THD Students Honored at Kennedy Center Theater Festival

Published February 9, 2024

Clinical Assistant Professors Zechariah Saenz (far left) and James Beaudry (far right) with a dozen participating THD students.

Clinical Assistant Professors Zechariah Saenz (far left) and James Beaudry (far right) with a dozen participating THD students.

Congratulations to the dozen students and faculty members who proudly represented the Department of Theatre and Dance (THD) and UB at the 56th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) at the Playhouse Theatre in Pittsburgh, January 24-27, 2024. KCACTF is a national theater program involving 18,000 students from universities across the country. It exists to celebrate the educational and creative process of college theatre. There are eight regions in the United States and winners of regional festivals advance to the annual national event hosted in Washington D.C.

This was the largest contingent of THD undergraduates to participate in KCACTF, including: Elisabetta Antonacci, Moriah Armstrong, Michael Busacco, Joyce Cheng, Lowden Flower, Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, Samantha Lyko, Moth Medina, Allinee NeGron, Kyra Orgass, Alexander Reiser, and Sophia Vessecchia, accompanied by faculty members James Beaudry and Zechariah Saenz in this extension of our curricular season to the regional and national levels.

KCACTF provides theater students opportunities to showcase their work, receive critical feedback, and to attend shows which other schools are producing, while networking amongst peers. Faculty in attendance also benefit from professional development opportunities with colleagues from across the region.

Theatre and Dance Costume Shop Manager / Clinical Assistant Professor Zech Saenz is a Regional Associate Response Coordinator for Region 2. "The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival celebrates student excellence in all areas of theatre,” Saenz said. “Our students had many great opportunities to showcase their work to professionals in the industry, and also to their peers from other universities."

The Playhouse Theatre, Pittsburgh PA.

The Playhouse Theatre, Pittsburg PA

Saenz’s experiences with KCACTF date back to his years as a student. "My journey began in Region 3, the Midwest sector. As Region 2 Response Coordinator I schedule the responders from neighboring institutions to attend collegiate productions of all scales. The responders then hold an unbiased talkback session with the school and report back to me any nominations or awards that they want to grant to honor the respective student achievements." 

Many THD students were recognized for their recent performance and technical theatre work. Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, Kyra Orgass, and Allinee NeGron were all Finalists in the Musical Theatre Intensive (finishing top 20 out of 98 submissions). Moth Medina was selected out of 192 submissions to be cast in a new one-act play. Alex Reiser was selected out of 192 submissions to be cast in a new 10-minute play and also won Best Actor in a Short Play at festival.

Here is a complete list of the awardees:
Alex Reiser/Irene Ryan Nominee; Outrage
Michael Busacco/Irene Ryan Nominee; Outrage
Kyra Orgass/Irene Ryan Nominee; Renascence
Allinee NeGron/Irene Ryan Nominee; Renascence
Isabella Gomez-Barrientos/Irene Ryan Nominee; Cinderella
Sophia Vessecchia/Irene Ryan Nominee; Cinderella
Moriah Armstrong/Irene Ryan Nominee; Eurydice
Lowden Flower/ Set and Lighting Design; Outrage
Lowden Flower/Lighting Design; Eurydice
Elisabetta Antonacci/Stage Management; Outrage
Tim Nunez/Costume Design; Outrage
Joyce Cheng/Sound Design; Renascence
Samantha Lyko/Costume Design; Renascence

Student standing in front of display area.

Sophia Vessechia, Alli NeGron, Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, and Kyra Orgass.

Alex Reiser receives a Best Actor award.

Alex Reiser receives a Best Actor award.

Senior theatre performance major Kyra Orgass spoke highly of the conference experience. “Some of the professionals who ran the festival are also actors and choreographers on the side, so there were acting workshops, including Introduction to Meisner, which was really interesting.

“Meisner is a style also known as Method Acting,” she continued. “It’s about really tuning into your scene partner. You don’t react until your partner gives you something to work from. In the ‘Chair Exercise’ you sit together and repeat to each other anything that you observe about your partner. It helps to get you out of your own head, because a lot of time on stage it’s very easy to start thinking, ‘What do I do with my arms?’ or ‘How do I sound when I’m saying these lines?’ but when you really focus on your partner you get into the moment.

