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'Virtually Together' puts spotlight on MN high school musical theater

The Spotlight Showcase celebrates the best high school musical theater in Minnesota. After it was canceled due to COVID-19, a virtual celebration came together.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the performing arts. When schools closed, it almost meant plays and spring musicals had to be canceled. But a local program is helping students celebrate musical theater while apart. 

"So Spotlight Education is the premiere education program for Hennepin Theatre Trust and it's our job to support and honor high school theater programs, as well as students, across the state of Minnesota," explained Ari Koehnen Sweeney, director of education for Hennepin Theatre Trust. 

The year-long program helps grow and nurture musical theater students. It includes master classes, professionals who give feedback to school productions (production assessments), theatrical review writing instruction and the Spotlight Showcase. 

This year, Koehnen Sweeney said the Spotlight Showcase would have featured about 1,700 students over two nights, performing at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. 

Because of COVID-19, they had to cancel the showcase. 

Instead, Spotlight Education will stream "Virtually Together: A 2020 Spotlight Tribute" next week. 

It will honor Spotlight Education schools, seniors, Triple Threat finalists and recipients of the Community Engagement Award, Theatre Educator Award, Triple Threat Broadway Experience, and their inaugural honors in Technical Theatre Excellence.

"We're fulfilling our mission just in a slightly different way... in a more virtual way," Koehnen Sweeney said. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
Emma Schuld is a Triple Threat Finalist.

Emma Schuld is a Triple Threat Finalist. The honor goes to students who can sing, dance, act and also lead and collaborate within their communities. 

"I like to say that Spotlight has given me a lot of tools as a performer, and just as a person, to have a lot more confidence in myself," said Schuld, who just graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall. 

Many spring musicals were cancelled or went virtual this year because of COVID, including CDH's. The school ended up doing a virtual show with segments from the musical "Holiday Inn." 

"On one hand, it's really difficult to lose all the things that we've lost," Schuld said. "But on another hand, it's a big time for everyone... for a lot of people and there are greater things happening than what we're missing."

Schuld added that, "Not going to school and not getting prom is not as important as saving lives by staying home." 

In the fall, Schuld will be attending the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
Joe Sorenson is a Triple Threat finalist.

Another Triple Threat finalist is Joe Sorenson who just graduated from Irondale High School. 

"I feel like with theater, it's like a little family with every single show I do which I love," Sorenson said. 

Sorenson plans on pursuing musical theater at Millikin University in the fall. He's been taking the Spotlight Education program's masterclasses online. 

"They're free and they're accessible. Especially during this whole crazy pandemic, they've been doing so many online workshops and masterclasses and Instagram lives," Sorenson said. 

"It really is the 'when life hands you lemons' energy from them which I'm so thankful for," Koehnen Sweeney said. "These students have kind of been our lifeline to keep us connected to the work and keep us connected to that energy." 

For the first time, Spotlight also has Technical Excellence finalists. 

During "Virtually Together," Spotlight Education will announce six student performers and two on the technical side who will receive a trip to New York. They can take it either next year or the year after. 

Virtually Together: A 2020 Spotlight Tribute will be available on the Hennepin Theatre Trust's Youtube channel starting on Tuesday, July 28 at 7 p.m. 

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