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On with the show: Pinellas arts students now compete virtually for a coveted award

YouTube is the new stage for Walker’s Rising Stars after COVID-19 closed the curtain on the competition’s splashy annual show at Mahaffey Theater.

She didn’t like the wall or lighting, but it would have to do. Nothing seemed to be going as expected anyway.

Against the makeshift backdrop, allowing for as much natural light as possible, Elana Treiser, a senior at Palm Harbor University High School, recorded a comedic monologue, a scene from Apartment 3A by Jeff Daniels.

She came across the excerpt when she’d bought a book of monologues on a trip to New York last summer. She loved it immediately and read the whole play. She thought she’d use it.

But even after rehearsing a few times in her mirror, talking to a camera in her bedroom with no one to laugh at the funny parts, she realized how strange it all was.

“So much of acting is reacting,” she said.

The video is one of 20 from Pinellas County high school students that will be part of this year’s virtual Walker’s Rising Stars, an annual competition by the Pinellas Education Foundation showcasing the county’s top visual, performing and culinary arts junior and senior high school students. The competition culminates in a late spring show at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

The program started 17 years ago and has launched students into careers on Broadway, in television and as arts educators, said the Pinellas Education Foundation’s Rich Engwall, who has been involved with the program since its early days.

When it became clear this spring the May 11 show would not be able to take place in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, organizers quickly began coming up with alternatives, said Jeanne Reynolds, who oversees performing arts programs for Pinellas County Schools and has been involved in Walker’s Rising Stars from the start.

In performing arts, the show always goes on. So they decided to ask each finalist to submit a video for the Pinellas Education Foundation’s YouTube page.

Reynolds said the scholarship money will be divided equally among the 20 performing and visual arts finalists out of fairness, to account for differences in recording equipment and other circumstances. Each finalist will receive $1,000 from the Pinellas Education Foundation. The two culinary arts finalists will receive $1,500 and $1,000 respectively from the Ryan Wells Foundation.

Organizers got all the finalists on a Zoom call to break the news.

At first, it was a bit disappointing.

Treiser thought about the Friday before spring break, when news of the coronavirus had just started to spread. She and her friends thought maybe they’d get an extra week of school off, she said.

She didn’t realize that would be her last day in high school, didn’t anticipate the roller coaster of emotions that would follow in finding out there would be no prom or grad bash or state thespian festival. And now the Walker’s competition was canceled too. She’d auditioned the previous year but didn’t make the final round, and had been working toward it again since the fall.

But, she realized, it was still an opportunity to perform.

“Of course it’s not ideal, but nothing is as anyone expected right now,” Treiser said. “It’s an opportunity to share our joy and passion and what we love with the community.”

Ashley Kadau, a junior at Largo High, said she started taking dance as a kid, joined an elite team in the sixth grade, and began attending summer intensives since she was a freshman. She performed in Los Angeles and Europe and trained privately with famous choreographers, she said.

But performing onstage at Mahaffey had been a dream of hers since she was a kid. She attended each year’s performance for as long as she could remember.

“It was a letdown at first, but I’m still grateful to be a part of it,” Kadau said. “You have to keep doing your passion. ... Dance is literally my whole life.”

Griffin Collins, a junior at Tarpon Springs High, enlisted the help of his parents to record his vocal performance. His sister had been a finalist four years ago, he said, and he was initially disappointed to not be able to perform at the Mahaffey. Instead, they spent hours at an empty church in Clearwater to get his recording just right.

Engwall said the virtual performances have the potential to reach even more viewers and possibly open more doors for the students.

The nature of performing arts is changing, he said. This year’s first round of auditions was submitted virtually — something Treiser said was good preparation in learning about camera angles for her college auditions.

“They’re growing up in a very different world,” Engwall said. “Opportunities exist in places that didn’t when I was growing up. Before, they’d have to be able to buy a ticket and jump on a plane and audition. Now they can audition by Skype.”

But the future is uncertain for everyone in the performing arts and nonprofit sector as philanthropy is expected to lag and some form of social distancing guidelines will remain in place for the foreseeable future. What future years’ competitions look like remains to be seen.

“Will there be a normal again that we know?” Engwall said. “We don’t don’t know what impact that will have. But education is one of those cornerstones upon which our society is built.”

Treiser said the uncertainty hasn’t shaken her desire to study theater in college and become a performing artist, whether that means working locally or moving to New York.

Elana Treiser, a senior at Palm Harbor University High, is one of this year's Walker's Rising Stars finalists. She recorded a performance from Jeff Daniels' "Apartment 3A." [YouTube]
Elana Treiser, a senior at Palm Harbor University High, is one of this year's Walker's Rising Stars finalists. She recorded a performance from Jeff Daniels' "Apartment 3A." [YouTube]

During quarantine, she’s continued taking voice lessons via Zoom and scoured professional theaters’ pages releasing footage of performances to study. Actors were getting on Zoom calls with fans.

“It’s a really scary time to look at live theater,” she said. “Broadway has been closed for the longest it ever has been. But if anything, my love for theater has grown stronger. The community has grown stronger. The entire arts community has continued to stay alive and be together even if we cant be together in person.”

Collins, whose parents are musicians and sister is a performing artist, said the uncertainty has added to his drive and love for music. He practices singing and tuba for longer now and said he’s started thinking more about finding small ways to improve.

“Before, I think I kind of expected things would happen in the future,” he said. “Once everything kind of stopped, it made me really appreciate everything, all the experiences I’ve had so far.”