SEMBACH, Germany -- Judging for the 23rd annual IMCOM-Europe Tournament of Plays, or TOPPERs, starts Feb. 23 and runs until April 1.

The TOPPERs is produced annually to recognize outstanding theatrical achievements and to provide educational opportunities for volunteers and staff of Army Entertainment programs throughout Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Theater groups at Aviano Air Base, Italy, and Ramstein AB, Germany, also participate.

Seventeen plays and musicals from 10 installations are entered in this year's competition.

Outstanding achievement is recognized in both performance and technical theater categories, including "Best Military Performance," "Best Youth Performance," "Best Show" and many others.

A team of three international judges will be on the road for six weeks attending performances. After each, they will meet with the director, cast and crew to offer insights into the production, note successes and suggest improvements for future performances.

The judges also conduct free workshops in each community for acting, directing, auditioning, improvisation, youth theatre, Shakespeare and play production.

The workshops are "a great way to learn and hone theatre and life skills," said Dane Winters, IMCOM-Europe entertainment program manager and TOPPERs producer.

"Part of the Army Entertainment mission is education," he said , explaining that the workshops "give our volunteers a chance to work with professionals."

"Another important goal of TOPPERs," Winters added "is to thank everyone who is part of the Army Entertainment program. Each year, thousands of volunteers give countless hours putting on live theater and music events in their communities, improving the quality of life for those who live there."

As for the competition, judges select nominees and awards in over 45 categories. The nominees and winners are announced at the TOPPERs Awards Show and Ceremony, a glittering, music-filled evening that Winters calls the Army Entertainment version of the Tony or Academy Awards.

This year's TOPPERs ceremony will be held April 28 at the U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Fitness Center.

Last year, more than 500 theater members and guests attended the show, which is considered the premier IMCOM-Europe Family, Morale and Welfare event.

Winners are announced by senior leaders and invited attendees, as well as by surprise video announcements from celebrities such as Ben Stiller, Kristin Chenoweth, Daniel Radcliffe, Sean Hayes, Harvey Fierstein, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Pine, William Shatner and others.

"It is truly remarkable that these celebrities want to join us in thanking Soldiers and family members," said Winters. "They are thrilled to learn about our activities and are eager to support them."

One announcer from the past has personal knowledge of the Army Entertainment program. Nina Arianda, a 2012 Tony Award winner who stars in the Amazon's series, "Goliath," started her acting career in military community theater.

"As a teenager, Nina spent several years on stage at the old Heidelberg Roadside Theater," Winters noted, "so the program is near and dear to her heart."

For the competitors, having their names announced by major stars is a dream come true.

"To see that our hard work is appreciated by the communities we support, as well as those in Hollywood, is both thrilling and inspiring," said Sgt. Laura Martin, a past TOPPERS "Best Military Actress in a Musical" winner from USAG Italy.

"What an honor to be acknowledged by actors whom we've admired from afar," Martin said, "and to know they took their own personal time to support us. When Chris Pine announced my name, it was an overwhelming event beyond words. It is an experience and memory I will cherish with pride long after my military service is complete."

Lt. Col. Bryan Mitchell, another TOPPERS recipient, said having actor James Marsden, who played "Cyclops" in "X-Men," make his announcement "was truly over the top."

"The program has had an enormous impact on my life as a Soldier and actor," added Mitchell, who is from USAG Stuttgart.

Eric Danzeiser, USAG-Rheinland-Pfalz entertainment director, calls TOPPERs the most important theater event of the year.

"Our volunteer directors and actors plan their vacations to attend the ceremony," he said. "Directors jockey for up to two years to choose scripts and be chosen for the honor of leading a show."

"It really is a sparkling and exciting evening for everyone," said Winters.

2018 TOPPERs Entries:
Once Upon a Mattress
USAG Italy Soldiers' Theatre

Mary Poppins, Jr. and The Crucible
Aviano AB Community Theater

Beauty & the Beast, Jr. and Lend Me a Tenor
USAG Ansbach Terrace Place House

The Addams Family and Proof
USAG Bavaria Performing Arts Center

She Kills Monsters
The Brunssum Alliance Theater

The Guardsman
SHAPE Players Performing Arts Center

Sister Act and Inherit the Wind
USAG Rheinland-Pfalz KMC Onstage Theater

Eleemosynary and Alice in Wonderland
Ramstein AB Razz Ma Tazz Community Theatre

Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill and Taming of the Shrew
USAG Stuttgart Theater Center

Peter & the Starcatcher and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
USAG Wiesbaden Amelia Earhart Playhouse

2018 TOPPERS Workshop Schedule
March 5: 7 p.m., USAG Rheinland-Pfalz KMC Onstage
March 6: 6:30 p.m., USAG Stuttgart Panzer High School
March 7: 7 p.m., USAG Wiesbaden Amelia Earhart Playhouse
March 19: 7 p.m., USAG Italy Soldiers' Theatre
March 20: 7 p.m., Aviano AB Community Theatre
March 22: 7 p.m., USAG Ansbach Terrace Playhouse
March 26: 7 p.m., USAG Wiesbaden Amelia Earhart Playhouse
March 28: 7 p.m., USAG Ansbach Terrace Playhouse
March 27: 7 p.m., Ramstein AB Razz Ma Tazz Theater