Wantagh High School senior Katriana Koppe, 18, saw her name in flashing lights in Times Square on May 27, when she found out that she had won the 2021 Roger Rees Best Actress award.
The award recognizes excellence in student performance in the metropolitan area, and is presented each year by the Disney Theatrical Group and the Broadway Education Alliance. It is named for the late Welsh actor and director who was widely known for his work on stage and television.
Koppe, of Wantagh, described the experience as “surreal.” “I was told that the board of the Roger Rees Awards wanted the nominees to come to Manhattan and take promotional pictures,” she said. “But when I got there, I was greeted by last year’s winners of the award. They led me to Times Square and told me to look up. The billboard above me said [that I was the winner] … and then my face popped up. Everyone in Times Square started cheering. It was a dream come true.”
Koppe (pronounced CO-pay) received the award for her performance as Cinderella in Wantagh High School’s production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which was streamed virtually June 5 and 6. She won against 52 other nominees in the category.
Wantagh Theatre Director Kimberly Davis said that when Koppe was cast as Cinderella, the district knew she would bring something “unique to the role.” “We also know that we can count on her to be the driving force of any play,” Davis said. “With the magic Kat brings to the stage, she is truly able to carry a show on her own.”
Koppe said she had an emotional connection with the character. “I was truly able to connect with Cinderella,” she said, “because she uses her imagination to cope with the hardships she deals with in life, and I do, too … which is one of the reasons I love performing. I love being able to step out of my actual being and become someone else for a little while.”
Koppe will represent the greater New York region in the Broadway League Foundation’s National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards, next month during an intensive week of auditions and professional coaching. The awards will be streamed virtually on July 15 on the Jimmy Awards website.
Some previous Roger Rees award-winners have gone on to star on Broadway. Wantagh Theatre also received the PLAYBILLder Award, presented to senior Lauren Merting, for designing this year’s posters and programs for the school’s plays.
“The Roger Rees Award has always been my dream,” Koppe said. “In my freshman year, three of my friends were nominated for it, and they were talking about all the workshops they got to do and how they got to work with professional actors for coaching. I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that.’ Now I can.”
In May, Koppe won the Wantagh Drama Parents & Alumni Association achievement award in the theatre arts category and the Courtney Kernaghan Memorial Scholarship in recognition of outstanding performance. She was selected for the All State Treble Choir this year and the All State Mixed Choir in 2020, due to her high scores at the 2019 New York State School Music Association festival.
Additionally, Koppe is the president of the Tri-M Music Honor Society at Wantagh High and a member of the International Thespian Honor Society. She has played the violin and sung in school choruses since elementary school.
“I met Kat when she auditioned for ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ in sixth grade,” Davis recalled, “and she blew us away back then. We had no idea she was going to come out with that voice. We knew right away that she was something very special.”
Sameerah Cassidy, Koppe’s music teacher and the director of Wantagh High’s music program, described her as “innately talented” and “truly the type of student that can sing anything.”
“Katriana is completely dedicated to what she does,” Cassidy said. “She’s very involved in our music program. She’s taken every drama elective that the school’s offered. She makes sure that she studies about a role as much as possible before she performs it. She also makes sure that she’s completely prepared vocally for anything that she does.”
Koppe said she first became interested in music and theater at age 9. “I found my mom’s old ‘Phantom of the Opera’ CD one day and listened to all the music,” she recounted. “I instantly fell in love with it and with the idea of musicals.”
In 2012, she joined a summer theater camp offered by Oaks School #3 in Oceanside. Two years later, she took part in a community theater program at the Merrick Theatre and Center for the Arts.
In 2015, Koppe moved to Wantagh with her family, and attended Wantagh Middle School. She continued with the local theater program, and joined school plays. She stuck with acting throughout high school — even during the coronavirus pandemic, when shows were performed virtually.
Last August, she began participating in Raffaele Theatrical Productions, a community theater program in Massapequa. Despite Covid-19 limitations, she has managed to work on college auditions. She will attend Pace University in the fall, where she plans to study musical theater, and said she hopes to someday perform on Broadway or in film.
Her favorite part of performing, Koppe said, is the way she can make others feel. “I feel like my purpose in life is to perform,” she said. “What I love about performing is that I can transport people from whatever’s going on in their lives for an hour or two and give them some positive feelings … allow them to escape their troubles.”
She encourages other teens who want to pursue careers in the arts to follow their passion and aim high. “You have to develop thick skin and trust yourself,” Koppe said. “Do what you love, because there’s nothing more important in life than doing what you love and spreading that love and positivity to others.”