HOPEWELL: High school students to perform at International Thespian Festival

The Hopewell Valley Central High School (HVCHS) cast of "Picnic" were recently awarded for their work on stage. Front row: Gretchen Cyriacus, Maeve Merzena, Camille Ladendorf. Back row: Hannah Lewis, Owen Harrison, Christina LeVach, Madeline Carleton, Katie Rochon (director), Emmie Collins, Donovan Kazakoff, Lily Rutman. Not Pictured: Julia Rutman, Thomas McLaughlin. (Courtesy photo)COURTESY PHOTO
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The Hopewell Valley Central High School (HVCHS) cast of "Picnic" were recently awarded for their work on stage. Front row: Gretchen Cyriacus, Maeve Merzena, Camille Ladendorf. Back row: Hannah Lewis, Owen Harrison, Christina LeVach, Madeline Carleton, Katie Rochon (director), Emmie Collins, Donovan Kazakoff, Lily Rutman. Not Pictured: Julia Rutman, Thomas McLaughlin. (Courtesy photo)COURTESY PHOTO

In just a few days, the Hopewell Valley Central High School (HVCHS) cast of “Picnic” will be boarding a plane to Lincoln, Neb. to attend and perform at the International Thespian Festival.

The students became eligible for this honor back in January, when they performed a selection from their production at the New Jersey State Thespian Festival, earning them the top award of Best Chapter Select Presentation. Donovan Kazakoff, who plays Hal Carter, took home the Best Actor Award and Lily Rutman won Best Supporting Actress.

Production Stage Manager Hannah Lewis will also be traveling to Nebraska, as she won a Superior Award for her documentation of stage management for “Picnic”.

“Picnic”, a play written by William Inge, takes place over 24 hours in a small town in Kansas on Labor Day. The show was performed on the HVCHS Performing Arts Center stage in November.

Katherine Rochon, performing arts teacher at HVCHS and the director of “Picnic”, chose this ’50s play for its powerful female leads.

“The females in this show are so strongly written,” she said. “A lot of plays from this era are deranged. But not in this one; they’re all very true to life, and very smart and almost modern-feeling for a play from the ’50s. Plus the language is beautiful in this play.”

HVCHS and “Picnic” will be added to a permanently displayed New Jersey Thespian plaque listing the history of New Jersey Best Chapter Select Presentation, according to a press release. While the high school has attended thespian festivals and entered for Chapter Select in the past, this is the first time HVCHS has won the award.

Rutman said she was “stoked” when she found out the school was performing the show because of its character development.

“No matter what character you play, you get to explore a lot of different things,” she said. “As an actress, that’s the most exciting thing about working on new stuff. It was definitely the right show at the right time.”

Since the school’s performances in November, a string of awards and nominations were presented to the cast and individual student performers.

Following the New Jersey State Thespian Festival, “Picnic” won Best Dramatic Ensemble at the Montclair State Foxy Awards in May. Additionally, Madeline Carleton, who plays Millie Owens in the play, won Best Supporting Actress and Rochon was nominated for six Foxy Awards.

“I was shocked, but thrilled,” Carleton said. “I put a lot of work into portraying this character because I think it’s a wonderful play.”

One week later, the cast and stage managers of “Picnic” were the recipients of the 2018 New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education for Best Chapter Select Play.

The ceremony took place in the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, officials said, and honored “exemplary commitment to excellence in high school arts statewide.”

Kazakoff and Camille Ladendorf, who plays Madge Owens, were also selected to perform part of a scene at the ceremony.

Both Kazakoff and Rutman have been involved in theater for most of their lives and have attended Stagedoor summer camps growing up, where they gathered theater expertise.

“It was a pleasant surprise, it was a really awesome experience,” Kazakoff said of his New Jersey State Thespian Festival award. “I was focused on if we were going to be able to take ‘Picnic’ to Nebraska, so it was like, ‘Oh wow, this is pretty cool.’”

At the International Thespian Festival, the “Picnic” cast will be performing Act II from the production.

Ladendorf said that the awards prove their “hard work is paying off.”

“It’s so rewarding — not only do do such an incredible production — but to be recognized for it,” she said. “I’m really proud of everyone here and the work we’ve done.”

The International Thespian Festival will take place from June 25 to June 30, and the cast is excited to perform the production one last time.

Gretchen Cyriacus, who plays Christine Showenwalder, said that going to Nebraska is a big step in her theater career.

“Through this process, I’ve become really close with everyone in the cast, a lot of them are upperclassmen have have helped me through a lot,” she said. “I think, going to Nebraska with all these people is a great opportunity for me and I’m so happy I get to go with them for my first year [at the high school]. It’s inspired me in so many ways.”

Along with getting the cast as many accolades as it has, many of the school’s thespians believe “Picnic” has allowed them to become closer.

“Not only is it about a family, but these people became my family,” Lewis said. “Words can’t describe what it’s going to be like in Nebraska being able to do this with all of them, because they’re all wonderful people and they’re all so talented.”