Dreams + Determination

By Meghan Walsh

Young performers often dream of lives on the big stage or the big screen, working diligently toward futures in which they will have the luxury of making livings doing what they love most. Many have goals of gaining exposure within the communities of their crafts, and continuously seek paths by which they can move toward these ambitions. 

One of the ways for them to gain experience and get their names and talents known is by entering performance competitions.

Northeast Ohio is home to several such competitions. A few of them are the Dazzle Awards through Playhouse Square in Cleveland, the Cleveland International Piano Competition through Piano Cleveland in Shaker Heights, and Shining Star CLE, put on by Menorah Park in Beachwood.

Three performers whose lives have been enhanced by these experiences are J.R. Heckman, a three-time Dazzle Award recipient for best actor in 2016, 2018 and 2019; Yaron Kohlberg, 2007 second-place winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition; and Calista Zajac, first-place winner of Shining Star CLE in 2021. They reflect on their experiences, what they learned and what’s next for them.

Nurturing talent

Heckman, now 21, received Dazzle Awards for his portrayals of Donkey in “Shrek the Musical” during his freshman year in 2016, Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden” during his junior year in 2018, and the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” during his senior year in 2019 – all of which were presented by the drama club at his alma mater, Solon High School. 

J.R. Heckman accepts the 2018 Dazzle Award for best actor. Photo courtesy of Heckman and Playhouse Square

The Dazzle Awards are a high school musical theater competition, aiming to recognize the importance of the craft and arts education locally, modeled after the Tony Awards, according to Playhouse Square’s website. A selected panel of independent adjudicators attends a production at each participating school, then giving educational feedback and scores to determine nominees and awards in more than 12 categories. 

“Honestly, I can say the Dazzle Awards are what has truly shaped me into the person I am today,” Heckman says.

Heckman recalls having the opportunity to meet many other kids who were passionate about musical theater, and who eventually became his artistic peers and collaborators.

He says through the Dazzle Awards, he discovered confidence in who he is as a performer and as a person. The competition opened other doors for him, such as The National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City, also known as the Jimmy Awards, where he was a three-time nominee and finalist. The winner of the best actress and best actor awards in the Dazzle competition perform and represent Playhouse Square and Northeast Ohio in the Jimmy Awards annually. 

While participating in the Jimmy Awards, Heckman says he stayed in the dorms at New York University and it was there he took interest in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

J.R. Heckman assists in the direction of the 2022 Jimmy Awards. Photo courtesy of Heckman and Playhouse Square

He graduated from Tisch in June 2022, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater and screen acting, with a minor in producing, he says, and plans to continue living in New York City.

Throughout his professional career thus far, Heckman has portrayed a student in HBO Max’s reboot of “Gossip Girl” and has put on two concerts benefiting Find Your Light Foundation, which was founded by his idol, Josh Groban.

Heckman says looking forward, he has high ambitions of starring on Broadway and that his dream role is the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“It was always my dream to come to the Big Apple and star on Broadway and now, God-willingly, hopefully soon that will be happening,” Heckman says, giving a nod to the competitions that helped him get to this point in his career. “Programs like the Dazzle Awards and the Jimmy Awards are so vital for nurturing artistic talents.”

Competition to career

Kohlberg’s 2007 second-place win in the Cleveland International Piano Competition helped establish lasting connections for him, and even led up to him assuming his current position as president of Piano Cleveland, the presenting organization for the award.

“When I participated in the competition, it was 15 years ago,” Kohlberg says. “My favorite part about it was the way the community responded.”

A native of Israel, Kohlberg’s participation in the competition marked his first time visiting Cleveland. He says the community’s warm welcomes came in the forms of the people who hosted contestants during their stays and the enthusiastic audiences at the performances.

Yaron Kohlberg competes in the 2007 Cleveland International Piano Competition. Photo courtesy of Kohlberg

Another highlight of his experience was interacting with and sharing the stage with renowned artists and groups.

“Of course, the great opportunity to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra in (the) finals, this is really something that was quite unforgettable for me as a young pianist,” Kohlberg says.

