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For now, this stage is their world

More than 7,000 Florida high school performers are spending some time honing their skill as players.

Published April 20, 2007

A little shaky at first, Corey Stephens, 16, receives guidance from instructor Melissa Marie Wilhelm, 24, as he tries a side lean while hanging from silks used in aerial dance routines, part of a workshop at the Florida State Thespian Festival. "It's the best thing I've done so far," said the Satellite Beach High student.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]

TAMPA - The seminar was like gym class in a parallel universe.

Instead of a rotund, mustachioed gym teacher, young women in leotards held court. Instead of climbing ropes, students tangled with billowy strips of "aerial silk."

And the teenagers lacked the cool pose cultivated by most high school kids. Every kid at the Florida State Thespian Festival seemed excited to be there and didn't try to hide it.

The workshop instructor, Allison Williams, demonstrated a routine. She climbed 12 feet into the air, winding the fabric about her body. Then she unwound, spinning to a midair stop as the kids around her gasped.

Williams, 25, got down and started teaching them some basic aerial skills.

Conley Hataway, 17, stared upward as he wrapped the swath of fabric around his calf and climbed hand-over-hand. Though awkward at first, he quickly learned to squeeze the silk between his feet to support himself.

Later, the Fort Walton Beach High School junior said he'd learned to climb when he played a monkey in the musical Seussical.

The festival started Wednesday and ends Saturday, and has brought 7,200 student performers from all over Florida to downtown Tampa's Performing Arts Center. Festival program chairman Don Jones called it the largest high school theater conference in the world.

Attendees spend the four days in seminars on topics like stage fighting, tap dancing and set-building. They watch and perform in shows ranging from one-acts to elaborate musicals.

Students at J.P. Taravella High School, in Coral Springs, raised $25,000 for a production of the musical Les Miserables, and another $25,000 to bring along the set, props, cast, crew and orchestra.

"It's like planning a family vacation for 100 people," said Lori Sessions, the school's theater teacher, before shouting instructions to a dozen kids waltzing in 18th-century dress, and asking a pubescent crew member to adjust a fog machine.

The youthful performers bring the mind-set of varsity athletes. Each went through a rigorous round of auditions to make it to the All State level. And some will be auditioning for admission to performing-arts colleges during the festival.

Savannah Lewis, a 16-year-old sophomore at Fort Walton Beach High School, watched the aerial gymnastics as she filled out a theater class assignment.

This was her first festival, an early step to her dream of performing at Disney World.

"It's definitely more nerve-wracking," she said of the scored audition process. "But if you do get a higher score it's a big thrill."

Pete Arroyo, a chaperone for Space Coast Jr.-Sr. High School, called the thespians "the greatest batch of kids there are in America.

"It's something all adults should see, the youth of today doing the right thing."

And the tight competition is good, he said. "It prepares the kids going into this field for exactly what they should expect: extreme competition."

Conley, the climber, said many students hoped for a career boost from the festival. One seminar gave him a chance to meet a professor from the University of Northern Colorado, one of his top-choice acting schools.

"That helped me out in a huge way," Conley said.

By the end of the aerial seminar, the students had gone from jittery to graceful. Conley learned to shift smoothly between poses, fabric winding around his ankle and neck.

Conley said he had just one strategy to make it as an actor: look how other people do it, and "try to do the complete opposite."

"You don't want to be like the person in front of you," he said.

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at or 813 226-3404.

[Last modified April 20, 2007, 06:57:51]

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