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12th Annual Theatre Night Awards bring University alumni together, shape theater programs across New Jersey

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Jordan Muhammad (left) of Columbia High School won the 2020 Foxy for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama.
Jordan Muhammad (left) of Columbia High School won the 2020 Foxy for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama.

Since 2009, Montclair State’s Department of Theatre and Dance has hosted the Annual Theatre Night Awards – also known as the Foxys – bringing together University alumni and high school theater students and teachers from across New Jersey.

The awards program, which was started by a University professor and her students, has had an impact on theater programs statewide by giving drama students and teachers a chance to learn from each other’s best work, as well as a competition that inspires them to raise their game.

“The whole program came out of a graduate directing class I was teaching,” says organizer and Montclair State Professor of Theatre Susan Kerner. “My students were talking about the fact that there was no network for high school drama teachers throughout the state. We decided that year to start the network.”

This year, as with so many other events, the Foxys pivoted in the face of COVID-19 and were presented in virtual fashion.

As host Peter Filichia said in introducing the 12th Annual Foxys ceremony on YouTube, “The show must go on!”

“This year was a really special year,” says Kerner, who reported that videographer Steven Flores and producer Christina Cruz (both of whom are University alumni) painstakingly created montages from video footage of theater productions for each nominating category.

“It was really exciting. If we hadn’t been completely restricted to being at home we wouldn’t have had time to do this,” says Kerner noting that teachers and students usually don’t get to see each other’s work, “but, this year with the clips, they can see it!”

The established network that began with these awards has helped high school students find a college home at Montclair State, as well.This year, several Foxy award-winners and nominees have committed to Montclair State for the fall, including Lixangelys Ruiz of Passaic Preparatory Academy, Christine Tanko of Watchung Regional High School, Yazmery Milian of Memorial High School in West New York, and Cooper Mendonssa of Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“Next year, I will be attending Montclair State as a Music Education major and am absolutely thrilled to work with the incredible staff at the John J. Cali School of Music,” says Tanko, who was awarded Best Lead Actress in a Drama for her portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible in 2019. “I am ecstatic for the opportunities the University will grant me and for what my future holds!”

For Cooper Mendonssa, who won the 2020 Foxy for Best Lead Actor in a Classical Play (Tartuffe), the award represents the process of discovering himself through the development of a character, something he’s looking forward to doing more of in college.  “I’m also excited and frankly a little scared to start a new chapter in college life at Montclair State, however, I’m well aware of what I am capable of, so I know I’ll be just fine!”

2020 Theatre Night Awards — Part 1:


The 2020 Foxy nominees represent 75 New Jersey middle and high schools that submitted their fall plays for consideration.

The awards were presented by prominent theater professionals working in New York, Los Angeles, London, Singapore and New Jersey – including University alumni such as Rob McClureMia Pinero and Ari Frenkel. A team of Montclair State alumni from the Normal Ave theater company – as well as faculty members Peter Flynn, Rick Sordelet and Jordan Baker Kilner – helped Kerner reach out to presenters.

“It’s so much Montclair State presence!” says Kerner. “And a huge Montclair State community effort.”

Of those 75 schools, Kerner reports that many of the teachers obtained their graduate degrees at Montclair State.

One of those teachers, Jo Anne Fox, who taught theater at Mahwah High School, “came up with the idea of building our network further and starting this award ceremony,” says Kerner. “Musicals were getting so much attention with the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards. The straight plays weren’t getting enough attention.”

2020 Theatre Night Awards — Part 2:

Fox died suddenly and unexpectedly soon after the first awards ceremony, and the awards were renamed “Foxys” in her honor.

In addition, the Jo Anne Fox Award is given each year to two teachers – one veteran, one newcomer – “who create a community in their school around theater.” Ashley Raven ’15 MA,  Theatre Studies, won the newcomer award this year.

Kerner also credited Linda Davidson, assistant dean of the College of the Arts (CART); Sarah Assalone, Student Services and Recruitment Coordinator; Marie Sparks, CART director of Academic Services and Community Outreach; and Kathleen Reddington, CART Administrative Services program assistant, for helping to get the awards off the ground in the formative years.

This year, Kerner dedicated the Education Impact and Community Outreach Award to her mother who died of COVID-19 on April 27, in the midst of work to produce the show. “My mother was very much a community organizer,” says Kerner. “It was good for me to do something that she would be proud of.”

The Foxys work to reach and reward schools from all areas and with a wide range of resources. The program also seeks to help schools diversify the material they present – rewarding original and innovative work with awards like the “The Peter Filichia Award for Pushing the Envelope in Academic Theatre” and acting categories for works of “Innovation & Invention.”

This impact can be seen in nominations for Memorial High School in West New York, which produced the original work disCONNECT this year. “They always write their own shows,” says Kerner. Or for Burlington County Institute of Technology Medford School of Performing Arts which reimagined Macbeth as “The Scottish Play in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.”

For their part, teachers and students were appreciative of the University’s work putting the 2020 Foxys together.

Said Beth Baur of Memorial High School in West New York, “My kids are suffering from food insecurity and housing insecurity, and this was a great moment of celebration and community for a hot minute. So, so grateful.”

“Thank you for being a constant and one of the things that all the students can still depend upon,” wrote Jeff Hogan of West Morris Central High School in an email to Kerner. “You guys truly did an excellent job still bringing it all to life. We all needed it.”

By Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann