High School Thesps Earn More Than Applause

New area musical theatre awards announce first nominations

Cedar Ridge students show off the banner recognizing the 13 nominations for the school's production of 'Ragtime'
Cedar Ridge students show off the banner recognizing the 13 nominations for the school's production of 'Ragtime' (Photo by Robert Faires)

More than 100 high schoolers from across the area packed into the Long Center's Rollins Theatre, some having driven 40 miles before dawn to make the big announcement at 7am. That's how jazzed these teen thespians were about the nominations for the first Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

The awards – a joint project by the Long Center, Zach Theatre, and the University of Texas College of Fine Arts – were created to throw a public spotlight on the exceptional work being done on the region's high school stages, work that doesn't usually receive much recognition outside the school buildings where the shows are performed. Fifteen categories were established to honor all aspects of musical theatre production: student performances, musical direction, orchestra, choreography, design, direction, and technical execution. A team of evaluators from throughout the community – of which this writer was one – saw shows at 19 schools throughout Austin and in the surrounding communities of Marble Falls, Dripping Springs, Del Valle, Bastrop, Pflugerville, Round Rock, and Leander. The nominations were drawn from their scores for each category in the productions they saw. On April 17, awards will be presented to the winners in each category during a ceremony at the Long Center.

In welcoming the young artists to the nominations announcement, Long Center Executive Director and CEO Jamie Grant said, "It's about time that we did something special like this in Austin." After all, Fort Worth has had its Betty Buckley Awards honoring excellence in high school theatre for 14 years and Houston its Tommy Tune Awards for 12. Grant went on to tell the students of his own experiences, "how the time I spent in musical theatre in high school changed my life."

That idea was echoed by Brant Pope, chair of the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, who was on hand to help announce the nominees: "I grew up in Minnesota, where you're either a hockey player or a Communist. When I was in Guys and Dolls because I couldn't skate backwards fast enough to be a defenseman, it changed my life, too."

Given the buzz in the Rollins, it was clear that theatre was already altering the lives of these teens. For them, this was the equivalent of the Tonys – not honors bestowed on them by the drama teacher at their school but a contest in which their work was being judged against their peers throughout the area and deemed outstanding by a pool of theatre professionals and educators.

Grant didn't deny that the awards involve a degree of competition. On the contrary, this Canadian transplant told the crowd that he took inspiration from the competition in Texas high school football, how that "Friday Night Lights" spirit builds pride and community around the students who compete. Why can't high school theatre enjoy that same level of support and spirit?

And with that, he, Pope, Lyn Koenning of the musical theatre program at UT, and Nat Miller, education director at Zach, launched into the lists of nominees. Every school earned at least two nominations, and more than half of them received at least half a dozen. The schools taking top honors were Cedar Ridge High School, which scored 13 nominations for its production of Ragtime; James Bowie High School, which also scored 13 nominations for its staging of Miss Saigon; Dripping Springs High School, snagging 12 nominations for its production of Once Upon a Mattress; and Leander High School, with 10 nominations for its version of The Music Man.

Though theatre is notoriously ephemeral and the curtain fell on these nominated musicals long ago, the GAHSMTA ceremony on April 17 will allow many of these nominees to reprise their performances, at least in part, for a night. Plans call for musical numbers from each nominated production, ones featuring lead actors and actresses, ones with supporting and featured actors, and, for the big finish, one including a male and female from each participating school. For more information, visit www.thelongcenter.org.

Let's just hope that before the ceremony, someone comes up with an inspired nickname for the awards. Gahsmattys just doesn't have a ring to it. Granted, Austin may not boast a Tommy Tune or Betty Buckley who might lend a name to our awards for high school theatre artists, but we do have the guy whose inspiration it was to make sure Austin students were honored for their work onstage. Anyone planning to attend the Jamies?

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Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards, Long Center, Zach Theatre, UT College of Fine Arts, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Jamie Grant, Brant Pope, Lyn Koenning, Nat Miller

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