Filichia Features: The Night before the Junior Theater Festival ‘14

Filichia Features: The Night before the Junior Theater Festival ‘14

In a way, the Junior Theater Festival has the wrong name.

Someone not familiar with the magnificent two-day event that occurs each January in Atlanta might assume that the “Junior” means that the festival is a mini-version of a major theater festival.


Even when the Junior Theater Festival began in 2003, more than 650 attended. Most were kids, for whom the festival was earmarked in order to encourage and promote musical theater.

That’s one reason for the adjective “Junior,” but there’s another: the festival has kids perform from the hour-length condensed “Jr.” editions of musicals that Music Theatre International Chairman and CEO Freddie Gershon has conceived over the years: Guys and Dolls JR., Into The Woods, JR. and The Music Man JR. among many others.

At the festival, however, kids don’t perform the entire “Jr. editions,” but do 15-minute excerpts. So we could call them junior editions of Jr. editions.

But no one could legitimately call this annual event “The Junior Junior Theater Festival” because it’s now simply too big. This year, no fewer than 93 groups are arriving from 26 different states as well as the District of Columbia, totaling 3,953 attendees strong. How many other businesses can boast such a growth rate in 11 years?

Putting it another way, the groups from The Parkway Playhouse Junior as well as MusicWorks Studio of Performing Arts and Harris County Carver Middle School must be impressed at all the kids and adults they see here in the mammoth MTI ShowSpace. After all, they respectively hail from Burnsville, NC (pop. 1,623), Clyde, NC (pop. 1,324) and Hamilton, GA (pop. 307) – which means, if the 2000 census is still remotely accurate, the population of all three towns combined is substantially shy of the number now rarin’ to go in the various function rooms in the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center.

Says festival co-creator Nicholas F. Manos, “We get them here once, and they’re hooked. It creates memories, experiences and feelings.”

Manos had the idea for the festival after doing a production of Annie. “We had double-cast kids, so we had about 55 or 60 on hand,” he recalls. “Sunday evening when we closed, I could see that the kids felt lost without their show. The next day they were back in their schools which didn’t offer much -- if anything – that involved the arts. I felt that we had to do something.”

So he did, along with Timothy Allen McDonald, the CEO of iTheatrics, a musical theater producing organization. They chose Atlanta, for Manos was then working with the city’s Theater of the Stars. For their first festival, they hoped that they might entice 20 schools from the metropolitan Atlanta area to attend; instead, 26 schools showed up, with a sweet 16 of them hailing from out-of-state.

Now so many newcomers attend that Manos, McDonald and Marty Johnson, the festival’s director of programming, hold a session to welcome and brief the rookies. So on Friday, Jan. 17, the night before the festival officially launches, they greet about three dozen men and women who sit in a quite-wide circle. The newcomers pleasantly smile at each other, but they say precious little.

That will change by Sunday night. Whether conversations begin in a function room-slash-theater, lobby or elevator, they’ll lead to acquaintanceships, some of which will blossom into genuine friendships. After all, everyone has so much in common, it’s a phenomenon.

“There are times when you’re in your little town and feel that you’re all alone,” says Johnson. “Now you’ll be reassured that there is someone else like you, even if he’s 200 miles away. Usually, you’ll find someone much closer.”

And while McDonald says “The point is to shine a spotlight on the kids,” he also notes that “we want your community to appreciate you.”

The California native knows about appreciation. McDonald tells the group that as a sixth-grader in 1978, he knew that if the Jarvis-Gann Proposition 13 bill passed, it would cause the Golden State to tarnish its arts funding. Both dour scenarios came to pass. By the time McDonald was in high school, he saw accolades, parades and fund-raisers given to the successful girls’ basketball team. And while he wasn’t calling any of the tributes a foul shot, he simply wanted equal time for the arts.

Kids receive that here. The participating groups are separated into “pods” – rooms, really -- each of which is identified by color. There was a time when green, blue, yellow and purple sufficed, but now there are 12 groups, so there are green and lime; blue and navy; yellow and gold; purple and magenta. Don’t be surprised if someday the festival will need to use the names of each of the 133 colors that Crayola has offered during its history.

