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TEEN DISPLAYS STAR TALENT

At 18, Ben Jenkins is wowing audiences at home and abroad with his acting abilities.

Friends and family affectionately call Ben Jenkins "Benzel," a reference to Academy Award-winning star Denzel Washington.

The senior at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School isn't starring in box office smashes yet, but he certainly possesses the potential. He was among 10 students from the center to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, for the prestigious Fringe Festival this summer, and his acting also has earned numerous awards.

In Scotland, Jenkins, 18, and his classmates - who raised $46,000 to help fund the trip - performed Jason Robert Brown's Songs For A New World. The cast played four sold-out shows at the performing arts celebration and received an invitation to sing at the Fringe Festival's closing ceremonies.

"He can do musical theater, and his voice also has a really, really nice pop sound," said Keven Renken, head of the center's theater department. "He's also quite an expressive actor, especially for one as young as he is."

Jenkins also received the center's Marley Award for best supporting actor for his role in the play Peer Gynt, and he received the William G. Shepard Jr. Scholarship from American Stage Theatre Company.

It's a nice theatrical resume for someone who didn't discover theater until his teen years.

"After I saw my first musical, Les Mis, I just knew that this is what I wanted to do," Jenkins said. "I want to go to college for it. I want to be a full-time actor, if possible, or teach acting."

The acting bug bit him after he joined the youth ensemble at American Stage at age 13, and he credits the group with fueling his passion. Over the summer, he interned for American Stage along with St. Petersburg High senior Sara Beth Newmark.

Both students earned the paid internship through Bank of America's Neighborhood Excellence Initiative program, and American Stage education director Julie Rowe made sure they did more than just make copies and fetch coffee.

"They did front of house, they ushered, they worked in development, education, marketing," Rowe said. "They assisted in the rehearsal process of Doubt. They also hung lights for the production, and they worked in the theme shop. So they were busy."

Rowe also had Jenkins and Newmark develop a time-management seminar for other members of the youth ensemble.

In July, they joined three other Pinellas students (Asia Williams, Kemoi Brown and Jordan Hozlmacher) in Washington, D.C., for a weeklong Bank of America Student Leadership Seminar.

"I learned that you have to focus on strengths," Jenkins said. "You have to work hard at it. You don't focus so much on your weaknesses. You focus on your strengths, and you surround yourself with people who have other strengths that you may lack in."

For now, Jenkins' strength is acting, and Renken believes Jenkins may achieve his goal of professional success.

"I think his chances are much higher than average," Renken said. "For one thing, he has a lot of charisma on stage. He just lights up, which I think is something you find in the best talents.

"He makes you want to watch him. I think there's something there."

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