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Community Conversation Podcast: Mean is a Choice

In this episode, Ophelia’s Place youth Ailey and Niyah interview Broadway’s Mean Girls Swing, Dance Captain Emily Stys about her experience working with the tour.

Niyah is a 10-year-old living in Eugene Oregon. Niyah is very passionate about being kind, supporting other humans, and advocating for human rights. Niyah is very dedicated to her gymnastics team and enjoys learning new skills. In her free time, she loves shopping, hanging out with her friends, sleepovers, outdoor activities and spending time with her family.  

Ailey is a 13-year-old student born and raised in Eugene, Oregon. She has an avid love of dance and has danced in some capacity since she was three years old. She is also a competitive swimmer. Ailey is looking forward to starting high school in the fall and is planning to try out for the cheer squad, dance team, and swim team. She hopes to go to college to become an animal-assisted therapist. She loves to make new friends, work with kids and animals, and go camping and paddle boarding with her mom, dad, sister, brothers, and her dog, Kenobi. 

Emily Ann Stys (Swing, Dance Captain for Mean Girls). Favorite credits: Elf National tour, Rock of Ages, Saturday Night Fever, An American in Paris, West Side Story, and Beauty and the Beast (Disney Dream opening cast). Oakland University. Special thanks to Telsey, Hell’s Kitchen agency, and the creative team! Much love to The Stys fam and Justin! Swing Nation IG:@eastys 

About Ophelia’s Place: 

Ophelia’s Place is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls ages 10-18. It does that through after-school activities, strength-based therapy, school partnerships, and training for youth-serving professionals. Girls today are dealing with so much. Ophelia’s Place is here to support them, encourage them, guide them, and help them tap into their innate power so they can manage life’s challenges and thrive. Learn more about Ophelia’s Place at   

Cara: My name is Cara Bryton and I serve as the education and community engagement coordinator at the Hult Center. Our intention with this Community Conversation podcast is to go deeper by interviewing community members on subjects related to select performances. This episode will be a little different. Today we have Ailey who is 13 and Niyah who is 10 years old from Ophelia’s Place here in Eugene and they will be interviewing the swing and dance captain from Broadway’s production of Mean Girls, Emily Ann Stys. Mean Girls will be presented at the Hult Center, March 1st through the 3rd. Before I pass the mic over, I want to ask Niyah and Ailey to share a little bit about Ophelia’s Place and how it has impacted your life. 

Do you want to go first, Ailey? 

Ailey: Yes, so I’m Ailey, I’m 13 years old and Ophelia’s Place provides me, Ophelia’s Place gives me an opportunity to get to know others my age because I am homeschooled and don’t really get to have interactions with kids my age. I feel safe and comfortable when spending time at Ophelia’s Place and I get to be myself and find others like me. 

Cara: Thank you. All right, Niyah, do you have anything you’d like to share? 

Niyah: It’s like a place that you can get a lot of friends that are up your age or the same age as you. And when you’re going into middle school, that’s me, next year, you can hang out with them if they’re going to your school next year. 

Cara: Awesome. All right. And Emily is here as well. Emily, would you like to share a little bit about yourself and your work you do with Mean Girls? 

Emily: Yeah, so my name is Emily Stys, I am with the company of the National Tour of Mean Girls. I am the swing, I am a swing and the dance captain. So what that means is I cover seven or eight different people in the show. I cover some of the ensemble and some of the principals. And so I am there for when people are out of the show for either sickness or injury, or if they need to go home for a family wedding. I step in and I fill in their tracks for the show, but I’m also the dance captain. So my job is to maintain the choreography. So I have all of my notes from our choreographer, from our director, and I keep the show clean. I problem solve. I work with all of our dancers to make sure that everything feels comfortable and that our show looks amazing every time we get to perform. 

Cara: Awesome. Thank you for sharing. All right, I’m going to really pass the mic over now. Ailey, do you want to ask the first question to Emily? 

Ailey: Yes, so Emily, what drives you to be a swing and dance coordinator? 

