Goshen College actors made school history not once, but twice at the annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (ACTF) held at Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan, from January 8-13.

The first round of success happened early in the week when two pairs advanced to the semifinal round of the Irene-Ryan acting competition: Justin Yoder, a senior, and scene partner Phil Weaver-Stoesz (’11) along with Jay Mast (’12), and scene partner, Vanessa Jones, a senior. Yoder and Mast were both nominated to participate in the competition from their performances in the 2012 spring mainstage, Twelfth Night.

From there, Mast and Jones qualified for the final round, an honor never before accomplished by GC students.

The Irene-Ryan competition consisted of 250 pairs in the first round chosen from graduate and undergraduate schools from across the region. 44 advanced to the semifinal round, and only 16 students and their scene partners were selected for the finals.

The first round of the competition required a 3-minute scene. As the rounds progressed, students added material until the finals, which required a 6-minute performance consisting of two scenes and a monologue.

The first round concluded with constructive feedback from theater professionals with no say in the elimination process, and in the later two rounds, the judges themselves. The competitors were judged on many things including material choice, acting range and partner chemistry.

As a finalist, Mast recognizes his choice of scene partner as a decision important to his success.

"I couldn't have asked for anything else in a partner," Mast said of Jones. "She had a calming presence onstage."

ACTF marks what will more than likely be the last time Mast and Jones perform onstage together. Through many years of GC productions they developed a relationship both onstage and off that, combined with hard work, gave them the ability to take risks and work together to make themselves contenders at a higher level. Together, they made it to finals and were given the award of "Best Musical Theater Scene."

"This is their work and they should be proud of it," said Tamera Izlar, assistant professor of theater. Izlar was a respondent for some of the participants in the first round of the competition, as well as a mentor for Mast and Jones.

"I don't like to think about finals or semifinals," said Izlar. "My focus is on the character and the objectives, and making sure you bring the integrity to the character." ​Izlar recognized that both Mast and Jones took that to heart, listening and responding to each other with expertise.

"We've established ourselves as contenders," said Mast. "We are a school of 800 and we can still compete against the huge universities."

Both Izlar and Doug Caskey, professor of theater, emphasize that this out-of-water experience of being surrounded by a large group of talented individuals is a special opportunity with much to offer developing actors.

"As a professional actor, you are competing against not just people from your school or region or state ... but from people all over the world," said Izlar. "[ACTF] gives you a chance to get a taste of that. It prepares you for the outside world while you're still in school."

Mast, too, realizes the many benefits of attending the festival. Because of his accomplishment, he was able to network with fellow actors and professionals.

"It gives you confidence. People I soon want to work for, or with, are confirming me," said Mast. "It's an uplifting setting."

Mast also appreciated the family-like support from the 22 Goshen College students and faculty attending the festival, and was especially thankful for the company of Yoder and Weaver-Stoesz in the semifinals.

As department chair, Caskey was particularly pleased with this year’s success.

“I find that exhilarating," said Caskey, “I look at this as seeing the students getting the credit they are due. We can sing them praises here [at Goshen], we can cast them in a big role, but there's something about getting credit externally."

While history has been made for the GC theater department, the students involved in the Irene-Ryan acting competition had the opportunity to meet goals on a more personal level as well.

"I entered into college and thought, 'I need to get into semifinals -- that is a goal of mine,'" said Mast. "And now I'm leaving and I'm like, 'Wow! I did that! And then some!'"