MTC earns national recognition for excellence in acting

The Moorestown Theater Company took home two awards from the world’s largest theater festival for children.

Photo Courtesy of James Barker Photography. From left: Performer, music director, composer and teacher Brad Simmons, MTC Academy A student Lily Sims and Lotte Wakeham (Broadway’s Matilda the Musical associate director) pose for a photo following Sims’ win. Sims, who played Mrs. Bucket in “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” won a Freddie G award for “Excellent Individual Performance by a Female” for her performance.

Mark Morgan, producing artistic director of Moorestown Theater Company, said the company’s annual trip to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta isn’t about competing; it’s an opportunity for MTC’s young actors and actresses to meet 6,000 fellow “theater nerds.” He said the fact the company walked away with two national awards is just an added bonus.

From Jan. 12 to Jan 14., MTC performed at JTF, which is the world’s largest theater festival for children. The MTC’s Academy B group earned a Freddie G award for “Excellence in Acting” for its performance of “Hairspray, Jr.,” and 10-year-old Mt. Laurel resident Lily Sims, who played Mrs. Bucket in “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” won a Freddie G award for “Excellent Individual Performance by a Female” for her performance.

This trip was the first time MTC brought two casts to the festival. MTC brought 45 performers to showcase “Hairspray, Jr.” in the Academy B category, which is comprised of first through 12th grade, and 24 performers who acted out “Willy Wonka, Jr.” in the Academy A category, which encompasses performers in first through eighth grade.

Photo Courtesy of James Barker Photography. From left: Disney Theatrical Group dramaturg and literary manager Ken Cerniglia, Moorestown Theater Company Academy B student Selena Bianchi, Moorestown Theater Company Academy B educator Mark Morgan and Cindy Ripley, senior educational consultant for iTheatrics are all smiles following MTC’s win.

Morgan said this is MTC’s sixth year performing in the festival, and the company has taken awards five out of those six years. Morgan and his wife, Carol Ann Murray, scouted out the festival in 2012. He said they did their homework by watching a variety of performances and generally got the lay of the land before taking their first cast to Atlanta the following year.

During the festival, each cast is given only 15 minutes to perform. Morgan said many groups opt to perform a greatest hits medley, but every year, MTC condenses its entire show into 15 minutes. He said MTC’s cast performs around 30 seconds of every song in a musical and connects the songs with dialogue, so they tell the story in its entirety. He said this also gives nearly every cast member an opportunity to shine rather than just the leads.

Morgan said it takes countless hours to cut an entire show, and the group spends months fundraising to attend the festival.

“It’s a year-long process to get ready for this festival because we feel it’s worthwhile regardless of awards,” Morgan said. “It’s like the Olympics or Super Bowl for children’s theater.”

In the weeks leading up to the festival, the cast runs through their performance and is careful to get their timing down to the 15-minute mark. The hard work is worth it, Morgan said. At the festival, the young performers get to meet Broadway stars and interact with other “theater kids” from around the country in a “safe space.” Too often, theater students are teased, but at JTF there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie within the convention center, Morgan said.

“Down there, at the festival, everyone is safe and feels included and protected and safe,” Morgan said. “It’s just a really cool thing for the kids.”

To date, MTC has won nine acting awards. Sims said despite winning an award for her acting, her favorite part of attending the festival was getting to watch other performers. She said acting and singing in front of so many people was initially frightening.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Sims said.

Sims said in the past, she’s had solos as part of an ensemble, but stepping into a lead role as Mrs. Bucket, all eyes were on her. In the end, she said she was excited to perform the song “Cheer Up Charlie” because she loves the intricacies and harmonies of the song.

She said she was shocked to learn she had been singled out for an acting award.

“At first, I was really, really surprised, and then when I got up to the stage, I was so excited, and it was just really great to stand up in front of all those people and say I won this award,” Sims said.

Morgan said this was Sims’ first trip to the festival, and to earn an award her first time performing is no small feat.

Every year, the festival gets bigger with more people attending, Broadway stars coming to judge and more people who work in theater coming to network, Morgan said. While attending the festival is special for MTC, at the end of the day, Morgan said it’s not about coming back home with awards.

“We’d rather hear from parents you changed my child’s life,” Morgan said. “We hear that regularly, ‘My child was so shy.’ That’s why my wife and I founded this company. That’s why we do this.”

To learn more about Moorestown Theater Company, visit moorestowntheatercompany.org.