Surprises from Darren Criss and 4,500 New Friends: One Kid's Experience at the Junior Theater Festival

News   Surprises from Darren Criss and 4,500 New Friends: One Kid's Experience at the Junior Theater Festival
Ryan Gaylor, a 16-year-old student from Heritage High School in Conyers, GA, recounts his experience at the 2015 Junior Theater Festival, where he showcased his performance of Smee in Peter Pan.

Ryan Gaylor
Ryan Gaylor


The magic began before dawn Saturday morning, Jan. 17, when we walked into the convention center — Atlanta's Cobb Galleria. It was still dark and freezing cold outside, but the energy in the building was explosive. Hundreds upon hundreds of other kids were already there. For this one weekend, we would be fully immersed in a world of musical theatre. We were excited.

When the doors opened, we all flooded the colossal, 4,500-seat exhibition-hall-turned-theatre. After a brief introduction and a solemn oath that we would support each other ("so help us Sondheim"), we were ready to be adjudicated by industry professionals, including Tony nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Timothy Allen McDonald (founding chairman of iTheatrics and the Junior Theater Group) and more.

We broke out into our respective "pods" — the color-coded groups of shows that would be adjudicated together. Once we were in our pod room, our adjudicators told us Orange Pod was our own little family, and we were all there to support each other. We took this to heart.

Soon, it was my group's time to perform. The performance of our show went the best it had ever gone. Our adjudicators had good feedback about our performance and plenty of suggestions on how to make it better.

The best part of adjudication, though, was the incredible support from our pod mates. Despite the fact all of the groups in Orange Pod were technically competing for awards, we received a standing ovation, applause at each good comment from our adjudicators and compliments from countless people as we walked out. The atmosphere of support was amazing. Orange pod did, in fact, feel like a family.

After classes and dinner, the New Works Showcase debuted ten minutes of each new Broadway Junior show, performed by groups from JTF.

Adjudicators talk to Orange Pod
Adjudicators talk to Orange Pod

After the first two performances, Elf Jr. and Singing in the Rain Jr., Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the incredible creative force behind Dogfight and A Christmas Story, The Musical, stepped on stage.

The duo's new junior musical, James and the Giant Peach Jr., was being debuted, and they wanted to share some of the songs that didn't make the junior version. Only, they needed a little help to sing a couple of songs, so they brought up Darren Criss, of "Glee" fame, for a quick "favor."

I'm sure they could hear our collective screams in New York!

After the performance of James and the Giant Peach Jr., there was another surprise: a medley of Broadway Junior musicals previously debuted at JTF, in celebration of ten Junior Theater Festivals. It started with a single group of students performing "When You Wish Upon a Star" from My Son Pinocchio Jr., and by the end, there were nearly 100 performers on stage, performing songs every kid there knew and loved.

The night could have ended there, perfectly capped off with a glorious celebration of theatre specifically for kids our age. But it didn't.

Next was a moment anticipated for years: the debut of "The Lion King Experience." This, we learned, was a curriculum specially developed to lead a school theatre group through a series of activities culminating in a production of either The Lion King Kids or The Lion King Jr.

After the introduction was over, lights came up on The Lion King Jr. The theatre was dead silent, yet alive with energy.

The whole group poses on the stairs of the Waverly Hotel
The whole group poses on the stairs of the Waverly Hotel

When, in the second number, "He Lives in You," several pieces of set were carried across the stage to form the giant head of Mufasa looking down on his son, the theatre erupted with rapturous applause. In the third song, "The Circle of Life," everyone was singing along, either to the melody or the "In-ngo-nya-ma-neng-we-we-ma" chant we had learned in music class earlier that afternoon.

Not only did I feel incredible excitement for The Lion King, I also felt a profound connection to those around me. I loved this musical intensely and unapologetically along with about 4,500 other like-minded people.

That is a magical thing.

The things that made those moments so special were the same things that made the second day — and the whole festival — as amazing as it was: community, support and fantastic guest speakers and performers.

JTF is the kind of place where, if you give it your all, those around you will support you and applaud your effort as much as your success. You truly feel as if you are surrounded by a theatre family 4,500 strong.

Where else can you find all of these incredible people doing all of these incredible things in one place? Next year, at JTF 2016.

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