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Drama competition is a long day's journey for high-schoolers

You can see signs boasting about them on the roads leading into Framingham: This is the hometown of state champions.

And among the town's residents the buzz has been building over the last several weeks: Could Framingham repeat?

What's more, for the first time, the competition was to be held on home turf.

At the center of all this drama was, well, drama.

Eight high schools would put on shows last weekend, but only three would survive to act another day.

Framingham High School was one of 14 sites hosting the first round of the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild on Saturday. Of the more than 100 schools competing statewide, 42 would go on to the next round March 17.

Framingham made sure the seven visiting teams would know who they were up against. Three banners hung on the back wall of the school's new auditorium, representing the three years the locals qualified for the state finals: 2002, 2005, 2006. This was the home of a juggernaut.

The rituals before performances on Broadway may be different, but in the high school cafeteria young actors burned off excess energy by bouncing a playground ball on makeshift grids.

"Everyone's a little more excited, more anxious, and everyone's more ready to go. The nerves are definitely more here," said Framingham High freshman Olivia Moriarty.

Moriarty was in "the green room" -- actually a band room -- serving as the last stop before going on stage.

With a 10-pound wooden bird on her back and butterflies in her stomach, Moriarty was preparing for her role as a swallow puppeteer in "Stories Gone Wilde. "

The production consists of a series of fables written by Oscar Wilde, linked by song and dance. Other schools mounted plays based on works by such varied writers as Neil Simon, Shakespeare, and the Marx Brothers.

The Framingham team consists of 51 students (43 onstage) and nine adults -- the school has a reputation around the state of taking the 60-person limit close to the max.

"During rehearsal weeks there were moments where I was tired, and it was really about psyching myself up, but I think now it's calming myself down, making sure I'm focused," said senior Nick Sulfaro, one of the "spirits" whose dances tie the production together.

The calm broke with the word "Go."

The crew had 5 minutes to erect the set. With eight troupes each putting on shows of 30-40 minutes in the course of a nine-hour day, there's no time to spare.

All the students -- including actors -- rushed on stage in an operation as choreographed as the show to come. Up went three trees, large gates, a sloping platform, and a small pool -- with a minute to spare.

Meanwhile, the audience had its own script to follow. For some, this was their seventh show of the day.

Before each performance, the rules of the competition are read, and between each rule, everyone claps once in acknowledgement.

Then the stage lights went up and the eight spirits cast a spell on the crowd.

"Stories Gone Wilde" features fables about love, sacrifice, selfishness, and generosity. Its characters include a clueless giant, a selfless nightingale, and a sadistic princess.

Parents and friends held their collective breath as the spirits stepped in sync, a student playing a statue stood stock still for nearly half an hour, and two dancers flawlessly performed en pointe.

At the end -- when the lights faded out -- the audience burst into applause.

Touchdown.

But this wasn't a football game, where you know the score when you walk off the field. Another school had yet to perform, and then there was the long wait for the two judges to make up their minds.

"When I was backstage, I wasn't feeling anything especially, but now that it's about time, I'm getting scared and anxious," said Moriarty just before the awards ceremony.

When the judges walked on stage, the crowd fell absolutely silent.

The judges first handed out awards for individual performances. When Moriarty's name was announced, she was almost swallowed up by her applauding cast-mates before she could make her way to the stage.

As the pile of awards dwindled, the tension became palpable. Students tried to predict the school winners based on which won the most individual awards.

At 9:30 p.m. -- 15 hours after the first volunteers arrived to set up for the competition -- the judges got around to naming which three schools would go on to the semifinals.

After telling the crowd that they were not naming the winners in any particular order, the judges proclaimed that Saugus High School would advance.

Then came the next school: Framingham.

The explosion was deafening. Not only was the school's contingent the largest, its fans were by far the loudest.

While the Saugus and Framingham fans were pounding fists and hugging one another, the third school was announced: Lynn English High School.

"I'm thinking right now, 'Thank goodness we moved on,' " said Framingham senior Brennan Gallagher, a veteran of two state finals. "Once you go to finals, you never want to not go."

But first Gallagher and his teammates must survive the semifinals in Duxbury. The big event in Boston is at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Framingham fans are looking forward to posting more signs about town.

Adam Sell was a member of the Framingham High School Drama Company in 2003 and 2004. He is now a student at Northeastern University and an intern at Globe West.

Pop-up PHOTO GALLERY: Major drama in Framingham
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