This is the first time in Plant City High School history that it has been awarded Best Play at districts and selected to represent the district at the Florida State Thespian Festival. Now it’s fundraising to help the students bring the heat in March 2020.
A record has been set in the Plant City High School theatre program’s history.
For the first time, its theatre troupe has been selected as one of the top teams to compete in the Florida State Thespian Festival competition, held from March 18 to 21, for its second year in a row. The group won a superior — the highest score for a play — and walked away with the coveted title of Best Play at the District 9 One Act Festival earlier this month.
Troupe 1449 has slowly but surely carved a place for itself in the highly competitive arts world in the state. Florida has one of the toughest arts competitions in the nation and Hillsborough County is one of the stiffest in the entire state. Arts-focused schools pour into their programs and thus their students find themselves at the top of the competitions time and again. A few years ago, however, that began to change.
When Audrey Schmidt began teaching at PCHS, she came in with the memory of its flourishing theatre scene and abundant community support. Five years ago, she stepped up to the plate and began to rework its drama program from the ground up. This spring, the freshmen that were once her very first class walked across the stage with their new diplomas and the knowledge that they had been part of a nationally recognized grassroots movement under Schmidt’s guidance.
After a few years of foundation building, the drama program was doing something unheard of in Plant City: catching the eye of critics. It won the prestigious national NBC R.I.S.E. America grant and began collecting superiors everywhere they went. They were showing up competitions and for the first time people recognized Plant City as a force to be reckoned with. That reputation has only continued to grow and Schmidt’s latest batch of students has proven they’re ready to make the past few good years into a well-established tradition at their school.
This will be sophomore Jadin Sanderson’s first time at states. Sanderson said she’s heard so much about the week from the students who went last year that she’s already planning which workshops to take to best improve her craft. She joked that while there’s a lot of pressure on their shoulders, they’re more than ready to step up to the challenge.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into everything we are doing and getting a chance to acknowledge that is really amazing,” Sanderson said. “I know what we’re going up against and it does sound a bit intimidating, but I really think we have the chance to show we are here to compete.”
Part of the troupe’s charm lies in their interwoven roots. While most communities — whether it be a civic organization, sports team or niche club — say their members feel like family, Troupe 1449 has embraced that motto to its core. Schmidt says they bicker and sometimes fight, but at the end of the day if someone messes with one of their own, they all go to the front lines to protect them. In times of need they’ve bought each other clothes and food, opened their homes as sanctuaries when their friends needed a place to stay and they go out of their way to make sure everyone in their group knows they’re accepted and loved. That chemistry can’t be faked and it bleeds into every production they put on.
It’s even evident in how they talk about the honor of being offered the chance to go to states. Sure, some of those given the option to go have the financial stability to do so with ease. But they aren’t taking it for granted. Their first thought when they realized they had made it to the next round was, “How is everyone else going to afford this?”
Kaitlyn Gomez, a junior, said as soon as she heard they were going to states she immediately called her family members and told them all she wanted for Christmas was money for her registration and hotel fees. She was a part of the group last year that competed at the thespian festival and said she wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
“Last year, I got to talk with a producer of this show that’s going on Broadway,” Gomez said. “We were surrounded by people that have made this their life, and they are honest and tell us exactly what it takes to make it professionally. So on top of us really representing Plant City and getting our name out there, we’re also learning firsthand the skills we need to make it. Maybe we can continue representing our community for years to come. What’s so great about this troupe is we really do represent everyone in Plant City. We want to be like these people that’s we’ve looked up to our whole lives. We want to give back and give to others so it’s hard to ever ask for money or for help, but when we do the community steps up. I think people see themselves in us.”
The hope is the community will rally behind them and help make sure every eligible student has the opportunity to go.
While the cast was confident in its performance, a variety of last-minute changes convinced most of them they would receive a high score, but then that would be the end of it. This will be Trevion Chase Jr.’s first time at states and he said he literally jumped for joy when they were called as a finalist. It’s an opportunity he said they all know they won’t receive anywhere else and he hopes the skills they learn will help them be ready to bring an even stronger performance back next year for the community.
Zaniya Pucovsky, a junior, said it was euphoric watching the troupe sweep during the comedy section of the awards. Name after name of PCHS students was called from the stage, including her own, and she said she remembers just sitting there thinking “Plant City did it again.”
“There’s a reason we are proud to be from Plant City when we go places,” Pucovsky said. “We let them know, ‘No we aren’t Plant High, we’re Plant City High School.’ We’re taking the name of Plant City to Tampa and different cities all over. We’re really putting this city on the map when it comes to theatre and its been so cool being involved in that. This community is special and we all just are really proud to be a part of it.”
States isn’t just a night of awards. The week-long event at the David A. Straz Center is filled from sunup to sundown with workshops, auditions, masterclasses and one-of-a-kind networking opportunities. Freshmen and sophomores learn how to hone their craft and become better performers. Juniors and seniors have the chance to audition before some of the most prestigious art schools in the nation and can spend time learning from giants in the field. The connections they make at states could potentially impact their futures and Schmidt said she hopes they’re able to find a way to get every competing student covered so they don’t miss out on the unique week.
The school was selected for its production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and also broke school records when 10 of its students were selected to compete and perform their individual pieces at the state competition.
“I was very excited,” Tyler Stanaland, a sophomore who played Charlie Brown in the production, said. “A lot of our students want to go and don’t have the money to go. My family has five kids and it’s hard for my parents to send us all to the different things we want to go to. Last year was very fun and I learned a lot during the workshops. It’s very beneficial and we take a lot of stuff away. It’s hard to explain unless you’re in it, but theatre really pushes people. It’s the chance to get out of your comfort zone and step out of everyday life. It’s really hard to do, but once you’ve done it, it just changes you.”
Hannah Holm, a sophomore, said the students have noticed a difference in the general attitude around town surrounding their program. Ever since the troupe went to states last year, it’s received a wave of community support. They’re coming to shows, they’re showing up when they participate in an event and last year when money was tight they came to their aid and made sure no child was left behind. The students are giving up their spring break to participate in the competition this year and Holm said they are already working around the clock to make sure they bring their A-game.
Registration for the competition is $140 per student and the hotel fee per student is $450 for the week. The troupe needs to raise $15,000 by Jan. 31, 2020 to send all 24 cast and crew members to the competition. Donations can be made online by going to paypal.me/raidthestage or by delivering them to Plant City High School. You can also make checks out to Raid the Stage, Inc. or Plant City High School with “Theatre Donation” in the memo line. Send the mail to Plant City High School, c/o Audrey Schmidt, 1 Raider Place Plant City, FL 33563.