Thumbnail photograph by Joanne Haner / North by Northwestern

School of Communication first-year Diane Li puts her all into everything, especially her style.

The theater and economics major from Miami typically sports a neutral tone or red sweater, high-rise straight leg jeans and dark boots. Even several weeks into the quarter, when sweatpants become common classroom attire, Li looks put-together.

“I’m trying to think of a time where I’ve ever seen Diane in sneakers, and I can’t,” said School of Communication first-year Grace Morley, her theater classmate.

Li takes similar care on the stage. In Winter Quarter, she sported a leather jacket and bootcut jeans to play the male lead’s girlfriend Nicola in the highest grossing Dolphin Show of all time, Kinky Boots. Li was the only first-year cast member outside of the ensemble.

“What Diane had in Kinky Boots is called a princess track,” said Lux Vargas, a fellow School of Communication first-year and childhood friend. “It’s someone who comes on and kind of steals the show every time they come on stage.”

This quarter, Li performed in the Wirtz Center production of How to Know the Wildflowers: A Map as a member of the ensemble.

The show is the first devised theater piece Li has performed in, allowing her and the other performers to contribute to creating the work.

“The process was so collaborative,” Li said. “Having all these interesting, creative ideas bounce off of each other, and to conglomerate it and put it into one piece of art was really cool.”

Even before her impressive performing roles at Northwestern, Li received accolades for her tenacity and talent for the arts. Most notably, she played Éponine in her high school’s production of Les Misérables during her junior year of high school. The performance earned her a Cappie award for Best Supporting Actress, a prestigious regional theater accolade in southern Florida. As a senior in high school, the Miami Herald gave her an honorable mention in the drama category for its Silver Knight Award.

“I just really, really like storytelling,” Li said.

Li’s love for performing also led her to speech and debate. She won fifth place at nationals during her senior year for her dramatic interpretation of excerpts from Sylvia Yu Friedman’s book A Long Road to Justice, which highlights the issue of human trafficking in Asian countries.

“I realized that speech and debate could be an outlet for protest,” Li said.

She brings this same passion to her activities today, and her peers say she always shows this through a smile. Despite four-hour rehearsals almost every day, late-night a cappella practices with the student group Treblemakers and a hefty courseload, Li is known for her energy and quick sense of humor.

“She just brings a lot of laughter with her,” said Alexa Goldstein, School of Communication fourth-year and director of the 2024 Dolphin Show.

Li spread her smiles to cast members during rehearsals for Kinky Boots. Li volunteered to dance in the all-female number “What a Woman Wants,” and in doing so, left her role as Nicola for a scene to join the ensemble, said School of Communication third-year and cast member Cole Edelstein.

“She would joke that her alter ego when she was in the ensemble would be Nicole,” Edelstein said.

Managing endless commitments, Li also stepped off the stage to try her hand at directing this year.

As a part of D-Fest with WAVE Productions, Li directed Overtones, by Alice Gerstenberg, during Winter Quarter. WAVE, one of Northwestern’s student coalition theater boards, carefully selects student directors with an emphasis on “process over product,” Vargas said.

The leaders of WAVE ensure that their directors are going to create a safe space for the people around them, Vargas said.

Looking to the future, Li plans to continue to improve her dance and vocal skills. Although she will not be performing in a show next fall, Li will be the Director of Fundraising for next year’s Dolphin Show. She hopes her hard work will continue to bring her new opportunities.

“I’m really, really excited for what her future holds here and once she graduates from Northwestern,” Vargas said.