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Spotlight shines brightest on Highcliff sixth-graders in Ross Township

Suellen Fitzsimmons
Ryan Showalter, Joey Belanger and Tanner Schmitt (from left), all sixth-graders at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross Township, earned first place in the scene category for fourth- through seventh-graders at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 19th annual Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest. They acted the parts of Angelo, Antipholus and the second merchant in Act 4, Scene 1, of “The Comedy of Errors.” Joey and Ryan competed last year, but it was the first time for Tanner.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

These Ross Township neighbors and friends now can call themselves thespians.

Tanner Schmitt, Joey Belanger and Ryan Showalter, sixth-graders at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross Township, earned first-place applause during Pittsburgh Public Theater's 19th annual Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest. The 12-year-olds' winning performances took first place in division for fourth- through seventh-graders.

Doris Stupka, the school's librarian, who helped them rehearse, was elated.

“Their chemistry was great,” she said. “They memorized unbelievable lines and got better and better with each practice.”

During her more than 10 years with the program, she had seen many a model performance, but theirs was special.

The boys acted the parts of the second merchant, Antipholus and Angelo from Act 4, Scene 1 in “The Comedy of Errors.” Joey and Ryan had competed last year as a duo, but it was the first time for Tanner. All three took home huge unabridged editions of Shakespeare's plays.

This snippet of comedy involved two brothers arguing.

“I especially liked my first lines when I have to enter in a sneaky way and then be angry at Angelo (Ryan),” said Joey, who played Antipholus. “A lot of it came natural for me.”

Ryan said he was just “a tad bit nervous” about the performance but not as much as the first time.

“We nailed it,” he said. “We did exactly what we were supposed to do.”

The trio had worked well.

“Tanner developed the merchant character just like he needed to. He mastered pacing and waiting,” said Stupka, recalling how Ted Pappas, producing director of the PPT, was laughing very hard throughout their performance.

Both Tanner and Joey had followed in their brothers' footsteps, and Ryan's sister also was involved in the competition this year.

“I saw my brother perform in the finals last year,” said Tanner, who admitted to being nervous and excited. “He told me it would be dark inside the theater, and the spotlight would make you unable to see the audience.”

The boys were the first to perform in the scenes competition.

“I was nervous at first, but I knew it was possible that we could do this,” Joey said.

On their way to the finals on the O'Reilly Theater stage in Pittsburgh, March 25, practices never were grueling.

“It wasn't like working. It was fun because we would practice and hang out and have fun together a few times a week,” Joey explained.

This alignment of school and families around the competition's performances was an example of “perfect support,” according to Stupka. Nearly 40 elementary and 20 junior and senior high students from the North Hills School District participated. About 1,200 students participated overall.

“The boys feel so honored and humbled,” Stupka said. “They're enjoying the award and basking in it but not gloating.”

Connecting with the classics, even at a young age, brings positive results.

“From the scenes I've seen, (Shakespeare) is a very good playwright,” said Ryan. “He's either funny, very serious, interesting or very great.”

And he's making plans for the 2014 competition with his buddies.

“At the end of the evening, Ryan told me, ‘Next year, I'm coming back and winning a book (the anthology) for the library,'” Stupka said. “In a moment, he was thinking outside himself.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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