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Cuesta Theater Arts receives national recognition

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The Cuesta Theater Program’s rendition of  “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” debuted for national recognition on Monday, Feb. 13.

The Cuesta College Theater Department – consisting of cast members and stage crew – attended the annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF).

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” cast and stage crew. Photo by Cuesta College Marketing

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival is a prestigious competition that selects several schools to show off their production at the national level. The festival has been occurring since 1969. Today the festival includes about 20,000 students from colleges and universities across the country.

The Kennedy Center strives to offer recognition for all college theater productions. The center offers classes and educational opportunities in order to foster excellence and opportunity for students of the arts.

This year marked the 55th festival for Region 8, comprised of Arizona, Central and Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Nevada, Utah and Guam. The festival took place in Las Vegas, at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino with five college theater programs from select western states in attendance.

Kennedy Center main stage. Photo by Andrew Bossi

Cuesta students had the honor of attending and performing for the Kennedy Center committee. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” was directed by bree Valle, Cuesta Theaters Artistic Director of Drama Programs. This is Valle’s 12th and final year attending KCACTF as a lead director; this, however, is not the end of her theater career.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” is a Broadway adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling mystery novel of the same title. The play follows the main character Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old neurodivergent boy who is a self-proclaimed detective.

Boone’s greatest mystery is to prove his innocence for a crime he was falsely accused of. The play twists and turns while following the first-person point of view of the world, and experiencing all the challenges that come with growing up.

“The contribution this show offers to our national discussion about neurodiversity helps offer our students this unique opportunity to perform on a national stage – and connect them to the theatrical world outside of SLO County,” Valle said.

The KCACTF is a culmination of all the hard work that has gone into collegiate theater productions. The festival gives students, staff, and faculty a chance to show off and receive recognition from their peers for productions that take months of work.

“We prepped for a good seven months before the actual Kennedy Festival,” said Harlow Winterfire, who played Judy Boone in the production. “I would show up to practice two hours earlier, Stay later, just anything I could to really bring justice to the character.

“The play and all the other actors. We don’t mess around, we are so dedicated and willing to go above and beyond.”

All the preparation, grueling hours, and practice prepared the production for what was to come next.

“The most enjoyable part that made it all worth it was walking through the festival and having our actors stop to be congratulated by other participants for their stellar work,” Valle said. “Overall, I’m proud of the work our students did on and off stage.”

Off-stage is where real integrity and determination thrived. The production had to haul all the equipment into the conference center and construct the whole stage. Essentially building a show from nothing.

For Winterfire, the rigorous hours and construction of all the sets and lighting installations were the best part.

“We got to see what we were really capable of. They say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ but we literally built a stage in a day,” Winterfire said. “The best part is that we offered it for other schools to use, we have a certain work ethic that is just impeccable.”

This year’s festival was structured differently than previous years. Leaving the whole production unsure of what to expect.

“The most challenging part of the festival was that the Cuesta College Theatre Company, along with the other five schools selected to present their shows at the festival had to build a theater inside of a conference center,” Valle said. “In the past 12 years that I have been attending the Region 8 festival, this is the first time that the festival was not hosted at a theater complex.”

Despite facing challenges, Cuesta students persevered and helped each production build sets while trying to maintain a positive attitude. The production was active for the full week of the festival, and the team worked long hours to make everything perfect.

“We were up all hours of the night, one of our crew members was in a basket for hours and hours and hours, and we’re having to hand feed him,” Winterfire said. “It was hard, but also kind of bittersweet, because it lets you know what you’re made of.”

Teamwork, work ethic, and talent afforded the Cuesta program recognition from everyone in attendance. The regional competition is up for national awards; the cast is hopeful and confident they will receive national recognition.

Winterfire was asked whether the program will win any national accolades.

“It was my first time attending and we got so much incredible feedback from the adjudicators. I was crying the whole time they were saying the most beautiful things and they were so moved, so I am very hopeful,” Winterfire said. “Throughout the festival, we were approached by hundreds of people saying, ‘Oh, my God, you were in a Curious Incident. It was my favorite play’”.

Dylan Hahn (Christopher Boone) during the performance. Photo by Cuesta College Marketing

The KCACTF national committee announces its award winners in April. Valle also feels confident the students will receive recognition for their hard work and time put in.

“This recognition attracts diverse students from across the country to SLO County—to our small but dynamic program,” Valle said. “It attracts students who are keen to embrace a high caliber of training and a powerful sense of identity.”

The Kennedy Center Festival opens up SLO County to a broader audience and allows for much more diversity. Valle will soon be retiring, but hopes Cuesta will continue with the work ethic and values of teamwork and inclusiveness the program represents.

Cuesta theater cast members and crew at KCACTF. Photo by Cuesta College Marketing

“Our goal has always been simple: to build empathy and to broaden the ways we consider our complex world,” Valle said. “We hope our audiences leave the theater with a renewed sense of wonder, and a deeper understanding of what connects us to our shared humanity.”

National awards were scheduled for release in mid-April. Cuesta has the potential to win a number of awards determined by the KCACTF judges. In the meantime, while awaiting the national results, Cuesta students and staff can look forward to new productions and new faces.

“We have already started rehearsals of the family-friendly ‘Flora & Ulysses’ based on the children’s book of the same name,” Valle said. “I will be the costume designer and production manager for this show. The production will be directed by an alum of Cuesta College’s theater program, Brandon Pascal. We also hope to remount ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ this August.”

*Editor’s note: bree Valle does not capitalize first name.