The anticipation was building backstage as the performers readied to perform their song in front of a raucous crowd of 6,500 theatre enthusiasts from around the world. This moment was the ultimate prize for kids from Norman and Moore who attended the 2020 Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta as part of The Studio of The Sooner Theatre.
When you think of fierce competition, most often it's on a field of play of one sport or another. But the kids who took the stage triumphantly on that day in Atlanta were doing what they and their peers in the audience are most passionate about—musical theater.
The Studio of The Sooner Theatre took a group of 38 students in fourth through eighth grade to the annual two-day festival, which brings musical theater students from across the country and around the world together to celebrate, learn and perform. It’s the largest such festival of its kind. Out of the 127 groups who brought a selection from a Broadway JR show to be adjudicated, The Sooner Theatre was one of just nine selected to perform a song from their selection on the main stage in front of all 6,500 attendees from the United States, United Kingdom, China, New Zealand and Australia!
One of their adjudicators stated, “There must be some ‘secret sauce’ at that theater in Norman, Oklahoma; we hope you share it with everyone!”
They were impressed with all aspects of the students’ performance, from skill level, to acting abilities, to choreography, and so much more!
“We never look at theater as a competition—we are all storytellers,” said Jennifer Baker, Sooner Theatre executive director. “Typically, even the audition process, which to someone outside the theatre could look like a competition, isn’t. It’s always about a particular director choosing the person for each role that best tells the story that director has in his or her mind. So, if we had five different directors choose actors for the same role in a production, we could have five different actors chosen.”
Performers who attend the festival have all said the festival just feels comfortable—a place where they can just be who they are.
“Meg was thrilled to be with 6,500 people who she felt were like her with the same interests. She often feels like she is in the minority here since she is not a sports kid,” said Kathy Loy, mother of one of the Sooner Theatre performers. “The adjudications at JTF are done in a positive way. The kids receive constructive feedback. It also is very beneficial to be able to watch the performance troops from all over the country and even from other countries and hear the feedback they receive from the Judges. The kids learn things from seeing others adjudicated as much as from being adjudicated themselves. While it is competitive, these kids all cheer for each other, and enjoy each other's performances. These kids are all supportive of each other.”
The Studio of The Sooner Theatre has attended JTF for the past six years (with the exception of this year, which was delayed due to COVID).
“The first year we went, we really did not know what to expect,” Jennifer said. “What we found was that for kids whose dream is to get to Broadway, it’s like Disneyland. It’s really magical!”
Performers rehearsed weekly for four months leading up to the festival, working to perfect a 15-minute selection from a Broadway JR show.
“Watching our kids perform in front of the largest audience they had ever experienced was truly magical,” said Tiffany Bodenhamer, mother of another of the Sooner Theatre performers. “We sometimes take for granted the talent we have right here in Norman, Oklahoma, and it was incredibly rewarding to watch our group perform with some of the most talented theatres in the country.”
JTF participants also attend workshops and see presentations from some of the giants in the industry. It’s not unusual to get to talk with the head of Disney Theatrics, or a rising Broadway star while at the festival.
“The second year we went, Ben Platt was there to sing a song from a new show that was in workshops at the time but was going to be moving to Broadway. That show was ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ and we were some of the first to hear him sing ‘Waving Through A Window’ from that show,” Jennifer noted. “He was with the kids at the festival all weekend. He was walking the halls, popping into workshops and adjudication rooms, and that’s how they all are—very accessible.”
But until last year, The Sooner Theatre performers who attended had never been chosen to perform on the “big stage” at the event.
“I think my favorite memory is seeing the tear-filled eyes of our kids backstage after their performance in front of everyone. It was their Super Bowl moment, and it was incredible to see,” said Jennifer. “I cannot wait to bring another troupe back. It’s an amazing experience for them every time. And, for kids from Oklahoma, I think it makes it all (succeeding in this industry) seem a bit more attainable.”
[Nancy Coggins is the PR and development director for the Sooner Theatre of Norman Inc.]