Minnesota Teens Get a Place in the Spotlight

Photo by Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

At state high school tournament time, a stellar speech from a Molière comedy will never send fans into hysterics like a three-pointer or a puck in the net. Doesn't matter. For the hundreds of Minnesota teens who participated in last week's State One Act Play Festival (SOAPF) finals, the play is the thing, and they were, for one day at least, the kings.

Entries in the two-day event, held at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul, are split into Class AA for larger schools and Class A for smaller, mostly rural schools.

Unlike the high-stakes contest in the performing-arts TV series "Glee," SOAPF is designed to recognize 16 acts chosen at smaller events statewide. Teams get a trip to the Twin Cities and a chance to perform for a panel of judges.

"There's no first or second," said judge Mark Quinlan. "That's why it's a festival."

Performers have 10 minutes to prepare their sets, props and lights and 35 minutes to perform. Judges confer after each play and give the teams constructive feedback. At the end of the day, standout performances receive recognition in the form of stars.

Haley Powell, 16, a junior from Bagley High School, said she loves being involved but wishes theater programs could get more respect -- and more funding. "All the money has to come from our pockets, the kids," she said, adding that when they performed the one-act play "The Freak" for their school, "a lot of the jocks did make fun of us, saying that it wasn't that great of a show."

The dark social drama by Angela Hill follows Monique, who after being called Monique the freak in high school finds herself in a circus-style sideshow. The actors all portray outcasts, with their eccentricities hyperbolized via snakeskin, clown makeup and sleeves of tattoos. A tiny, masked girl sits in a cage throughout the show, emitting the occasional scream.

"I got teased for being big; she got teased for being big, too," Powell said of her character, Lilly. "Acting lets me get that stress out." After temporarily leaving school to deal with bullying and seasonal affective disorder, she experienced breakdowns and lost friends. The principal decided to have the play performed for the student body, partly to address bullying.

Jean-Claude van Itallie's "The Serpent" was performed by students from Pipestone, Minn. Actors dressed in rags revisited the fall of man, assassinations and Nazi Germany. Connecting all this was the Serpent, a creature that danced and hissed. Thornton Wilder this was not.

For many of the Class A students, who traveled hours by bus, this was a rare chance to visit the Twin Cities. But it was a quick trip, with most of the yellow buses heading back home the same day.

Rebecca Lang is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for Star Tribune.