Mint Hill, Monroe Students Win National Awards At 2021 Junior Theater Festival
Two Charlotte-area musical theater groups received national awards at the Junior Theater Festival in Texas last weekend.
Students from Spotlight Performing Arts Academy in Mint Hill won a Freddie G Excellence in Ensemble award for their performance of "Seussical JR." Students from Innovation Drama Academy in Monroe won a Freddie G Excellence in Ensemble award for their performance of "Legally Blonde The Musical JR.," while students Ashline Arnaud and Rachel Kivlan received a Freddie G Outstanding Student Directing and Choreography award.
The festival was held from June 25 to 27 in Sugar Land, Texas.
In addition to the awards, Spotlight Performing Arts Academy students Alex Joles and Jaylen Dickerson and Innovation Drama Academy students Arnaud and Chris Rone received All-Star medals for standout performances.
Spotlight Performing Arts Academy owner Angela Mills said the students weren’t expecting to receive an award. Most groups performing at the festival had more than 20 students, but the Spotlight Players only had seven.
“We had no expectations, we were just going to have fun and to learn and be immersed in theater again, because we haven’t had that opportunity with COVID,” Mills said.
Mills said of the possible awards — which included recognition for acting, dance, and music — the award for an ensemble performance was the most important to her.
“That’s what we strive to do, is to make our team work together, so that all of our kids are close to each other and are not just in it for themselves, they’re in it for the whole team,” Mills said.
The weekend was a great learning experience for students, Mills said. Students attended workshops taught by Broadway professionals and received feedback from judges about their performances.
All-Star medals for standout performances are typically given to a boy and a girl in a performance group — for the Spotlight Players, the award was given to two boys.
Spotlight Performing Arts Academy student Joles, who received an All-Star medal for his performance as Horton the Elephant in "Seussical JR.," said he was surprised the award was given to two boys in the same group. Joles said he put a lot of effort into his performance leading up to the award.
“I want to be able to give it 110% to be able to get this opportunity,” he said.
Dickerson, a Spotlight Players student who received an All-Star medal for his performance as the Wickersham Brothers in "Seussical JR.," said the awards show boys can have a presence in musical theater if given the opportunity.
For Dickerson, the community at the festival felt like home.
“I’ve never seen that big of a group of people share the same experiences and (who) can relate to theater like that,” he said. “It was great to see everybody up and dancing and singing and happy and acting.”
Innovation Drama Academy owner Bridget Burrows emphasized the importance of students attending the festival, which she said provided students an opportunity to connect with other people that was restricted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The thing about the Junior Theater Festival that I think makes it so special is that it’s not a (competitive) environment,” Burrows said. “Everyone’s just so excited to be with each other.”
Burrows also emphasized the importance of inclusivity and diversity in musical theater. Elle Woods, the lead role of "Legally Blonde The Musical JR.," is typically cast as a white girl, but during their performance she was portrayed by a Black actress.
Innovation Drama Academy student Arnaud starred in "Legally Blonde The Musical JR." and was one of the students who choreographed the performance. Arnaud said she was initially wary to break status quo, but portraying Elle helped her grow as an actress and a choreographer.
“As a group, that’s why we do what we do — so that greater change will come about, and it starts at home,” Arnaud said.
Arnaud said receiving the awards validated the direction of her work.
“It just felt nice for your hard work and your time to be recognized so deeply by people that you don’t necessarily even know,” Arnaud said.
Both Spotlight Performing Arts Academy and Innovation Drama Academy have received previous awards from the Junior Theater Festival. Earlier this year, Spotlight Performing Arts Academy won a Freddie G Excellence in Ensemble Work award, and students Jason Porter and Olivia Jackson received awards for choreography and performance.
In 2020, Innovation Drama Academy received a Freddie G Excellence in Dance award, and Arnaud was awarded a Freddie G Outstanding Student Direction & Choreography award.