Cleburne High School senior Seth Cunningham has been honored with the Ben Brettell Award in conjunction with the 11th annual Column Awards, which recognizes excellence in community theatre in the Dallas/Fort Worth region.
“The Column Awards are like the Tony Awards for Dallas and Fort Worth,” Cunningham said. “This is the only awards ceremony that honors community theatre and equity and non-equity actors.”
Cunningham, who has been involved in Cleburne community theater since eighth grade, was nominated for the award by Gerard Elementary Principal Jay Lewis.
Lewis, a veteran actor and director with Cleburne Carnegie Players and Plaza Theatre Company, praised Cunningham for his acting talents and his work ethic and passion for the theatre.
“I have known Seth for several years and have had the privilege to watch him mature not only as a fine actor but also as a young man of strong character,” Lewis said. “He is very deserving of this award.”
The Ben Brettel Award was established in memory of a young actor who was killed in a car accident.
It is presented annually to a high school junior or senior who “shows promise in the craft of theater arts” and has been actively involved in their school’s theater arts program throughout the previous year.
“Ben Brettel did everything,” said Cunningham. “It’s still unbelievable to me that I have received this award. The nominations can only come from directors, producers, those who have done shows with you. The nomination alone is an honor.”
A glance at his résumé shows that Seth also does everything when it comes to the performing arts.
His activities at CHS reflect major involvement, from band to choir to theater arts to UIL speaking events.
He played the lead male role as Frank Butler in the recent CHS fine arts musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” and has been cast to play the evil husband in “The Insanity of Mary Girard,” this year’s UIL one-act play entry.
His acting credits during his four-year stint as a student thespian include Augustus Gloop in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and as a freshman he portrayed Adolfo Parelli in the UIL one-act play production of “Sweeney Todd.”
In his second year in the theatre arts program he worked on the technical crew in the children’s production of “Cinderella” and played a supporting role in the one-act play entry, “Sweet Nothing in my Ear.”
One of his favorite roles came his junior year, when Cunningham was cast as “Daddy Warbucks” in the high school’s production of “Annie.”
This year, he was the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Playing Harry McAfee in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ was the funniest thing I’ve ever done,” Cunningham said.
That was his role in the 2008 CHS fine arts musical.
“I do love musicals, with all the singing and dancing.”
But he also loves drama without the music.
“Plays are a nice relief,” he said. “Your mind doesn’t have to go as many places, compared to a musical. You can focus on your character and your interaction with the others characters to make the show the best it can be.”
Sally Maxey, CHS theater arts teacher, calls Cunningham a director’s dream.
“He’s one of the most talented actors I have ever had the honor of working with,” Maxey said. “Seth has been an amazing student director, costume designer, and a leader among his peers.”
Cunningham’s time on stage has included participation in five community theater productions in the past year, from the Plaza Theatre Company’s “Music Man” and “High School Musical” to the Cleburne Carnegie Players presentations of the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
He worked behind the scenes as a sound technician for “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
His portrayal of Zeke in “High School Musical” earned him praise from local theater critic Mark Nobles who commented on Cunningham’s “perfect comic timing.”
“He steals any scene in which he has a line,” Nobles said.
Cunningham’s favorite role to date, portraying Lumiere, the talking candelabra in Beauty and the Beast, caught the eyes and ears of Samantha Casey, associate critic for “The Column,” an Internet Web site that covers the D-FW theatre scene.
“Bravo to Seth on a well-executed French dialect and comic delivery that keeps even the most die-hard Disney fans in stitches,” was among the comments included in Casey’s review.
“Seth is a very talented young man in his acting, singing and dancing,” said CHS Choir Director Pam Elam. “In addition to his talent, he has a tremendous work ethic and a passion for the theatre. He is a team player and understands what all is involved in putting on a production. His enthusiasm and cooperative attitude are quite contagious.”
In addition to his theater credits and honors, Cunningham has competed in the Texas Music Educators Association all-state choir program the past two years.
He is a latecomer to the CHS choir program, coming in as a junior.
In his second year in choir, he advanced to the area round in the all-state audition process and will make his second appearance at the UIL state solo and ensemble vocal contest.
As a three-year participant in UIL academics, he was a district and regional medalist in prose and poetry interpretation.
Cunningham’s “do everything” abilities extend beyond the footlights, as evidenced by his leadership roles in CHS student organizations.
He is vice-president of National Arts Honor Society, president of the CHS chapter of the International Thespian Society, treasurer of Key Club and vice-president of the CHS Chorale.
He is in rehearsals for his final one-act play production as a high school student, and he will be featured in the upcoming Plaza production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” in which he is cast as one of the brothers.
Cunningham is also rehearsing for a new role that would have a four-year run — admission into Sam Houston State University’s musical theater program.
“They only accept 14 new students a year,” he said. “Sam Houston has a great dance and music program. My biggest thing, and what I’ve looked for in colleges, is their dance program. I’ll have to perform two songs and a monologue. I’m confident, and I’m working hard to prepare.”
“I always loved to dance,” Cunningham said. “But it didn’t click with me as something I would like to study until I was in a Plaza musical production. We had a great choreographer. I really love singing and dancing. It makes me happy.”
He is also a dancer with his feet on the ground. Cunningham’s college-bound thoughts include a business degree, which might come in handy should he one day open his own theater.
“Broadway is the ideal job,” Cunningham said. “But I think opening a theater like the Burruses and Silers have done with the Plaza Theatre Company is also a career dream. My far, far goal is being on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I love it.”
Cunningham is the son of Toby and Candace Ross and the grandson of Jerry and Rose Cunningham and the late Donna Cunningham.