How many 17-year-old girls in the world can seriously say that their dream summer getaway is in the cornfields of Nebraska?
I’m a living testament to the fact that I am not the only teen in the world with this affinity for escapades to the smack-dab-middle of America. It’s been my dream to attend the International Thespian Festival, annually held at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln)–a wonderland for young theatre lovers-for-life.
Nationally-eligible individual events (categorized into solos, duets, group numbers, monologues, etc.) contend for a chance to perform in the National Showcase, a hand-picked selection of the stand-out pieces that come to ITF. Musicals and plays of all kinds, full length and one act, also send troupes to Nebraska if they qualify as the best in their state competitions. The event that flew me to Nebraska for the first time is a one act called The Cagebirds–something my birdgirls and I have rehearsed/performed in so many locales that we call it “on tour.” This morbid, absurdist piece by Dave Campton was one of the most gratifying challenges my cast has ever faced!
The honor of being an inducted Thespian, part of theatre history and the expansive catalogue of drama students, is truthfully my favorite high school accomplishment. I felt this identity in all its blazing glory the week of June 19th. I’ve always known ITS links middle and high schoolers from state to state to country to country–but I hadn’t understood this momentous fact. It did not become real until I walked through the UNL campus and saw Thespians in their own high school musical show shirts from towns I’ve never heard of. This just in: drama kids exist! In, like, California! And Arkansas! And Texas. A LOT exist in Texas.
Coming off of an international theatre advocacy project makes a person more sensitive to the enormity of organizations and those chapters within them. My friends and I were one of 300 troupes at the Festival this year. There were thousands of thespians in attendance. But on an international level, including those students who did not attend, there’s more where that comes from. This here is a stat including alumni, but nevertheless–the 2 millionth Thespian was inducted in 2009.
Basically, we’re a small army of stagefiends. We come from every corner of every county, we’ve all performed 12 Angry Jurors at least once, we’ve all had more than one brutal final Saturday Tech, we’ve all memorized the Witch’s rap. We all have different opinions on the true winner of Best Orchestrations at this year’s Tony’s but we all call Jenn Colella our mother. Some things are just inherent to the Thespian name.
While the LPP instincts I have grown immediately set off flashing red lights in my head while in mutual-human-presence (“Are they on board? What’s their email? What’s their email!?!?”), I also found a more internal question bursting at my sunburnt seams, waiting in line for any event alongside another Thespian. Do they love Great Comet too? Are they as upset about Indecent closing? Are they as joyous about Indecent extending?!?! And they were all of these things and more. It took me singing one line of Comet’s Prologue to have another voice shamelessly hop on along the melody. To be with your fellow fervent people is life-and-path-affirming.
And there is nothing like the Thespian audience of the Lied Center, celebrating the mainstage musicals together. You won’t get crowds like that even on Broadway. It’s the purest concentration of people watching something that they not only love but know. It’s the kind of audience every high school production deserves.
With 8/9 LPP Team Members on this trip, I had my partners on hawk-eye and dog-ear duty, ready to pounce on any Thespian or Troupe director who remotely mentioned Laramie, and pass along registration information. (And it worked.) Out of our 16 LPP Thespian Troupes, there were three LPP in attendance this year–all NJ schools!–and I was lucky enough to meet up with two of the three. These two troupes are ones I had connected with already at States, so it was great to catch up. Hoboken High School’s Troupe (7268) is super special to me; we watched them perform Laramie at NJ ThesFest. They were the first signs of LPP-to-life we witnessed. I caught Robbinsville High School’s Troupe (7161) on a whim the last day of the festival. I sadly wasn’t able to cop a selfie, but I was able to speak with them about their own LPP event! I’m going to post a blog about them soon. Unfortunately, I could not find Passaic County Technical Institute’s Troupe (7894), but I’m sure I’ll catch them at States next year.
The most life-changing moments of ITF consisted of meeting with leaders of the organizations that are my inspiration. The women I look up to are trailblazers for their beloved causes. I was able to meet a champion of theatre in our schools, Ms. Julie Cohen Theobald, Executive Director of the Educational Theatre Association. She was so happy to hear the LPP story and took the best-selfie-ever with me. I was also lucky to catch Mr. Doug Berlon, another leader on the EdTA team, on the way back from dinner off-campus with my troupe on Friday night. I ID’d myself as “The LPP girl” and he immediately celebrated our recent successes and wide reach. Doug was an LPP lover since Day 1, and he helped spread the word to Thespian Troupes on a national level back in the 2016 leg of the operation.
