SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora.
There’s only 25 minutes until the first period bell rings and more than a few distractions. But these young thespians are on it, showing exceptional grit as they work through emotional scenes. The stage manager prods the occasional forgotten line, while the school band blasts out a jazzy, Putting on the Ritz, in the adjacent classroom.
Most days the rehearsal will have to stop on a dime — likely mid-scene — so students can turn in unison to face the flag when the principal comes on the intercom to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Then come the morning announcements.
It’s remarkable these kids get anything done, but they do.
And they’ve got something to show for it.
In November, Crew Lake Middle’s Junior Thespian Troupe 89312 presented 20 individual events and a challenging one-act drama for the District 11 Junior Thespian festival at River Ridge High School. They competed against students from 22 schools in Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties and brought home a coveted "Critics Choice" award for their presentation of the one-act futuristic drama, Look Me in the Eye, written by Lindsay Price. Now the troop will present the play, as well as several individual performances, to the Florida State Junior Thespians Broadway Bound State Festival, held Feb. 1-3 at the Orlando Convention Center.
To win was "amazing," said Vicky Henry, 12, who plays TOR, in Look Me in the Eye. "The fact that we are just a homeroom club, and we came this far is like, ‘Whoo!’’
"It took a lot of rehearsal," said Elliana Gorecki, who plays RUL in the play. "We had to fund-raise, make our own costumes, make our own sets. Everything has been done by ourselves."
It’s quite a feat for the kids, as well as Sykora, an avid advocate of theatre studies. Like many teachers of the arts, she often finds herself working against the odds.
When drama classes were dropped from the curriculum at Crews Lake Middle a few years ago, Sykora volunteered to start a club, meeting with members during the morning homeroom and for after-school rehearsals.
Add to that the cost.
Because Sykora’s students are in a school club, rather than a drama class or program, they receive no funding from Crews Lake Middle or the Pasco County School District.
Even so, Sykora, who has fond memories of her own middle- and high-school drama years, won’t be thwarted.
"I told my kids that not going was never an option," she said.
Neither was asking parents to foot the bill. While some likely could afford the costs, Crews Lake Middle is a Title 1 school, with a majority of students qualifying for the federal free- and reduced-cost meal program.
So Sykora and students held various fundraisers, selling laundry detergent, school t-shirts and tumblers, and hosting a "Stranger Things" dance. They raised more than $1,500 so all 36 students could go to the district competition, and pay the $4,000 needed for transportation, hotels, meals and registration fees for the state competition.
They have had some help.
Raider Rescue, a school organization that assists students with the cost of field trips and other student needs, donated $1,500. The school PTSO committed to helping out. But at last, count, they were about $800 short.
The troupe plans to whittle away at the deficit with more fundraising and a community performance at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at the River Ridge High FAME Theater. Attendees will get to see Look Me in the Eye and other award-winning presentations.
"I feel that I have such talent in these kids that I just want to give them a chance to go (to the state festival)," Sykora said. "They beat out students from schools for the arts that have drama programs, and schools where there are multiple teachers working on a one-act play with their students. I’ve taught at those schools. Our situation is different. Our kids did a phenomenal job despite the odds.
"This is a strong level of competing at these festivals, and to compete against the best and win against the best helps them know that if you put your heart and soul into it, you can accomplish anything no matter what the obstacles."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.