Welcome, Guest!

Theatrefest memories: Adventures among the thespians

Gargoyle photo courtesy of Anna Gooler (click to enlarge)From left, Larissa Pittenger, Lauren Piester, Anna Gooler, Tianna Pittenger, and Michelle Gao patiently await their meals at Steak n Shake before Theatrefest. The event took place Jan. 10-12 in Bloomington-Normal.

YOU KNOW THAT you’re at Theatrefest when you are hurrying along to catch a show, and the large group of people walking toward you is singing “La Vie Boheme” from “Rent” at the top of their lungs.

You know that you’re at Theatrefest when strangers come up to you to compliment you on your rendition of a song from “Hairspray.”

You know that you’re at Theatrefest when no one bats an eyelash at people screaming and running full speed down the sidewalk — sans shirts, and at midnight.

Oh, Theatrefest. The one word that causes unbearable excitement in the hearts of student thespians throughout Illinois.

With Uni's spring play, “Much Ado About Nothing,” scheduled to open Thursday night, the three of us (cast members all) decided to reminisce about our adventures at Theatrefest, an annual convention for theater-lovers across the state.


Click to listen (2:04)

Gargoyle senior editor Michelle Gao talks about her experiences at Theatrefest.

Michelle’s Story

Thursday, Jan. 10, had been a long day for me. I was tired: Still used to my sleeping hours during winter break, I had not adjusted to school time yet.

By the time 3:50 finally came around, I was ready to collapse onto the nearest squishy surface I could find and fall asleep. But then I remembered — a large group of Uni students would be going off to Bloomington-Normal for Theatrefest at 4. I had to get going.

Grabbing my things from my mother, who had kindly offered to drop them off after school, I walked out to the parking lot behind Uni Gym, looking for some kind of large vehicle.

Unfortunately, I had to wander around the parking lot in the rain for a few minutes before realizing that there were people standing on the porch of the Hue House, out of the rain. I stomped over, rather damp by that point.

After a brief wait, we finally managed to stuff our luggage into the van that fine arts teacher Barbara Ridenour was driving and the Turtle van that English teacher Steve Rayburn was driving, and then we were off. I ended up in the Turtle van, squished in the very back between juniors Sarah Lake-Rayburn and Lauren Piester.

The ride there was peaceful where I was sitting, and I listened and sang along to bad country music while Lauren crooned songs from the “Sweeney Todd” soundtrack next to me.

Up in the front of the bus, however, senior Hannah Lake-Rayburn, senior Jamie Weiser, junior James Smith, and senior Ethan Stone got so rambunctious that they were finally ordered by Mr. Rayburn to be quiet. Those of us in the back of the bus felt smug.

We arrived at our hotel, Fairfield Inn and Suites, but sat in the Turtle van for about an hour because our rooms had somehow been switched around. After about the first 20 minutes of sitting inside the van and breathing staler and staler air, a few people got out of the car and danced around in the cold air.

Instead of three suites, each with a king-sized bed and a pullout bed couch, our room situation had changed. We students only had one such room, and then two others with two queen-sized beds. We drew randomly for rooms; amazingly, the senior girls (Larissa Pittenger, Hannah, Jamie Weiser, and I) had gotten the suite with the king-sized bed. After marveling over the two plasma TVs, fake white orchids, giant bed, refrigerator, and lovely bathroom, we proceeded to sit down and relax.

But then the phone rang. It was Mrs. Ridenour, asking us when we wanted to eat dinner. Seeing as we were all hungry, we agreed to meet in the lobby in 15 minutes.

We all tramped across the street to Steak n Shake, very glad that it was close. We divided each other into groups, and were seated accordingly. One group of students sat close to Mrs. Ridenour and Mr. Rayburn; the other two groups of students sat close to each other.

It was a wonderfully satisfying meal. Steak n Shake was completely full, and other obvious Theatrefest-goers sat near to us. One of them was putting together a blue plastic light-saber; another group had matching “Drama!” sweatshirts.