Emily: So, swinging is such a unique job. So when you’re in the ensemble and when you’re in a show, you perform every single night and you do the same role every single time. As a swing, I get to do so many different roles and cover so many people that almost every single time I go on stage, it’s new. So for me, it’s exciting to be able to play so many different people and cover so many roles. I love working my brain constantly. And so it’s just like a really unique, awesome experience. For me, that’s why I like doing it. 

Cara: Awesome, thank you. All right, Niyah, passing the mic to you. 

Niyah: This question is from the tourist study guide. Being mean like being kind is a choice. Rather we choose one over the other motivated by our unique sense of reasons such as social media, social situations, and our emotions. Why at different times do we choose to be mean? 

Emily: I think, and especially doing the show and learning so much from the show and going through high school myself, I think that it comes from a misunderstanding of people. I think that when we truly get to know people and when we truly listen to each other and we understand that all of us have our own insecurities, all of us have our own backgrounds, that we, it’s easier to choose to be nice. I think that when, you know, when the girls in the show are being mean, I think it comes from a place of not understanding each other and not listening to each other. And I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the end of the show is that they learn and we learn that if we all just like listened to each other and talked things out, that being kind would come so much easier. 

Cara: Thank you. All right, we’ll pass it back to Ailey. 

Ailey: So this one is, this question is from the Real-Life Lessons from Mean Girls Team Vogue page. They give an example of, they give the quote, “don’t let the haters stop you from doing your thang.” Can you give a real-life example? 

Emily: Oh, I mean, I think being a dancer and being a performer, you’re constantly put into a situation of, I have to audition for every job that I want. So every time I want a new show, I have to go into a room with maybe a hundred other dancers and we all have to dance in front of a group of people at a table looking at our pictures and deciding if they want us to be in their show, which can feel very defeating at times, because it feels like I’m competing against everyone around me. And sometimes, you know, you get looks like, oh, well, their Battement was higher than mine or they did a lot more pirouettes or like they’ve liked their leotard better. Maybe that’s why they booked the job. And you think that sometimes we have to take a moment and just step back from that and realize that we are not all each other’s competitions. We are all just trying to do our best. And that sometimes it feels like people, you know, are-you know, like constantly looking at each other and wanting to, you know, find flaws in other people. But I think that it just comes from a place that we all really want to do our jobs. And there’s only, you know, 26 people in my cast and over 8,000 people auditioned for this show, you know. So, it comes from, I think, overcoming that feeling of always having to look and find the negatives in people and realizing that we celebrate all of the things that are wonderful sometimes. I might not get the show just because someone else had a really good day. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad. It just means that we can share that wealth with all of us in this industry. 


Cara: Mm. Love that. That’s such, yeah, great advice. All right, Niyah, if you have the next question. 

Niyah: Okay, what might be a harmful effect of the burn book look like in 2024? In the age of social media, compare and contrast the different ways of the burn book situations might damage friend relationships before and during the social media 

Emily: Hmm. So I think it’s very interesting that the burn book is still kind of applicable to everyone today. I think social media, a lot of people post things that they think are funny to get likes and comments and posts. And sometimes they can be really mean things that we don’t realize are mean. We think we’re being funny. We’re like, oh, you know. Look at their silly hat, like I found this person on the street wearing a silly hat, but what if that person follows you and they thought their hat was really cool? You know, something like that. I think that social media is a wonderful tool because it connects all of us. And you know, like look what we’re doing right now, I think this is, you know, a form of what social media has given us, that we can meet so many wonderful people around the world. But I think that we all still have to come at it with a place of, would I want my friends reading this? Even if I think it’s private to me. You know, everyone can see things on the internet. And I think that it can be very scary to put yourself out there for the world. And again, I think it all comes back to kindness and understanding each other. And the more we listen and, you know, we realize our words and our actions and our photos impact other people’s lives, you know, it makes a big difference. But yeah, again, the burn book, it can be real and it can, you know, kind of stink sometimes. But they learn at the end, you know. You know, maybe this wasn’t the best way to express our grievances, and maybe we need to just talk to each other. 

Cara: Mm. Thank you. All right, Ailey. 

Ailey: Yes. So what do you like about working with the Mean Girls crew? 

