Ben Hopkins, left, presents evidence to the court while perfoming as El-Fayoumy during a rehearsal of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" at Carroll Community College in Westminster Wednesday, Oct. 8.
Ben Hopkins, left, presents evidence to the court while perfoming as El-Fayoumy during a rehearsal of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" at Carroll Community College in Westminster Wednesday, Oct. 8. (DAVE MUNCHSTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As performers Nicole Sliwka, of Manchester, and Matt Iannone, of Sykesville, took the stage at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, they faced what they described as the largest crowd they've ever performed in front of.

Students from Carroll Community College were invited to participate in the festival held in Cleveland from Jan. 2 to 6. They joined just eight other schools from the region, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and southwest New York. The schools were chosen based on the quality of their productions as judged by representatives who travel and view their performances.

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This is the second year in a row Carroll Community College has been invited to participate in the festival. Gillett said it's rare for community colleges to be invited to participate alongside the four-year schools. Sliwka and Iannone, lead actors in the performance both said attending the festival was the most enjoyable performance they've ever done, and it was a huge honor to participate.

"When you talk to people and tell them you do community college theater, you often get the brush off," Sliwka said. "To be invited to this goes against that stigma and helps people not judge us. Attending the festival was really fulfilling."

The college's production of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" was chosen to be represented at the festival. The show takes place in a modern courtroom in purgatory as lawyers battle over the final resting place for Judas' soul.

Between 800 and 900 spectators watched their performance at the festival. Iannone said it was gratifying to hear audience reactions to some of the shows more comic moments.

"We don't always get a lot of support for theater in Carroll County," Iannone said. "Performing for a bunch of theater majors was something really unique. We had to pause for laughter and pause for applause, when at home you could hear crickets chirp or a pin drop. Here, there was maniacal laughter echoing through the halls."

Director Bill Gillett said putting the show together again following the conclusion of its initial run presented the team with some challenges.

"It was definitely logistically difficult, since we last performed the show back in October," Gillett said. "We got together during finals week for a single rehearsal, then we let the students go away for a week for the holidays. We had to get back together on New Year's Day for one more rehearsal, then we headed out Jan. 2 for the show."

The original production of the show was done in a style similar to black box theater, where the audience was seated on stage on either side of the action, creating a 360-degree performance. Gillett said the festival facility was not prepared for the unique staging, forcing the cast to relearn their blocking for a proscenium performance.

The change in staging also affected the play's sets, which had to be adjusted to the standard three-wall viewpoints. Gillett said transporting the sets to Ohio was an involved process, including loading the elaborate courtroom onto trucks for the interstate trip.

Gillett said it's a great opportunity for the performers, and he couldn't be more proud to attend the festival two years in a row.

"I think it recognizes the standard of quality we have," Gillett said. "The first trip was for a show that was done by a guest director, and this most recent was done by me, so it shows we're doing something right across the board."

In addition to the performances, the festival included presentations and workshops, including classes on script analysis and getting started as a professional director.

"It creates a huge excitement for the students, and it helps them get out there," Gillett said. "Most of these students have grown up in Carroll County, and this allows [them] to get out and see other parts of our region and mingle with other students. It also helps them, hopefully, make a transition from the two-year to a four-year college by meeting students who are attending them."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

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