friend and "father figure" to the family of thespians he has nurtured.

Seeing as theater is his trade, Miller was a hard guy to pull one over on. He’s the king of orchestrating every detail, so when the Nicolet High School Administration and Performing Arts Committee plotted to surprise Miller with a tribute to honor his retirement following the curtain call of his final staging of a "Midsummer Night’s Dream" on Saturday, May 10, the challenge was steep. 

Keeping the surprise under wraps became a whole other "production" since it was to include a ceremony, a scrapbook (put together by current student Sarah Rosenthal), a video (edited by former student Maury Loeb) and the announcement of the Kenn Miller Performing Arts Chair, a program that will bring guest artists in to do "Master Classes" intended to give students "real world" understanding of  working in the performing arts.

Planning was top secret and according to Ferne Hecker, assistant to Dr. Robert Kobylski, Superintendent of the Nicolet UHS District, there was much comedy involved in keeping the lid on the surprise.

Miller, who is notorious for staying out of the spotlight, is so deeply involved in every aspect of a production’s details that much effort had to be made to prevent him from discovering the big reveal.

She said, "Some of the things (that went) on were really pretty funny - trying to keep the magnitude of what (was) happening away from him. He of course rolled his eyes when the Superintendent (Dr. Robert Kobylski) told him that he would be called to the stage at the end of the last performance. He was told to ‘just deal with it.’ He really (had) no other idea of what was going to happen and what has been happening."

Miller’s former students flocked in from around the country to be present Saturday night. An alumni reunion, spearheaded by Sarah Kriger Hwang (’89) and Adam Bilsky (’90) and organized through a secret Facebook page, wrangled almost 100 former thespians to covertly attend Miller’s final production. Tickets were purchased under pseudonyms and in random blocks so as not to tip off Miller, who always has the beat on ticket sales. 

Valerie (Dufore) Dubois (’89) flew in from San Francisco where she is director of product strategy at Oracle.

"I didn’t think twice about flying in to attend Mr. Miller’s last show. I simply needed to be there - to honor him and the community he created for all of us. To let him know how big of a difference he made," she says. "To thank him in person, all these years later, for everything he did for me and for all his students throughout his career."

Another San Francisco transplant, Igor Kleytman (’04), would not have dreamed of missing the event. Currently an emergency room nurse and transplant coordinator for the CA Transplant Donor Network, he reminisces, "Mr. Miller is more than just some theater teacher, he was our mentor, our friend, and someone we could confide in." 

Kleytman went on to detail the relentless schedule that Miller kept throughout the school year.

"Most teachers spend the day at school and then go home. This was not Mr. Miller's schedule." says Kleytman. "Not only did he spend his entire day at school, but he would have rehearsal after school until 5:30 p.m., go home for a quick dinner and then turn around to come right back for stage crew nightly from 7:30-9:30 p.m. and then again every Saturday. Most shows would have a Sunday rehearsal as well. He has been doing this for years."

Steve Petersen (’88) who played Theseus in Miller’s first Nicolet production of "Midsummer," traveled from his home in Buffalo, NY where he is a Philosophy Professor at Niagra University to catch this very special show.

Petersen still acts and remembers a road trip with Miller to a theater festival.

"He drove a few of us down to Indiana I think … to give a demonstration of improvisation. He had a convertible, and the weather was amazing, so we sped along with the top down. It was one of those times you realize your teacher is also human," he says.

And it is that humanity that makes Miller so fitting of this honor and so dearly beloved by so many. Miller, who is classically poker-faced, even through the most moving of theatrical scenes, was clearly touched by the whole event. Kriger Hwang observed on Saturday night, "Never before have I seen Kenn Miller with red, puffy, tear-filled eyes." 

Following Miller’s final curtain call, the announcement of the first Performing Arts Chair was revealed; Nicolet Class of 1977 alumna Ruth Lambert, a casting director for Disney will inaugurate the arts education enrichment program conceived in Miller’s honor. 

The "play within a play" was a fitting way to say, "Farewell, sweet playfellow" to a man who has given countless hours of dedication to Nicolet and it’s award-winning theater department. It’s a perpetual standing ovation for a well-deserved final bow. 

Now, all the world can truly be Miller’s stage as he moves forward into his next act. 

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