High Schoolers Learn That "Being Authentically You" Is Essential As They Prepare For the Jimmy Awards

News   High Schoolers Learn That "Being Authentically You" Is Essential As They Prepare For the Jimmy Awards The 7th Annual National High School Musical Theater Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards, will be held June 29. Nominees Audrey McKee and Alec Michael Ryan blog about their week in New York City and their journey to the Jimmys. Two of the participants have been blogging for Playbill.com. See their latest posts, below.

Audrey McKee
Audrey McKee

Now in their seventh year, the Jimmy Awards will feature 52 high school student finalists who have been selected from across the U.S. to perform at the Minskoff Theatre, currently home to the Broadway musical The Lion King. Sutton Foster will host.

Throughout the week students have been meeting with seasoned Broadway performers and creative artists, attend vocal coachings and rehearsals to prepare for this year's ceremony, where they perform and represent musical theatre competitions (where they were previously presented with an award for their performance in their high school production) sponsored by professional theatre organizations in cities across America. A panel of judges will determine the recipients of the Best Performance by an Actor and Best Performance by an Actress awards.

Audrey McKee and Alec Michael Ryan represent The Tommy Tune Awards in Houston, TX, for their respective performances as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins and Laurence Jameson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

McKee and Ryan will continue to update Playbill.com with an exclusive blog that takes readers behind the scenes and into the rehearsal rooms.

Read their first blog, "The Beginning of My Future," here.

Read their second blog, about getting greeted by Broadway pros, here

Audrey McKee: June 26

Day 3 is done!

This morning I woke up a little more tired than usual, but that was quickly cured with a cup of coffee and the uncontainable excitement of a new day! We were greeted by some beautiful weather on our walk to Tisch, which made it impossible to not feel awake and alive as we moved through the city. 

Once again, we began the day with yoga. I am thrilled that we start off the day with yoga, in order to reflect within ourselves and focus on our breathing. Our word for the day was "confidence." Confidence is a funny thing. Sometimes, you feel totally empowered by it. Other times, you feel completely devoid of it, perhaps because you are intimidated by the confidence of others, or perhaps because you have adopted too critical a view of yourself. I struggle with confidence myself sometimes, but the beauty of this program is that everyone is truly supportive of one another. There is a general understanding here that we all experience those days where we are a little off our usual flow. However, the people here at the Jimmy's are nothing but supportive through those days and help each of us to continue building up our self confidence. 

Next, we began staging the opening number. Our choreographer, Kiesha Lalama, worked with us today on the opening number, and she was so wonderful to work with. She loves to have fun, but completely gets down to business, which made for an amazing learning experience. The choreography right now is simplistic, but it truly makes a statement when matched with the lyrics. Everyone seems so comfortable doing the dance, and it was evident that we were all having a blast. We then left for our solo coaching. We entered the room and were greeted with that same warm smile from Julia Murney that we saw yesterday. She explained to us that this morning no singing was going to take place. Instead, we were going to perform our songs as a monologue. I had previously heard of this technique and could not wait to try it out. It was so interesting watching these powerful songs transform into inspiring monologues. A profound emotion poured out of the mouths of nominees as they told their stories without tune. For many of us, breaking the rhythm of the song was a little difficult, as a distinct pattern forms after having sung a particular song so many times. I was ready to see what this new technique had to offer. 

I had to admit, I was a little skeptical about how the lyrics of "Gimme Gimme" from Thoroughly Modern Millie were going to come out of my mouth via monologue. However, Julia was able to help me see a different side of the song – a softer side that began to grow as the character's emotions did. I came to appreciate this exercise so much, as acting is a large part of any song that is sung. It allowed me to have a new and profound respect for what we as artists do in this world of theatre. The emotion, depth and humor of each of our songs were more prominent to us after we had completed the exercise, which came as a pleasant surprise to us all.

Lunch today could not have been more exciting. Several of the solo vocal coaches were our guest speakers, including Julia Murney, Adam Kantor, Eden Espinosa, Telly Leung and Michael McElroy. They talked to us about many things, but one piece of advice really stood out to me: remembering the importance of "being authentically you." Eden Espinosa could not stress enough about how important it is to be you and only you. She told us to never try to be someone else because nothing is more refreshing than just being you. Sure, we may sing a song that the greats, such as Sutton Foster and Julia Murney, have sung, and yeah, we might initially strive to sound like them. But, Eden reminded us that they have their own voices that are unique to them, and we have our own voices that are unique to us. Never will they sound the same. "You being yourself" can bring a whole new meaning to a song. It was such a joy to here from some our mentors in the industry who find such joy in sharing their incredible knowledge with us and allowing us to be "sponges" soaking up all their advice. 