Juniors James Smith and Lor Sligar look through the Theatrefest program, trying to decide which workshop to attend next. Photo by Lauren Piester (click to enlarge)

After dinner, there was another mad dash across the street back to the hotel and the vehicles. We all piled in again, and drove to Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. ISU and the University of Illinois switch off every year as hosts for the event.

Once at Bone, Mrs. Ridenour collected and handed out our passes and schedule booklets. We would need our passes to get into any shows or workshops listed in the schedule booklets. We were still skimming through descriptions as we walked into the auditorium for the 8:30 opening ceremony.

The opening ceremony this year consisted of four actors, two men and two women, singing songs from “Songs For A New World,” a collection written by Jason Robert Brown. Being familiar with them, I was extremely excited, but also disappointed when they skipped my favorite song (“Stars and the Moon”).

After the opening, we drove back to the hotel and passed out tickets for shows. I got most of my choices, including a showing of “Falsettoland” for 9 in the morning. Then, the senior girls headed back to our room and watched TV for a while. Sarah Lake-Rayburn, James Smith, and Ethan Stone joined us, but the boys left at around midnight. Sarah ended up moving to our room, since the other room on the first floor was very crowded.

We crawled into bed at around 2 that first night, with Jamie, Hannah, and I in the bed and Larissa and Sarah on the pullout couch. We were asleep in minutes.

It was cold on Friday, Jan. 11. Jamie, James, and I were the only ones who had gotten tickets for “Falsettoland,” so we left the rest of the group at Bone and walked across the quad. The main part of the theater was already filled when we walked in, so we dashed upstairs to the balcony. Thankfully, we found good seats.

“Falsettoland” was a musical about a gay Jewish man who had recently divorced his wife, who was now seeing said man’s psychiatrist. Their son was soon to have a bar mitzvah, and the lesbian couple on the floor below wanted to help. But everything ground to a halt when the Jewish man’s love interest got sick with a strange new virus.

Somewhat clichéd and “Rent”-esque? A bit. But the three of us walked out of the theater sniffling. It was a very good show. I was impressed that the actors and actresses could sing so well so early in the morning.

It was back to Bone, then. We found Hannah and Lor Sligar on the second floor, playing cards. Lauren Piester and Anna Gooler joined us, talking excitedly about some dance that they’d learned. Lauren and I then decided we were starving, and went to Burger King to buy some sustenance.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of shows and just hanging out (no workshops for me!). James, Larissa, sophomore Zack Goldberg, senior Ethan Berl, and I spent about an hour just talking and eating Chick-fil-A. One of the most memorable shows was “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which was performed at the University High School of ISU. The school actually had a cafeteria, a huge auditorium, a stage, and MICROPHONES, but it was also much too clean to be a cool school like Uni.

Dinner involved running to the Aldi's across the street from our hotel and buying frozen food to microwave. I bought four chicken pot pies. I managed to bolt one down before we had to take off again.

We walked back to Bone after seeing “Whatever Will Be Will Be,” and had about half an hour to kill before the dance started. Lauren, Sarah, Dillon Price, and I sat at a table and rediscovered the joys of Go Fish. Sarah and I bolted across the quad for the dance once we realized that the rest of the dance-goers had abandoned us, and reached them right before they walked into the building.

As I'm sure Anna will comment, the dance was loud and extremely hot. The grinding was outrageous. There was attempted crowd-surfing. There were glowsticks and excited cries of: “I saw you in a show today! Good job!”

Lor Sligar and I even ran into a couple of people that we'd seen at T.A.L.E.N.T earlier in the year, and had a brief chat. All in all, the dance was bouncy and exciting, and ended all too soon.

We returned to the hotel, tired and sleepy … and then found out that our toilet had stopped working. Baffled, we put the lid down and then played more Go Fish until the wee hours of the morning. I had no trouble at all falling asleep.

Unfortunately, I had no trouble waking up the next morning, either; I had to go to the bathroom, and badly. Half-blind without my contacts, in my pajamas and barefooted, I rode down the elevator, walked across the lobby, and banged on the door of the sophomore and junior girls. Laura Voitik answered.

"Bathroom," I croaked, still mostly asleep. "Ours is stupid."