Emily: Um, it’s fun to play high schoolers. I been out of high school for a little bit. Um, but what’s really fun is like our costumes are all really cute. Like I have like lots of sweaters. We wear backpacks. We kind of like dance around the school. We have these really fun desks that are like roll that like roll across the stage because we have to play so many locations. A lot of our pieces and stuff kind of like roll around and we control like what it looks like. So it’s really fun for me, like, when we’re in the middle of a show and I get to interact with people and sometimes we have like improv sessions where like, you stand in the back and have a conversation and it’s really fun for me to just kind of play around with the cast every night because we make it new. You know, every day I go into the back of one of our like Halloween scenes and we’ll have a conversation, but we’ll have like a fake conversation about what happened at school that day. It’s really fun and it keeps it really fresh, and it keeps it really interesting every single night. And we all just get to play, you know, like 16, 17-year-olds and it’s fun for us. 

Cara: Awesome. All right, Naya, do you have another question? 

Niyah: Um, how was high school for you? Did you have like mean girls or was there bullying going on? If there was, how did you fix that? 

Emily: So I had a very unique school experience. I went from a private school into a public school for high school. So I went from having 30 people in my entire grade to having almost 600 people in my grade. So it was very scary for me. I didn’t know how to, you know, I wore uniforms. So I didn’t know like what I wanted to wear for school. I didn’t know, we didn’t wear makeup.You know, so it was a very like unique experience for me because I was kind of thrown into like this big sea of fish. I mean, not like Katie or who she comes from, you know, being homeschooled and being alone, but going from such a small community into like this big world where almost like 2000 people were at my school, it feels very overwhelming. And I was very nervous at first and I was very shy. But I found a group of girls that we were all in like an engineering math program together because that’s what I really liked in school. I was very big into math, very much like Katie. And my friends and I found each other and we just kind of connected and that brought me a sense of community. I didn’t get bullied. I think there were some like cool kids that I definitely felt scared of because I was not one of them growing up and I was kind of thrown into this group of people that had already had friend groups established and that, but I found my people that made me feel connected and made me feel special. And so I stuck to them and we were friends for years and years and we still stay in contact now with our new lives. But for me, it was like a very interesting experience going from such a small pool of people to like a big pond. 

Cara: Thank you. All right, Ailey. 

Ailey: So what do you dislike, or do you ever have second thoughts about performing on stage or on Broadway or performing in front of a crowd? 

Emily: I still get stage fright. I’ve been performing professionally for over 10 years, and there are still days where I get scared, because it’s such a vulnerable thing. Dancing, singing, art in general, it comes from the inside. It’s not like math where two plus two always equals four. My dancing is going to be different than everyone else’s dancing. My voice is going to be unique from everyone else’s voice. So I’m always sharing a little bit of myself when I perform. So sometimes it feels scary. Like sometimes I wonder, you know, am I good enough? Or does this sound good today? Or, you know, if I’m feeling like really tired one day, I’m like, oh, my dancing probably doesn’t even look good. And things like that. So I constantly, you know, have those worries about myself. I’m also on the road a lot. I travel a lot for work. So I’m never really home with my family. And there are some days where I miss them. And I wish that there was a way I could do both. And, but personally, this is what I love doing and I know that it’s my passion in life. So I don’t really ever have regrets about doing it, but there are some days that is hard to do. And I have to like to recognize that some days are going to be not the best days for me, but I keep showing up and putting myself out there as an artist and knowing that like I’m giving my best that I can every day. 

Cara: Awesome. All right, Niyah, do you have another question? 

Niyah: When you are not on tour, what do you do during your free time? 

Emily: Oh, I love to read. I am a big reader. I usually read physical books. I have a small library at my house with like 300 books at home because I love them, and I like to collect them. But I also got a Kindle and so I got like I’ve been reading like the like or like Libby like the library books and stuff so when I’m on tour because I can’t bring all of my books with me. I have my little tablet that I read off of, but reading is a really big passion of mine. So I love sci-fi and fantasy because I love kind of going to different worlds and you know it’s like a really fun escape for me. I love dragons and all that you know fun stuff. So that’s my big passion outside of theater. 

Cara: Awesome. All right, Ailey, did you have a last question for Emily? 

