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Making something out of nothing
One-of-a-kind theater program brought to life at Bryan Community school

This is a story about the little theater that could, a high school program begun without a stage or a budget or costumes or booster clubs funneling money into grand productions.

It's a program that exists because Rachele Stoops willed it to be so, because the English teacher took her passion for theater and convinced her principal to let her start a theater class, then spread her enthusiasm like crumbs leading to room 205 until 15 students agreed to spend their fourth period there learning lines.

That first year, they performed on a stage borrowed from a middle school, with black fabric stapled across wooden slats to create a backstage and without the benefit of a rehearsal where all the performers were present. That meant some of those students were still holding their scripts.

“But it was more than they’d ever done before, and people were just blown away,” said Stoops.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Teacher Rachele Stoops follows the script as she directs Bryan Community students in a scene from "Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit."

That was three years ago at Bryan Community, Lincoln Public Schools’ alternative high school. The Bryan program moved into a portion of the former Hawthorne Elementary School eight years ago, but the stage in the building's gym had been walled off for storage.

That wasn't a big deal, because Bryan didn't have a theater program. It does now.

Today it has a $1,000 budget, a new portable stage Stoops got using grant funds, and money from an award she received this year from the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools.

Bryan's theater program is beginning to accumulate sets made in art class, and costumes from Goodwill and Amazon.

“It was all from scratch, and I’ve never done that before,” Stoops said. “I’ve been involved in theater since I was 10, but I’ve always been part of an established program.”

The daughter of a pastor, Stoops grew up in many places, graduating from high school in Iowa and earning a bachelor’s degree in theater in South Dakota.

“I was going to be famous,” she said. “Instead I got married and had babies.”

Her husband’s job brought them to Lincoln, and she was involved in a number of theater-related activities as a stay-at-home mom to their three kids.

Then she got divorced and became a single mom attending Doane University whose family survived on child support, her pizza delivery job and food stamps until she earned her teaching certificate.

She landed the job at Bryan before she graduated.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But I loved the people in the interview.”

She loved the school, too, loved the students and the close-knit and supportive atmosphere in the program designed for students who haven’t been successful at large high schools.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Kathryn Gydesen (from left), Chloe Williams and Lily McShannon share a laugh as they try on their three little piggy noses for a production of "Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit."

The students all have stories, and Stoops figures she does too. Part of her story is theater, and she wanted it to be part of this new chapter, so she went to her principal.

Many of the students who signed up for theater class had no experience, but Bryan was a safe place to try something new.

Ali Oliveras tried it, even though her social anxiety made the big, crowded halls of Lincoln High School too much. Bryan was different. 

"I knew everybody in school; they’re not here to judge,” she said. “I thought it was a good chance to try something new. I like Rachele as well, so I thought, let’s do it.”

Both theater and choir — also taught by Stoops — helped Ali get control of her anxiety, she said. It made her think the dream she'd harbored of being in a musical since she'd seen a local production of "Annie" when she was young wasn't so far-fetched. 

This year, she'll play Peep and Sleepy in the group’s production of “Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit” — a staged episode of the famous crime drama starring a whole host of fairy tale characters. She'll be joined by a number of her fellow actors who have struggled with the same anxiety she does.

Tyler Campbell, a senior, had done some backstage work at East High but at Bryan was willing to try out for an acting part because he didn't worry about what people would say if he messed up.

Mia Smith, a sophomore, said she's proud to see how the students and their teacher built something out of nothing.

“It was really amazing,” she said.

Lily McShannon, a sophomore, and Brin Holen, a senior, both were drawn to the theater class because they like Stoops. Holen figured she’d work backstage, then realized they needed her on stage. So she swallowed her fears and took a part.

“I actually enjoy it,” she said. “I like the class. There’s no judgment.”

Cosmo Zinn-Dorf has loved theater for a long time, and the acting he's done in the community translates well onto the Bryan stage, where he'll play detective H.D. (that’s Humpty Dumpty) — one of the lead parts in this year's play.

Leila Alohaid, a senior, has been in community theater programs and knew the time involved for most school productions. That’s one of the reasons she didn’t try out at Southeast but signed up for the class at Bryan.

“We make it work in fourth period,” she said.

Unlike at full-sized high schools, theater isn’t an extracurricular activity, which means Stoops and her students have to make things work in the 47-minute class time each day. They build their sets during art class.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Ivie Lemond and Dekota Cheek work on set pieces for the  Bryan Community production of "Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit."

