Classes have just let out for the day at Manatee School for the Arts, sending students scampering through hallways and out into the rain-drenched parking lot.
In a matter of minutes, most of the building will empty out, leaving only the kids who have dance practice and other such theatrical after-school activities.
Inside the front lobby, Maria Wirries and a female classmate tiptoe through a set of double doors, where Maria’s mother, Jeaneen, is sitting near the reception desk, discussing her daughter’s math progress with another mother.
“Math has never been Maria’s thing,” Jeaneen Wirries says, “But she’s learned to like it since she started here.”
Approaching her mother, Maria, 13, takes off her backpack and turns to face her friend.
“As much as you can like math,” she says softly to the girl, adjusting the spandex on her black leotard.
The girl giggles and bounces away.
Maria has just come from a ballet rehearsal, which explains the leotard, hushed mannerisms and ruler-like posture.
An East County resident, Maria is only in her first year at the Palmetto performing-arts school and already she’s performed in three shows — “Footloose,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Secret Life of Girls,” which she and a group of classmates will take on tour to area middle schools this spring.
“I decided to take ballet because I’m a tad bit not graceful,” Maria says. “I was doing a really high lift the other day and I didn’t get my butt up in the air quick enough and I slipped onto the shoulders of one of the male dancers. Poor guy.”
The hobby is new for the eighth-grader, who has a habit of engaging in more extracurricular activities than which she has time.
“I try to stick my hands in everything,” she says.
An articulate dynamo in a tiny package, Maria is no stranger to the spotlight.
A competitive ice skater since she was 3 years old, she spent her childhood performing on the ice and singing at county fairs, boxing matches, rodeos and swap meets around the state.
“I sang a lot of country music in cowboy boots and straw hats,” says the singer. “We’ve had some silly experiences on the road that teach you stuff. It humbles you in a way.”
Maria burst onto the downtown Sarasota arts scene three years ago when she belted out “New York, New York” at The Players Theatre’s 2008 “Talent Explosion.”
At the urging of her Juilliard-trained piano teacher, Maria, then 10 years old, auditioned for the competition, slipping onto the program as a late entry at the last minute.
The experience changed her life.
More than 30 acts performed that day and though the singer didn’t place first, she received a standing ovation that lasted nearly two minutes.
“It never really sunk in until then,” Maria says. “The applause was so big. It was like, ‘Oh, they’re clapping for me!’ After the show, people began mobbing me and asking for my autograph. It was overwhelming.”
In the midst of the chaos, Jeaneen Wirries says her daughter turned to her and asked if they might need a security guard to escort them to their car.
It was clear. The unheard of Haitian-born singer from Myakka City was a crowd favorite.
In the weeks that followed the show, Maria was offered solo gigs performing with dozens of local arts organizations, including the Artist Series of Sarasota, Sarasota Senior Theater, the Sarasota and
Manatee Players and the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band, for which she learned to sing in Gaelic and play the tenor drums.
“In my life, I’ve never met anybody — child or adult — who is as enthusiastic, motivated, talented and poised as Maria,” says Jacobites drum major and Executive Director Greg Gregory. “I think there’s no doubt we’re going to see her name in lights.”
If Maria’ talent show debut put her on the map, her numerous guest appearances singing the national anthem with the Jacobites helped secure her spot among Sarasota’s up-and-coming child performers.
“She does indeed have a following,” Gregory says. “People come to see the Jacobites, but Maria is certainly a presence unto herself.”
This explains why Maria, who was recently named the Critic’s Choice at the 2010-2011 Florida State Thespians District Competition, is headlining her first solo concert next month at Faith Lutheran Church, in Sarasota.
The singer is no longer regarded as an opening act, which at Maria’ age is a pretty promising trajectory.
“I feel more famous I guess,” Maria says with nary an ounce of conceit. “People are coming just to see me. It’s a whole different feeling. It feels like I’m achieving a new goal in my ladder.”
She pauses to envision the things in store for her at the top of that ladder — Broadway shows, award-winning films, glossy magazine covers, evening gowns and red carpet interviews.
“I’ve always wanted to be the center of attention,” Maria says. “When I realized I could get attention by doing good stuff, I realized how lucky I am. Not a lot of kids get these opportunities.”
“She is such an amazing actress. Every time I see her in something I hope I can one day be that accomplished. She never seems to do anything wrong.”
“She’s done so much in her life and she has such a lovely voice. She just seems like a lovely person. She’s got this happy, elegant look to her.”
“She’s sassy with her big red hair. She’s very confident in what she does. If you’re that confident, you can do anything.”
“I just fell in love with this group from Ireland and Scotland. They’re just really cool guys. They were my first concert. I was 11 years old. I’ve got all their CDs, DVDs and T-shirts. I’ve even got a (Celtic Thunder) teddy bear.”
IF YOU GO
See Maria Wirries in concert at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6, at Faith Lutheran Church, 7750 Beneva Road, Sarasota. Members of the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band will also perform. Tickets are $15 at the door. Proceeds will benefit Faith Lutheran Haiti Missions. For more information, call 924-4664.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org