“Your kids will never forget what they found and learned here,” says Johnson, before admitting, “though you may first and foremost hear about the dance party we throw for them on Saturday night, not to mention riding in the glass elevators and meeting Crutchie from Newsies.”

“Crutchie” – meaning Andrew Keenan-Bolger – is a repeat visitor, and is again regarded with rock-star screams. Many boys here identify with him, for he’s not all that much older than they. Newsies concerns teen boys, and considering that the Broadway production sells out more often than not, it could very well still be running when these boys in Atlanta feel ready to come to New York and audition.

Still, Manos, McDonald and Johnson acknowledge that there will be worse-case scenarios: kids will faint, vomit or twist knees just before show time. The smiles on these men’s faces show that they’re at home with the inevitability of it all. “We have an EMT on hand,” says Johnson, “and more security than legally required.”

All insist that the festival is not a competition. Well, yes and no, for there are judges in each room who will speak plainly after a presentation. “Adjudication is to get feedback,” Johnson insists. “You didn’t come this far to get a piece of wood.”

While that’s true, the judges will submit written evaluations that result in awards. Some groups are judged more equal than others – as is the case with everything else in life. But prizes are plentiful at festival’s end and everyone goes home with something to cheer.

Johnson seems to make an off-handed remark when he recalls that “In previous years, teachers and parents who complained about the results were asked not to return.” Of course everyone understands the not-so-subtle subtext: moan, and you’ll be home alone next January.

But any teachers who worry that their kids will feel robbed will soon find that in the vast majority of cases, the students will regard their “competition” with admiring eyes instead of green ones. Cries of “They deserved it!” often punctuate the air when outstanding kids and organizations are celebrated.

That, however, is still about 44 hours away. “If you brought beautiful shoes,” Manos tells the teachers, “put ‘em away.” Yes, there’s a good deal of walking involved, for the festival takes over dozens of rooms, not to mention the MTI ShowSpace which takes longer to walk from one side to another than to sing “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Beautiful shoes are also ill-advised for the session that choreographer Steve Kennedy runs. He spends a half-hour teaching the teachers a production number which they’ll then perform in front of their students. “It’s the loudest response you teachers will get from your kids,” Johnson says, “because they love to see you looking silly.”

You can’t prove that by me. What I’ve noticed in the past is that kids take this opportunity to cheer loudly and show the love they have for their instructors. That alone may be the best part of the festival: the kids seem thirsty and hungry to find a way to show their appreciation for teachers who, when all is said and sung, make only a few dollars for every hour they put in to make productions as wondrous as they usually are.

Freddie Gershon knows that well, which is why he and his wife Myrna instituted The Freddie G. Experience. “It will make you feel important and appreciated,” says McDonald in the greatest understatement of the weekend. The Gershons do no less than underwrite a weekend in New York for eight teachers, down to theater tickets, celebrations, workshops – and a $5,000 check to use towards a future production. If it sounds too good to be remotely true, 26 Freddie G. Experience Alumni will be on the premises this year to convince everyone that it’s as good – nay, as great – as it sounds.

So everyone’s primed for tomorrow morning at 8:30 – early for civilians, yes, but standard time for teachers and students. True, one teacher who’d looked nervous during the welcome session, finally during the Q-and-A raised her hand and asked, “Um, I’m not from a school, but from an after-school program. Is there anyone else here like that?” And, oh, was she relieved when a half-dozen or so raised their hands.

So any school, after-school program or community theater group should take a serious look.  Kids or teachers from north (Academy of Theatre Arts; Williamsville, NY), south (Hub Performing Arts School; Lubbock, TX), east (Moorestown Theater Company, New Jersey), west (Casper Children’s Theatre in Wyoming) and midwest (Columbus Children’s Theatre in Ohio) tell me that the first thing they do when they return home is start fundraising so that they can attend the following year’s Junior Theater Festival. And considering what will happen in the next two days, who can blame them?

New groups have until May 1 to apply. Slots go early, so don’t wait until the last midnight. Visit

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at