By Emily Williams
When the Vestavia Hills High School Thespian Troupe began to prepare for its competition performance at the Alabama Thespian Festival, theater teacher Jamie Stephenson and her students chose something challenging but fun.
“We had just finished ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly,’ which was an incredibly hard show,” Stephenson said. “It is about the children of the Holocaust and it really pushed us in our art form and emotionally.”
Gravitating toward something a bit more lighthearted, the team performed “Among Friends and Clutter,” by Lindsay Pate.
It turned out to be a good choice. After the state festival, hosted by the Alabama Educational Theatre Association, the troupe was selected to represent the state at the International Thespian Festival, set for June 22-27 in Bloomington, Indiana. It expects to draw 6,000 students from across the globe.
“We wanted to do a show that showcased our talent but was also really fun,” Stephenson said. The play “shows a group of friends’ relationships from second grade to 60 years of age,” she said. “It allowed us to delve into the physicality of acting different ages and had some really funny moments. It made us laugh, so we decided to put it on its feet in a month of rehearsal.”
The Vestavia schools hosted the state festival and plans to host it again next year. The festival was broken into a high school segment, which took place at Vestavia Hills High School, and a junior segment, which took place at Louis Pizitz Middle School.
The event took a village to pull off, with more than 60 students and 30 parents assisting.
“These parents and students work to feed and take care of over 1,200 students from all over the state, and they do it with a smile and a great attitude,” Stephenson said. “It is amazing to watch our community shine over the weekend.”
Though there was a competitive aspect to the weekend event, Stephenson said the festival is all about the workshops. The festival includes individual performance, tech challenge, improv events and chapter competitions, Stephenson said. But the list of educational opportunities is much longer. Students could take part in lectures and workshops covering musical theater, vocal technique, technical theater, auditioning, dancing and acting, among other disciplines.
“The Alabama Educational Theatre Association spends close to $20,000 a year bringing in guest artists that our students/schools wouldn’t be able to learn from on their own,” Stephenson said.
Her students have had the opportunity to learn from an actress who played the lead role of Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway, and a stage manager from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Stephenson added that Justin Paul and Benj Pasek – lyricists and composers of the Tony Award-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and film “Greatest Showman” – conducted a master class at the festival and auditioned students for “Dear Evan Hanson.”
“Our students are learning and making connections with people from all over the entertainment world,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson sees it as her duty as an educator to provide opportunities for students to experience different areas of interest. So, providing her students with opportunities to learn from the best and grow along the way are essential.
“I think that we have an incredible amount of talent in Vestavia Hills,” Stephenson said.
“Also, not all of my students will become actors, actresses or technicians,” she said. “I want them to be comfortable in any setting with any group of people.”
“I always say that I want my students to succeed, whether it is in the court room, the operating room, the classroom or the board room,” she said. “In theater, they learn skills that are essential in any career: time management, communication skills, coping skills, creative problem solving, project management and budgeting. I hope they take these skills and find a career that isn’t a job but is something they love to do every day.”