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Lee Drama Senior takes the Gold


Theater Students Get Their Share of the Limelight

WASHINGTON, June 22 — The packed concert hall at the Kennedy Center showcased tuxedos and evening gowns, slow ballads and fast-paced chorus lines, standing ovations and stomping feet. It was another night of glittering theater awards, punctuated with delighted gasps and heartfelt thank yous with all the reticence of the Tony Awards. But these winners were all students at local high schools, not Broadway stars.

The students clutching their "Cappies" awards were the most prominent feature of the Critics and Awards Program, founded three years ago in Northern Virginia to bring theater students the same recognition that accomplished high school athletes have long taken for granted.

The original program of 23 high schools has grown to include 38 schools in Virginia and the District of Columbia, and the idea has spread to Dallas, El Paso, Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Eugene, Ore.

The inspiration grew from frustrations and the pall that fell over many schools after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

After Columbine, it became particularly important to find ways to give teenagers positive reinforcement, said William Strauss, the author of several sociology books. But, he added, "You have to balance out the youth culture."

"This is the real youth culture," said Mr. Strauss, a founder of the Capitol Steps, the Washington political satire troupe.

Several years ago, Mr. Strauss was speaking at a high school award ceremony and said he was dismayed at the prevalence of honors for athletes and the lack of attention paid to theater students. A few years earlier, struck by the quality of "Guys and Dolls" at McLean High School in Virginia, Mr. Strauss called local critics suggesting they review the play. There were no takers.

Motivated by a desire to promote positive aspects of high school after the Columbine shootings, Mr. Strauss, working with a local theater teacher, Judy Bowns, created a program that showers awards on high school theater and pushes local newspapers to run reviews of school shows.

The program also relies on developing theater critics among the students. Each participating school chooses one play or musical for critical review. Theater directors and faculty mentors organize discussions among the student critics, edit the reviews and submit them to local newspapers, which commit to publish the best ones.

In three years, newspapers, including The Washington Post, have published 500 reviews by students.

"All over America, newspapers are taking note of high school theater," Mr. Strauss said at the Kennedy Center award ceremony last week.

"It's a brilliant program because it does so many simple things that should have been done for years now," said Matt Berger, a Cappies critic and actor. Mr. Berger, a graduating senior at Lee High School in northern Virginia, said he always felt left out when classmates pulled out the All-Met sports section of The Post.

At the end of the theater season, which runs from October through May, more than 100 student critics gathered to evaluate the shows using a point system to decide the award winners. Those names remained secret until presenters opened the envelopes at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where more than 2,000 students, teachers, school board members and family members applauded, cheered and exchanged hugs.

Also at the gala was Susan Grubbs, who started the Cincinnati Cappies in February and had 10 schools involved by the end of the year. Ms. Grubbs said the program garnered enough support for a gala attended by more than 700 parents, teachers and members of local arts institutions.

"I saw this as a bridge after Cincinnati got a bad rap over the racial tensions in the community over last year," Ms. Grubbs said, referring to accusations of racial profiling by the city's police officers.

Though high school arts are suddenly getting more attention in Washington and other cities, for years the first cuts to school budgets have been in arts programs.

"It's no secret that when school systems have to make cuts they tend to preserve what is known as the basics — core subjects — and then everything beyond that is fair game," said Daniel Domenech, the school superintendent in Fairfax County, Va. "Sports and other curricular activities are up for grabs and it becomes political."

Dr. Domenech said he had seen athletes overshadow their talented theater counterparts for years. "It was very discouraging for very talented kids to see that athletes that were very talented in their particular sports getting all the accolades," he said. "Cappies puts this on par."

Much as it has done for student athletes for years, the recognition validates the students' talent and passion.

"Graduation is the end of something really important to you, and it occurred to me at that point that I had been in high school and that had been important to me, but right then I realized that the most important thing that I had done was theater," said Mr. Berger, who for two consecutive years won Cappies awards for his reviews and was also nominated for an award for his role in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." He plans to attend New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the fall.

Mr. Berger sat at the annual gala holding his gold Cappies trophy, more recognition for the nine reviews he has published in The Post over two years. "Drama," he said, "had been my life."