“I also participated in the Musical Theatre Intensive. (Prior to the conference) each entrant filmed a 32-bar cut, or around one minute, of a song of our choosing. Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, Allinee NeGron and myself made it to the finals. It was great to share that moment with our Music Theatre professor James Beaudry. Especially since Isabella and I are both seniors and we were able to have this trip with faculty we enjoy being with, and all of the other people we met.”

“The entire conference was rewarding for our students, but seeing all three participating Music Theatre students named as top 20 finalists out of 98 nominated students from across seven states and the District of Columbia was a highlight,” said Clinical Assistant Professor Beaudry. “UB was the only school with three finalists, and that is a testament to the strong pre-professional environment we’re cultivating in the Music Theatre program, with vital collaboration from our Dance and Performance faculty.”

“The 20 MTI finalists had a coaching session on Friday. For the finals we were to perform our whole song, not just an excerpt,” Orgass explained. “Part of what we were graded on was how well we took direction from the coaching session, as well as the performance itself. On Saturday the finalists performed in the afternoon and the winner was announced that evening at the closing ceremony. All three of us did very well and our professors said they were very proud of our work.”

Student standing in front of display area.

Lowden Flower presents his lighting and scenic designs.

Lowden Flower, a junior Technical Theatre student was recognized for his set and lighting designs from this season and last. “One class I enjoyed was with a professional lighting designer and professional stage manager in the field who had worked with each other for several years,” Flower said. “They explained what their relationship is like in the professional world and their expectations of each other. It was great to have the opportunity to put what we’re doing at UB into a real-world perspective.

“I brought three designs that I had done at UB. Two were lighting designs – the one for Eurydice from last year, and for Outrage this past semester. I also brought my scenic design for Outrage. We were asked to create both a digital and physical display. The digital version was a 12-slide Power Point that was submitted in advance. For my physical display I had three trifolds, one for each design. I tried to visualize the process I went through to arrive at the designs, including a lot of pre-production work and production photos. We set up our displays in a conference room that had four lines of tables on it among the designs from other students and schools who had registered.

“When we presented our work we were given about five minutes to speak, and then another five minutes for them to ask questions. For both of my lighting designs, the respondent was a professional lighting designer who recommended another way to set up my display. My production photos were set up all over the trifold and my preliminary research was in a (separate) binder you could flip through, but she suggested that I integrate them so people could see the progression from preliminary research to final product. That was great for me to hear. The next time I create a presentation I’ll keep it in mind.

“For my scenic design presentation one of the respondents was also a well-known professional scenic designer named Dick Block. He advised me to stick as closely to my pre-production research as possible in creating a design. If I have an idea that’s based on research, he said to ‘full send’ it. That was super inspiring. It gave me a boost of confidence that I’m really good at finding pre-production research and I should try to stick by it.

The experience changed Flower’s focus for his remaining year at UB. “It inspired me to pursue more scenic design. It wasn’t the thing I came here to do, but when I tried it, it was a lot of fun, and the affirmation that I have a knack for it inspired me to pursue it more seriously. I’m eager to learn more about the things I’m not sure about, and also very eager to do more what I am sure about.

“I realized that I’m a lot more prepared than I thought I was. I’m very privileged to be in this Department because it was put into perspective what other departments are like, including what facilities and funding they have or don’t have.”

Students sitting inside the Playhouse Theatre.

Joyce Cheng and the UB contingent inside the Playhouse Theatre.

Per its mission statement, KCACTF’s primary goals are to encourage and celebrate the finest and most diverse work produced in university and college theater programs; provide opportunities for participants to develop their theater skills and insight; improve the quality of college and university theater in the United States; and encourage colleges and universities to give distinguished productions of new plays, the classics, and experimental works.

Since inception, KCACTF has given more than 400,000 college theater students the opportunity to have their work critiqued, improve their dramatic skills, and receive national recognition for excellence. For more information please visit: