The world's largest high school theatre competition is held in Tampa, where about 7,000 enthusiastic students and theatre educators gather for three days each March. For many of these high school theatre troupes, this is the highlight of the school year.
The Florida State Thespian Festival invites all of the troupes in the state who belong to the International Thespian Society to compete in a wide range of events that include monologues, solo musical pieces, pantomime, duet acting scenes and ensemble musical pieces. Technical events are also presented for competition, including scenic design, publicity design, costume design and playwriting. The audience for these events includes three working-professional judges who give the students critiques and recommendations. This feedback not only enables the improvement of their pieces, but also the development of the mastery in their art.
Along with the competitions, mainstage productions are performed at the festival. High schools may submit one of their shows for a screening process, and if it is selected, they can perform the production for the thousands of students in attendance. Some of the 2013 festival selections included productions of Into the Woods, The Clean House, In the Heights, Bat Boy, The Children's Hour, Bus Stop, Picnic and Blood Relations.
There is a strong sense of community at the festival, where lifelong friends are made, as students reach out via social media networks in massive strength looking to connect with people who enjoy theatre just as much as they do. (On the social media network Instagram, 664 photographs of the event under the hashtag "#flthespian" have been posted.)
I myself am a member of Troupe 4990. After we competed at the district level (which every troupe at the festival must do before moving on to the state level), our piece was selected to be showcased in the opening ceremonies for the state festival. We couldn't have been more excited to perform on a stage three times the size of our school's, with an audience that included every single person at the festival. We looked forward to the event, counting down the days until we could perform our piece for everyone—"There! Right There!" from the musical Legally Blonde. As we entered the stage, the pre-show jitters disappeared and we were consumed by the excitement of waiting for the main curtain to reveal ourselves. After we performed the scene preceding the song, we stood in silence waiting for the music to begin playing. We repeated the cue line, but the song never came. We ended up having to perform our song a capella for the first time in front of an audience of 5,000!
It was the best we had ever performed it. And that kind of situation, which inspires unexpected creativity, is the best part about these types of festivals.
These experiences shape the way we enter the professional theatre world following our years in the educational system. Live theatre is imperfect. Festivals like these and statewide theatre competitions help young artists develop their theatre skills early, so that they can go on to create their own incredible theatre experiences in the future.