Thespians bring theater magic to Tampa

April 6, 2014 

The beginning of April, for me, is like Dec. 26 to a kid. The time of year I've been looking forward to has passed, and I have a long, long wait until it comes again.

For the past 15 years or so, I've been one of the adjudicators at the Florida State Thespians festival. It's the biggest convention in Tampa almost every year, and the biggest theater competition in the world.

I've read different numbers, but something like 9,000 high school kids from around the state, all judged to be among the best actors, designers, singers and dancers in their geographic areas, gather together for four days of competition, productions and workshops.

They dominate downtown Tampa, and fill the mammoth Tampa Convention Center, Tampa Theatre, and at least five of the theaters at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

It's the hardest work I do all year. (Full disclosure: I get paid an honorarium amount from the festival for the work I do.) I was there for three days, and judged, along with two other people, 278 monologues from 139 student actors. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of other judges from all over the country were scattered around the festival, evaluating set designs, sound designs, direction, one-act plays, musical numbers, ensemble pieces, even publicity campaigns.

It's the hardest work I do, as I said, but it's the most inspirational few days of my year, every year.

Unless you go to this festival, you have no idea how much theater talent burgeons in Florida's high schools.

Just one example: On Saturday, a kid named F. Colon -- that's all that's on my judging sheet, and I forgot to write down his first name -- stood up in front of the judges and did a monologue from a play I had never heard of, in which he played a dog on leash who's getting annoyed with his owner. The script was fairly funny; F. Colon made it one of the funniest things I've ever seen. That's not an exaggeration.

Then he did a dramatic monologue, from a play called "Audition," and he was just as compelling.

I saw him perform for less than five minutes, with no props, costumes, sets or lights, and I'll never forget him.

Never.

He was the fourth of 39 young actors I saw that day. All were very good; they had all earned their way through by excelling at district competitions. At the day's end, the three of us judges had to pick our favorite. We had not compared notes all day. The judge to my right said "Are we all in agreement?" I said, "The dog kid, right?" and the others immediately agreed.

But that's just the tiniest part of what makes the festival so thrilling. You walk around downtown Tampa and you see groups of kids rehearsing dramatic scenes, or songs from musicals, right on the corner. One time I went into the men's room and there were two kids changing their shirts while they sang a song from "Guys and Dolls" in impeccable two-part harmonies. Another time I walked in and a kid dressed like a parody of Hitler was adjusting his moustache, apparently getting ready to perform a scene from "The Producers."

My adjudicating schedule was full, so I didn't get a chance to attend any of the workshops. There was one called "Wigs and Facial Hair" that I wanted to check out just for fun, and one on playwriting, conducted by a nationally known playwright, that I heard was phenomenal.

There were fully staged productions, including one of "All My Sons" that was wonderful.

But it's the kids who make the Thespians festival so incredible. The Tampa Convention Center is huge -- four stories tall and about two blocks long on each side -- and it's so packed during the festival that it's hard to make your way down the hallway. The Straz Center and Tampa Theatre are just as packed. I've never seen any fights or even arguments.

A lot of these kids are not the coolest kids in their schools. At the Thespians Festival, the things that can make them uncool at school make them rock stars.

At the end of one day of festival judging, a kid came up to me. He looked familiar. He told me he was a senior, and, just by coincidence, I had been one of his judges at the district and state festivals every year through his high school career. He thanked me for all the comments and suggestions I had made, he had used them in his work so far and he would remember them as he went onto college and continued acting.

Next year's festival is 11 and a half months away. But a kid you barely recognize telling you something like that gives you something to hold onto. There's a magic moment or two like that for me at the festival every year.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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