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Shuler Awards bring teen drama to Cobb Energy Centre


High school gatherings usually bring drama, and Thursday’s assembly at the Cobb Energy Centre will be no exception.

Expect to see high emotions, jazz hands and teenagers bursting into song when 460 Georgia students from the Florida line to Habersham County participate in the ninth annual Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards/Shuler Hensley Awards.

Named after Tony-winning Marietta native Shuler Hensley, the awards celebrate excellence in high school musical theater, and serve as the culmination of a yearlong professional development program aimed to help teens excel.

Some 75 high schools participated in the program. To pick the nominees, the ArtsBridge Foundation, which conducts the program, assembles a team of 67 evaluators from the theater industry. Three judges at a time visit each of the 75 schools, and send their scores to the accounting firm Bennett Thrasher. This year, 35 public and private schools were nominated.

Awards will be presented in 17 categories: overall production, ensemble, show stopper, leading actress and actor, supporting actress and actor, featured performer, direction, sound, costume design, scenic design, lighting design, technical execution, orchestra, music direction and choreography.

Crunch time comes during the week of the awards. An ensemble of 122 students from all the schools arrives in Atlanta the weekend before the show and learns the opening and closing numbers, which they perform with Hensley.

Then, during the week before the show, the leads and the schools nominated in the overall production category practice the numbers that they will perform during Thursday night’s gala, accompanied by an orchestra of professional musicians.

Dress rehearsal Thursday afternoon is followed by a red carpet arrival for which the kids dress up like it’s prom night all over again. Then it’s showtime.

All 2,700 seats at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre are sold out for Thursday evening’s show (because there are a lot of moms and dads out there), but this year the event will be broadcast live at 7 p.m. on Georgia Public Broadcasting (WGPB) on its nine-station statewide network.

“In 2009, we had 13 schools participating,” said Natalie Barrow, director of arts education and community outreach at the Cobb Energy Centre. “Now we have 75. The growth is unbelievable.”

ArtsBridge is the nonprofit arts education arm of the Cobb Energy Centre. It offers master classes, field trips to the center, and professional development for teachers. It also sponsors artists-in-the-schools programs and stages the Shuler Awards.

Barrow chaperones the winners of the leading actor and actress awards to the national competitions in New York each year, and Atlanta performers have won those national awards twice.

Small private schools, large public schools and schools far out in rural counties participate in the competition, and the Shuler judges evaluate the schools keeping in mind their size and limitations. “They are judged based on how well each school uses their resources,” Barrow said. “They all have different circumstances, and all have different levels of support.”

Some winners from past years will be competing again, including Johns Creek and Lakeside high schools, and DeKalb schools will also be well represented.

Of the red carpet entrance that takes place before the show, Barrow was asked if any of those faces shining in the photographers’ flashes are likely to be famous. “Not yet!” she said.



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