Once I had returned to my own room, I got dressed and shoved everything back into my duffel bag. I was the last one down for breakfast, I'm sad to say, but not by much; and I was completely packed.

We were off to see the all-state show, then, which happened to be “Parade.” I know Lauren has a plot synopsis down below, so I'll just say this: Mary died within the first 15 minutes of the show, and I started crying. I continued through the entire emotionally heavy first act, and then stopped at intermission. Five minutes into the second act, I started again.

The bus ride home was considerably more quiet than the one up to Bloomington-Normal; everyone had collapsed in piles of two or three people, asleep. When I finally arrived home, I told my mom how much sleep I had gotten in the past few days; she ordered me to bed, and I was out for hours.

For my last Theatrefest experience, I don't think that I could have had more fun than I actually did. Plenty of unexpected things happened — I discovered that Lauren can't resist pie, for one. Although I wish I could go next year, I think that this year was a very good ending.


Click to listen (0:52)

Gargoyle reporter Lauren Piester discusses what Theatrefest means to her, and the different opportunities students have there.

Lauren’s Story

There is only one place I know of (besides Vegas — maybe) where you can walk amidst students sporting green hair and capes who are singing theater songs at the tops of their lungs and not think twice about it.

This magical place is called the Illinois High School Theatre Festival, or Theatrefest. It is the meeting place of thousands of the weirdest and most theatrically talented high school students. This year, it was held Jan. 10-12 at ISU.

It was raining when we left Uni, and I was freezing. How it is possible to be freezing while wearing a giant coat and squished between two fellow thespians, I do not know.

Needless to say, the ride to Bloomington-Normal was an uncomfortable one, during which I unsuccessfully attempted to sleep after a long day at school, while singing along with my iPod (quietly … kind of).

Our hotel seemed to be located on the outskirts of rain-drenched nothingness, as I could see nothing through the van’s windows aside from mud and a Steak n Shake. Since we sat in the van for about an hour while mistaken room assignments were sorted out, that was all I saw for quite a while.

The long wait, accompanied by hunger, lack of fresh oxygen, and the fact that I was quite squished made me rather irritable by the time we finally made it inside.

We all crowded into the lobby, tired, hungry, and annoyed but strangely excited. An adventure was supposedly about to begin.

I heard my name called, and I followed sophomore Anna Gooler and juniors Sarah Lake-Rayburn, Lor Sligar, and Laura Voitik to Room 133.

I soon discovered that one of my roommates, Anna Gooler, had brought chips — delicious, organic, cheese-covered chips — which I promptly ate a lot of. I apologized to Anna for eating most of her chips, put on a different shirt, and we all headed to dinner, across the street at Steak n Shake.

The restaurant was overflowing with fellow Theatrefest-goers and, unrelatedly, Amish people.

I found a table with Anna and sophomore Tianna Pittenger, and seniors Michelle Gao and Larissa Pittenger. After it was somehow decided I should have a signature little girlish giggle, and four of us had ganged up on Michelle for her distrust of raw vegetables, food came and went.

We ate each other’s fries, marveled at the idea of serving pineapple with cottage cheese, and were astounded at how terribly wrong fake tanning can go. We got confused about tips, eventually just throwing random numbers of dollar bills down on the table as we left.

Junior Lauren Piester relaxes in her hotel room. Photo courtesy of Lauren Piester (click to enlarge)

Eventually, we made it to opening ceremonies at 8:30 p.m., which included a very long performance by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble of pieces from “Songs for a New World.” Some of the songs were amazingly powerful and beautiful. Some were hilarious. But after a while, they all started to sound the same. I was exhausted and bored after an extremely long day.

We all crowded back into the Turtle van, and I found myself squished in the back again. By the time we returned to the hotel, I had transitioned into that state where you are so tired that you can’t stop talking or moving and pretending that you’re raring to go for a long night of not sleeping, when you are actually not.

The pool was supposed to close at 11, and we got back at about 10:35. At 10:40, my roommates decided to go swimming. By the time they were ready, it was 10:50. But they all jumped in the pool anyway. I opted to take off my socks and roll up the legs of my jeans, and just sit on the edge of the hot tub for 10 minutes.