That’s a challenge, Stoops said, as is attendance. Students aren't always in class, which can make preparing for a performance tough, though Stoops gets it.

“Kids have a lot of stuff going on in their lives, and (theater) can’t be the most important thing,” she said.

A week before the upcoming performance, one of the leads ran away. Stoops wasn’t sure she’d be back and it was too late for someone else to learn all the lines.

But she was in school Monday, and Stoops is convinced one of the reasons was the play, that she knew it was important, knew Stoops and her classmates were counting on her.

The class is held only second semester now, which makes competing in the state one-act competitions impossible.

Stoops would like to start an after-school club for kids who might want to compete, or hold the theater and art classes as a sort of theater “block” that would give them more time.

She’d really love to knock down the wall so they could use the school’s original stage.

Her students know she’s got high expectations, and that she loves them, but she realized early on that she had to leave her “director” ego at the door.

Because this is no ordinary program, but it's an important one. 

"I want it to be the best it can be, because I want them to be proud of it,” she said.

See photos of the class at Bryan Community school

Photos: Behind the curtain of the Bryan Community theater class

Trump: US leaving Iran nuclear deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark nuclear accord with Iran on Tuesday, abruptly restoring harsh sanctions in the most consequential foreign policy action of his presidency. He declared he was making the world safer, but he also deepened his isolation on the world stage and revived doubts about American credibility.

The 2015 agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and included Germany, France and Britain, had lifted most U.S. and international economic sanctions against Iran. In exchange, Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program, making it impossible to produce a bomb and establishing rigorous inspections.

But Trump, a severe critic of the deal dating to his presidential campaign, said in a televised address from the White House that it was "defective at its core."

U.S. allies in Europe had tried to keep him in and lamented his move to abandon it. Iran's leader ominously warned his country might "start enriching uranium more than before."

The sanctions seek to punish Iran for its nuclear program by limiting its ability to sell oil or do business overseas, affecting a wide range of Iranian economic sectors and individuals.

Major companies in the U.S. and Europe could be hurt, too. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that licenses held by Boeing and its European competitor Airbus to sell billions of dollars in commercial jetliners to Iran will be revoked. Certain exemptions are to be negotiated, but Mnuchin refused to discuss what products might qualify.

He said the sanctions will sharply curtail sales of oil by Iran, which is currently the world's fifth-largest oil producer. Mnuchin said he didn't expect oil prices to rise sharply, forecasting that other producers will step up production.

Iran's government must now decide whether to follow the U.S. and withdraw or try to salvage what's left with the Europeans. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he was sending his foreign minister to the remaining countries but warned there was only a short time to negotiate with them.

Laying out his case, Trump contended, "If we do nothing, we know exactly what will happen. In just a short period of time, the world's leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons."

The administration said it would re-impose sanctions on Iran immediately but allow grace periods for businesses to wind down activity. Companies and banks doing business with Iran will have to scramble to extricate themselves or run afoul of the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, for nations contemplating striking their own sensitive deals with Trump, such as North Korea, the withdrawal will increase suspicions that they cannot expect lasting U.S. fidelity to international agreements it signs.

Former President Barack Obama, whose administration negotiated the deal, called Trump's action "misguided" and said, "The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America's credibility and puts us at odds with the world's major powers."

Yet nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that loathed the deal saw the action as a sign the United States is returning to a more skeptical, less trusting approach to dealing with adversaries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Trump's announcement as a "historic move."

Trump, who repeatedly criticized the accord during his presidential campaign, said Tuesday that documents recently released by Netanyahu showed Iran had attempted to develop a nuclear bomb in the previous decade, especially before 2003. Although Trump gave no explicit evidence that Iran violated the deal, he said Iran had clearly lied in the past and could not be trusted.

Iran has denied ever pursuing nuclear arms.

There was a predictably mixed reaction from Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the Iran deal "was flawed from the beginning," and he looked forward to working with Trump on next steps. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, slammed Trump in a statement, saying this "rash decision isolates America, not Iran."

In a burst of last-minute diplomacy, punctuated by a visit by Britain's top diplomat, the deal's European members had given ground on many of Trump's demands for reworking the accord, according to officials, diplomats and others briefed on the negotiations. Yet the Europeans realized he was unpersuaded.

Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese leader Xi Jinping about his decision Tuesday. Hours before the announcement, European countries met in Brussels with Iran's deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Abbas Araghchi.

In Iran, many are deeply concerned about how Trump's decision could affect the already struggling economy. In Tehran, Rouhani sought to calm nerves, smiling as he appeared at a petroleum expo. He didn't name Trump directly, but emphasized that Iran continued to seek "engagement with the world."

The first 15 months of Trump's presidency have been filled with many "last chances" for the Iran deal in which he's punted the decision for another few months, and then another. As he left his announcement news conference Tuesday, he predicted that Iranians would someday "want to make a new and lasting deal" and that "when they do, I am ready, willing and able."


President Donald Trump announces that the U.S. is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal Tuesday.

topical alert top story
Trail, Boswell enter pleas in federal fraud case

A former Wilber couple considered persons of interest in the disappearance and death of Sydney Loofe entered pleas Tuesday in an unrelated federal fraud case.

In separate hearings Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Lincoln, Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell each pleaded guilty to a single count of interstate transportation of stolen property.

Prosecutors say they will dismiss the remaining counts against them in that case during sentencing in August. Boswell had faced eight additional charges, Trail 13.

The fraud case against the pair — the last people believed to have seen Loofe alive — has eased pressure off investigators and prosecutors as they quietly look into how Loofe died and what roles Trail and Boswell might have played in her suspicious death.

To date, no charges have been filed related to her death, and investigators have not provided an update since December. It's unclear what impact, if any, Tuesday's developments might have on their work.

Boswell entered her plea first.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Russell laid out how Boswell helped Trail, her boyfriend, scam a Hiawatha, Kansas, couple, identified only as M.E. and B.E., of hundreds of thousands of dollars by claiming a gold coin was worth far more than it was. The plot involved a website and Boswell acting as a broker to sell it. 

When Russell finished, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart asked Boswell if what he said was true and if she knew Trail.

“Yes, ma’am,” Boswell answered to both.

The judge asked Boswell what she did to get the Kansas man to travel to Beatrice to meet her in a parking lot Oct. 20, and give her $5,000 and a gun.

"I just went there because Aubrey told me to go," the 24-year-old said.

But she said she knew the coin wasn’t worth much and it was all a scam. 

Nearly five hours later, Trail was in the same courtroom admitting his involvement in the plot.

Russell said Trail, who had given the Kansas couple a fake name, was responsible for duping them into giving him $375,000 between December 2015 and Nov. 7, 2017. Boswell didn't join in the scam until February 2017.

Specifically, Russell said, Trail was pleading to a charge for getting the couple to drive from Kansas to Falls City on Aug. 24, 2016, to give him $12,000 they thought was going toward the coin's sale. Trail said they would share the proceeds.

Since Trail's arrest in November, the 51-year-old has made repeated statements to the media about his involvement in this fraud and Loofe's death. But at Tuesday's hearing, he said little.

The FBI has said the fraud was uncovered during the course of a separate ongoing investigation into the disappearance and death of Loofe, a 24-year-old Lincoln woman who was reported missing Nov. 16 after she didn't show up for work.

She had gone on a date with Boswell a day earlier and was last seen in the Wilber area.

In December, shortly after law enforcement tracked down Trail and Boswell near Branson, Missouri, and brought them back to Saline County, Loofe's remains were found in rural Clay County.

Trail and Boswell have been in jail on the federal fraud charges ever since. 

Now, they each face up to 10 years in federal prison, $250,000 in fines and hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.

Trail had been set to enter a plea in the case in April, but before his scheduled hearing April 5, he decided to go to trial instead. He wrote in a letter to the Journal Star at that time that he declined to take the plea deal because it required him to implicate Boswell in the scheme.

Korey Reiman, Trail's court-appointed attorney, said his client and the government believed their plea deal fairly resolved the case.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Attorney General's office and Lancaster County Attorney's office have said little about their ongoing investigations.

Reached soon after Trail's plea, County Attorney Pat Condon said he hadn't yet heard about the plea and was unsure how it would affect his office's ongoing investigation.

The Attorney General's office had indicated that the state would wait for the end of the fraud case to prosecute Trail on a gun charge.

"Today's pleas are specific to the federal case and do not have bearing on our office's charges," said Suzanne Gage, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, in a text message Tuesday.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said he couldn't say if Boswell's plea included an agreement to cooperate in any other open investigations.