Ailey: Okay, so again, thank you for taking time to be with us today Emily and my last question for today would be, could you share about how you became the swing dancer for the Mean Girls and what you do during the tour? and What is it like to be on the tour? 

Emily: Yeah, so I, how I became this was I auditioned. I went into New York and they had all of us dance and all of us sing and read some different scenes from the show for the director. And I’m not sure how they picked me to do the swing, but I think because they had me read so many different characters and they were like, oh wow, she could pick up things really fast. And you know, she’s been dancing for a long time and you know, she’ll probably be really good at this. So, you know, they gave that opportunity to me. And then we started rehearsals and I sat down and I have lots of videos where I watch different people and I study different things. I make lots of charts. I have little charts with people’s names and dots on the page so I can see all their formations. And when I’m on tour, so like today, we have our full cast is on stage for our show this afternoon. So what I will get to do is I’ll either sit in the audience and watch the show and take some notes, see how everything looks, or sometimes I will do some yoga backstage to keep my body warm and to keep moving and to keep things going. Or sometimes me and the other swings, we bought coloring books. And sometimes if we’re not on a show and we want to take a little brain break, sometimes we all color together. So the four of us, there’s four swings. So we all sit together and we have a nice like hang out. We, you know, make some tea, do some coloring books. But then, you know, if we’re on the show, I’ll, you know, I’ll go in with the cast. I’ll get ready. I’ll put my microphone and my wig on and my makeup and the costumes and I go over whose track I’m doing that day. So I have little note cards that I will, I would kind of like little notes for every person because every person’s track is very unique. So sometimes I’ll flip through my note cards and look and go, oh, yep, they move that table or oh, they have this line or they sing this solo. So I’ll kind of go over and make sure I’ve got all of my, you know, ducks in a row for that person that I’m playing today. And then I go on and I do my show and I’ll have dinner between and then I’ll do the second one. So that’s kind of what it’s like. There’s multiple different things I can do in a day. So sometimes it’s like a choose your own adventure. 

Cara: Thanks for sharing all of that. I love that. All right, Niyah, do you have a final question for Emily? 

Emily: Yeah. 

Niyah: Yeah. Um, what, how would you talk to someone that is struggling to make friends in school? 

Emily: I think I lost connection for a second there. 

Niyah: Yeah, it keeps going off and on. 

Cara: Can you hear? OK. 

Emily: Okay, I think we’re back now. 

Niyah: Okay, how would you talk to someone that is struggling to make friends in school? 

Emily: Oh, making friends is hard. Making friends as an adult is sometimes hard too because it means that sometimes you have to maybe extend the handout and see if people, you know, want to talk to you about things. I always find that just starting a conversation about maybe something that you like, I’ll start a conversation, I’ll be like, oh, I’m reading this book. Have you read any good books lately? And I’ll, you know, strike up a conversation that, you know, is something that I’m interested in and I’ll see if they’re interested in it too. And I think that making friends is about finding commonalities and finding things that we can talk about together and that we can experience together. And I think that sometimes it’s hard when we’re a little shy because sometimes, you know, making friends means being vulnerable and putting yourself out there for someone and seeing if they want to hang out with you, which can be scary sometimes. But you know, sitting down with someone and asking, hey, do you want to go grab lunch and we can talk about life and see if we connect on a level like that, I think is really nice. We sometimes, again, when I talked about coloring, you know, sometimes being, hey, I have a coloring book, there’s another page in here, would you like to color with me? And you sit down and you just start talking about things. And eventually you learn a lot about a lot of people and you can see, you know, who you connect with and who wants to go do it again with you. 

Cara: Love that. Well, thank you all for being here today. And I know Ophelia’s place, youth are coming to Mean Girls. Are you Ailey and Niyah, are you both coming to the Mean Girls show? 

Niyah: Yeah. 

Emily: Oh, wonderful. Well, if you’re at the stage door, I’ll be at the stage door after all the shows. So if you see me, I would love to say hi. 

Niyah: Okay. 

Cara: Awesome. Alrighty. Well, thank you again. And just want to remind folks that Mean Girls is coming to the Hult Center March 1st through the 3rd. So, if you haven’t already, get your tickets. All right. Thank you all.