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Teens prepping for online finals of scholarship contest



Joci Awards
Photo by Robert Amador
This year marks the first time the Joci Awards, the culmination of Las Casas Foundation’s performing arts scholarship program, will be presented virtually.


Shared from the 5/14/2020 San Antonio Express eEdition

Dancer Kaben Benavides had been looking forward to returning to the stage of the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre this month for her second — and last —spin as a finalist for Las Casas Foundation’s Performing Arts Scholarship Program.

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Las Casas Foundation – Kaben Benavides shot video of a piece she choreographed

Instead, the Advanced Learning Academy senior has been shooting video of herself dancing a piece she choreographed alone in her bedroom after shoving all of the furniture to one side to free up space. The video will be included in a digital edition of the Joci Awards, the annual finale of the scholarship program, which is usually

staged live at the Empire.

“I love being onstage, it makes me so happy,” said Benavides, 18, who has been dancing since she was 3. “So not being on a stage is very difficult, but being able to send in a video that I’m proud of is a plus.”

That video and others that she and her 24 fellow finalists are shooting will be woven into a digital film by Walley Films. It will be streamed at 6 p.m. Sunday at /lascasasfoundation.

This is the first time in the program’s 12-year history that the awards will be presented online, a shift necessitated by social distancing requirements put in place to fight the spread of COVID-19. The finalists’ one-on-one feedback sessions with theater professionals, another key part of the program, had to move into the virtual realm, too.

Even with the live aspects of the program off the table, everyone involved felt that it was important to find a way to proceed rather than skipping a year, said Kevin Parman, Las Casas board chairman.

“I think if there was a year to cut back, this was not the time to do it,” Parman said. “None of us know what the eventual fallout of all of this will be. For many families, this (scholarship money) could make a huge difference between whether their child can go to college or which school they go to.”

Las Casas Foundation will award $110,000 in scholarships. Each of the finalists will receive at least $4,000. The judges also will select an overall winner, who will receive $6,000 on top of that.

In addition, three high school productions will be recognized for excellence: North East School of the Arts’ “Carrie,” Taft High School’s “Crazy for You” and the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory’s “In the Heights.” The schools will receive $500 for their performing arts programs.

This is the first year that Harlingen has participated. Three students made it to the finals.

Faith-Ann Zepeda is one of them. Zepeda has filmed herself performing a monologue from the play “Greetings from a Queer Señorita.”

“It’s about identity and being comfortable in your own skin,” said Zepeda, 18, who plans to study sociology at Texas State University. “It’s something I’ve had the pleasure of performing all year, and it’s something that means a lot to me.”

She’s also filmed herself doing some singing and dancing for production numbers that will be spliced together with footage from the other finalists by the filmmakers.

“It’s a bit silly,” she said. “We’re in a room, we have to perform for ourselves, but it’s definitely been fun, and it’s been something that hasn’t had me bored, something I’m grateful for.”

Zepeda admits to shedding some tears when she learned she wouldn’t be able to perform in the way that she had been expecting to — “I felt like something was being taken away” — but she said the experience has still been a positive one. She was particularly delighted to be able to work with an acting coach.

“When I was telling my family about it — ‘Oh, we’re working with people who worked on Broadway’ — that’s something very big for someone who lives in the Valley,” she said. “That has been an exciting part, getting their advice.”

Mick Buck, a senior at NESA, is an old hand at the Joci Awards, having competed twice before.

“It was so much fun,” said Buck, 18. “It felt like you were on Broadway, just being there in the middle of the stage, with the spotlight on you, and all of the crowd with you for those two minutes. It felt like walking on air.”

He said he feels fortunate to have had that opportunity, especially since first-time competitors won’t be able to perform at the Empire this year. And he’s glad to have gotten so much guidance from the Las Casas team.

“Luckily for me, I’ve had so many experiences on that stage that this is not taking away from the process at all,” said Buck, who plans to study acting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “It’s really giving us something different to work on with people who are so talented and so kind, giving us these fun creative opportunities, so all in all, it’s not hurting the process.”

He filmed himself performing a comic monologue from the play “Losing Father’s Body,” which is what he performed at his audition for the scholarship program.

He said he’s enjoyed rehearsing over Zoom, where the young performers get immediate feedback from professionals.

Even so, there has been one crucial absence this time around.

“The thing I miss the most is the opportunity to make friends,” Buck said. “You can’t make them through Zoom.”

The virtual event is one more unexpected change that the class of 2020 has had to cope with at the end of their time in high school.

“They’ve definitely not been what I expected,” said Benavides, who plans to study dance at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where she will share a room with a fellow Joci Awards alum. “I’m still in contact with my friends — it’s not like they’re completely gone — but I’m missing my senior skip day and all of those big moments that were going to be in person. They are now either not happening or just online, which is OK.

“It’s different. I’m still going to graduate, I just won’t have some of the memories I expected to have.” | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

Source: San Antonio Express News, By: Deborah Martin, Staff Writer


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