Thousands of Florida teenagers flocked to Tampa this month for their version of the Super Bowl. The annual Florida State Thespian Festival is where high school dramatists converge to compete, meet college recruiters and learn from Broadway pros.
But another big draw is the chance for these self-described "theatre geeks" to meet people just like them.
In a meeting room inside the Tampa Convention Center, the parquet floor substitutes for a dance floor as Domenic Biseti of American Stage in St. Petersburg, leads students through a theatrical tap class.
Meanwhile in one of the ballrooms, a packed crowd watches as the Leon High School players from Tallahassee clasp hands and introduce themselves to the judges. After they have finished performing a song from the musical “Hairspray," it's clear they've nailed it when one of the judges cheers, something the audience was told not to do.
Each performance at the festival is graded on a five-point scale ranging from poor to superior, but a low grade is unlikely since the 300 high schools here have already won superiors at 15 regional contests across Florida.
Jataria Heyward represents Timber Creek High School in Orlando. Her troupe won a district award for a staging of the musical, "Avenue Q."
"We were just so excited I actually cried," she said. "But it was a great experience. It's one that I'll carry with me forever."
The experience was likewise for Camila Calderone of Lawton Chiles High School in Tallahassee. Her troupe performed a number from the musical "Pippin," and she said preparation was intense.
"The work that goes into performing is such a long process," she said. "We actually started in September. It was just a lot of after-school rehearsals and a lot of just trying to find your own character, as an ensemble but still working together."
Lindsay Warfield directs the Florida Thespian Festival. She thinks the event provides students with a sense of belonging.
"It is amazing to see the light on these kids’ faces at this festival," she said. "You don't see that on a daily basis in high school, so being able to see these kids feeling accepted and in a place where they can be them, is pretty incredible stuff."
According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, students with high levels of arts involvement perform better on standardized tests and are less likely to drop out of school. Warfield wants policy makers to take note.
"The collaborative aspect of the art form requires creative problem solving and teamwork and communication," she said. "All of these things are absolutely directly applicable to the workforce."
Mary Beth Parry of Wesley Chapel has been a so- called "drama mama" ever since her daughter's 7th grade acting debut. Bridget Parry goes to Wiregrass Ranch High School and competed in four events at the festival. The senior recently discovered that competition is fierce when it comes to getting into top tier college theatre programs. The Juilliard School accepts only about 8 percent of its applicants. Parry faced a similar rigorous process at the University of Central Florida.
"Bridget had to do four video auditions," said her mother. "She had to get approved and then get called back for a live audition. She's in the university, not yet in the BFA Program."
But back at the state festival, the pressure of getting into college is far from the minds of students performing on stages across downtown Tampa. Here, kids like Jataria Heyward and her best friend Jayden are more likely to break into song in the middle of a convention hall.
That's something Warfield said she loves to see.
"If your kid wants to do theater instead of sports, be excited for them," she urged. "If that's their passion, please foster it."