PALM HARBOR — Palm Harbor University High School drama students performed the play Wiley and the Hairy Man at the Florida Theatre Conference just for practice, really.
They thought the experience, as well as the critiques of the judges, would help prepare them for the Pinellas County School District theater festival, where they would perform the same play.
So they were shocked to learn later that they had garnered top honors at the statewide festival.
"I honestly didn't believe it, I thought they were pranking me," senior Vanessa Lopez said. "We came back (home) before the closing ceremony — we didn't find out when everybody else did. We were astonished about the award."
"I didn't even know there was a winner," said sophomore Tim Hart. "Winning that Florida conference was a big boost to our morale."
Because of their win, the Palm Harbor students will represent Florida next month at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"It's quite prestigious to be one of the best schools in Florida — to be invited to go to the Southeastern Conference," said Graham Howard, Palm Harbor University High's drama teacher.
The conference will feature workshops for students and teachers, as well as auditions for theater programs in many universities, he said. It's a big break for the students.
"I couldn't be prouder," Howard said.
Meanwhile, the students continue to fine-tune the production. Lopez, Hart and the cast and crew staged Wiley and the Hairy Man again at the Pinellas district's One-Act competition, where it was named one of the top three performances. That means they will be representing Pinellas again in another statewide competition, right after Chattanooga in March, Hart said.
Wiley and the Hairy Man by Susan Zeder is a story about fear and overcoming it, and is geared to young audiences. The play revolves around a 10-year-old fatherless boy, Wiley (played by Darcy Forest), who lives in a swamp with his Mammy (Amanda Springer) and Dog (Vanessa Lopez). He's afraid of many things but especially the Hairy Man (Tim Hart), a "conjure man" who killed Wiley's dad. Other students perform in the chorus, which creates an undulating, living swamp.
The students recently staged a dinner performance to raise money for their trip to Tennessee.
After several runs, Hart feels good about the show.
"It's an absolutely amazing performance, and I cannot believe how far we have come," he said.