by June Portnoy
Pennsbury High School (PHS) was among 19 high schools and middle schools from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to participate in the second annual Newtown Student Theatre Festival.
It was held at the Newtown Theatre from April 30th through May 4th, during which time over 500 students performed 33 productions. The purpose of this weeklong festival, produced by Newtown Arts Company and Newtown Theatre, was to give students an opportunity to perform 30-minute stage pieces and receive feedback from theater professionals.
Each day culminated in an awards presentation, followed by the performance of “Into the Woods,” the Tony-Award winning musical presented by Newtown Arts Company.
Students from PHS’ after-school theater group performed four theatrical numbers over two days including “Scuba Lessons,” “Magic Theater,” “Andrea’s Got Two Boyfriends,” and “Overtones,” all of which received various awards.
Festival Director Kristin Kauffman proposed the idea for the Newtown Student Theatre Festival because she remembered how much she enjoyed participating in the Bucks County Playhouse’s Annual Drama Festival when she was a student at PHS. That festival took place for 43 years up until the Playhouse closed in 2010.
“Performing at the Theatre Festival was such a rewarding experience for me,” said Kristin, “and I wanted students to continue to have this opportunity.”
“Although our theater festival has no affiliation with the former festival held at the Bucks County Playhouse, it offers a similar format,” said Festival Administrator Marcia Wittmann. “It also fills a void in this community that offers very few theater festivals.”
“Students participating in this festival have the chance to meet other students just like them who share their passion for theater,” said Nancy Pickering, co-producer of the Newtown Theatre Festival.
“Students interested in theater love to see what other schools are doing and enjoy performing in front of their peers,” said Marcia.
“Another benefit of this festival is that it gives students the challenge of adjusting quickly to an unfamiliar stage, which is all part of the theater experience,” said Kristin. “They must learn to go with the flow and be as adaptive as professional theater performers are.”
Students and teachers alike agreed that the most important aspect of this festival was receiving feedback from people in the field of theater. Every day, three different adjudicators offered their thoughts about each performance. Students received an acting, staging and technical/overall performance evaluation.
“The feedback was helpful because it offered specific tips on how students could improve their performances,” said May Kay Everett, Director of PHS’ after-school theater group.
Some helpful feedback offered to students was to go back and delve deeper into their characters. They were told to think more about their character’s objectives in each scene, and if time allowed, to try acting out their role in different ways.
Dori McCrane, one of the adjudicators with a background in musical theater, said, “If these kids want to continue in this field, they need to know their weaknesses and their strong points.
“It’s also very important for young actors to get encouragement and support of other actors, which is what they are receiving here today from these professionals and from their peers.”
“It’s great for these students to hear other students laughing at their comedic efforts and applauding their performances,” said Nancy.
The question and answer portion of the day enabled students to hear about each adjudicator’s background and get some practical advice about going into theater. Some of the suggestions students heard was to do anything and everything they could in theater without limiting themselves to one aspect such as drama, comedy or musicals.
They were told to “try it all” and to do any job they could to get into the field, even if it meant working backstage to receive additional exposure to the theater industry.
“We wanted students to hear first-hand from theater professionals about what life is like in the field of theater after high school,” said Kristin.
The number of participants in the Newtown Student Theatre Festival increased from over 400 last year to over 500 this year. This year the festival was also opened up to middle schools for the first time because of the interest the Festival received last year from these schools.
This festival is now open to any middle or high school student in PA, NJ or Delaware in an established theater or drama program at school or in a theater group.
“We are already talking about next year’s festival and hope to make this an annual event for years to come,” said Marcia.
For more information about the festival, visit www.newtowntheatrefestival.com.