At some point, Sarah decided to move in with the senior girls, so the population of our room got a little smaller, which greatly helped the sleeping situation (not that there was much sleeping). After a long night of a “So You Think You Can Dance” marathon on TV and some ridiculously late-night (but very delicious) pizza-ordering, we got up, dressed, and ready to go by 7:45.

At least, that was what we were supposed to do. In reality, we didn't get out the doors of the hotel lobby until 8:15.

Once we arrived on the ISU campus and set a time when we would all meet back up, most of us got in line to swap tickets for shows that were occurring throughout the day.

I had been the only member of our group fortunate enough to start out with a ticket for Central High School'sLittle Shop of Horrors.” Everyone else in the group was planning on swapping for this prized ticket. Turns out that this was, in fact, a prized ticket. Not only did everyone in our group want one, but almost every one of the 4,000 theatrefest-goers also wanted one.

I found myself the envy of the majority of the people in the very crowded room, with a ticket to a show I really wanted to see, but with no friends to see it with. This made me sad. After lots of complicated swaps, I ended up with a ticket to “Whatever Will Be Will Be” along with several of my friends, and Tianna Pittenger ended up with my “Little Shop” ticket.

Don't feel bad for me, though, because I heard the show was terrible, which seems a little ironic to me. Or, it would, if the show I saw instead hadn't also been terrible, but more on that later.

After the ticket line had died down, Anna Gooler and I set off to our first workshop — Audition 101: Musical Theatre Style.

Having gotten lost on the way, we arrived at the workshop a little late. We learned what not to sing, what not to wear, and how to make it look like you are a trained dancer, when you actually have three left feet.

Then, with about an hour left in the two-hour workshop, the guy leading it goes, "So, are you ready to dance?"

Students await the beginning of the all-state musical, "Parade." Photo by Lauren Piester (click to enlarge)

What?! Dance?! I was not prepared for this. I do not like dancing. I am terrible at dancing. Like, I am AWFUL at dancing.

We moved all the chairs to the sides of the room, and arranged ourselves in several haphazard rows, where Anna and I stood nervously, terribly unexcited. She was not prepared to dance either.

It turned out to be a pretty awesome dance, involving grapevining, throwing our hands in the air, being creepy, and doing Michael Jackson's “Thriller” move. We even got to pretend to be puppets at one point. If you are really nice to us, we might even show you the dance sometime.

When this exciting workshop was over, Anna and I split up. I headed back to the ISU student center to try and find some other Uni thespians, which I did very quickly and unexpectedly. I spotted Hannah Lake-Rayburn, Ethan Stone, and Sarah Lake-Rayburn sitting in some comfy-looking chairs and sat down to join them.

Sarah and Ethan, however, soon had to leave for a show, but James Smith, Jamie Weiser, Lor Sligar, and Michelle Gao soon took their place. We played some card games, and I got food from Burger King for the first time in many years, and it was surprisingly delicious. Michelle and I debated for a long time about getting pie, then finally did, right before we had to split up.

Lor Sligar and I were going to the T.A.L.E.N.T. reunion, and Michelle had a show. I was only going to eat half the York Peppermint Pie, but it was so extremely delicious that I ate it all. Oops.

The T.A.L.E.N.T. reunion turned out to be fairly lame, so Lor and I left and went to find James, Lor, and Laura Voitik at a food court. We also met back up with Anna, Tianna Pittenger, and two friends they had made.

We drank some delicious lemonade and took some pictures before it was time for Anna and I to head off to the thing we had been really looking forward to: a meeting about next year's all-state production of “Hairspray.”

The production sounds totally amazing, and after hearing from the hilarious director and others involved, I really want to audition. There's only one problem.

Remember that dancing issue I mentioned earlier? Yeah. I can't dance, and “Hairspray” is kind of about dancing. So that's unfortunate, but I'm going to audition anyway and just have fun making a total fool of myself.

After the meeting, Anna and I split up again, and I went to find someone to hang out with. Back at the student center, I found freshman Dillon Price, and we walked around for a while, trying to find other Uni people.

