Theater students empathize, trust themselves at Jimmys

The high-schoolers, coaches, and choreographer of the Jimmy Awards say that what matters to them about theater is learning to empathize with characters and bringing audiences into that process. It’s an experience they say matters even more in the current political climate and during the complex years of high school. 

Courtesy of The Jimmy Awards
High school students perform the opening number for the 2018 National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known as the Jimmy Awards, at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre June 25 in New York.

Becoming comfortable with one’s identity is an often-repeated theme in musical theater and it’s one embraced by Broadway actor Adam Kantor when he told a high-schooler to simplify a performance. The student teared up and hugged him.

“You’ve had people in your life tell you that you are perhaps not enough as you are,” says Mr. Kantor, who has appeared in shows including “The Band’s Visit” on Broadway. “Well, that’s actually not true. You are amazing how you are, and if you just stand there and deliver this song and the simple you-ness of it, we will feel it.”

The 80 competitors at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, known as the Jimmy Awards, all won their regional competitions to make it to New York this past June. In the rehearsal room with Kantor, the nervousness as they appraise their competition seems – almost – erased by their awe at seeing others excel at what they love. They shout encouragements, especially when Kantor, trying to build up a performer, says, “You know you’re worthy of being here. He has an insane level of talent, doesn’t he?”

Kantor’s advice to all of them is the same in spirit: Find a point of connection with your character and trust yourself. “That’s real. That’s all you need,” he says. A coaching session became a lesson in empathy. 

And that’s exactly what the high-schoolers, coaches, and choreographer of the Jimmys say matters to them about theater – learning to empathize with characters and bringing audiences into that process. It’s an experience they say matters even more in the current political climate and during the complex years of high school. 

Over its decade-long run, the number of participating regional programs at the Jimmy Awards has more than doubled – from 16 to 40 – with over 100,000 individuals participating this year. Students went through a week of professional training culminating in an awards ceremony.

Sometimes adults lack empathy for students like these, says Lisa Brescia, a coach and Broadway actress who says she feels older generations can often be dismissive of high-schoolers. “They have felt despair, longing, hope, love, crushes, anticipation, anxiety, and so they have a lot of what they need already,” she says. “It’s simply about helping them connect to the material personally.”

Sometimes musical theater can help audiences see issues with new eyes. At nominee Mya Ison’s high school in Raleigh, N.C., staging “Ragtime” became an opportunity to address racial issues at her school and in the wake of the Charlottesville attack. The musical’s story of three diverse families at the turn of the century potentially helped audience members understand “how far and how not so far we’ve come,” she says.

“[Theater] is the most viable way for me to hopefully make a change, and that’s my goal,” Mya says. 

Jimmy Awards nominees saw the show “Dear Evan Hansen” during their week in New York, and afterward some of the students continued to cry or talk about when they’d cried during the show. The musical follows the life of a teenager who struggles with severe anxiety.

Jonas McMullen, a nominee from San Diego, says he sees more of an embrace of difficult topics and of inclusion in the form of bringing different musical genres into current shows such as “Hansen.” “We’re not afraid to talk about subjects that were uncomfortable or taboo in the past,” he says. “[And] the music is not strictly musical theater style. You’re seeing pop; you’re seeing rock; you’re seeing hip-hop, rap. All those things that people love and hear on the radio.”

The opening number of the Jimmy Awards ceremony included snippets of songs about affirming one’s identity and place in the world, from the song “I’d Rather Be Me” (“Mean Girls”) to the “Let It Go” lyric “Here I stand and here I’ll stay” (“Frozen”) and “We could be alright for forever” from the song “For Forever” (“Dear Evan Hansen”).

Kristen Brock left “Dear Evan Hansen” feeling empowered and changed by its message. 

“I always tried to cover up who I really was and I put up a facade,” she says. “Being [at the Jimmys] really reminds me that being myself is the best thing I can do for this business.... Trying to be someone else isn’t going to get you anywhere.”

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