Curtains Up: Behind the scene look of Herberger’s annual Young Artists’ Competition

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Every year, the Herberger Theater hosts the Young Artists’ Competition. The six-day event pits singers, dancers and actors against each other as they perform for the judges in pursuit of a scholarship prize.


The competition involves four categories – classical voice, musical theater voice, acting and dance. Musical theater students perform a “Golden Age” piece dating from before 1967 and a more contemporary piece from after 1970. Acting requires two monologues from separate genres. Dance can be in any form. The competition has expanded this year to include classical voice as a category for the first time.

Dance coordinator Frances Smith Cohen says it was her idea to have a competition to show off modern dance. When she brought it to the CEO and President of Herberger Theater Mark Mettes, he approved of the idea and added categories for music and theater.

“For each of the categories we have four judges who specialize in that area,” Cohen says. “In the dance, we have four criteria. We judge them by technique, musicality, choreographer’s intent and the performance energy.”

Diane McNeal Hunt, one of the dance judges, says that what matters most to her is the expression within the performance. The dancer should understand the intention of the work and show the passion for what they are doing.

Of the four categories, musical theater competitors make up the largest audition group. Judge Monte Ralstin says it’s important for the performers to make the song honest, because you have to convince the audience of the emotion you are feeling.

The judges rank each competitor once the auditions are over, Mettes says. In each category, the judges must narrow the field down to four finalists.

Rehearsal & Competition

When auditions are over, the 16 finalists return for a full dress rehearsal. They walk through the events that will occur later in the evening in front of a live audience. It’s also a time for production to make final adjustments to lighting and audio, Mettes says.

“Nerves are good, but there’s a point where you need to learn to control those nerves and realize once the curtains go up, you need to approach it as if you are still working in the studio,” says dance judge Scott Bodily. “You need to keep it alive and fresh and add that next layer of performance. It’s a learning process for them. It’s okay to be nervous, but don’t let it sabotage yourself.”

The contestants share their thoughts and game plans as they gear up for the big show. Jacob Souilliere, a finalist for classical voice, says he likes that he has something that he can connect to. He advises that if you find your passion, then you should go for it.

The winners are…

One finalist from each category will win a $1,000 arts education scholarship as a reward for their talent. The finalists will perform in front of the judges and audience, then the judges go back to a room so they can discuss the performances.

“Sometimes every performer is discussed from beginning to end,” Mettes says. “That decision is sometimes unanimous and sometimes it’s not. It really depends on the caliber of all the performers that night.”

Once the judges make their decision, everyone will gather on stage for a last time. Mettes says it’s important to have a moment to celebrate all of the performers.

“This is something we can do locally in our state and award these performers that are right here under our noses and hopefully see them in the future on the big screen or big stage,” Mettes says.

The winners of the competition were Aaron Smith for classical vocal, Maggie McNeil for acting, Summer Beckman for musical theater vocals and Payton Poole for dance.

Mark Mettes: President and CEO, Herberger Theater Center
Frances Smith Cohen: Dance Coordinator
Diane McNeal Hunt: Dance Audition Adjudicator
Scott Bodily: Dance Audition Adjudicator
Mark Fearey: Voice Coordinator
Monte Ralstin: Musical Theatre Adjudicator
Shana Bousard: Musical Theatre Adjudicator
Judy Rollings: Acting Coordinator
Violet Rez: Dance Competitor
Maya Sarraf: Dance Competitor
Austin Porter: Musical Theatre Voice Competitor
Jacob Souilliere: Classical Voice Finalist
Thea Eigo: Acting Finalist
Payton Poole: Dance Finalist
Cameron Swindler: Classical Voice Finalist
Aaron Smith: Classical Voice Finalist
Maggie McNeil: Acting Finalist
Rachel Berry: Acting Finalist
Kate Shein: Musical Theatre Voice Finalist
Summer Beckman: Musical Theatre Voice Finalist
Amity Thomas: Dance Finalist

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