International Theatre Festival Goes Online in Global First

It takes more than a global pandemic to stop hordes of musical theatre-loving students coming together to celebrate the performing arts!

Now in its fifth year, planning for the Junior Theatre Festival Australia was in full swing when the whole world seemed to come to a screeching halt. Undeterred, the organisers did what so many of us have had to learn to do in 2020, they pivoted and the result is a spectacular new format which will see 800 students from two continents and seven time zones coming together in a world-first Virtual Junior Theatre Festival.

As has become tradition, the festival will be held in Newcastle NSW and, in a hugely serendipitous move, just last month, the City of Newcastle-owned Civic Theatre installed a 7.5-metre-wide movie screen and widescreen digital projector into the historic theatre. Those state-of-the-art facilities will be put to excellent use on October 30th and 31st, when theatre companies from all Australian mainland states, as well as three USA states, tune in for this landmark digital event.

We’ll have five groups from three US cities (San Francisco, Chicago and Pittsburgh) joining the 14 Aussie groups this year, said Junior Theatre Festival (JTF) co-producer Shane Bransdon.

“They’ll have the remarkable experience of being mentored by writers, directors, vocal coaches and choreographers from New York, as well as participating in workshops presented by local industry leaders, including a music workshop delivered by Tony Award nominee, Eddie Perfect, and a dance workshop from musical theatre leading lady, Alinta Chidzey,” added Shane.

Fellow producer, Daniel Stoddart, said the team was adamant, this was not the time to be cancelling the festival.

“With all the COVID restrictions, we were facing the prospects of disappointing hundreds of junior performers,” said Daniel.

“We knew we had to get inventive about working with available resources to find a way for them to unite for this highly-anticipated annual event. Now more than ever, these young people need to be able to express their creativity and feel connected. The virtual adjudication process we’ve devised has given them the ideal platform for collaboration, preparing their presentations, even while in lockdown. We have three groups joining us from Victoria and we’re particularly grateful to have been able to give them something to work on and look forward to throughout the long weeks of sustained lockdown they’ve faced.”

The largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, JTF Australia is part of a global franchise which also sees Junior Theatre Festivals staged on both the east and west coasts of the USA as well as in Europe. The Australian version is the only one which has not been cancelled for 2020. 

“All eyes are on the Australian team to see how an event this large can pivot to an online model, while still providing all of the opportunities, fervour and atmosphere for students and teachers alike,” said Daniel.

“The Junior Theatre Festival Australia 2020 would not be possible without the generosity of the City of Newcastle, which has provided a funding grant under its Event Sponsorship Program and, for the fifth year, is providing our unbeatable venue, the magnificent Civic Theatre. Sincere thanks to the members of the Civic Theatre team who have worked with us to repeatedly adapt our plans as COVID restrictions have gradually lifted. We are extremely grateful for their support of our emerging artists.” 

On the evening of Friday 30 October, the 800 plus JTF students, teachers and chaperones will tune into the live presentation on stage at the Civic Theatre for the opening ceremony. Entertainment will include the presentation of the two Broadway Junior pilot shows, Something Rotten JR, Disney’s Finding Nemo KIDS and Hans Christian Anderson Online Edition, featuring performers from across Australia. 

The following day, the 19 participating teams, with performers ranging in age from 7 to 18, will be separated into three adjudication pods, to present their Broadway Jr showcase piece for adjudication. The expert panels will feature both US and Australian adjudicators, including CEO of iTheatrics, Timothy Allen McDonald, who’ll be Zooming in from New York City. Each group will receive feedback on their performances and constructive criticism to encourage further learning in key areas. 

After lunch, the students will lead a Q&A with special guests Eddie Perfect (Tony Award nominee and composer of Beetlejuice and King Kong on Broadway) and Alinta Chidzey (Velma Kelly in Chicago tour and Anita in West Side Story tour). Eddie will then lead all 800 students across seven time zones in an interactive music workshop, followed by Alinta’s dance workshop.

The big names aren’t only for the children, participating teachers will also have the opportunity to interact with musical theatre royalty in the form of a professional development session featuring co-chairperson (with Sir Cameron Mackintosh) of Music Theatre International, the legendary Freddie Gershon.

On Saturday evening, the festivities will wrap up as all participants ‘gather’ in the Civic Theatre for the awards ceremony and a mass singalong unlike any other.

Managing Director of Music Theatre International Australasia, Stuart Hendricks, commended the JTF Australia team on their monumental pivoting efforts to deliver this world-first event. 

“Around the world, Junior Theatre Festivals offer young people the opportunity to bond with their peers in an immersive celebration of the art form they love,” said Mr Hendricks.

“Exclusive to organisations performing MTI’s Broadway JuniorÆ musicals, Junior Theatre Festivals are staged annually in five key locations around the globe. Described by the New York Times as ‘a rousing celebration of theatre’, these events recognise and empower the international global movement of young people and educators, creating student-driven musical theatre worldwide.

“I’m proud beyond measure of the tenacity of the Australian team in ensuring their event goes ahead and I wish them all the very best with their ground-breaking endeavour,” added Mr Hendricks.  

Drew Cohen, President and CEO of Music Theatre International added;

On behalf of everyone at MTI, I’m thrilled that Australia is hosting 2020’s only Junior Theatre Festival to share the magic of Broadway Junior. One of MTI’s primary goals is to ensure all educators and young people have access to arts education, and there is nothing else quite like the transformative power of musical theatre. It allows students to develop life skills, including collaboration, team-building, and problem-solving. They give every participant the chance to be part of the global theatre community, which has never been more important than it is today. Chookas!

Peter J Snee

Peter is a British born creative, working in the live entertainment industry. He holds an honours degree in Performing Arts and has over 12 years combined work experience in producing, directing and managing artistic programs & events. Peter has traversed the UK, Europe and Australia pursuing his interest in theatre. He is inspired by great stories and passionately driven by pursuing opportunities to tell them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *