BY HARPER LEE
AS A TEACHER and Thespian troupe director at Toms River High School North in New Jersey, Carolyn Little makes it her mission to find new ways to honor student achievement in her program. Since becoming New Jersey’s chapter director, she has wanted New Jersey Thespians to be involved in the state’s prestigious Governor’s Awards program. “The Governor’s Awards are such a longstanding tradition in the state,” she said. “All of our other organizations gave out Governor’s Awards, and I could never figure out why we couldn’t.”
Begun in 1980, the New Jersey Governor’s Awards in Arts Education annually recognizes New Jersey arts educators and students who have done exemplary work in creative writing, speech, dance, music, theatre, and the visual arts. Awardees attend a ceremony in May, where they receive a medal and the opportunity to share some of their work.
Little knew New Jersey Thespians who deserved the Governor’s Awards honor, but for years, attempts to bring the awards to Thespians led ultimately to dead ends. Early this year, her research and networking paid off when a representative from the Governor’s Awards attended the New Jersey chapter’s Thespian festival.
After a frantic 48 hours to complete the necessary paperwork, New Jersey Thespians were able to offer their first New Jersey Governor’s Awards in six categories, including contrasting monologue, solo musical, duet musical, group musical, chapter select, and film. New Jersey Thespians who delivered superior performances at the chapter’s festival have been invited to celebrate their achievement at the May ceremony in Trenton.
Looking to build on this success, Little is now lobbying the Governor’s Awards organization to allow New Jersey Thespians to give 12 awards, so that students in technical theatre categories can also take home a high honor in the state. Little stressed that being a Governor’s Awards recipient boosts a student’s college application, especially for those applying to colleges in New Jersey, where the Governor’s Awards have a high profile.
“Not every single school knows about New Jersey Thespians yet, but every single school knows about the Governor’s Awards,” Little said. “It’s such a big deal in the state, because it covers the entire state and there’s so many awards in so many different things. … So while it’s awesome to win a superior at our level, sometimes a school might not recognize New Jersey Thespians, but the Governor’s Awards is something that’s truly recognizable in the arts community in New Jersey.”
Alyssa Sileo, a senior at Gloucester County Institute for Technology School of Performing Arts and a member of Thespian Troupe 5480, was one of the first New Jersey Thespians to receive a Governor’s Award. She and her fellow Thespians performed a group musical theatre number from Urinetown and received a superior rating in the Individual Events program at the New Jersey festival. Her group went on to participate in the Individual Events Showcase and ultimately received Governor’s Awards for their work.
During their first performance in front of festival judges, though, Sileo said the recorded musical track cut out. Without missing a beat, the group stayed in tune and in time, making their way through a difficult dance break and tricky harmonies. For her, receiving a Governor’s Award is a treasured achievement that she’ll always share with her friends and classmates.
She’s looking forward to the ceremony, when she can meet others in her state who are as passionate about arts education as she is. “It’s awesome, because I think about how nervous we all were when the music stopped,” Sileo said. “We were nervous about the number and the dance and how hard it was, but our hard work paid off — and it will be awesome to celebrate and meet students and teachers doing great things in the state of New Jersey.”
Meanwhile, Little is looking even further into the future. Her focus has been “putting New Jersey Thespians on the map,” and being part of the New Jersey Governor’s Awards is evidence of that happening. In recent years, the size of New Jersey’s chapter Thespian event has more than doubled, and Little feels that offering Governor’s Awards will draw even more new drama programs to the New Jersey chapter and the state Thespian festival. “This will bring more people in, because they want the Governor’s Awards,” she said. “They want to be able to have their kids compete for that honor, so it’s going to bring another level of greatness to our organization.”
Little is adamant that without her board, her chapter’s recent success would not have been possible. Without them, she wouldn’t have had access to the right people and wouldn’t have been able to turn around the Governor’s Awards paperwork in time. Many of her board members are Thespian alums who not that long ago were in high school themselves.
She said the board brings a unique passion and drive that has opened doors, created opportunities, and made those opportunities reality. “The best thing I ever did as chapter director was allow alumni to come back onto the board,” Little said. “They’re excited, they want to shape the state, and they want to do cool things. Some people still look at them as kids, but it’s those ‘kids’ who are shaping the arts.”
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