NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco schools brought home 20 top honors from the District 11 Junior Thespian Festival, which included 22 schools from Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties and took place at the new River Ridge FAME Academy on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18.
Roughly 800 students participated in the event. Theater teachers from around the county and local professional actors served as judges.
Students competed in a range of group and individual events, including acting, costume design, improv, music, monologue and pantomime.
"By hosting the festival at the River Ridge FAME academy, we spotlight the area and the community," said Gulf Middle School theater teacher Peter Nason, who also serves as District 11 chairman. "And it's all about the kids."
Pasco schools competing at the festival were Gulf Middle School, River Ridge Middle School, Rushe Middle School, Pine View Middle School, Millennium Academy, Dayspring Academy, and Crews Lake Middle School.
Students performed scenes from classic theatrical works like Hairspray, Footloose and The Headless Horseman, along with original and improv works. They then received feedback from judges on everything from voice projection to body movements and facial expressions.
Crews Lake, which brought home a Critics Choice for Best One Act, for Look Me In the Eye, has no drama class or club at the school. Veteran English teacher Kristen Sykova teaches drama as a part of her homeroom curriculum. At the festival, her students expressed their appreciation for Sykova's strong commitment to the dramatic arts.
"Drama is a good way to be someone else and exercise your creative power," said Elliana Gorecki, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.
Chassad Fearing, a 14-year-old Crews Lake eighth-grader, is also a musician who performs with his family's FearingStar band.
"Studying drama and music in school helps me get better," said Chassad.
Crews Lake students Morgan Casel and Steven Hall both credit their drama studies with building their confidence and public speaking skills. And classmate Airyana Ermatinger sees a drama competition as the ultimate challenge.
Gulf Middle School, another fairly new drama program, scored big at the festival, landing seven major honors, including Best in District/District Rep, chosen by all the District 11 sponsors.
"The skills you learn in drama build your creativity and could be the key to a future job," said Gulf student Andy Kledzik, who won and Honorable Mention Critics Choice (Duet Acting) honors with Beau Mercier.
Chelsea Christopher, a Gulf eighth-grader, agrees.
"Being involved in the thespians has changed who I am," said Chelsea, 13. "It builds character."
Several industry veterans also competed in last weekend's festival.
Although only 13, Millennium Academy eighth-grader Jayla Miller has been acting and modelling since age 4. Her teacher, Myndee Washington, said the drama competition "reinforces what we're teaching them in the classroom."
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Nolan Cottrell, a sixth-grader at Gulf Coast Academies in Hernando County, has appeared in many school plays as well as in dramatic presentations and music videos on social media. He and classmates Emily Gomes, Olivia Swits, Evan Tarrio, Eddie Gonzalez, and May Siefert extolled the benefits of drama studies and the strength of the award-winning Gulf Coast program.
"This was a challenge for us," school drama director Stephen Hoda said. "And we came in with guns blazing."