ater this week more than 100 high school drama teachers will converge in Cincinnati. That might sound like a lot of theater geeks in one place at the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza downtown, but according to the people organizing this get-together, the very future of our nation might be at stake. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. But in a recent conversation with the leaders of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) — operating this national organization from a historic Victorian mansion in Mt. Auburn — it was easy to become infected with their enthusiasm and commitment to this cause.
EdTA’s roots are in the International Thespian Society, an honorary group for high school theater kids that started more than eight decades ago, in 1929. I was involved in a Thespian chapter in my high school days, and here I am many years later still engaged in theater. That’s what EdTA is all about. My enthusiasm is rooted in my high school experiences, working on theater productions with an inspired teacher, seeing theater elsewhere and learning how shows resulted from teamwork. I never considered a profession in the theater but from the age of 14 or so, knew theater was something I always wanted to be part of my life.
EdTA has consolidated such individual stories into a movement. Since 1929 there have been more than 2 million Thespians at high schools across America. Today there are roughly 90,000 student members at more than 4,000 schools. While theater as an art form is at the core of what EdTA promotes through festivals, teacher training, publications and advocacy, there is a firm belief that involvement in theater builds life skills including creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication that shape lives beyond high school in careers like business and education.
These educators are gathering in Cincinnati over the next few days for “Theatre at the Core,” EdTA’s 2014 national conference. It’s the first time in 20 years that EdTA has brought the conference to its hometown. Teachers will participate in workshops about casting, improvisation, playwriting, staging a musical, curriculum development and stage lighting, as well as advanced topics such as acting techniques for Shakespearean productions. They’ll have time to network with one another and hear from speakers such as Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing (which produces the Tony Awards) and Jonathan Katz, CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. They’ll be entertained by Cincinnati native Pamela Myers, the first musical theater grad of the UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, who earned a 1970 Tony nomination in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
The conference will stress the centrality of the arts and theater in schools’ curricula. Christopher P. Garten, head of Cincinnati’s Seven Hills Schools, explains that his school has “doubled down” on the fine and performing arts. He calls that move “a logical corollary of our mission-based commitment to fostering the skills our students will need to excel in a rapidly changing world.”
EdTA publishes two magazines: Teaching Theatre is a quarterly journal for education professionals; Dramatics is a practical classroom resource, featuring articles about auditioning, acting, technical aspects of theater and stage management.
The annual Thespian Festival, held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is EdTA’s big event for young actors. More than 2,800 students and teachers converge for a weeklong celebration of theater that features high school performances on four stages, more than 100 workshops and master classes, a student leadership program and auditions for college admissions and scholarships.
Looking ahead, EdTA is piloting a program in Cincinnati that’s envisioned for national rollout in a few years. It’s modeled on a partnership in New York City between the city’s department of education, Musical Theater International (the licensing organization that manages rights for musicals) and the Shubert Foundation, associated with one of Broadway’s biggest producers. Three-year grants to underserved middle schools funded new theater programs.
Teaching materials were developed, and each school had professional mentors to assist. The aim was to produce a show from MTI’s Broadway Junior Collection of 60-minute cut-down versions of familiar shows such as Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Hairspray and The Music Man. Key personnel from the principal to the custodian were engaged, ensuring a long-term commitment at these New York City schools to sustain the programs.
Similar programs have succeeded elsewhere, including Stroud, Okla., population 3,000, devastated by a tornado in 1999. In 2013, Stroud’s 235-student high school staged Fiddler on the Roof Jr. Teacher Saundra Arnold says the show was all about what she hoped kids would learn, “accepting people’s differences and working as a community.” Stroud drama teacher Linda Thomas observed “a high level of excitement” when students were “being noticed by someone else” as they performed.
Inspired by these models, EdTA is securing grant funding to pilot similar programs in three Cincinnati schools this year. The plan is to expand to other cities in the future. Staff members are considering local schools that would benefit from such a program while they are defining a structure for teacher training, mentoring and activities. EdTA is seeking guest artists for a boot camp for teachers by partnering with Cincinnati theaters including the Playhouse, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and others. The program envisions a signature annual event at a venue like the Aronoff Center.
Julie Woffington, a one-time Procter & Gamble marketing executive, is EdTA’s executive director. “Theatre education provides skills for a lifetime,” Woffington says. And she’s all about advancing the organization’s mission: “We are passionate about theater education and we want all students to have access to theater in their curriculum. Theater provides critical life skills necessary for educational and career success in the 21st century.” Before long, EdTA’s initiative will spread beyond Cincinnati, across America. Woffington says, “These programs will provide an affirmation to kids that they matter.” ©
The EdTA NATIONAL CONFERENCE runs Thursday-Sunday at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Downtown. More: schooltheatre.org.