Several theatre students made Rolla High School history at the Missouri State Thespian Conference. Some claimed the honor of being the first students from the high school to qualify to bring their performance to the national-level competition, and another selection of students became the first to qualify for college scholarship auditions as Juniors.
The Missouri State Thespian Conference is held each year to “aid in the advancement and improvement of theatre arts in schools,” according to the Missouri State Thespians’ website. The conference allows Missouri students to competitively perform in front of judges and college representatives while building contacts and friendships in the world of performing arts.
Out of the entire state-level conference, only six Juniors were given the opportunity to perform in front of college representatives. Three of these students came from Rolla; Kelly Brown, Alorah Jones and katherine Conaway. Rolla High School Drama teacher Kelli McNeven said that while they were not eligible to receive scholarships from the representatives as Juniors, the opportunity was a great honor and a way for these students to get a headstart when auditioning as Seniors. Some students who auditioned as seniors, such as Payton Pennington, received callbacks from colleges and will performing again on their own time.
After several students competed in individual events at the conference, performing in front of a panel of three judges, two groups received superior rankings, giving them the right to perform at the National Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska later this year. This marks the first time any Rolla High School Students have qualified for the international-level event. Kelly Brown and Payton Pennington were one team, and Tyler Fry, Alorah Jones and Stefan Pennington were the second. Both teams will be traveling for the festival this June.
The students thoroughly prepared themselves for the Missouri State Thespian Festival, working to find scenes that were not only impressive in their own right, but ones filled with characters they connected with.
“We wanted to find something that fit our strengths,” said Kelly Brown about his scene, “True West,” which he performed with Payton Pennington. “I’m a fairly good comedic actor, and Payton’s very good serious actor. So our scene was a serious piece but at the same time had some humor in it. It played to both of our strengths and turned out really well.”
The students who performed in the individual events did so not only in front of the judges, but in front of students from other schools attending for the same purpose. The performers had the opportunity to see how other students interpreted scenes they were already familiar with,a and grow from the experience. More than 8000 theatre students attended the conference.
“We go there and we’re running around, and we’re busy...but then there are just moments in between where you’re sitting there in an entire hotel filled with other theatre kids. You’d be sitting there playing on your phone, or you could walk 20 feet and sing a duet with a stranger,” said Kelly Brown.
Katherine Conaway added that one of the valuable assets of the conference was “being able to grow a connection with people you never thought you would meet.”
In a previous email, Kelli McNeven said “All of our members performed well and provided an excellent representation of the Theatre Department at RHS.” In a follow-up interview about the students’ success and the continuation of some into nationals, she said that when preparing for the state festival, she “wasn’t thinking of nationals,” and was focused on helping the students perform to the best of their abilities.
“From the start...we said we wanted to take good pieces to state, we want to be proud of the work we’re putting out there because it’s representative of them as actors, and representative of us as a school,” she said. “Even in my mind I wasn’t thinking of nationals...when they put out the superior ranking list and we found out we had two groups on that list, I just thought, ‘This is awesome.’”
McNeven added that not only was this an achievement for the students, it was an achievement for the school.
“The excitement was shared among everybody,” she said.
McNeven’s students added their appreciation for their teacher and the work she did in preparing them for the conference and beyond.
“She makes all this possible for us...we get up onstage but she’s the root of it,” said Alorah Jones.