Mid-Week Intermission Friend Edition: Donelvan Thigpen & Jessica O’Brien

With only 22 days to go before the big show — that is, the Heller Awards for Young Artists Ceremony where we bring together a ton of students from 32 high schools to celebrate their musical theatre accomplishments for the year — our excitement is nearing extreme porportions. And what better way to get into the spirit of things than to check in with this year’s Ceremony hosts, program alumni Donelvan Thigpen and Jessica O’Brien? See what they had to say about the HAYAs and why they keep coming back to be a part of it in today’s Mid-Week Intermission.

And did we mention that the Heller Awards Ceremony is back in business, live and in-person in Dell Hall? It all goes down April 14th, and tickets to the show go on sale March 31st at 8pm. Sign up for alerts if you don’t want to miss it.

Tell us a little about you. How did you get where you are today?
Donelvan, wearing glasses and a white and red t-shirt, sits cross-leged against a green field

Donelvan: My journey in performing started in the 3rd grade when my elementary school did The Music Man Jr. I played Marcellus Washburn and from that moment on I’ve been obsessed with the arts.

I wanted to learn how to sing, dance, and act. Musical theatre semed like the perfect place to learn how to become a triple threat, so I started to train with Ginger Morris (that’s the Producing Director of the Heller Awards, for those who don’t know her), and other great teachers, which led me to get accepted into the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Jessica, poses with a big smile, a hat, and a peace sign in a tree-filled park

Jessica: I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without the gifts of my high school theatre director, Kristie Copeland, and Ginger Morris. It was truly more than just the programs they offered — it was the passion, love, excellence, and inspiration that being in my high school musicals year after year instilled.

It was also the confidence gained by meeting Ginger in my Select Ensemble audition for the very first Musical Awards (called ‘The GAHSMTAs’ back in 2014), and the amazement at her ability to put together a genuine celebration for what we love as human beings and are here on this earth to do. Seeing true collaboration at its finest from female directors, who valued who I was as a person and artist, especially being ayoung woman of color, was a blessing and something I will treasure forever.

What projects are you working on right now? Anything we can check out soon?

Donelvan: Right now, I’m headlining on the Las Vegas Strip! I play Prince in Purple Reign The Prince Tribute Show. And if you’re in Vegas, you can check it out Wednesday through Saturday at 9:30pm!

Jessica: I’m currently serving as a new member of the Board of Directors for the Georgetown Palace Theatre, and am grateful to serve that community right now. I wrote a book about my experience up to this point in life as a black woman. I talk about about a few of the challenges I’ve had to overcome in theatre and in myself, but also highlight the genuine joy I’ve felt.

Being a woman of color is something I celebrate in my book, and I hope to encourage other people to be inspired to celebrate who they are as well!

We know you were in volved in the Heller Awards when you were in high school (in the GAHSMTA days!), but what makes you want to keep coming back and being involved?

Donelvan: Doing a musical in high school was so much fun, but it was also a lot of hard work! I want to be involved with the Awards because I believe any school that attempts to put on a musical should be honored and recognized, and that’s exactly what happens at the Heller Awards.

Jessica: It is amazing to see the caliber of professionalism that has been growing over the last few years because of the HAYAs. Yet I keep coming back because HS musicals are where I got my start. Austin is my home and it was the education programs like this one where I met some of my best friends and some truly amazing people who have challenged me along my journey. I’m passionate about leaving behind a higher ceiling for the next generation of artsits around me, and I am so excited to celebrate with these students and directors!

Did you catch those Nominations announcements??

Prepare for the Awards on April 14th with this 37-minute video announcing our 2022 nominees, plus a fun musical theatre number because we’re ‘back in business, and ain’t it grand.’ Not your thing? You can also save some time and check out the Nominations in this blog.

Donelvan dressed as Prince in Purple Reign The Prince Tribute Show, in a blakc suit against a purple background

1 // Be adaptable. At some point, something you never thought would happen is going to happen, but if you’re adaptable you can always move forward.

2 // Never take anything personally.

3 // This one’s more of a quote. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Almost everything you do in life requires collaboration and especially in the arts.

4 // Always do your best. Even if you don’t feel at your best on a given day, if you do the best that you have at that moment, you can go to sleep with no regrets.

5 // Always cherish the present moment. I had a lot of anxiety waiting for a better moment to come along, or for something great to happen. But with that mindset, even when that “great moment” comes along, you’ll miss it because you’re already thinking about the next thing. 

All of your power is stored at this very moment. That’s all there is. (If you want to go deeper in this, check out “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle.

Jessica, sings powerfully into a handheld microphone wearing a sparkly silver dress

1 // It takes a village, but collaboration is a recipe for success.

2 // It takes having conversations and listening to those around you to produce a production that is valuable to all involved.

1 // It’s not personal, it’s just business.

2 // Everyone is doing their best, so give kindness and grace to everyone involved.

5 // Show up as you are, because that can speak volumes.


Show your support for arts education by following @hellerawardsatx on your social media platform of choice, or take it one step further and make a donation to the Heller Awards for Young Artists today. The future of arts education is here, and you can make sure it continues.

Share this Post
Year-End Gift 2023 | Long Center
Your Support Today, Transforms Tomorrow

We’ve made it our mission to support creativity in all its forms, and we hope this season you’ll join us and do the same. Your donation doesn’t just support our work, it’s a declaration that creativity belongs to everyone

Amplify Austin is here – and we need your help to provide free arts experiences for K-12 students through our Long Reach for the Arts program.  Because the kids need art!