School shutdown knocks some teens out of theater awards competition

Students of Centennial High School in Roswell are shown here performing “Matilda.” They are one of the schools that had their production judged before the statewide school shutdown. COURTESY OF FULTON COUNTY SCHOOLS

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Students of Centennial High School in Roswell are shown here performing “Matilda.” They are one of the schools that had their production judged before the statewide school shutdown. COURTESY OF FULTON COUNTY SCHOOLS

Although the COVID-19 threat has dimmed the stage lights for high school thespians across the state, the 12th annual Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards competition remains in progress. But not for every student who worked to win a prize. That’s a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, and some call it unfair.

Judging was set to end March 15, but Gov. Brian Kemp’s mandate that schools close their doors to students starting March 16, caused several schools to cancel Friday and Saturday performances. Eight of the 75 schools competing didn’t have judges to see their live shows because they had been canceled or they didn’t request special accommodations.

“We acknowledge with regret that an array of circumstances – mostly timing of canceled performances from March 12 through March 15– caused a handful of schools to sadly lose their eligibility to compete,” said Jennifer Dobbs, executive director of the ArtsBridge Foundation, the sponsor. “Though they are out of the competition, we are working to find a creative and meaningful way to honor the impacted schools’ and students’ hard work completed before their performances got canceled out of an abundance of caution to preserve the safety and health of students, teachers, judges, and their families.”

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ArtsBridge, an arts education nonprofit, hosts the awards for Georgia, known as the Shuler Awards, in honor of Schuler Hensley, the Atlanta-born star of the stage and screen who typically emcees the annual ceremony in the tradition of the Tony Awards. Even though there won’t be a grand ceremony this year, ArtsBridge decided it was best to celebrate the accomplishments and carry on for those who made it through the judging.

But several in the arts community — parents, teachers and performers — are calling foul.

A parent sent a long complaint to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asking for an investigation. When contacted for comment, she said she didn’t want to cause any adverse effects to her daughter’s career and didn’t want to give her name or speak about it further.

Several people who complained on a Facebook page called “OnStage Blog” were contacted by The AJC but refused to comment further and asked that their names not be used in print. On the social media site, they called for a boycott of the awards and said that continuing the competition without the schools who weren’t judged wasn’t fair. They’re concerned that students, especially seniors, missed out on a chance of a lifetime.

Dawn Abernathy Parker has taught dance for 30 years and is now head of the theater department at Kennesaw Mountain High School. She was one of the few who agree with ArtsBridge that the show should go on.

“It is tragic that eight schools didn’t get to participate; however, ArtsBridge has been open about finding ways to honor those schools. I fail to understand how penalizing 67 schools for an unforeseen pandemic furthers the spirit of theater. As I told my kids, we worked months for a show we might only have gotten to perform once. ONCE — with all its technical issues and one night jitters! It’s sucks — it’s life!”

Parker said she hopes that cooler heads prevail and everyone tunes in Friday for the livestream announcement of the nominees for the 17 categories. Scholarship recipients will also be announced then. The winners will be announced in an online ceremony in May. That date hasn’t been set.

Normally the Shulers are part of a larger national competition, the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also know as The Jimmys. Each year, thousands of musical theater students descend upon New York City for workshops and other learning opportunities besides the award show itself. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted organizers to cancel the 2020 awards ceremony.

“Is it fair? Nothing is fair … this whole situation isn’t fair — what about we teach our kids that life has disappointments and times of uncertainty?” Parker commented on the Facebook page. “What about we celebrate the schools that did get to perform?”

Nominations for the 12th annual Georgia High School Musical Awards, also know as the Shulers, will be livestreamed at noon Friday at this link:

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