Festival makes theater come full circle

By Kevin Wilson

A half-century ago, the theater Department of Eastern New Mexico University decided to create a drama festival as a way to educate high school students and at the same time encourage them to attend ENMU.
In its 50th year on the ENMU campus, the festival has had another effect —as a feeder system for theater education in New Mexico.
This year’s festival has attracted more than 500 students from New Mexico and west Texas, with students learning about many different aspects of theater and dance.
“The drama festival is the school’s biggest recruiting tool,” said Jennae Pinnell, an ENMU theater student and the assistant coordinator for this year’s festival. “It’s a festival for a lot of high school students to show their theater work to each other and to us.”
Pinnell was once one of those students. Pinnell, who is working on her third festival as an ENMU student, remembered how much she enjoyed the festivals when she was a senior at Highland High School in Albuquerque.
“I was already coming here, Pinnell said, “but the festival confirmed it.”
Students first arrived at ENMU on Wednesday, and have had chances to learn from the students and faculty of the university’s theater and dance departments, as well as instructors from across the state.
The students do more than learn, though. They also perform, sometimes for a chance at various scholarships.
Antone Martinez, a senior at the Public Academy for Performance Arts charter school in Albuquerque, was preparing for a performance on Thursday. His outfit wasn’t quite done for “Out West,” as he wore Converse sneakers along with his cowboy hat, long-sleeved shirt and orange bandana. “Out West” was one of five shows his school would perform on Thursday.
Martinez was just happy to have the opportunity.
“At my (previous) school we weren’t able to go (to the festival),” Martinez said. “There are all of these seminars and dance lessons and you get a chance to be around other theater people overnight. It’s not a come and go thing.”
Charles LeCocq would certainly back up Martinez on the lasting effect of the festival. LeCocq, a 1997 Portales High graduate, is now a theater teacher at Las Cruces High School. The former ENMU theater student has seen the festival from all three perspectives.
“As a participant, you get to enjoy and experience all the festival has to offer,” LeCocq said. “In college, you get to see all the work the college puts in to make sure participants get a great festival.
“As a sponsor, you get to see the effect the festival has for the students as they come to the festival and take back what they learned.”
It’s not just the high schoolers who do the learning, either. Pinnell felt that each festival is a lesson to the department as well, with this year’s festival a lesson on how to improve for the 51st festival.
“As a coordinator, I (have goals) to see it (run) smoother each year,” Pinnell said. “Every year, we learn from last year. We see what went wrong and work to make it better next year.”
The festival continues through Saturday.