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Play On Players earns high honors at Junior Theater Festival
Theater troupe won outstanding production award for "Guys and Dolls Jr."
The Play on Players theater troupe and its co-founders, Haden Rider and Carly Berg, center, won high distinction honors for its rendition of “Guys and Dolls Jr.” in January at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta. The young group of children ages 7 to 18 also performed a portion of “West Side Story” during the festival as part of the retro celebration.

To learn more about Play On Players, visit

Children’s theater is popping in Gainesville as the Play On Players received international acclaim once again at the Junior Theater Festival.

The Play On Players won outstanding performance honors for its rendition of “Guys and Dolls Jr.” at the international theater convention Jan. 15-17 at the Cobb Galleria Convention Centre in Atlanta. The POP earned the high distinction based on its 15-minute presentation of a condensed Broadway Jr. show. It competed against 114 teams from 26 states, as well as foreign countries.

The festival organizers then requested Play On Players perform a selection from “West Side Story” as a part of a 20-year Broadway retro celebration.

“We are so humbled blessed and honored,” Play On Players co-founder Carly Berg said. “These kids have worked so hard. They are so dedicated, devoted, kind and supportive … These kids are our family. We love them and are so incredibly proud of their work.”

Play On Players is a children’s theater company founded by Berg and Haden Rider, who are Gainesville Theatre Alliance graduates. Together, they have assembled children ranging in ages from 7 to 18 to perform abbreviated shows for the area, as well as compete in international theater conventions. Last year, the POP won the “Excellence in Ensemble” award for its rendition of “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” according to the POP website (

And while the cast took home hardware for its performance as a whole this year, some POP members garnered individual attention.

Seth Martin and Halli Rider received all-star cast honors, garnering them both invitations to work this summer with iTheatrics in New York. Grant Key and Tess Luman were selected for Broadway Junior Slam recognition, which found them performing in front of 5,850 festivalgoers.

In addition, six Play On Players performers are waiting to see if their dance auditions will lead to entry into the filming of choreography DVDs, which are provided to theater companies securing rights to perform Broadway Jr. productions. Golden Ticket for Choreography DVD audition awards went to Brooke Blackwell, Emily Combs, Lauren Hill, Dean McKenzie, Cat Peets and Jack Skeean.

“We don’t take the kids to the festival for the primary purposes of winning awards,” Berg said. “It’s all about sharing our talents with each other, making new friends, learning from others and everyone bonding like a close family.”

The Petite Poppers, full of elementary and middle school students, also walked away from the theater festival with bragging rights. Jonathan Ingram was recognized for outstanding individual performance. All-star cast honors went to Jesse Hanks and Reece Lamb. Grace Dorminy, Ingram, Halle Macpherson and Kailey Souder are waiting to learn if their choreography DVD audition will take them to New York. Broadway Junior Slam’s Asa Chastain and Grace Dorminy performed in front of the crowd.

The young troupe’s cofounders — choreographer Berg and music director Rider — also were recognized for their contributions with the Freddie G Experience. They were selected among top teachers passionate about helping children develop their musical theater craft. Named in honor of the Music Theatre International chairman and Broadway Junior founder Freddie Gershon, the recognition includes a $5,000 grant for Play On Players Children’s Theater. Berg and Rider also will receive a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to New York City in July to work with Broadway performers and well-known professionals such as Gershon, Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters.

This financial investment in young thespians is being matched by parents and other supporters.

POP has a dedicated rehearsal space for the first time this year in a barn in Rabbittown, affectionately called the POP Barn, where a floor was built for rehearsals. It was donated by a friend of Rider’s.

The POP cast party was held recently at the POP Barn to celebrate the accolades and to look ahead to the coming months.

Auditions for the June shows will be announced soon, followed by farewells to the 11 seniors who will graduate in the spring. Some of the seniors have been involved with POP from the beginning and some may pursue theater at the next level, such as Lauren Hill, who has received a scholarship.

To learn more about Play On Players, visit

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