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A few weeks ago, a local theater group helped share its love for musical theater with the nation. The group, from the Academy of Theatre Arts in Williamsville, participated in the Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta. The Junior Theatre Festival is an annual event that grows bigger every year. It is sponsored by Musical Theater International and iTheatrics and it is open to groups from all over the country. More than 60 groups competed at this year's festival. Altogether, there were more than 3,000 participants, including students, teachers and professionals.

This was the Academy of Theatre Arts' second appearance at the festival. Academy Performance Group, an audition-only group for middle and high school students, attended the competition. Last year, the group won Outstanding Production for its performance of "The Music Man Jr." This year, two groups –a senior and junior group –from ATA competed.

The senior group performed "Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr." The group's professional performance impressed the judges, who complimented its dance abilities and vocal qualities. The junior group performed "Seussical Jr." Despite a technical issue, the students gave it their all. Two students from each group were chosen as All-Stars. From the senior group, Emma Maxwell, a sophomore at Nardin Academy, and Jack Berger, a freshman at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, were picked, along with Emerson Adams, a fifth-grader at Sheridan Hill Elementary School, and Simon Randle, a home-schooled fifth-grader, from the junior group.

The weekend did not end there, though. Academy Performance Group also was chosen to be a showcase group. Out of more than 60 groups, Academy Performance Group was one of six groups that were chosen to perform in the new works showcase, which highlights new musicals added to Musical Theatre International's Junior series.

The owner and director of the Academy of Theatre Arts, Dina Sarno Slawson, said, "When I got the phone call from Marty Johnson [the director of education and resident director at iTheatrics], asking us if we would perform for the showcase production, I was literally shaking. I was so surprised and so thrilled."

Forty-four students from Academy Performance Group were chosen to perform in "My Son Pinocchio Jr." The students worked with professionals from the festival to fine-tune their performance before the festival.

Simon, who played the role of Pinocchio, said, "When we were on stage in Atlanta, I really felt like we could accomplish anything."

The awards ceremony went well for the group. Simon, who also played Horton in the junior group's performance of "Seussical Jr.," was recognized for his outstanding performance. Simon received the award for Best Male Actor.

Sarno Slawson also received an award for Outstanding Director. The winners of this impressive award go to New York for a weekend in July to participate in the Freddie G Experience, which consists of workshops, performances and celebrations for the directors.

Along with learning from theater professionals, members of Academy Performance Group said they enjoyed the experience.

"I learned so much," said Sarah Willard, a freshman at Sacred Heart Academy. "And I had such a great time. If Dina told us we were going back tomorrow, I would be on the plane."

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Hannah Zakrzewski is a freshman at Nardin Academy.