Post lunch, we went back to our solo coaching. The results from the work we had done this morning showed in everyone's solo. When we had finished singing we were able to ask more questions of Julia and hear more of her amazing stories. She is so willing to answer questions no matter what they are. She shared with us some of her dream roles, and even a few behind the scenes secrets of Wicked. As a special treat, she sang "Over the Rainbow" for us, which was phenomenal. It was a once-in-a-lifetime conversation.

I then went to my medley group, and it was such a joy finally putting it on its feet and giving it life. I thoroughly enjoy my part – I'm performing with another girl who plays Mary Poppins as well, and we are really able to feed off each other's energy. Not that I am biased or anything, but I think we have the best medley! 

After a speedy dinner, we went straight to work on the opening number, and we nearly finished it. Our choreographer is a genius and makes rehearsal so fun. Just as we were about to do our last run through, much to our surprise, the director and choreographer of An American in Paris, Christopher Wheeldon, walked in. I was in shock. I mean, wow! We were given the opportunity of a lifetime to sit down and have a mini interview with him. I couldn't believe that I was listening to the person with the mind behind the brilliance that is An American in Paris. He was so genuine and kind, sharing all that he could about directing his first Broadway production and choreographing it. 

He told us that over half the cast were making their Broadway debut, including the two leading actors. However, you would never know because the ensemble and leads had such a presence and an air of confidence when they performed.  He is such an accomplished human being, from dancing and teaching at the Royal Ballet, to directing and choreographing his own Broadway show, all the way to winning a Tony. I was amazed at his motivation and drive to finish each project with all of his being. He is a true inspiration to all young and aspiring Broadway performers, directors and choreographers. 

Another day is over, but this trip gets better and better every day. I am excited to see what tomorrow has in store as we steadily approach the end of this magnificent journey! 

Alec Michael Ryan
Alec Michael Ryan

Alec Michael Ryan: June 26

Day 3 of the Jimmy Awards has come to a successful conclusion, and my roommate and I are calming down over a banana and a Fruit Roll-Up. 

Today was, by far, the most productive and enjoyable day of the process so far. We started the day, like the other days, with a fabulous breakfast and some coffee. After that we made our way to NYU's Burrows Theatre, where we participated in our daily warmup. We added a little yoga today, where as yesterday was essentially just basic stretches. Today's YTD (yoga term of the day) was "confidence." Trust in yourself, and have faith in the process and the talent you bring to the table. 

After yoga we reviewed the opening-number music and started to finish the choreography. We didn't quite finish because it is a daunting and time-consuming process, but we jumped leaps forward, leaving us in a good position later in the evening. From there we moved to our solo voice coaching room and went into detail with our work, and there was some beautiful things going on in Studio 4. 

We took a quick break for lunch, which consisted of chicken strips and mac and cheese. I was a very happy Jimmy contestant today! After lunch, we continued with our last coaching with the fabulous Eden Espinosa. I have learned so much from her in two days that it is astounding. The actors in our room grew and expanded so much. The product from start to finish is something you just have to see to believe. 

From there, we had dinner and began the incredible journey that is the "costume parade." It took a little longer than expected, which made our evening opening-number rehearsal slightly more stressful, but we channeled that energy into something great and finished choreographing the opener! 

Let me tell you… It is pretty awesome. But, the night wasn't over yet. At the tail end of rehearsal we had a pretty cool visitor… the director of American in Paris on Broadway, Christopher Wheeldon. He answered a few questions about his Tony Award-winning musical and about his early stage career in the ballet. It was so cool to hear from a Broadway director--how he goes about his process and works with the actors. According to the American Theatre Wing, he is doing a great job. 

After our talk, we parted ways and walked back to our living quarters. I am now sitting at my desk struggling to stay alive. Creating art is exhausting, but so incredibly fulfilling. So, as always, until tomorrow…. Goodnight, friends. Goodnight, New York. (I could get used to saying that.)

Audrey McKee: June 26

I cannot not believe that I had just completed my fourth day in the city of lights doing what I have always dreamed of doing someday. 

