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Cast members of the ESTA Award-nominated "Little Shop of Horrors" at Lackawanna Trail High School are pictured during a scene. From left, front row: Wynn Phillips, Marissa Passaniti, Andrew Tassey, Allison Stuenzi and Amanda Kinback. Back row: Katie Krega and Meredith Horwatt.

From the first audition to the last curtain call, for many high school students, the annual school theater production is the highlight of the school year.

"We have so many awards programs for so many other things, but somehow the arts have slipped through," said Jillian Kemmerer. "What if this is all the kids do? They need something to recognize their efforts."

Kemmerer is a member of Ghostlight Productions, an Abingtons-based theater group known for its annual presentation of "Shakespeare in the Park," and is also the founder of the ESTA Awards for excellence in school theater arts. The awards were created to recognize and applaud the hard work of high school theater students in Northeast Pennsylvania.

The inaugural ESTA Awards will be presented this Sunday, April 28, from 6:30-9 p.m. at the Ramada Inn, 820 Northern Blvd., Clarks Summit. Five local high schools have elected to participate in the awards: Abington Heights, Lackawanna Trail, Riverside, Scranton and Valley View.

Rachel Strayer, the founder of Ghostlight Productions, explained why receiving an ESTA Award or at least a nomination is important for a student.

"When you think about it, the local schools are being taxed in terms of resources, as far as giving any kind of resources to theater departments or any kind of art," she said. "I remember back in high school, they always gave awards for sports at the end of the year. It is just as important that we show that same support to the students who are participating in the arts. We need to help schools do that so that the burden doesn't fall on the schools."

The awards ceremony will include two performances from each nominated production as well as a dessert reception.

Zach Monahan, the director of Abington Heights High School's performance of "The Sound of Music," said that seeing his students nominated for an ESTA Award was a gratifying experience.

"Being recognized for our achievement means a great deal to me," he said. "It's a wonderful acknowledgment of all the hard work the students and faculty members put in to create our production."

Kemmerer hopes that the ESTA Awards help instill confidence and enthusiasm in students.

"Students nowadays need something to be passionate about," she said. "If we can help spur on that passion through friendly competition and encourage them to work harder and go on to bigger and better things, that's will help nourish a passion in their life for something. They don't have to go to school for art, music or theater but if it is an outlet to get them excited, then we need to nourish it. We need to applaud the students who are out there doing something and who are excited."Inaugural ESTA Awards to be held Sunday in Clarks Summit