Students in Lake Norman High School's premier acting troupe had spent 11/2 hours a day, five days a week since August rehearsing for their moment on the big stage.
Then, as the students competed in the high school regionals at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee on Oct. 29-30, a corner of their platform collapsed. Not once, not twice, but three times during the 40-minute performance the platform gave way, until student actor Robert Baker found a way to secure the culprit leg.
Luckily, the platform also had collapsed during a rehearsal last fall, causing the students to laugh and stop acting - a no-no to Kelly Dowell, their drama teacher and director.
"You can't break character," she told them.
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"If that had never happened to us, we might have just stood there staring," wondering what to do, senior Zach Barnes said. He was the first victim of the collapsed platform at regionals but maintained the same frozen look the script called for in his character, and the play continued.
Known as "The Academy," Lake Norman High's troupe of two dozen students won the regionals, then won top honors over 15 other schools at the N.C. Theatre Conference's High School Play Festival in Greensboro on Nov. 18-19.
The students are now raising $15,000 to travel to Atlanta on March 2-6 to compete at the Southeastern Theatre Conference's National High School Play Festival, pitting winners from 10 Southern states.
Lake Norman won for its performance of playwright Alan Haehnel's "Nora's Lost," about an elderly woman suffering from dementia. The students' performances have brought tears to themselves and to their audiences, several of the actors told me at the school Jan. 14.
"Why did we win? It moved the audiences more than the others did," senior Matt Traub said.
Senior Jimmy Bellissimo said, "You could hear people sniffling at the regionals and states."
To raise money for the Atlanta trip, the students will perform the play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Charles Mack Citizen Center, 215 N. Main St., Mooresville, and at 7:30 p.m. March 1 at their school.
Admission is $5 per person. The students will take more donations at the door and hold a 50-50 raffle. They also are seeking individual and corporate sponsorships.
Several students said they had an inkling they might win when the judges offered no criticisms of their performance, only compliments. Schools were judged on everything from blocking (the movement of actors around the stage) and characterization to diction and costuming.
The students took two plays to regionals - the other was the musical "Smoke on the Mountain." Both won the highest rating, "superior."
For "Smoke on the Mountain," Lake Norman also won for Excellence in Musicality and Excellence in Ensemble Acting. Traub received an Excellence in Acting award.
For "Nora's Lost," senior Claire Lockman received an Excellence in Acting award. Junior Caroline Easom, who wants to act on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" someday, earned Outstanding Achievement in Acting. Dowell received an Excellence in Directing award.
At the state festival, Easom and fellow students Henry Henderson and Ryan Fanant received Excellence in Acting awards, while Dowell earned the C.C. Lipscomb Excellence in Directing award, and "Nora's Lost" was chosen as one of two plays to represent the state at nationals.
Dowell has taught at the school's Academy for eight years, since the school opened. She is a 1979 graduate of North Iredell High and has taught for a combined 25 years at South Iredell and Lake Norman high schools.
She said she was stunned when the judges at states announced Lake Norman had won. She's been there often, and the same schools seemed to always win, she said.
"I was totally shocked," she said. "Happy. Ecstatic. But totally shocked."
As Lockman said, "It's one of those things you never think would happen to you."