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Basking in the spotlight

A group of West Linn thespians are preparing to compete in state acting contest
by: Vern Uyetake, West Linn High School senior Rosie Dickson practices her role as a jailers daughter in Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, a Jacobean comedy, first published in 1634. Jessica Middleton Murray, left, and Annie Kaiser look on at the after-school performance.

A granola bar wrapper makes its way into a student's backpack. As the child chomps on the snack while walking to the black box theater at West Linn High School, others also prepare for their favorite time of the day - when the school buses have left, the hallways become quieter and the small theater within the performing arts building comes to life.

It's time to act up, act out and practice stage routines. And it seems to be working for these theater students.

Held on Feb. 2, the Regional Acting Competitions proved that WLHS thespians are a force to be reckoned with.

West Linn actors and singers entered 36 categories, taking honors in 18 and qualifying eight students to participate in the State Conference competition and showcase in April.

Organized by the International Thespian Festival and Oregon Thespians, the regional event held at Parkrose High School included hundreds of students vying for recognition for their alter egos.

'I saw some really thrilling pieces of theater this year, both at competition and at (the) showcase and it was so invigorating to see my peers and friends doing such phenomenal theater and having such a wonderful time with it,' said Caitlyn Olson, a junior at WLHS.

Olson was a regional finalist in the duo comedic category and a state qualifier for solo acting.

'This is a testament to the real talent,' said WLHS theater arts program director Jessica Middleton Murray said. 'We have a solid reputation of doing really good work.'

The students competing at the state competition are: Avik Bandyopadhyay, senior; Caitlyn Olson, junior; Jenelle Barzola, junior; Reis Mannic, junior; Alexandra Mink, sophomore; Georgina Cohen, senior; Dylan Stark, senior; and Alyssa Johnston, sophomore.

Reining the region

Oregon's regional competitions are split into three regions - Northwest, Northeast and South - and are divided north and south at the 45th parallel and the north divided east and west off of Interstate 5. The West Linn participants competed against others in the Northeast region within several competition rooms.

The top 10 percent in each category qualified to participate in the State Showcase Audition at the State Conference on April 3, 4 and 5 in Medford.

Depending on which category they competed in, students performed two or three times during the day in front of several judges. Each student was given an anonymous letter and number to perform under, so judges didn't know which school they were from.

All events had a five-minute time limit, with a 15-second grace period - and no costumes or theatrical make-up allowed.

'You have to be true to the character and the vision. And giving up is not an option. If you flub a line, you can't let that affect your performance,' said Georgina Cohen, a senior at West Linn High School who competed with a dramatic duo scene, a duo musical and monologues.

Annie Kaiser - an English and speech teacher at WLHS - and Middleton Murray - the theater arts program director at WLHS - are co-directors for the International Thespian Honor Society Troup 1915.

In January, the teachers worked with students on their pieces for regionals, while also rehearsing three plays.

'I would have a regular work day, then I would rehearse from 3:30 p.m. to 6 (p.m.) and coach kids from 6 to 8 or 9 (p.m.),' Middleton Murray said. 'We were 'double-dutying.' And (the students) had finals.'

Picking the right piece

Just because a Shakespearian classic scene works for one actor doesn't mean it will work for another student, who wants to portray more of a pop-culture comedic role.

'You can be a great actor, but if the piece is wrong for you it isn't going to work. You need to 'wow' (the judges) in fie minutes, so take advantage of that time,' Cohen said.

Playing a role that the actor can sink his or her teeth into is helpful.

'It's really fulfilling to find a piece that's great for someone,' Middleton Murray said.

She and Kaiser are getting to know the students well, from class, directing them in plays and after school performance work. And Middleton Murray told students not to view regionals as a competition, but rather a platform for expression.

'Really, how do you win in art? It's subjective. One person will love it; one person will hate it. All you can do is find the truth in it and do good work,' Middleton Murray said. 'It's a hard thing to put (your art) out there to be judged by somebody. Just put your heart into it.'

And notice other performances and learn from them.

'It's not just about talking and expressing yourself, it's about listening and being receptive to other people,' Kaiser said.

Cohen said she enjoys the 'rush' she gets while on stage when bringing a story to life.

'I love knowing I am entertaining an audience. It's a special bond, knowing they are watching, and you are presenting a writer and director's vision to a group of people,' Cohen said.

Cohen said she practiced her scene for regionals in front of different people, focusing on the character, script and actions. She said that Kaiser and Middleton Murray helped her become the character and take her to, 'that place where I feel what the character feels, and then the acting is truly organic,' she said.

Putting yourself aside is important. And not taking it too seriously.

'A good actor is brave, willing to give themselves entirely to the part, and willing to work hard,' Olson said.

At regionals, students performed, but also enjoyed meeting students from other high schools and learned from the characters they portrayed. At the state competition, students must perform the same scene or monologue they did at regionals. If an actor wins at state they are qualified to go to a national competition.

'It feels really good to share work that you are really proud of with people who are sharing their work with you,' Olson said. 'It sets up a real give-and-take situation and is so much fun.'

The teachers weren't the only one's proud of the performances.

Nancy Zaffaro's son, Reis Mahnic, has participated in this competition twice.

'It's great to see my son and the other kids participate in this; it's not part of a class requirement, it's something they work on in their own time and of their choosing, so it's very creative,' Zaffaro said.

Middleton Murray said that colleges and fields unrelated to theater are taking note of the useful skills that theater allows its actors.

'Theater students are people who can communicate,' Middleton Murray said. 'It's confidence, poise and the study of human behavior.'

For more information about Oregon Thespians, visit the Web site www.oregonthespians.org/ .