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Georgia's Top Student Actors Compete In National High School Musical Theatre Awards

Jessi Kirtley (left) received a 2019 Shuler Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress for her part in "Mary Poppins." Harrison Lewis (right) received a 2019 Shuler Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor for his role in "Curtains."
The eleventh annual Jimmy Awards/National High School Musical Theatre Awards ceremony will take place on Monday, June 24, 2019 when 86 students make their debut on a Broadway stage in the talent showcase at the Minskoff Theatre. Two of those participants will be Jessi Kirtley (Roswell High School ’20) and Harrison Lewis (Milton High School ’19), Shuler Award/Georgia High School Musical Theatre Award winners for Best Performance by a Leading Actress and Best Performance by a Leading Actor. Jessi and Harrison were also the recipients of Shuler Awards in 2018 for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress and Best Performance by a Supporting Actor. 
During this one-of-a-kind event, a panel of judges will choose two students for the coveted Jimmy Awards of Best Performance by an Actor and Best Performance by an Actress. Participants in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards will be in New York City from Monday, June 17, 2019 through Tuesday, June 25, 2019. In addition to performing in the awards ceremony, students will participate in master classes and receive training and preparation with Broadway coaches and accomplished professionals.
In preparation for their trip to New York next week, GPB Education caught up with Jessi and Harrison to learn more about their involvement in musical theatre. 
GPB EDUCATION: So you’re headed to New York to compete in the Jimmy Awards! What are you looking forward to the most?
JESSI: I’m really looking forward to meeting all of the other nominees. It will be interesting to see how theatre is different across the United States. I’m also looking forward to the coaching sessions with some of the top educators in this craft--that’s truly a once in a lifetime opportunity!
HARRISON: What I’m looking forward to most is getting to work with such an amazing group of students and learning from them because they’re all just as talented as I am…if not more!
GPB: Tell us a little bit about your background as an actress/actor. 
JESSI: I first encountered theatre when I was four years old. I got to see my 
nine-year-old brother as a pirate in his school’s production of Peter Pan, and I loved every minute of it. I would spend most of my free time dressing up as different characters from that show and singing the songs. My parents were amazed at how well I remembered the lyrics! I’ve participated in theatre ever since. 
HARRISON: Ever since I was little, I’ve been seeing shows and singing with my family. I began acting in elementary school when I did my first musical at Off Broadway Dance Studio where I played Horton in Seussical. When my sister was on Broadway in 2016, I spent that summer in New York, seeing shows, talking to actors and writers, and watching what it might be like to be in that world professionally. My family has been nothing but absolutely supportive and helpful, often giving me notes to help me better my performances.
GPB: What do you love most about theatre? 
JESSI: I love theatre so much because of the power it has to change people’s minds. When you give the audience a show, you give them an experience or perspective they might have never found in their daily lives. I also love the moment when you step on a stage and you are a different person; you get to take on that person’s problems and make their mistakes for a while. You can learn a lot about your own life once you’ve lived someone else’s for a couple hours. I think everybody puts on their own type of performance for the world; we all play the character that we wish we were. Ironically, acting has helped remind me to remain authentic to myself.
HARRISON: I was hooked after my first musical. I love the process of researching a character, studying his mannerisms, and becoming someone else for a brief time on stage. When I get the chance to tell stories that move people and genuinely change them, that is the most rewarding thing for me.
GPB: Obviously you both are very passionate about acting. Do you have any future plans to continue in theatre?
JESSI: I would really like to pursue a degree in music theatre or acting. I’m heading into my senior year, so the college application and audition process is something that has occupied my mind recently. I ultimately want to make theatre performance a long-term career, whether it be in New York, Chicago, London, back in Atlanta, or in smaller regional theaters around the world. It's a goal of mine to go on a national tour to see new places.
HARRISON: This fall I will be attending Northwestern University in Chicago, where I’ll be majoring in theatre. I was drawn to this university because I want to dabble with all areas of the theatre world, including writing and directing as well as acting. This university was one that allowed me the freedom to do these things while at the same time getting intense quality acting training.
GPB: What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in theatre performance?
JESSI: First, you need to realize that you are already made for this! If you love performing, you have to remember that you are already completely equipped to perform. Your mind, your body and your voice, are things that only you have, and those are the ingredients that make you a completely unique performer. The second advice I would give someone is to take note of the things that you like about yourself and about performing. As you lose yourself in self-improvement and striving towards your own version of “perfection,” remember the things that make you, you, and be careful not to iron them away in your process. Lastly, take every opportunity seriously. You're not always going to book the show you thought would be your big break, you're not always going to land the role you want, and there won't always be rave reviews waiting for you once the curtain closes. It's so important to give your all to every role or responsibility you're given, so that you can leave with the satisfaction of knowing you did your absolute best.
HARRISON: Don’t give up. I can’t count how many times I’ve lost the part to someone else, lost an award to someone else, cracked in an audition, or failed to some extent. But if you let those experiences discourage you then you will miss out on more amazing possibilities in the future. Take those setbacks and use them to fuel you to train harder and get better.
The 2019 Jimmy Awards ceremony will be live streamed on June 24th on Facebook and YouTube. For more details, visit
In the mean time, revisit Jessi and Harrison's performances at the 2019 Shuler Awards below.
The Shuler Awards are a production of the ArtsBridge Foundation, the education outreach arm of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which provides quality arts education and community engagement programming, designed to inspire creativity and foster the next generation of artists and arts supporters. Learn more about the Shuler Awards and the ArtsBridge Foundation here