When Christina Caldwell was hired as a Ewing High School English teacher as well as its director of drama last year, she brought along some lofty goals for the school’s theater department.
She wasted no time re-establishing the high school’s International Thespian Society (ITS) chapter—Troupe 4883, which had been defunct for nearly two decades—and urging the young actors under her guidance to participate in the annual New Jersey Thespian Festival, held at Robbinsville High School of Mercer County on Jan. 14.
The yearly theater festival funnels its highest-scoring performers to the International Thespian Festival, where three EHS students will be competing from June 19 to 24 at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Isaiah Petit Compere, Israiel Thomas and Scott Silagy all notched a “superior” score at the ITS statewide festival and will get to show off their acting chops at this summer’s immersive workshop, with Petit Compere qualifying for Senior Scholarship and Contrasting Monologue, and Thomas and Silagy performing in the Musical Theatre Duet category.
The trio, along with Caldwell, her co-advisor Jessica Bohnenberger, and a small, hand-picked group of dedicated student thespians will represent Ewing in Nebraska at what’s colloquially referred to as “nationals” when most high schoolers are just settling into the first days of their summer vacation.
“I’m still kind of in disbelief,” Thomas says. “I went into (the Thespian Festival) originally not expecting anything, so the fact that three of us qualified and are also the first in EHS history to compete at nationals astounds me. I’m super pumped that we’ve been given this opportunity.”
Adds Petit Compere: “Both of my parents are in the arts, which is a large part of what influenced me to pursue theater. I love acting and am grateful for the opportunity to do what I love.”
Caldwell, who grew up in Ewing and lives in town with her husband, Ken, says that her own experience, first as a dancer, then as a singer and actor, is what drew her to the education career she’s pursued for 11 years now.
Caldwell, who attended Lore, Fisher and the Pennington School, earned her undergraduate degree in 2006 from Penn State University, where she majored in secondary education in communications and English. In 2009, she earned a master’s in secondary education and special education from Holy Family University.
Caldwell says that although her parents were not involved in theater, they were “definitely creative and hands-on.” Her father, Vince Monaco, came to the United States from Italy when he was 15, and worked as a civil engineer. Her mother, Phyllis, was a stay at home mom raising Caldwell, her brother and sister. She is also a retired preschool teacher.
She studied dance at a young age and was always interested in the performing arts, but she didn’t realize her love for theater until she auditioned for an opera at TCNJ in middle school. From then on, she was heavily involved in theater, choir and dance.
In college, she was was involved with the Penn State Thespians for both musical theatre and improv productions. As a teacher, she started the first drama program at Delaware Valley Charter High School in North Philadelphia and was the choreographer for the musicals at the Pennington School for three years before coming to the Ewing School District.
She said she fondly remembers what it was like to have educators foster her love for the performing arts and how that encouragement draws out poise and self-possession in budding actors.
“My end goal was always to teach drama—my high school teachers were a direct influence on why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place,” she says, adding that discovering performing in high school, “changed my life because I wouldn’t be the confident person I am today if I didn’t have a theater background.”
Nationals are one way Caldwell wants to help her emerging actors hone their craft while exposing them to scenarios that will shape them into more professional, polished performers.
In addition to the experience that comes with competing in front of judges as well as their peers from other schools, Caldwell knows that feedback from someone other than “the director who tells them all the time what to do” will go a long way in helping EHS’s actors grow as artists.
And with so many students narrowly missing a nationals-qualifying score—some by half a point, according to Caldwell—the drama teacher is especially keen on making sure the talent comprising EHS’s Troupe 4883 has a chance to be nurtured and flourish.
“The students who were so close to scoring superior lost points because they’d never competed in something like ThesFest,” Caldwell explains. “Those small mistakes that kept them from being eligible to compete in nationals are things I’ve been telling them, like carry out your notes, don’t break character until the song is over, or remember to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the performance. But it resonates more when you hear it from a judge.”
She added that they are learning that they have to be prepared so nothing on that stage can throw them off. “These kids are really talented so they can wing it but they’re also realizing that you can’t rely on improv for everything.”
While ITS can be a springboard to the competitive spirit, myriad workshops and general learning lessons of nationals, it is also an honor society that holds its members to task: Not all student actors are inducted, as there is a point-based system dictating if a young actor is involved enough in his or her chapter to merit inclusion in the organization.
There are a number of ways EHS’s thespians can accrue points, including their involvement in productions like this year’s spring musical, Godspell, which was performed in early March, the Senior Cabaret that was held on March 16, or the one-act murder mystery play that will be presented this month. That interactive one-act production, titled “Murder: A Charitable Donation,” was written by student Meagan Jenkins. It will be performed on April 27 and 28 at 7 p.m. in the Ewing High School Auditorium. Tickets are $5, and proceeds will go towards raising money to help the kids go to nationals.
Fundraisers, of course, are another avenue through which students can demonstrate their dedication to ITS, the EHS Drama Club and its board, and the theatrical arts in general.
A drive on the Snap! Raise fundraising website was created to cover travel expenses, lodging and entry fees for the nationals-bound members among the troupe. It recently closed out at $9,071—nearly twice the $5,000 goal. Proceeds from ticket sales are an additional source of revenue that will aid in sending the first-ever EHS representatives to nationals.
The “firsts” of going to nationals don’t stop with the young talent comprising Troupe 4883, though: While Caldwell was actively involved with theater in her days as a student at the Pennington School—including its own ITS chapter—Nebraska will, too, mark her inaugural experience with what she calls “the most prestigious theatrical competition for high school actors.”
“It’s funny: We talk about the road to nationals, but I’m paving that road as we speak,” Caldwell says with a laugh. “This is my very first year doing nationals. I even remember from when I was in high school hearing about other students who qualified to go and what a big deal it was.”
While Caldwell is eager to test her students’ comfort zones and help them tackle the new territory they need to discover for themselves, she is also empathetic to how overwhelming it can be to be thrust into the spotlight on a much bigger stage with a more far-reaching audience than most teenage thespians are accustomed to.
“When you experience something like this for the first time, you bring a smaller group so they can be almost like your guinea pigs: They’re going to do all the workshops and the ones who are competing will compete and hopefully get great feedback,” she says.
Next year, they’ll have an even better idea of how to do it logistically, she said. “The students who can go experience the workshops this year will have already gone through the experience, so it’s not as scary for them next time—because it is really intimidating the first time you go.”
But Caldwell isn’t worried. She freely describes her students as “really talented kids” whose breadth of ability has widened so much “just from learning and changing with a little direction” and is proud of the ability the EHS troupe demonstrates. Caldwell cites the recent Godspell performance as a prime example of what can happen when everything goes right with a performance—and what a difference a year can make.
“When you’re a teacher, the gratification is often delayed. You don’t realize what an impact you’ve made until years down the line when you get an email from a former student or when a student visits you,” she says. “This school year has been so immediately rewarding: I saw students I’ve only worked with for a year completely transform as actors and performers, and they’ve become such loving individuals.
“They’re such a supportive group, and it was so emotional closing down Godspell because you could tell that the cast, the crew, and the pit were all changed by the show. We were all choked up: There are some productions that are just so magical, and it was so great to see this be the show where that happened for them.”