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Howard County students in spotlight at Maryland Thespian Festival

Howard County theater students from several schools showcased their acting chops last weekend at the 2014 Maryland State Thespian Festival in Calvert County.

During the two-day event, more than 800 students from high schools across the state traveled to Huntingtown High School to perform on stage, compete for college scholarships and participate in workshops to hone their talents.

Hunter Richardson, a junior at Oakland Mills High School, acknowledges that she was nervous before her troupe's performance before a judging panel of professionals. Richardson played the lead role in her school's short play selection, "Eyes Wide Open" by Jennifer Kirkeby

After the critique, she said the judges "told us a lot of things that would help us with our performance."

Oakland Mills drama teacher Steven Fleming said he and the students chose "Eyes Wide Open" because it touches on issues relevant to teens, such as peer pressure, eating disorders and failed romances. The performers had rehearsed for more than a month and a half before the festival.

"I think [the students] did a fantastic job," Fleming said. "They really rallied as a group."

This year marked the first time Oakland Mills took part in the annual festival. Judge Tom Brooks, who has worked professionally as an actor for more than 30 years and teaches in the acting and musical theater programs of Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., praised the troupe's camaraderie but encouraged performers to include more variety in their dialogue.

Actors from Long Reach High School received accolades from judges for their strong vocal performances in "The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water" by Michael Marks and Mackenzie Westmoreland, which tells stories from the aftermath of the devastating hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005.

Manny Mones, an 18-year-old senior, was singled out for his role as an ensemble singer.

"We did a lot of rehearsing beforehand," Mones said. "I was happy to see our hard work pay off."

While much of the response to Long Reach's play was positive, the judges did offer some criticism.

Martha Louden, who has taught theater for more than eight years and serves as the West Virginia state chapter director for the Educational Theatre Association, encouraged the actors to make better use of the space on stage.

Junior Jess Hsu, 16, who played a woman who had recently given birth and was stuck at a hospital during the storm. Hsu plans to use the judge's advice to improve her skills.

"I'm hoping to do community theater in the future," she said.

The school plays wrapped up Saturday evening with a piece from Atholton High School. The troupe chose to present "The Hamlet Thrill-ma-geddon," a modern-day satire on the Shakespeare play that features extensive product placement, including a section of the performance purportedly sponsored by MTV.

Atholton drama teacher Nathan Rosen said his students put in a good deal of work, including writing their own music and learning to sword-fight in preparation for the festival.

Atholton's work was well received and won top honors for physical work, props and sound.

Alexis Wohlstetter, a 17-year-old senior, was responsible for arranging the many props. One item was a Powerade bottle made to appear to contain poison for the part of the performance that was "sponsored" by Gatorade.

"I had fun experimenting," Wohlstetter said.

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