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New York Times

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High School Musical Actors Envision Being Rising Stars

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/nyregion/new-jersey/15papernj.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&sq=katya stepanov&st=cse&scp=1

KATYA STEPANOV is measuring the remaining days of her senior year in high school the way a lot of other 17-year-olds do, in a series of envelopes.

Any day now, Ms. Stepanov, an aspiring actress, will arrive home to a letter of rejection or acceptance from the Boston Conservatory, one of the handful of colleges she applied to.

On March 26, while battling opening-night jitters to play the role of Miss Dorothy in Fair Lawn High Schools spring musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, she will also be on pins and needles knowing that she is supposed to receive a letter the next day from Carnegie Mellon University, her No. 1 college pick.

Then, on June 16, what she considers the most important envelope of all will arrive. This one, though, will not be delivered to her home in Fair Lawn, and its contents will be revealed not just in front of her parents but before a roomful of about 1,200 people in Millburn, on the main stage of the Paper Mill Playhouse during its annual Rising Star Awards ceremony.

If its message reads the way she hopes it will, Ms. Stepanov will be named best supporting actress for her turn as Miss Dorothy.

March madness a term school theater directors often use to describe the frenzied preparation for spring productions, which typically take place over three or four nights in March or April has not yet dissipated. At schools like Fair Lawn, whose show will run March 26 to 29, it is in full swing.

Fair Lawn, one of only two schools to win the award for best overall production two times, has a reputation to uphold. So do Gil St. Bernards, a private school in Gladstone and last years winner for best overall production; Summit High; Cranford High; Union High; Hoboken High and a handful of others that typically earn multiple nominations.

Being among the winners of the Rising Star Awards may seem inconsequential to those who dont spend much time in high school theater departments, Ms. Stepanov said. But to those who do, the awards inspire genuine awe.

Its like winning a Tony while youre still in high school, she said recently from the Fair Lawn High School auditorium, where a cluster of teenagers practiced the opening number of Millie during what would stretch to a six-hour rehearsal.

As far as putting it on your résumé, its huge, she added. Everybody in college theater departments knows Paper Mill about these awards and their reputation for finding talent. Its like a ticket to do anything you want in theater. People look at you differently once you win.

In its 13-year history, the statewide Rising Star program has helped discover performers like Anne Hathaway. Its contestants may be amateurs, but they are judged by professional standards: starting every year in February, a team of 65 theater professionals canvasses roughly 110 high schools to take in performances. Each school gets four independent evaluations in 16 categories, ranging from overall production to lighting to costuming to direction; budgets are factored in to try to level the playing field for poorer schools competing against affluent ones. In addition to recognition, $60,000 in scholarship money is handed out.

And this year, according to Lisa Cooney, Paper Mills director of education, Rising Star may become even more influential. On June 29, it will participate in the inaugural year of the National High School Musical Theater Awards, to be held at the Palace Theater in Manhattan. In a competition against 30 other high school actors from across the country, the 2009 Rising Star Award winners for best actor and best actress will perform in a show after attending a four-day workshop; two prizes of four-year college scholarships will be awarded.

Ms. Cooney said she was convinced that the Rising Star recipients odds of winning would be better than most, given that Paper Mills program was statewide and the largest to participate.

Also, we have this proximity to Broadway, she said. Our students have great access to professional theater. There could be some phenomenon from Iowa, you never know. But I think were positioned well.

Meanwhile, preparations for the Rising Star competition have spawned their own dramas not just at Fair Lawn, where Ms. Stepanov has given up on sleep, food and free time, she said, because of Fair Lawns rigorous rehearsal schedule three nights a week by late November, five nights a week from December to opening night but throughout high school corridors across New Jersey.

The reasons a school repeatedly captures the admiration of Rising Star judges are as varied as the shows they produce. According to Ms. Cooney, Gil St. Bernards has a theater-in-the-round performance space, which is unusual for a high school. Summit has a huge support team, she said more than 100 students, parents and teachers working to build costumes and sets from scratch, while most schools rent. They also have a huge and impressive student orchestra, Ms. Cooney said, while most schools in the competition hire professional musicians.

Cranford High, meanwhile, has the same director, Gary Cohen, who runs the summer amphitheater Plays in the Park at Roosevelt Park in Edison, Ms. Cooney said. As a result, the students get a real workout, she said. The director pulls professional-level attitudes and commitment out of kids.

Union gets noticed for the scope of its productions. They put on big shows with large casts and have a large and excellent student orchestra, one of the best in the state, Ms. Cooney said.

And at Hoboken High, the work going on is just consistently exemplary, she said.

The teacher there, Paula Ohaus, basically created a theater program out of scratch when many of her students had never been to a live theater performance, Ms. Cooney said.

This is a school with a population of students from limited means, she said. But she has awakened a real love for theater.

John Giresi, the director of musical theater productions at Fair Lawn, bolsters his school with creative programming, Ms. Cooney said, staging shows like Stephen Sondheims Company and Merrily We Roll Along.



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