THD Students Shine at Kennedy Center Theater Festival

Published February 3, 2023

Clinical Assistant Professor Zechariah Saenz, with Derrian Brown, Kathryn Lloyd, Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, and Glen Chitty.

Clinical Assistant Professor Zechariah Saenz, with Derrian Brown, Kathryn Lloyd, Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, and Glen Chitty.

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) is a national theater program involving 18,000 students annually from colleges and universities across the country. It provides theater students opportunities to showcase their work, receive critical feedback, and to attend shows which other schools are producing, while networking amongst their peers. Faculty in attendance also benefit from opportunities with colleagues from across the region while attending area-focused workshops to further professional development. 

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. This January UB Theatre and Dance was represented at the 55th annual conference at West Chester University in West Chester, PA by four talented students and new THD Costume Shop Manager / Clinical Assistant Professor Zechariah Saenz.

Derrian Brown receives the Runner Up Award and a $500 scholarship for the Musical Theatre Intensive.

Derrian Brown receives the Runner Up Award and a $500 scholarship for the Musical Theatre Intensive.

Chosen from nearly 100 submissions, undergraduates Isabella Gomez-Barrientos, Derrian Brown, and Kathryn Lloyd were three of only 10 finalists for KCACTF’s Musical Theatre Intensive, performing excerpts from the department’s recent production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Brown was named Runner Up in the competition and also received a $500 scholarship to the Open Jar Institute. Lloyd received a recognition certificate applauding her character and physicality.

In the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship competition Brown and scene partner Glen Chitty were finalists (top 10%) among nearly 150 nominees. The students also attended many workshops and productions produced by fellow universities in KCACTF region 2, covering Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Western New York, Northern Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Professor Saenz was enthusiastic about the experience. “This year I had the privilege of meeting and networking with many wonderful theater professors and attending great workshops. I focused mainly on pedagogical workshops related to costuming, as well as DEI focused workshops and the festival’s RED (Representation, Equity, and Diversity) Initiative which were very helpful.

“I plan on becoming more active with KCACTF leadership. I’m currently working on a game plan based upon this year’s experience to boost student involvement in the future. KCACTF provides great scholarship and networking opportunities. My history with the conference stems from my time as a student via region 3, both as an undergraduate and graduate,” Saenz explained.

Derrian Brown echoed Professor Saenz’s sentiments. “The connections and networking were great. During the competitions there much wasn’t time to interact, but in the later rounds (when the field of competitors had been narrowed) there was more time to talk to other actors from around the region. It was interesting to see how other people come at the work and how their training differs from ours. I met a lot of professionals working in the industry too, who will be great connections for my work with Dreams Affirmed,” UB's first student-run diversity club for students of color in the performing arts.

“Not to toot our own horns, but there was a significant difference in the training we get at UB,” Brown added. “Hearing the feedback students from other schools received (from the judges), it seemed like they were focused on aspects of performance that are second nature to us already at UB. It helped me to understand how thorough and holistic our training is versus some other schools.”

view of students on stage receiving awards.

Brown was strategic in advancing to the finals in both competitions, through multiple rounds of judging.  “There were about 150 competitors in the Irene Ryan (acting competition). Each round had a different set of judges, so we needed to keep our performances fresh each time.

“In the first rounds we performed shorter selections, so I just wanted to showcase talent, period. I figured if I could show I had talent then I could add layers to the performance in successive rounds. I looked at what I had to offer as an individual, more aspects of my personality. The quirks and speech patterns became more particular. It shows the value of letting yourself come through a performance,” Brown added.

“The students and I were very busy all week,” Saenz said, “but we managed to have dinner together twice and we celebrated Isabella's birthday. The students were exemplary ambassadors of our program. Kathryn networked with some hearing-impaired students from the Rochester Institute for Technology (RIT) and their translators. They’re interested in seeing THD’s production of Cinderella this spring.”

“I had a wonderful time at the festival,” Kathryn Lloyd said. “One of my favorite workshops was about Deaf Theatre. I've been taking ASL (American Sign Language) for about four years, and I'm super passionate about inclusive theatre and Deaf representation in theatre. The workshop was led by two RIT students, and it was really cool to hear about their experiences. I was able to get to know them a bit, which was great. The festival provided a unique experience for me, and I might not have found a workshop like this anywhere else!” 

Isabella Gomez-Barrientos agreed, “KCACTF was a super valuable experience. I met a lot of students from different schools and acting backgrounds. It was amazing to see how other schools operate and how people interpret different pieces and productions. I would definitely recommend anyone who loves theatre to attend this festival.”

“The biggest value that I took from the conference was how important it is to diversify your education and training, and the circle around you,” Brown said. “A lot of time when you’re at college you surround yourself with likeminded individuals, but when you diversify then you really find out how good you are in comparison to other students. The more diverse you can make your circle makes you a more well-rounded individual, which enhances your performances and social life. It’s worth going to see how your training is paying off.”

“All of our students who attended, minus Derrian, who is graduating, are excited to attend next year,” Professor Saenz said. “I plan to respond to neighboring universities' productions, as well as lead some workshops at future festivals. KCACTF fosters a community that needs to be built back up after the major shutdowns of Covid-19. This was the first festival back in person and a successful one at that.”