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Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars

The pandemic forced the show to go totally virtual for the last two years. How have the awards changed while we've been away?

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars Entering the performance space at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, feeling the buzz of excitement and ambition in the air as theatre-crazed teens line eagerly themselves up in answer to the call "One more time, from the top," I felt as if I had stepped back in time. For me, the year was 2015, the city was Atlanta, Georgia, and the place was the Cobb Energy Center, home of the Shuler Hensley Awards. Pride and achievement pumped through my veins, adrenaline and dopamine flooding my brain as my castmates and I prepared to perform "All for the Best" from Godspell on live television before a cheering crowd. I thought to myself: "Surely, this must be the greatest moment of my life."

These are the memories that came racing back to me as I watched a fine assortment of young Houston talent prepare for this year's upcoming Tommy Tune Awards. For years the Tommy Tune Awards Program has dedicated itself to its mission of "[celebrating] the educational value, artistry, and community of high school musical theatre in the Greater Houston Area." At our particularly fraught point in history, this mission of nurturing and developing the artistic passions of our youth seems more important than ever, and the fine staff at Theatre Under the Stars is proving that they are prepared and invested in making this goal a reality.

Celebrating High School Theatre

For many years, the Tommy Tune Awards have given space for high schoolers to celebrate not only their love for theatre but the hard work they put into refining their craft. This year, 42 schools elected to participate in the Tommy Tune Awards. This year's award ceremony proves that Houston has no shortage of excellence, as 29 of the 42 participating schools (or 69%) have been recognized with at least one nomination across 13 categories, more schools than ever before in the history of the Tommy Tunes (see this link for the full list of nominees).

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars
All nominees on the first day of rehearsal.
Photography credit: Seth Pecore

As any awards show kid knows, those nominations can be more valuable than gold when you're in the trenches of the high school theatre scene. The validation of knowing that your blood, sweat, and tears have been recognized can be so encouraging for young theatre-makers who are still trying to find themselves within their art. I know that the experience of my castmates and I skipping our afternoon classes to gather around our teacher's computer and livestream the nominations will forever be emblazoned in my memory.

I can only imagine how much more visceral that validation feels for these students who have-quite remarkably, I might add-produced award-worthy shows amid a global pandemic (a challenge my castmates and I certainly did not have).

Jacob Shideler, TUTS's Manager of Education and Engagement, made a specific point of commending the students for this perseverance when I sat down with him to discuss the awards:

"I want the schools to know how proud we are of them. And not just because they produced a show in the middle of a pandemic, but because they just keep showing up. They show up and they are doing something that is challenging and hard-musical theatre is not an easy hobby, it's not an easy profession, it's not easy to teach, it's not easy to learn-and so I think I speak for everyone at TUTS when I say we are so honored to be part of this process."

The pandemic has not presented a small challenge to making the awards happen. In fact, this is the first year since the initial COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 that the Tommy Tune Awards have been able to take place in person, due in large part to the flexibility and management shown by Shideler and the rest of the TUTS administration. Despite shows being postponed due to students contracting COVID, adjudicators pulling out of the program due to concern over immunocompromised loved ones, and managing the array of COVID protocols at each of these schools, the team at TUTS has managed to bring these students together to celebrate not only their determination but their ability to continue to find joy in performance.

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars
Lead nominees filming a number for the awards.
Photography credit: Seth Pecore

Of course, the Tommy Tune Awards do not only offer recognition. There are several material benefits to the award show as well. For one, TUTS has made a point of offering scholarship assistance to students who demonstrate outstanding commitment and promise. To date, TUTS and the Tommy Tune Awards have awarded 146 student university scholarships, totaling $454,000 in individual arts-based scholarships.

Not only that, but the winners in the Leading categories get to go on to compete in the Jimmy Awards, a national award competition for high schoolers from across the country. Many Jimmy winners have gone on to impressive careers in the theatre (for example, in 2019, Reneé Rapp, 2018 Jimmy Award winner for Best Performance by an Actress, became the first replacement for the role of Regina George in the Broadway musical Mean Girls).

How the Awards Have Changed

Of course, for all my warm memories of taking the stage at the Cobb Energy Center with my friends, I cannot ignore that the very concept of award shows has come under fire in recent years. Many claim that they are elitist, that they foster an unhealthy level of competition and discourage community-building, that they favor only the competitors with the most resources at their disposal. That's why it is also important to look at how the TUTS team has taken the initiative to change things up following the COVID-19 pandemic.

As previously mentioned, 2022 is the first year since the Great Shutdown that students have actually been able to gather together in person to film the Tommy Tune Awards, rather than sending iPhone footage of themselves from their individual quarantine spaces. However, rather than spending the past two years dreaming of getting back to the way things used to be, the team of TUTS has taken the advantage to envision ways of changing the awards to better reflect their goal of uplifting young Houston artists.

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars
Leading, Supporting, & Featured nominees learning
Photography credit: Seth Pecore

Laura Peete, the new Director of Education for Theatre Under the Stars, has made it her goal to focus the awards on artistic growth and development over simple competition, expanding how students are honored while weaving in opportunities for professional training. Whereas in the past the awards may have simply functioned as a song-and-dance show to celebrate existing excellence, Peete has pushed to be an active part in cultivating that excellence. In a day and age where the award shows have begun to feel outdated, Peete's approach shines a light on the potential for pedagogy through competitiveness.

Of course, her approach only reflects the growing level of competitive talent in Houston high schools. Both she and Shideler report that the judge's scores for this year's participating schools have been higher than they have ever seen, proving that narrowing the nominations down to the traditional eight nominees in each performance category is not only a more difficult task than ever before but perhaps a less necessary one.

The first move has been to expand the number of nominees in each category exponentially, allowing for more students to receive the recognition they deserve. Some might say that this lowers the value of the nomination, but as we are seeing in more mainstream media, the traditional award show model is starting to lose relevance with contemporary audiences. If the idea is to honor excellence, who's to say that the number of potential nominees giving excellent performances is restricted to eight? In addition, TUTS is in the process of developing a tier system for the awards based on the budgets of the schools, allowing for schools with lower budgets to be recognized even while competing against the schools with more lavish budgets.

The most impactful change, however, is the level of one-on-one instruction given to the nominees. Feedback is given not only after their adjudicated performances but after the rehearsal process for the awards has concluded. Nominees in the Leading category rehearse for four days in a preliminary judging process, where they are evaluated based on skill, adjustability, professionalism, and more. This process presents them with the chance to train with theatre professionals from around the Houston area to improve their skills and establish the kind of professional connections that will aid them in the future. The scores from these rehearsals carry over into the final judging process, where the nominees perform an audition piece for a separate panel of judges, from which the winners are chosen. This process is not only designed based on the process that is usually seen at the Jimmy Awards, but also with an eye toward improvement and training.

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars
Laura Peete and choreographer Sterling Lovett with the
Supporting and Featured nominees.
Photography credit: Seth Pecore

The students seem to have largely taken to this approach, as when I spoke with them they had nothing but praise for the TUTS staff and how they have handled the process. Many of them praised the environment that TUTS had created. While many came in expecting harsh, competitive, or even toxic attitudes, both from the staff and the other nominees, they reported instead finding camaraderie with their fellow students.

The group also agreed that they had grown significantly in their artistic skill as a result of the training they were offered. When asked in which areas they felt they had grown during their Tommy Tune experience, they listed off things such as dancing, networking with other artists, learning and retaining music and choreography in a short amount of time, and being able to enjoy the moment rather than obsess over winning.

My heart was particularly warmed by a story shared with me by Programs Manager Jacob Shideler. When the students first arrived at the Hobby Center they were shuffled into a nearby room while the staff waited for all the schools to arrive. When Shideler came back to check on them, he found that they had begun playing theatre games, talking with one another, and getting to know one another, all without being prompted. Gone were the sideways glances thrown between students from opposing schools, replaced with a community of young artists ready to grow, collaborate, and enjoy themselves-a community that may just prove lasting, if one is to believe the students who claim to have made friendships they wish to see last beyond May 27.

Much of this can be attributed to Laura Peete, who makes a point of establishing expectations with the students through pre-rehearsal emails and meetings designed to set the tone for the entire process:

"We explain that as Theatre Under the Stars, this is what our culture is. Everybody loves a little element of competition, right? Like it helps us grow-especially in Texas, which tends to be quite competitive in nature-but we need to support each other, we need to be kind to each other, we need to respect each other. We have people of all walks of life. We have people of all economic backgrounds. We have he's, we have she's, we have they's. This is a safe space that everyone is welcome to and everyone is graced within and that's how we expect everyone to treat each other. So that tone is communicated before they even step foot into our building."

While competition is still very much a part of the awards, that competition is designed to foster a drive toward growth and ambition rather than instill a fear of failure. During these meetings, the staff also takes the time to articulate what the judges will be looking for and what qualities the nominees are being judged on, with the intent of creating an open and honest environment.

Where We Go From Here

The result of all of these efforts is a joyous celebration of artistic achievement that puts the talent and dedication of students front and center. More so than in previous years, these Tommy Tune Awards will represent progress, they will represent passion, and they will represent promise for the future of our beloved art form. The students being recognized this year represent the hope for the theatre industry's continued survival; it is their fervor, their creativity, and their relentlessness that will set the course for where we will go. Considering that the arts have found themselves in a place of perhaps greater social and cultural importance than ever before, I, for one, am glad that we are prioritizing nurturing that future over the nail-biting suspense of wondering whose name is inside an envelope? (Although not to worry; there will still be names inside of envelopes)

Feature: TOMMY TUNE AWARDS Make a Joyous Return to Theatre Under The Stars
The Leading nominees and the TUTS team say a sweet goodbye after
wrapping filming (the vast majority of students pictured are seniors,
and thus will not be returning next year; perhaps a bittersweet goodbye).
Photography credit: Seth Pecore

The Tommy Tune Awards are set to air on May 27 at 7 p.m. The event can be streamed on the TUTS Facebook Page and YouTube Channel.

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