We started out our morning with yoga, as usual. Today's term was "Balance." Balance, in my opinion, could be many different things – balance of jobs, balance of knowing when to not over sing, balance of eating fruits and veggies, balance of the spirit and mind and even just the standard physical balance of the body. Balance is something that really applies to actors and actresses. As triple threats, who are challenged to sing, act and dance, our bodies as performers are our most valuable tool, and therefore, we must maintain a healthy balance of just about everything in our lives. Balance is key. 

We did a quick warm up and went straight into performing our solos for the entire camp, including the director of An American in Paris. Can you say nerve-wracking?! The men went first, and the women followed. 

The amount of talent that graced the stage in the room today was incredibly impressive – I believe that after seeing everyone's solos today, everyone is a winner. Everyone sang songs that completely embodied their characters, whether the song was sad, happy, quirky or just plain crazy. I enjoyed hearing everyone's solo selections and watching everyone perform.  As an actress, anytime I have the chance to watch other performers, I know that I can always learn something. As my high school director consistently drilled into my brain, actors learn by watching other actors. I heard songs that I definitely would love to sing one day, and I saw acting choices and techniques that I thought would be great to use in the future. Our solos took up the majority of the day, and boy were they worth it!

We ate a quick lunch and began rehearsing our medley. We were taught by a five-year Rockette, and she was an absolute gem. She was the quintessential Rockette – tall, blonde, with the perfect dancer's body. She cleaned up our medley before we finally changed into costume to go perform downstairs for director Van Kaplan and choreographer Keisha Lalama. It was a true success. 

Next, I actually had some downtime, which was a new thing for me. Our medley had finished rehearsing, and we were to sit and relax for a little bit before going into an intense rehearsal of the opening number. I would have to say that this is probably my favorite number of all time to perform. Singing a compilation of some of Broadway's best songs with some of the best young voices across the nation is truly breathtaking and quite literally gives me goose bumps every time I perform it. 

During rehearsal, Keisha discussed something that really opened my eyes in regards to this experience. As she challenged us to pump up the energy of the number, she began to discuss with us the beginning. The beginning of a legacy that we will get to say we were a part of. The beginning of something that we will be able to look back on and consider one of the best experiences of our lives. The beginning of some of our careers on Broadway. Everything she said left us speechless as we considered the future ahead of us and most certainly gave us the inspiration we needed to push through the rest of rehearsal.

There is nothing like discussing the future to give you a burst your energy for a performance on the Minskoff stage. We probably ran the opening about 30 times before we were released – an hour and a half earlier than usual! Our chaperone Rob, Alec and I were all but thrilled to have a chance to explore during this precious free time. Our first stop was definitely for an umbrella, which was most necessary due to the hurricane that was occurring outside. A cold, rainy, windy NYC night pretty much meant only one thing to us: it's time for Thai food! The night was filled with good food, laughter and good company. Tonight was probably my favorite night of the whole trip so far. 

Today was a big day, but tomorrow gets even bigger. Tomorrow we sing in front of some of the biggest casting agents/directors in New York. I cannot wait to seize this opportunity and give my absolute all during every performance. 

One day closer to the Minskoff stage.

One day closer to the future that lies in store.

Alec Michael Ryan: June 27

Three great days at the Jimmy Awards, and the fourth did not disappoint. 

We started the day off as normal with breakfast and warmup. Our YTD was "balance"; being aware of your body and what it is doing at all times. 

From there we ran our solo pieces from start to finish. Every boy, every girl. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have experienced. I knew this world (and even this award show) was full of talented individuals, but I am here to tell you that these people are some of the most talented artists I have ever had the privilege to work with. 

Director Van Kaplan gave us some notes and is making us look beautiful on stage. From there we had lunch and began to work on our medleys. We worked individually, but then went to perform for Mr. Kaplan and Keisha Lalama, our dance instructor. We also got to rehearse in costume, and it was fun to see all the characters come alive in their clothes.

After that we enjoyed a fabulous dinner and then hit the ground hard with the opening number. We cleaned and cleaned... And cleaned. It was tiring, daunting and stressful, but at the end of the night I can tell you that the beginning of Monday's show is going to be a show-stopper. 

We were let out slightly early today, so we got to explore a little. Audrey, Rob (our fabulous and amazing chaperone) and I had dinner at Spice and then came back to the dorms. It was nice to settle down and relax a bit. Tomorrow we sing for casting directors, so everyone is nervous and excited. On that note I am gonna hit the hay. Tomorrow is a big day. Stay posted. 

Goodnight, friends. 

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