Durham Teen Wins Best Actress at National High School Musical Theatre Awards

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Triangle Rising Star Elena Holder sets the bar high for future nominees

Elena Holder
Elena Holder performs on stage at Durham Performing Arts Center, where she spent much of her time as a teenager. “On a personal level, I’m very proud, because I’ve known Elena since her freshman year,” says DPAC’s Megan Rindoks. “She was a [Triangle Rising Stars] Top 20 finalist [then], and that’s when I just became a huge fan of hers.”

By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Elena Holder knew her name – if they called it at all – would be second. Best actor first, actress second. But she figured she more than likely wouldn’t hear it at all. Which, considering the stakes – her as one of 72 finalists for a Jimmy Award, essentially the teenage Tonys – made sense. Promising young auteurs from the nation’s entertainment capitals, everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, were nominated. They had professional coaches; some even had Broadway in their backyard.

And then there was Elena, whose acting career began at age 10 as the bullfrog in a performance “Honk! JR.” at the Durham Arts Council. “I actually totally froze and forgot all of my lines!” Elena says. “That hasn’t happened since, thank goodness.” From adolescent amphibian to the lead role in “Annie” as a high school junior at Durham School of the Arts,  Elena started to figure acting was probably worth pursuing as more than just a hobby.

By this point, the Durham Performing Arts Center had become like Elena’s second home. As a freshman, she was named a top-20 finalist for Triangle Rising Stars, a showcase that brings area high school musical theater students together to perform and compete for educational scholarships and the titles of Best Actor and Best Actress. The following year, she’d grown enough to become a performing arts ambassador, attending DPAC events while volunteering in guest service roles and recording her experiences via videos, online blogs and social media. If not for the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic midway through her junior year, she would’ve already been a Triangle Rising Stars finalist again.

Elena Holder

Elena almost didn’t apply for the program her senior year, as she was busy with multiple end-of-year tests and had little-to-no time to pull together an audition tape. She got a final nudge (from her mom, naturally) the day before the application deadline, and that got her over the hump.

“I mostly did it because I knew how meaningful the program was,” Elena says. “Triangle Rising Stars is the coolest thing that anyone interested in musical theater could be a part of, and I was like, ‘Why would I miss that opportunity?’”

She was chosen again as one of 20 finalists who performed a specific repertoire designed for this year’s virtual showcase. Elena’s role as the Witch from “Into the Woods” earned her the Best Actress honors that eluded her as a freshman, and she opted to perform that same routine in her Jimmy Awards’ audition.

Fast forward to mid-July, Elena is sitting in DPAC’s President’s Club lounge, and one big question lingers in the air: Could she actually win the 12th annual Jimmy Awards?

All the starry-eyed hopefuls – who had belted their own ballads, gave it their all – watched the same screen from their respective cities and towns. Elena and Joshua Messmore, Triangle Rising Stars’ best actor, squeezed each other’s hands as they watched their weeks of rehearsals come to life on a wall projection.

In a way, it all came full circle. She was surrounded by Triangle Rising Stars finalists, her family and DPAC’s creative team as “High School Musical” actor and this year’s Jimmy Awards host Corbin Bleu named the best performance by a high school actor and actress in the U.S.

“When they announced Bryson Battle, who won best actor – he’s from Charlotte, North Carolina – in my head, I was like, ‘OK, the likelihood of them announcing two winners from North Carolina is so slim,’” says Megan Rindoks, DPAC’s community engagement manager.

And then they called Elena’s name. She and dozens of others sprang from their seats as they jumped and screamed and cried in disbelief. In DPAC’s 11 years of hosting Triangle Rising Stars, Elena is the first of its winners to take home the big title.

“That was – is – my peak,” Elena says.

The $25,000 scholarship she won is going toward her tuition at UNC, where she started studying vocal performance and psychology this fall.

As for what’s next? Elena still isn’t sure. She says that maybe she’ll consider an academic focus and go to graduate school. But if her recent pursuits – she performed in Times Square in New York City to celebrate Broadway’s reopening in September – are any indication? She might make good on another plan: move to New York and figure it out from there.

She does, after all, already have the junior version of the trophy she’s dreamed about her whole life. 

Elena Holder
Backstage at DPAC, Elena Holder eyes the signatures of theater stars.

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.
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