He recalls the competition being a significant experience on many levels, having pushed his limits and encouraging him to get the best out of himself. It proved to him that he is capable of performing among high-level, international performers, he says.

“Later on of course, the opportunity I got to come back here and perform, and to be on the jury, and later become the president of the organization,” Kohlberg explains, “I mean, this would not have happened if not for the competition.”

He points out that the short-term benefits of winning the competition were the prize money – which assisted him with income because he was a student at the time – and the opportunities he received for subsequent performances.

“I got several engagements following this,” he says.

Kohlberg’s experience as a contestant also helped shape the way he sees his role as the now-leader of the organization. Piano Cleveland aims to promote Cleveland as an international destination for the future of piano music, creating educational programs, developing community engagement initiatives, and hosting concerts, competitions and programming, according to its website. 

“I would say that we are always exploring the ways to be as helpful as we can to our contestants, and this is beyond what competitions traditionally do,” he explains.

Piano Cleveland is working to shape its competitions to be as relevant as possible to today’s changing world, Kohlberg says.

“We are aware that today’s careers are not necessarily what they were maybe 50 years ago, that somebody would go and win and they would have a career,” he explains. “These days, it requires a little bit more than that for young artists.”

Kohlberg advises that being a talented act is “only one step” toward success for young pianists today. Thus, it is important to teach them that being a part of the “music world” has many faces beyond performance, such as business and education, he says.

“It could be with education, it could be with doing all sorts of startup ideas, it could be with engaging classical music to different audiences,” he says. “It could be in different ways.”

Intention behind the performance, prize

Zajac, a 17-year-old rising senior at Magnificat High School in Rocky River, competed in Shining Star CLE her freshman, sophomore and junior years. She speaks fondly of winning the 2021 season of Shining Star CLE, how it boosted her abilities as a performer and the friendships she established along the way. 

Shining Star is a solo-singing competition where local high school students compete for college scholarships. The annual competition also serves as an opportunity for Menorah Park to fundraise, perform community outreach and engage youth in its senior health facilities’ memory care work.

“My favorite part about doing Shining Star was, I think, being able to meet all the other kids, especially my freshman year,” Zajac says.

Calista Zajac competes in the 2021 Shining Star CLE competition. Photo / Clockwork 9 Video

She notes the first year she participated was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted many events to virtual settings.

“It was really exciting and I was doing it with a lot of my friends that I had known before from doing theater, and it was really exciting being able to do it at Playhouse (Square),” she says.

Perhaps a more unexpected benefit, Zajac says she was surprised by how much she learned about the impact of music on memory care. The competition raises money to support memory care programs and services at Menorah Park.

“I didn’t know much about memory care before I did Shining Star,” she says. “I never really had a family member that was in memory care or that had serious dementia, so it wasn’t something that I was exposed to before.”

When she went to Menorah Park for the first time and was able to sing to the residents, it was an eye-opening experience that taught her how important music is and the science behind it as it relates to memory, she explains.

“Winning was really exciting, it definitely was not something I was expecting,” Zajac says. “It really pushed me forward.”

She says that the competition, which began in 2017, has grown in popularity over the years and that because it takes place at Playhouse Square, a lot of people know about it.

“The competition connects you with some really awesome people,” she says. “It connects you with the Cleveland Orchestra and the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, and it connects you with a lot of really good people in the industry right now.”

These experienced people were helpful to her as a contestant because they provided sound advice as the competition progressed.

“I think it really helped my career,” Zajac says. “For one, it was a lot of exposure and a lot of people were coming to see it. Also, I learned so much and I connected with a lot of cool people.”

Having notable judges such as Jim Brickman and Telly Leung was also a highlight of her experience, Zajac says.

“Even just being able to sing for them is a really awesome thing for a young person’s career, and being able to sing for a lot of notable people and being connected to a lot of very experienced, talented, well-known people in the Cleveland area, I think that really helped me too,” she says.

Zajac says she hopes to pursue musical theater in college and believes winning Shining Star CLE will be helpful as she continues toward her desired career path.

“Mostly, for me, Shining Star is about finding the intention behind why I’m singing,” Zajac says.