Joleen Neighbours plays the piano and sings, as well as leads the drama club at Nansemond River High School.
Joleen Neighbours plays the piano and sings, as well as leads the drama club at Nansemond River High School.

Quiet on the set!

Published 10:37pm Thursday, May 16, 2013

Joleen Neighbours instills a passion for the arts

Wearing a green print dress and with her red hair piled on top of her head in the typical 1950s fashion, a very pregnant woman, her husband and her two children are watching television in their living room when smoke suddenly starts pouring from the set.

The husband dials 911, and repairmen rush in and stabilize the television, then transport it to the hospital. The pregnant woman waddles down the aisle after her family, and the four of them watch anxiously and then breathe sighs of relief as the repairmen fix the TV.

The pregnant woman was Nansemond River High School theater and choral director Joleen Neighbours, 14 years ago. At the time, she was the theater director at Regent University, and a student needed a pregnant woman for his film project.

She gave birth a week later.

“I was as pregnant as it gets,” she said.

It may have been one of Neighbours’ more unusual roles. As an actress, she has also had extra parts in movies like “Hearts in Atlantis,” “What the Deaf Man Heard,” “Immortal” and “Navy Seals,” and was part of the crew for “Hannibal,” serving as a stand-in for Julianne Moore.

But her favorite role — and the one she likes to discuss the most — is her current one. Her most prized possession is a scrapbook of notes from students.

“I can’t even begin to explain the impact that has when you read something like, ‘You helped me find my voice,’” Neighbours said. “Sometimes we need to know that, as educators.”

Neighbours entered Elon University to major in vocal performance, which led her to an interest in musical theater. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Elon and then received master’s and doctoral degrees.

The theater program she leads at Nansemond River receives no funding from the school system. It is an extracurricular activity for which the students raise money themselves, through ticket sales, soliciting sponsorships and other fundraisers.

But after a full day of chorus, she still shows up in the auditorium almost every day to lead the students.

Neighbours is so hands-on that she doesn’t even have a director’s chair. She starts rehearsals for a new play on the stage, showing the students what she wants them to do. Then she sits in the auditorium’s seats, moving farther back as rehearsals go on. She uses a bullhorn to get her point across from the back row.

The school’s most recent show, “The Little Mermaid,” had an impact on the students when they saw folks who didn’t even have a student at the school showing up to see the play.

“My students told me one of the absolute best things they got was when I was trying to tell them about how the arts can reach kids of all ages,” she said. “Between the performers and the audience, there is such an unbelievable experience of communication.”

Beyond Disney musicals, Neighbours admits her taste is all over the map, from bluegrass to rock-and-roll. In the same breath, she half-jokingly calls early ’90s grunge “holy music” and says her dream is to meet Dolly Parton and have her sing “Jolene” to her. Even though it was released around the time she was born, Neighbours says she wasn’t named after the song — her mom thought she had made the name up.

Neighbours doesn’t see herself leaving her current role anytime soon. She still has a lot of lines to do.

“I love taking the kids places and showing them life beyond Suffolk — but you can take what you learned and bring it back to Suffolk,” she said.


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