Students make scene

Spotlight: Peers review theatrical productions at high schools, leading to a black-tie gala and the awarding of Cappies.

January 15, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Creative teen-agers are getting more time in the spotlight this year, thanks to a new program designed to celebrate high school theater.

Organizers believe a local branch of the Cappies program, in which students review student theatrical productions and vote on awards for outstanding performances (on stage and off), will encourage young writers, motivate actors, singers and stage crew members, and add excitement to the amateur theater experience.

"If it's not talked about, it doesn't seem like it's valued," said Carol Lehan, director of the Baltimore Cappies. High school sports receive a great deal of attention from the news media, parents and administrators, she said, but students who excel in creative areas need more encouragement.

"Drama is such an important part of our lives," said Stephanie Haaser, 17, a junior at River Hill High School. The Cappies are "a great way to get this love of ours out to the public."

The Baltimore-area program - one of 10 nationwide - began in the fall. Most of the 13 participating campuses are Howard County public schools. Others are Catonsville High School and Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County, and Glenelg Country School. Leaders are eager to add more schools next year.

Each school chooses three to nine students who are trained to write reviews and are committed to attend productions at other participating schools on designated Cappies nights.

Those nights include confidential discussions before and after the show and during intermission under the guidance of a teacher. Students talk about background information, share their opinions and reach a consensus about the best elements of the show - including acting, vocal and dance performances, lighting, sets, costumes and others.

Only student efforts can be nominated, not those of teachers or parents.

The reviewers write 300- to 400-word critiques and submit them online by a designated deadline. All reviews are edited, posted on the Cappies Web site - www.cappies.com - and sent to the school putting on the show. Leaders then choose several to be published in local newspapers.

Students are allowed to be critical, but not harsh in their reviews, and they cannot mention any less-than-stellar individuals by name.

The reviews "tend to range from fairly nice to very nice rather than really getting down on a school," said William Strauss of McLean, Va., the program founder and national director. "We're not trying to close shows down here. ... We're trying to celebrate the kids."

At the end of the year, the reviewers choose the top nominees in each category and vote for the winners, who receive their awards - called Cappies - at a black-tie gala.

The program's first gala awards program will be held May 24 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

"When the awards are given, it is taken very, very seriously by the kids and the school because it is totally peer- based," Strauss said.

Strauss developed the program in Northern Virginia in 1999. He is co-founder and director of the Capitol Steps comedy group - from which he drew the program's name - and co-author of the book Millenials Rising, about the great potential of Generation Y, born in the early 1980s. After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, he said he was inspired to do something to celebrate the positive achievements of teen-agers.

A conversation with a Fairfax High School student sparked the idea for reviews and awards for student theater.

The Cappies began in fall 1999 with 14 schools in Northern Virginia. This year, the Capital Area program has 55 schools from Washington, Virginia and Maryland.

Locally, students have found the program rewarding.

"You really have to look at every aspect of the show," said Emily Woodhouse, 14, a River Hill freshman. And when it comes time for discussion "you really have to bring some evidence into it."

She said of writing about the theater, "It is nice to combine two of my biggest loves in life. ... I didn't expect it to be this much fun."

For Elana Dandeneau, 16, the Cappies were a natural fit with her passion for theater. "I go to a lot of high school shows," said the River Hill junior. "I find myself afterward in the car always critiquing the show myself.

"It was so interesting to go and have people ... willing to talk about it," she said.

By drawing together students from many schools, "this larger community is being constructed," said Pam Land, drama director at River Hill. The program also involves teachers from participating schools, she said, and parent boosters who pitch in to make Cappies nights more fun with food and decorations.

"There are many delights about this," Strauss said, including that it builds the high school theater community and shows are better attended. Cappies shows can even get nontheater students excited, he said, much like they do about sports events at homecoming.

"These students put in the same, and in some cases more, time than any kid on an athletic team," Land said. "But there hasn't been a platform for them to be seen outside of their school."

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