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Keeping the Applause Alive: Theatre Festival Goes Virtual

By Vanessa Vivas

While Alexa Wildenberg was disappointed that the career-enhancing Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) is going virtual, she nonetheless plans to attend because it is known as a gateway to acting careers.

Regardless of the virtual components, senior theatre arts major, Augustine Ubannwa, refuses to give up the opportunity to network and expose himself to working professionals in the industry.

TJ Young, a veteran of KCACTF, encourages everyone to be involved in the January event because, for him, it paved the way to a job in theater.

The change to virtual delivery has inexorably altered paths for actors, but as far as the Kennedy Center event, organizers say the goal of networking, performing in front of people (this time on video), and finding new friends in a theater remains the same.

Due to COVID-19, the KCACT Festival was not canceled but went virtual for the first time in its 50-year history. And with it, the opportunity for seniors about to enter the workforce is not canceled, but merely modified.

“The whole festival is written around education and supporting student artists… It’s about encouragement. It’s about recognizing the things that are hard. And getting into the thought process. Maybe in a different way than they have,” said TJ Young, the Vice-Chair for Region 2 the National Playwriting Program.

However, the festival will still offer all of the same components that the in-person festival would offer. Participants can attend virtual workshops in a variety of disciplines including but not limited to acting, musical theatre, directing, playwriting, design, dramaturgy, etc. Instead of being hosted in a studio at the host university, all performance-based workshops are now being hosted on Zoom.

Wildenberg, who is a sophomore this year, has plans to attend. “I definitely want to go to the festival. I think I will be exposed to a lot of knowledgeable people that aren’t here in Pittsburgh, to the opportunity to make connections with people,” said Wildenberg.

“I think it would be a good way to put myself in front of people who are working in the industry currently,” says Ubannwa, who is on the verge of graduation this year.

Ubannwa, who lives around the DC area, expressed that the virtual festival is more convenient than an in-person festival: “I’m more likely to go to the festival now that it’s virtual. It’s more affordable because there are no travel expenses,” he said.

“We always try to get people who are in the industry, working, to answer questions like ‘hey how do I make a living as an artist?’” said Young. This year, he is teaching workshops on cross-cultural collaboration, personal storytelling, and writing for young adults

“The opportunity is to meet other people who love the things that you love,” says Toby Malone, head of Dramaturgy at the KCACTF.

“A huge part of our job is mentorship,” said Malone. He believes that students are able to learn from their professors who are also working artists. “Students really thrive the best when they see activity modeled by their professors,” he said.

TJ Young attended the festival when he was a grad student and helped him catapult his career into what it is today: a successful Pittsburgh-based playwright and dramaturg.

“I was able to move to Pittsburgh with a job because someone I met at the national festival lives here. She was there when she found I was moving to Pittsburgh, and she said let me connect you,” he said.

KCACTF provides a multitude of opportunities that can connect seniors with jobs after graduation. “It definitely helped my career and to solidify me. It also got my first publication with Samuel French,” said Young.

Young expressed the importance of the festival, even if the virtual adjustment was a challenge. “We went back and forth. I mean the festival has been going on for 50 years. But I think that at the end of the day, for some students, this is their point of connection.”

Malone expressed similar sentiments when it came to the seniors who had plans to attend the in-person festival: “Cancelling the festival just because it’s virtual, you don’t want those seniors to miss out on the opportunity to attend one last festival. It’s still important to recognize that work,” Malone said.

This is the first time that Malone and Young have been involved in such a large virtual festival since the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s going to be an experiment… That energy of theatre kids all together and creating work, doing a behind computer screen is going to be very different,” said Malone.

Both Young and Malone expressed that even in a time when everyone is physically distant, theatre artists are finding ways to make meaningful relationships and collaborations.

Regardless of medium, Malone and Young are both convinced that the adrenaline that comes from live theatre can be closely recreated on a virtual platform.

The festival runs Jan 11-15, 2021 and registration is open until early January.

“At a regional festival level, you have a 1000 people who are passionate about what you’re passionate about. And you’re meeting people from all walks of life. It’s important to discover what’s happening. The opportunity really comes from the way that we interact,” he said.

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