Eventually, Dillon and I met up with Sarah Lake-Rayburn and Jamie Weiser, and we all went shopping in a very exciting campus bookstore before buying Michelle another piece of pie and heading downstairs to meet with the rest of the group at around 5:30.

After spending about 20 minutes waiting for everyone to get to the meeting spot, we all headed back to the hotel to get ready for the late-night festivities. I debated about going to the annual Theatrefest dance, and still hadn't decided when we got back in the van around 7:45.

I headed off with a large group of people to a show called “Whatever Will Be Will Be,” my first and only show of the day. It was … very odd.

From left, Ethan Berl, Hannah Lake-Rayburn, Laura Voitik, Lor Sligar, Jamie Weiser, and James Smith grab a quick dinner at Steak n Shake. Photo courtesy of Anna Gooler (click to enlarge)

I was fairly bored and confused throughout the entire thing, which took place in the future, when Google has taken over the earth and one randomly selected American person gets to decide who the president will be.

I didn't enjoy it very much at all. I was fairly sad that the only show I saw that day was one that was not worth seeing at all. Oh well.

After the show, I ended back up at the student center with Sarah Lake-Rayburn, Michelle Gao, Zack Goldberg, and Dillon Price. We camped out at a table and played extreme Go Fish until 10 p.m., when the dance was supposed to start and Michelle and Sarah left us.

Never having gotten a ticket for the dance, I was perfectly fine not going. I was extremely tired, anyway. Zack, Dillon, and I continued to play extreme Go Fish, even over the racket of a rock band that had set up quite close to where we were sitting. They played fairly mediocre versions of some awesome songs while Zack shouted at me, asking whether or not I had any threes.

We eventually found ourselves downstairs with the rest of the Uni kids who had chosen not to go to the dance. We sat outside the door to the Broadway sing-along, featuring some of the worst singers I've ever heard in my life, which is a little crazy, seeing how much of an “American Idol” fan I am.

Around 11, Mrs. Ridenour drove us back to the hotel, where I had our room all to myself for about an hour before the dance-goers returned, tired but happy. Apparently, the dance was fun, though some supposedly had a bit more fun than others.

We watched some television, ordered some more pizza (seriously, have you ever tried pizza and breadsticks at 2 in the morning?), and drifted off to sleep.

Most of us got up fairly early in order to shower and pack, but some of us just chose to roll over and complain about having to get up.

Eventually, though, we all made it out of bed and to the lobby, our belongings having been tossed randomly into our suitcases and our hair sporting the ever-fabulous morning look.

We said goodbye to our hotel and crowded back into the vans. Soon, we were on our way to the last event of our Theatrefest experience — the all-state production of “Parade,” the musical story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in the South at the turn of the 20th century.

When a young girl is murdered and found in the basement of the factory that Leo owns, he is immediately suspected, and discrimination against Jews at the time plays a huge part in his extremely unfair and biased trial.

Already, it is an extremely moving show, but the actors were so incredible, being the best out of the whole state, that I was moved to tears. The singing was amazing, and I was partly sad because I knew that I am not nearly that good, and probably never will be.

Though I guess I was also moved to sleep at a couple of points. It was a very long show, and after a while the comfortable chair and my lack of sleep took hold of me and I lost control of my eyelids.

I did manage to wake up for the last few scenes, which were extraordinarily powerful and featured some horrifyingly realistic effects that I had never seen on a stage before. I was extremely moved, but also extremely glad when the end finally came. I was quite hungry and tired.

Unfortunately, there was no stopping for lunch. For the last time, we packed ourselves into the vans and drove off into the sunset. Except it was actually 1:30 in the afternoon (though for some reason I was under the impression that it was still the morning).

Anyway, we made it back to Champaign all in once piece, and I gave James Smith and Michelle Gao a ride home after a very exciting Subway adventure, but that is a completely different, though hilarious, story.


Click to listen (0:36)

Gargoyle reporter Anna Gooler shares her thoughts on Theatrefest 2008 and the all-state show, "Parade."

