MCA drama earns spot at international theater rally

If you missed Mount Carmel Academy’s sold-out, fall drama “Silent Sky,” two more chances to see it exist before the STK student theater troupe performs it at the 55th annual International Thespian Festival (ITF) at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln June 25-30.

Mount Carmel Academy will reprise “Silent Sky” June 15-16 at 7 p.m. in its Performing Arts Center. It was written by playwright Lauren Gunderson about female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921), whose measurements of a star’s distance from the earth became a cornerstone of modern astronomical science. 

STK, which stands for Shinto Torii Kabuki – God’s Gateway to the Theater – was one of 11 high school troupe’s nationwide and in Canada invited to perform on the festival’s main stage. To qualify, “Silent Sky” was adjudicated in October for its performance merits – which included an original song, “Twinkle of Hope,” by student Jamie Leak. 

This is first time that a Louisiana school has been invited to perform on the main stage, said Mount Carmel’s fine arts department chair and STK director Kristi Jacobs-Stanley, although former MCA troupes have attended the festival. STK’s one-act play, “#VIRAL,” performed and adjudicated at last year’s state thespian festival, was selected as the “chapter select play” and staged at the 2017 International Thespian Festival.

“These Thespian troupes have earned a slot among those honored few,” said Nancy Brown, the Educational Theatre Association’s director of educational programs.

“Being there is the ultimate award,” director Jacobs-Stanley said about experiencing the festival. “It’s really the top honor you can aspire for in the educational theater world.” 

Play’s relevance

Jacobs-Stanley said modern-day girls easily relate to Henrietta’s story because of how she “transcends her job as a Harvard ‘computer’ (data entry clerk) to make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of space.” 

  “When I read the script, I thought it was amazing,” said Jacobs-Stanley, thinking “we have to do this show. This woman in the late 1800s is so far ahead of her time and has such perseverance and drive. … She was going to become an astronomer and do whatever it took. That’s what we try to instill in our girls – the passion and drive and desire to learn and discover. Henrietta really has those qualities.”

Jacobs-Stanley hopes the play fosters the important role women play in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) movement and leaves audiences desiring more knowledge of themselves by pondering the questions – Who are we? Where are we? How are we?

This constant message of female assertiveness has certainly impacted students.

“Henrietta is a strong character who knows how smart and deserving she is,” said 2018 MCA graduate Nina Cespedes, who is the play’s assistant director. “It is really great to see a character so driven as she is. … She is not going to let anyone stand in her way, and it made me think I could be more like that.” 

Additional play

Jacobs-Stanley said Mount Carmel usually performs two shows and a one-act play annually. With the addition of “Silent Sky” in the 2017-18 school year, there were three main stage productions. 

“I try to keep a nice variety for the students and pick things that will challenge (the cast) and that other students want to see. I also try to have a positive message and stay relevant to what’s going on in the world.”

Twenty-six cast and crew will travel to Nebraska to present the play. They held fundraisers to cover the trip’s $50,000 cost, Jacobs-Stanley said. Portraying main characters are rising senior Sarah Dean as Leavitt; rising senior Katie Kitchen as sister Margaret Leavitt; rising junior Ava Buras as Annie Cannon; rising junior Jessie Duplantis as Williamina Fleming and Holy Cross senior David Sanchez.

The International Thespian Festival, produced by the Educational Theatre Association, is the nation’s leading high school theater festival. In its 55th year, it brings together more than 4,000 high school drama students and teachers for an immersion in workshops; interaction with colleges (earning coveted scholarships), industry leaders and Broadway professionals; and inspiration from the best American high school theatre.

Jacobs-Stanley said it is more than just performing. Opportunities abound to take workshops taught by theater professionals, view other high-caliber high school productions and exchange ideas, as is the hands-on experience of erecting a stage with limited time, touring a production away from school and earning induction in the International Thespian Society. It leaves students striving to be as good as other high school theater troupes. 

“When you are at the festival, people know you are one of the main stage performances,” Jacobs-Stanley said. “You are a celebrity. … Students learn so much by being engrossed in students like themselves but from all over the world.”

Cespedes, who will attend the University of Alabama in the fall, attended last year’s festival and was blown away by the experience.

“It’s incredible seeing high schools do Broadway-level shows,” Cespedes said. “I’m really excited for our show to be performed and for other people to see what we can do.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

‘Silent Sky’ Drama at MCA

EVENT: Final local performances of “Silent Sky” drama at Mount Carmel Academy before STK theater troupe performs it at the University of Nebraska at the International Thespian Festival main stage in late June.

WHEN: June 15-16, 7 p.m.

WHERE: MCA’s Performing Arts Center, Robert E. Lee Boulevard at Milne Ave., New Orleans

TICKETS: $12 for students, $17 for adults, $26 for reserved seating. Visit www.mcacubs.com. 

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