In early 2015, when students begged Jasmin Guerrero and Nicole Mohr to produce a musical, there was no budget for an elaborate production, so they funded the musical Shrek through Donors Choose, with support from many alumni.

Parents, students and people who attend drama shows at the Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA) can soon expect more comfortable seating and better lighting to enjoy the performances.

The San Fernando high school part of the Vaughn cluster of campuses is one of 50 institutions across the country to receive a $10,000 NBC’s R.I.S.E. America grants. The program — inspired by the television network’s upcoming drama “Rise” about a high school theatre department and its effects on a small town — is awarding a half-million dollars to high school theatre programs across the country. 

“The grant will be used to install professional wireless-enabled theatrical lighting in our studio theatre space, and to purchase comfortable portable audience seating,” said Nicole Mohr, drama director at VISA.

She noted that “there are currently 68 students enrolled in our college-prep academic drama program. The space will also be used for other events, such as awards ceremonies.”

Vaughn’s drama program started in 2009 and has grown significantly over the last nine years.

“We produce a variety of types of theatre,” Mohr said. “In the past we have produced musicals, children’s theatre, one-act dramas, student-written pieces, pantomimes, and Commedia Della’arte improv pieces. We produce a Shakespeare show at least once every two years. All of this year’s pieces have been student directed.” 

NBC is facilitating the R.I.S.E. (Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression) America program in partnership with the Educational Theatre Foundation (ETF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to shaping lives through theatre education.

“It is a dream come true for me that ‘R.I.S.E.’ will have a genuine impact on 50 high school drama programs throughout the country,” said Jason Katims, the television show’s creator and executive producer.

“It has never been clearer that the future of our country rests on the shoulders of the next generation of young leaders. I am excited about the notion that the R.I.S.E. America grants will help support, inspire and nurture creative young minds throughout the country, especially at a time when arts in education is under-valued and under-funded.  I am blown away by the generosity of NBC and Bob Greenblatt, along with the efforts of the Educational Theatre Foundation, who have made this all possible.”

The winning schools were selected from among 1,000 entries across the United States.

“Seeing the need school-by-school was both inspiring and a wake-up call,” said Julie Cohen Theobald, ETF president. “The way these dedicated educators are impacting kids’ lives, against the odds and without the necessary resources, is heroic.

“Every school was deserving, and their stories reinforce the need to continue this momentum until every school in America has a well-funded theatre program.”

To qualify, schools were required to have an existing theatre program or a champion of theatre arts on their teaching staff in cases where a school’s theatre program was cut because of budget constraints.

Each school submitted a video celebrating their theatre program and a 500-word essay explaining why their school should be awarded the grant and how they will use the $10,000.

VISA’s video ( included several statements from students about what theater means to them.

“In drama, you feel loved and accepted no matter how you look, where you come from, your social status, or your race. You really get to express yourself without feeling judged. Being in the program is really like having a second family,” said Kassandra, who will graduate in 2020.

It also features photos of past performances such as “Willy Wonka” and “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Shrek” in 2013.

“Theater helps people find that part of themselves that they would never explore otherwise,” said Reyna, another student expected to graduate in 2021.

“What we lack in resources, we make up for in passion…”, the two-minute video stated. “But we would like professional lighting and professional seating for our black box theater. There is no professional or community theatre in our town. Educational theatre brings art and life in our town.”