Your Voice Gave Me Chills! : a theater mom’s memoir of The Shuler Awards and Junior Theater Festival

“Your voice gave me chills! It’s a gift from God.” Those comments came from Jody Benson, the voice of The Little Mermaid, after my son, Jonathan Marciniak, performed at the 2018 Shuler Hensley awards. Jonathan was nominated for “Best Performance by a Leading Actor” for his role as Quasimodo in Artios Academy’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Jody Benson grabbed Jonathan’s arms and made that comment in the parking lot of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center that evening, my thoughts turned back to the first time my son’s voice gave me chills.

Jonathan was in elementary school and my sister was visiting. He wanted to sing “Phantom of the Opera”…such a big song for a little man of 9 years old. When he sang, and I heard his natural vibrato and his ability to hit the high notes, his voice gave me chills and I knew it was a gift. I also knew that as Mom (and his #1 fan and agent), I had to line things up so he could cultivate that gift.

Jonathan first performed with a small choir in North Georgia. It gave him experience performing in front of crowds at local community events. But it wasn’t until I took him to see Big River at The Cumming Playhouse, where I realized seeds were being planted for his passion to perform in Musical Theater.

We discovered a children’s community theatre group called Dawson Arts Council. After a summer camp, the group held auditions for Godspell, which they were taking to JTF. ‘JTF? What’s that all about?’ I thought. Parents informed me that it would be one of the most rewarding and exciting weekends of my son’s life. Truly, the Junior Theater Festival produced by iTheatrics and the Junior Theater Group became a yearly event that has not only been rewarding and exciting for Jonathan but has provided a place for him to grow as a performer, to meet professionals in the Musical Theater industry, and to make lasting friendships.

Jonathan has been attending JTF since 2012. He has trained with various directors and attended JTF with several community theatre directors and groups: Nathan Gerrells of Dawson Arts Council, Sean Newman of Ghostlight Productions, Neva Garrett of Mellodrama Productions, and Carly Berg and Haden Rider of Play on Players Children’s Theatre (POP).

It was when Jon joined POP he began his intensive training as a “triple threat.” Under Carly Berg’s direction, he learned advanced dance and choreography techniques, and Haden Rider became Jon’s voice and acting coach;. Through private lessons, Haden taught Jonathan how to perfect his gift of singing. The past three years with POP and the JTF experience have been an extraordinary one. With POP Jonathan showcased a Broadway retrospective of West Side Story on stage to 5800 JTF participants (2016); premiered the new work’s showcase Mary Poppins Jr live to 6200 JTF participants and live-streamed to 40,000 (2017)! How many other teenagers have had that kind of experience and exposure?

In addition to the opportunity to showcase on the JTF main stage, The Junior Theater Festival is so much more than performing on-stage to thousands of people. It’s about students, teachers, parents and professionals coming together to share a common passion – Musical Theatre. It’s about encouraging other groups in your POD  (troupes are broken into “pods” to be adjudicated against troupes of similar size and ability)– some from other countries. It’s about hearing advice from professionals in the industry during your adjudication and during the “Pathways” event. It’s about memories that will last a lifetime.

A memory that Jonathan will hold in his heart forever is performing with Play on Player’s 15 minute cut for adjudication of  “Once on This Island” at JTF 2017, and discovering that the Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty, writers and producers of the play, along with Freddie Gershon, a co-chairman of Music Theater International, were in the audience. They and adjudicator Jeff Calhoun (director of Broadway’s Newsies) were emotionally moved to tears by the POP performance. Where else can a student have that kind of experience?

Yet JTF offers even more. Through iTheatrics, it offers the annual opportunity for JTF participants to audition to be cast in a professional choreography DVD taping that will be used around the world by theatre directors. Jonathan was privileged to be chosen out of nearly 2000 people on the East coast and West coast who auditioned. Jonathan, and one other POP performer, Alec Wilson, will be in New York rehearsing and filming two shows in 8 days: Chicago and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Sound impossible? Not with the training they have received with Play on Players.

As I look back at my son’s experience in Musical Theatre, I am thankful for the directors who invested their time,  encouraged and trained my son and taught him (through their examples) the importance of commitment, teamwork, and a diligent work ethic in order to reach his goals.

It’s been eight years since I first heard Jonathan sing “Phantom”, and I’ve had many proud “momma” moments, but two stand out this year. The first is when I watched him perform as Quasimodo. He captured the spirit and emotion of this character and brought the audience  (especially his momma) to tears. I realized at that moment the depth of maturity he has reached as a performer. The second proud “momma” moment was watching Jonathan perform the song “Out There” as Quasimodo in front of a live and televised audience at the Shuler Hensley Awards. I can truly say that “His voice gave me chills.”

Deborah Marciniak — theater mom and Speakeysie contributor

Stay tuned for an interview with Jonathan!! Speakeysie will also be following Jonathan to New York on June 26th and report on his iTheatrics choreography DVD work and much more!! Catch all the action on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and  Snapchat and right here on


  1. Well said Deb! My son Seth has been blessed to have experienced JTF and ITheatrics through POP what a life changing experience for him and myself. JTF and ITheatrics keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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