I also reconnected with Michael DiBianco, the Education and Outreach representative for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDs and a long-time LPP supporter. He is part of the organization of theatre superheroes who understand the notion that the arts aren’t special until they change lives. Samuel French representatives Ms. Courtney Kochuba and Ms. Abbie Van Nostrand were also pleasures to meet, as they shared my passion for the play-world and readily gave all the advice they had at their disposal to this young theatre creator. I performed most of my Indecent-related-squealing with representatives of the National Theatre Institute (what a wild ride of a week for me and Ms. Violet Saylor, mourning on Wednesday and jumping for joy on Thursday). I was able to speak with Harper Lee as well, editor and correspondent for Dramatics Magazine. (My internal Theatre Journalist was geeking out!)
Perhaps the most special meeting I had was with Mr. Zach Schneider, chapter director of Wyoming State Thespians, who has a special connection with Matthew. It’s more than beautiful that Matthew’s legacy has a cornerstone in the theatre world. As I learned in the amazing documentary Matthew Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine created by Michele Josue, Matthew was a theatre lover all throughout his schooling. He felt the same sense of family that we all feel in our drama clubs. I hope we can say his name in every theatre in the world, because that was one of his homes.
Hearing the remarkable news about the Spirit of Matthew Award in the middle of Nebraska felt like the proper location. I’ve always been surrounded by Thespians, thanks to the beauty of the internet and email. I’ve always been aware of the international reach of the EdTA and ITS. But last week, I was surrounded by Thespians, this time in person. I could hear them sing and I laughed with them. Seeing a new school name filled me with such pride time and time again, and this is why. The first phase of LPP involved hours of online research into school websites and discovering what districts had the arts and which districts didn’t. There would be hours in which I hadn’t found a drama program present on a single website for an entire region of a state. I’m so far removed from these institutions, but even so, I found myself getting upset. I had just gotten home from rehearsals, multi-tasking my research with Drama III homework. I knew the kids from XYC county didn’t have a rehearsal to get home from.
Then, during the 11 o’clock number of whatever musical was my soundtrack for that county, I would stumble upon a page for the annual musical, a drama class, and sometimes, when I struck gold, a Thespian Society and a Drama four-year academy program. (And once in a rainbow moon, all of these groups as well as a GSA.)
For 6 days straight in the middle of Pride Month, I was stuck on a campus in the middle of the country, the inhabitants of which were solely comprised of students and teachers from places of education that say, every year: Yes, theatre should be kept in schools. It will be kept in ours.
All of these schools are guardians of the arts. I got to live theatre with thousands of kids who I don’t know the names of but I know love to give standing ovations five times before the finale.
With the LPP, I see the American states in a whole new light. I don’t see west or east. I don’t see red or blue. I don’t see their shapes. I see their Thespians, and they are chronically excited about everything.
The greatest thing I could accomplish this week was to run out of LPP pins. As I hop on the pins website to make a reorder, I want to personally thank you. The person reading this. You are the reason LPP has an international reach. Email can only reach so far. It takes people’s words. It takes us standing on stage and saying, signing, singing, dancing about it. It takes us acting it out to make it real.
LPP Team Leader Alyssa
Proud Officer of GCIT Troupe 5480
P.S. I would say thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I think it has already burst. Your support for me and my troupe is sending me to Colorado this October so that I may shout from the Rocky Mountains “theatre is advocacy and advocacy is theatre!” MORE than thank you for how you’ve carried me and my team through this incredible journey of the Spirit of Matthew Award. My only wish is that Matthew knows in Heaven that the stage is ready for him.
Freshman Lyssi…you’re here! You made it to Nebr!!!!
Where it’s AT!!
My birdies in all our scary glory.
That’s not even all the ribbons I got.
LPP doesn’t have a group from Nebraska yet, but we certainly touched down.
One of the greatest moments of ThesFest17 was seeing this go up in the cafeteria…I may have gotten a hold of the sharpie…
The minute I saw this, I got terribly excited, my heart started racing, all normal playwright things. No, I didn’t buy an extra copy of Laramie. And no, I didn’t buy a copy of Water by the Spoonful. I bought 2 copies.
The Happy People of Hoboken Troupe 7268, LPP family ❤
Yeah…I brought her with me.
They say if you touch the Wooly Mammoth’s foot, you get good luck. I brought Matt with me.
Me and Ms. Julie C!!
At the Awesome BCEFA booth…went sort of hog wild…
I love four numbers and those are 5, 4, 8, and 0!!!!!!
Hopewell Valley HS, Ocean County Votech, and GCIT! Three NJ Thespian Troupes!