On December 5, as this bleary-eyed adult chugged bitter gas-station coffee in the parking lot of Plantation's American Heritage School at the ugly hour of 8 a.m. — on a Saturday! way the hell out west! — there was a riot of teenaged bodies at the foot of the big stucco staircase attached to the school's performing arts building. Maybe a hundred kids, all different shapes and sizes and colors, yelling and laughing and screaming and making an ungodly racket while dazed-looking old people darted about, frantic as the extras in Saving Private Ryan, attempting to hammer the chaos into order.

Chug, chug, walk — through the throng, to the staircase. There was another riot of kids around the side of the building, somewhere behind a tremendous row of school buses. Those buses were an impressive sight; a sign of the great mobilization of manpower and metal that went into making this convocation happen.

And it was happening. This was the "District 13 Individual Events Festival," and the participants — drama kids, more than you could count, who think of Broadway stars Sherie Rene Scott and Audra McDonald the way the young footballers practicing on the other side of the American Heritage bleachers think of Peyton Manning — had been up for hours, juicing themselves on the adrenaline geysering out of their plump young glands. For them, "Districts" is a huge deal — a coming together of a tribe, a family reunion, a chance to show off one's skills and gloat over those who can't keep up (but whom are nevertheless to be greeted European style — kiss, kiss — when the thesps reconnoiter in the hallway between events).

There are 15 districts around the state like this one, each made up of a couple of dozen schools. Our own district is medium-sized, with 22 schools participating. The thesps of each compete in events like "Duet Acting" and "Ensemble Acting — Mime," and those whom the judges rate "Superior" go to Tampa next year to compete against the winners from other districts. The stakes are high. State champions stand a much better chance than do nonchampions of getting scholarships in the theater departments of their chosen colleges.

On the staircase, I collided with a singing, 16-year-old Latina with a bow in her hair (New Times was allowed to cover the event on the condition that the names of students who didn't win would not be printed), thereby interrupting a very good rendition of "Summer in Ohio" from The Last 5 Years. After I apologized, she told me: "This is by far the biggest day of the year. We work so hard, and you know — we're attention whores. And today, it's like time stops and people see what we're doing, and it counts for something. There are so many performers, but really nailing a song so that it stands out, that could be, like, the most important ten minutes of your life." Moments later, a gaggle of white girls surrounding two tall African-American guys danced by, singing something that might have been from Thoroughly Modern Millie, jazz-handing away at the sky.

I found my fellow judges sucking down rugullah and coffee in a little room on the building's bottom floor. This crowd was, if anything, more jazzed than the kids outside. My particular table was all atwitter with discussion of one tablemate's child, a SoFla native son, who has gone to Chicago and is in the process of really, truly making it.

What a thing it is to really, truly make it. The hundreds of hundreds of thesps who converge on the state's high schools to win their tix to Tampa each fall want desperately to really, truly make it, even though most of them don't. The kids dancing on the stairs, through the hallways, in the parking lot — beautiful girls, awkward boys, young queers, the chubby ones, the ones who look self-conscious as they step so carefully through the social morass of the high school corridors and then drop every last inhibition when their scenes begin — they love the theater with every inch of their beings and are entranced by its capacity to make people feel, to think, to change. They want nothing more than to effect that change for throngs of applauding audients who will, and should, adore them for the favor. These kids stay up late at night, listening to Into the Woods and Company and reading For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, pondering life's deep mysteries through their spectrums, singing the songs and reading the monologues in the mirror. They want to give the world something lovely, but the world seldom notices. Mostly, the world tells them to become accountants.

I was to judge "Student-Directed Scenes" and "Publicity," in a cramped little economics classroom on the second floor. "Publicity" was exactly what it sounded like: the thesps prepared press materials for a hypothetical show and then explained to us why their materials would draw an audience. There was something creepily martial about the sight of the kids standing there, hands clasped behind their backs, as we silently — and, in the case of one judge, frowningly — appraised fake programs for Steel Magnolias and Antigone. I got the sense that this was an event the kids didn't feel very passionately about. One thesp misspelled the name of her show. There were only a few who seemed genuinely into the art of creating publicity materials, and I had no doubt that these kids could have long and lucrative careers in P.R. if they wanted them. Somebody's got to. One girl's gorgeous, glossy program for The Piano Lesson actually made me want to see an August Wilson play, which takes some doing.

The "Student-Directed Scenes" were a revelation. None was perfect, but one came close: the scene from Butterflies Are Free in which Jill Tanner meets Edward Albert, staged by student director Amanda Jones with loving naturalism that made the classroom momentarily fall away. But even the more imperfect scenes possessed real fire. One director had made his actresses practice their scene from Antigone outside, at night, by torchlight, and went into a detailed spiel about the historical importance of doing it just that way. Another fellow, also directing Antigone, had the wild idea of setting it during the War of the Roses.

I left before the students knew who'd won what. Lighting a cigarette in the school parking lot, I happened to walk by the Latina girl I'd crashed into earlier. She was also smoking a cigarette. (Hypocritically, I lectured her about it and told her that if she kept it up, she'd be stuck with a voice like Marianne Faithful's.) She told me that she thought she'd done well but that she was nervous. Apparently, an old nemesis from past Districts had competed in the same events as she, and she didn't know how she'd fare. Contemplating a possible loss, she was philosophical: "We'll party tonight, to celebrate a great day." Gesturing in the general direction of the athletic field, she said: "Today, it's like we get as much respect as the football team. That's incredible, right?"

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