By Kendyl Groisser
Elyssa Shenker was born to perform. Her grandmother used to describe her as Bette Middler trapped in a five-year-old’s body, a characterization that Elyssa’s kindergarten teachers enthusiastically agree with. Precocious, like Matilda, the brilliant titular character from the award-winning musical of the same name, it was fitting that when Elyssa was in elementary school, her vocal coach assigned the musical’s signature number “Naughty” for her first showcase performance. Now a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, Elyssa is channeling that childhood energy to play the title role in the school’s upcoming production of Matilda.
“I don’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t love performing,” Shenker said. “I feel most comfortable when I am on stage. It’s where I learn the most about myself.”
After performing throughout her middle school years, Elyssa fell equally in love with both singing and acting. Given the opportunities that Churchill had to offer, she was able to pursue both her passion for drama and chorus all four years of high school. Also throughout her high school years, she enrolled in a year-long studio masterclass offered by Young Artists of America, a youth performing artist training program serving the DC metro area. In this program, Elyssa worked weekly with artists teaching and focusing on her developing techniques.
“Studio class made me appreciate theater at a whole other level,” Shenker said. “The insight and guidance from the teachers went beyond technique and approach. Learning about their experiences in the industry helped me realize what I needed to do if I wanted to pursue musical theater professionally.”
Knowing that the studio program is designed to prepare students for the college audition process, and finding herself unable to decide between drama and chorus classes, Shenker was determined to do it all. She was able to earn her required credits for school through dual enrollment opportunities at Montgomery College that freed up space to do what she loved at school, chorus and drama.
“Taking the practice SAT tests became my rehearsals,” Shenker said. “This approach worked well for me because it allowed me to set goals for myself, just like I do during the rehearsal process, and I had a concrete measure of my progress.”
Elyssa’s preparation paid off, as she was named a 2023 National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist — a designation earned by 1% of the approximately 1.5 million students across more than 21,000 high schools who are eligible for recognition. Finalists for the 2023 National Merit Scholarships will be named in spring 2023.
Like Matilda, Elyssa is committed to helping others. Having discovered her ability to master the SAT material, she now serves as a volunteer peer tutor through Schoolhouse.world’s initiative to provide, at no cost, support to students looking to improve their test scores.
During the pandemic, Elyssa’s youngest brother, Logan, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. “Logan’s situation compounded my feelings of helplessness. He has handled everything thrown at him like a champion, but his recovery was out of our hands.”
While her family relied on Logan’s medical team to manage his treatment, Elyssa sought solace in music. She and Logan would sing karaoke duets to musical theater songs. Elyssa learned of an opportunity to intern with Kids V Cancer, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve pediatric cancer treatment options by identifying barriers in the research and approval process and lobbying for laws to remove them. In this role, Shenker, along with other interns, met with members of Congress and their staff, to share their personal stories of how cancer has impacted their lives and explain how changes in mandates would make a difference for patients and their families.
“My theater background prepared me well for participating in these meetings, though, instead of telling my character’s story, I was telling my own. While I couldn’t make Logan recover any faster or eliminate his treatment side effects, I could make a small difference in the oncology experience for those diagnosed in the future.”
But none of this work detracted from Shenker’s commitment to theater: “When live theater once again became an option, I wanted to take every opportunity I was offered.”
So Shenker did just that, continuing her online training, and accepting roles in back-to-back productions, which also meant branching out to additional performance companies. She joined the cast of Ovations Theatre for the November 2021 production of Rent, playing the lead role of Mimi Marquez. While with Ovations, Shenker joined Ovations Theatre’s Actors’ Helping Alliance (AHA). This is an organization that gives the senior company performers the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for various nonprofits whose missions support the theme of the theater company’s current production.
“Elyssa joined our theater and AHA last year during our production of Rent where she played Mimi, a character with HIV,” Darnell Patrick Morris, founder of Ovations Theatre said. “AHA members were presented several nonprofits and voted for the Whitman-Walker clinic in DC.”
“AHA, a student-run program at Ovations, was created as a place for young people to take their artistry and put it to real-life application. At Ovations, we often perform shows that have themes that are mature and require lots of thoughtful discussion,” Morris said. “We go one step further and pair our shows with meaningful nonprofits to help raise awareness of issues but also to help those in need. Over the years we’ve worked with nearly a dozen nonprofits raising thousands of dollars.”
During the two-week run of Rent, AHA raised over $2,000 for the Whitman-Walker Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in LGBTQ and HIV care. Elyssa has returned to Ovations’ AHA organization this year and taken on a leadership role. They are in the process of deciding which organization they will pair with for the upcoming senior production of Jekyll & Hyde. Elyssa will play the role of Lucy Harris in the show on December 10 and 11, 2022.
Elyssa’s experience at Ovations has also heightened her interest in fields related to musical theater such as psychology, music therapy, business, and sociology. She especially enjoys music theory and composition, dedicating time to independently researching and training in those areas as well. She plans to continue studying musical theater in college.
During lunch period at school, Elyssa may be found at rehearsal for Matilda or on a Zoom call for Kids vs. Cancer, in a classroom taking a voice lesson remotely, or at Montgomery College for class — it just depends on which day it is!
Balancing academic prowess with impressive talent and commitment to helping others truly is an astonishing feat. This is what makes Elyssa Shenker one to keep an eye on as she grows up.
Now on the stage at Winston Churchill High School, she is finally performing the role she has been practicing since kindergarten.
Matilda plays at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, November 4-12, 2022. Showtimes are 7 pm Friday, November 4, and Saturday, November 5; 2 pm Sunday, November 6; 7 pm Friday, November 11, and Saturday, November 12. For tickets, go online.
Kendyl Groisser is a junior at Winston Churchill High School and the assistant online editor of The Churchill Observer. Kendyl began her journalism career published at the age of 10 as a staff writer for The Danbee Beeline for five consecutive summer publications. Kendyl continued her passion for journalism when she moved to Churchill last year and joined the journalism program. Kendyl has been published online multiple times with The Churchill Observer, continues in her position of assistant online editor, and is looking forward to other journalism opportunities in the future.