Anna’s Story

“Theatrefest,” I wrote. “Theatrefest Theatrefest Theatrefest.” I was in chemistry, my last class of the day, waiting for the period to begin. I thought maybe if I wrote it down, I could get it off my mind. I didn’t want to be distracted while learning how to find the mass of a precipitate.

We still had a few minutes in class after going over the material for the day, and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Theatrefest!” I yelled to a friend. The bell rang, and I power-walked down to my locker and outside.

Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so the ride to Bloomington was a little uncomfortable. But even the soggy purse on my lap couldn’t dampen my mood.

In about an hour, we arrived at Fairfield Inn and Suites, and walked over to the Steak n Shake across the street for a quick dinner. I was already having a great time, even though I hadn’t even done anything related to Theatrefest yet.

Next, we went to the Bone Student Center on the ISU campus for the opening ceremony. Unfortunately, it was a disappointing production. The performers were talented, but the show itself — “Songs for a New World” — was bland apart from one entertaining song about the dysfunctional relationship between Santa and Mrs. Claus.

We returned to the hotel and received our schedule booklets and tickets. Next, I joined sophomore Tianna Pittenger and juniors Lor Sligar, Sarah Lake-Rayburn, and Laura Voitik in the indoor pool.

A short game of Marco Polo and a few silly pictures later, we were off to bed. Not to sleep, yet, of course. We were hungry, and I had a major craving for pizza. So, even though (or, just because) it was 1 a.m., we ordered Domino’s.

Friday morning everyone was up early, because with more than 4,000 people attending Theatrefest, swapping tickets would be difficult. Each school is given a number of tickets at random, and each student can then try to trade tickets for the shows and times they want to see.

After waiting in line for at least half an hour, I reached the swap desk and found that the only show I really wanted to see, “Little Shop of Horrors,” was sold out.

Disappointed but optimistic, junior Lauren Piester and I made our way to a workshop called Audition 101: Musical Theatre Style. Even with a map, though, I managed to lead Lauren the wrong way twice: “I know it’s not that building. It looks like a castle! Cook Hall can’t be a castle.”

Cook Hall turned out to be the castle building. Who knew?

After learning a fun dance, I learned how to make molds for sets, meeting a few new people along the way. Then, after a (slightly overpriced) lunch in the food court, Lauren and I learned what it would take to audition for the all-state 2009 musical, “Hairspray.”

Ever since I had received my schedule booklet, there was one particular workshop I knew I wanted to check out. It was called Ladies: Finding Your Belt Voice, and it turned out to be my favorite workshop. I learned how to improve my singing by warming up in new ways, and I saw the effects of simple exercises on students who were brave enough to sing alone.

Even after all of that running around in the cold all day, it wasn’t over yet. I was exhausted, but I was having so much fun that I barely noticed. We stopped back at the hotel for dinner and to prepare for the evening activities. For me, that meant the student dance.

The dance was in a huge gym; it still looked big with at least a thousand people in it. That could be because of the tight clump of dancers in the middle, of course. Much of the dancing went far beyond any type of grinding I’ve ever seen at Uni, but the major highlight was watching three students perform the entire dance from *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” music video. They were perfectly coordinated, and quite impressive.

Finally, we returned to the hotel again. I didn’t feel compelled to go to bed early — our only plan for Saturday was to see the all-state production — but my busy day had worn me out, so I still ended up falling asleep fairly early. After all, I could only stand so much confusion over the names of my roommates — Lauren, Laura, and Lor.

Saturday morning was bittersweet. I was still having a great time, but I was tired and I knew that Theatrefest was almost over. Still there was one more event: the all-state production of “Parade.”

For all-state, the performers are guaranteed to be some of the best Illinois has to offer. “Parade” more than made up for the substandard opening show. Every cast member could sing, act, and even dance well. I left the theater impressed and inspired.

After saying farewell to new friends and to Theatrefest 2008, we were on our way home. I slept most of the way back. It was sad to leave, to remember I had to go back to the reality of school and remind myself that I was no longer surrounded by 4,000 people who loved theater as much as me.

I can’t wait to do it again next year.