BY ANITA MARTIN MANDERFIELD
IN A SMALL WEST VIRGINIA TOWN in 1929, Fairmont State College professor Paul Opp, his associate Ernest Bavely, and East Fairmont High School teacher Harry Leeper met to discuss their idea of an honor society for high school theatre students. By 1989, one idea had led to another, namely the Educational Theatre Association, founded to oversee the rapidly growing International Thespian Society and organization for theatre educators.
Now, 88 years after the first Thespian troupe was chartered, EdTA officially launches a philanthropic arm: the Educational Theatre Foundation. The simple, yet monumental idea driving this initiative: to bring quality theatre education to every child. Thanks to the abundant support of its board members and growing momentum of its programming, ETF is already well-poised to make this idea a reality.
The foundation focuses on three key areas: building sustainable musical theatre programs in schools without them; improving school theatre programs through competitive and need-based grants; and nurturing the next generation of theatre educators and artists through individual student grants.
According to EdTA Executive Director Julie Theobald, ETF now fills a critical gap as the only existing foundation with these explicit goals. “The research is clear: Students who participate in theatre improve their literacy, empathy, self-discipline, and self-confidence. Yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 28 percent of schools in high poverty areas offer theatre instruction,” she says. “ETF’s aim is to become the go-to philanthropy for theatre education in America.”
The foundation’s biggest news — aside from its launch — is the national expansion of EdTA’s JumpStart Theatre, a three-year program designed to train non-theatre teachers to build and sustain their own musical theatre programs. JumpStart Theatre began with a pilot program in Cincinnati. Next year, the program spreads to St. Louis and San Diego, through partnerships with STAGES St. Louis and La Jolla Playhouse and support from the Shubert Foundation. This development would not be possible without a vital and unprecedented personal gift from ETF honorary board member Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment.
Since the early 1990s, Greenblatt’s dramatic sensibilities have shaped America’s primetime television, including shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and The X-Files. But before his Hollywood career, Greenblatt was a small-town teenager in love with the stage. “I was the lucky beneficiary of school theatre as a kid in Rockford, Illinois,” he says. Despite being “out in the cornfields” of football country, Rockford’s Boylan Catholic High School’s theatre program was, in Greenblatt’s words, extraordinary. “It changed my life.”
According to Greenblatt, it’s no coincidence that he and so many of his fellow high school alums, including Joe Mantello and Marin Mazzie, have made such splashes in show business. He directly credits the excellence in theatre education at Boylan. “Theatre changes the lives of young people and gives them skills they don’t even know they’re getting. And whether you go into the theatre or the entertainment business — or something else — it doesn’t matter. You go forward with your life, and you bring with you skills and experiences you will never forget. It really does change you.”
Matt Conover, chair of ETF and vice president of Disneyland Entertainment at Disney Parks Live Entertainment, also got his start with excellent theatre instruction, specifically as a Troupe 335 Thespian in Rockville, Maryland. His theatre teacher, Stan Brodsky, and dance teacher, Marion Griffin, provided him technical and leadership opportunities, including his first lighting design project. Conover says attending a Broadway tour production of Godspell in seventh grade ignited the spark for theatre in him. “I remember being inspired by it because of its simplicity. That particular production was literally just some benches and a chain-link fence, and the rest was all done with lighting.”
After that, he dove into lighting design in high school and community productions and eventually at the SUNY Purchase College Conservatory of Theatre Arts, where he was taught to think storytelling first and technique second, an approach that has well served his leadership at Disneyland Entertainment.
Greenblatt, Conover, and other ETF board members and benefactors value theatre education for both personal and professional reasons, says EdTA’s director of development, Marion Combs. “Early access to theatre and theatre education lays the foundation for the live entertainment industry, as well as television, film, and related fields,” he says. “The foundation will enable the industry to enrich its origins, and provide entertainment professionals, Thespian alumni, and other individuals passionate about school theatre the opportunities to give back and ensure future generations of technical and performing talent.”
Combs notes that while EdTA and ITS carefully attend to the “annual rhythms” of school theatre programming, the foundation will address “the larger cycle of how theatre education nurtures future generations of performing artists and educators” by providing a means for current educators, other arts professionals, and fans alike to close the circuit through reinvestment.
Of course, not every theatre kid will go on to directly enrich the arts and entertainment world through a career in the industry, but programs like JumpStart Theatre demonstrate how theatre education can enrich every kid.
James N. Gamble Montessori High School was among the first three schools to participate in the JumpStart Theatre pilot program, which started in 2015. However, JumpStart Theatre wasn’t the only newcomer to Gamble Montessori that year. Za’Khyra Whitehead had also just arrived for seventh grade.
In middle school, the thick of what psychologists call “identity formation,” uncertainties and changes — whether physical, financial, or emotional — can isolate and overwhelm. And Whitehead’s family was adjusting to a major financial transition. Yet, on the advice of her school psychologist, Whitehead auditioned for the school’s first JumpStart Theatre musical, Once on This Island Jr. She was cast in a role showcasing her mezzo soprano pipes. And just like that, this anonymous new kid with challenges at home transformed into Erzulie, goddess of love.
More importantly, she found friends and got to share a creative project with a team of peers and supportive teachers. Now in ninth grade, Whitehead has aged out of JumpStart Theatre, which targets intermediate grades 7 and 8, but the school principal Jack Jose says that Whitehead’s early involvement in musical productions seems to have made a huge difference. “Now she greets teachers in the hallways, and everybody gives her a hug and knows her name,” Jose says.
Whitehead isn’t the only student Jose has seen positively impacted through JumpStart Theatre. “It’s so neat to see your students in new ways. One of my students has an anxiety disorder. She gets really terribly frustrated sometimes, just can’t even think straight in the classroom, and she just transforms on stage. She was Miss Hannigan in Annie last year, and she was just so commanding. She was terrifying.”
Like ETF, this program began as an idea, one shared by JumpStart Theatre founding collaborators iTheatrics and Music Theatre International, and based on their successful Broadway Junior Musical Theatre program in New York City. According to Freddie Gershon, chair of MTI and honorary board member of ETF, no other discipline can match the positive effects of school theatre. “You look at a show like Annie. This is about more than a redheaded orphan sitting on a billionaire’s lap singing ‘The sun’ll come out.’ It tells a story about optimism in the face of adversity. It deals with child abuse and substance abuse in the character of Miss Hannigan. It teaches about the Wall Street Crash leading to the Great Depression, about FDR and the New Deal.”
Gershon began thinking about this more seriously in the 1980s, after attending EdTA’s International Thespian Festival and hearing theatre teachers describe the relative lack of respect and resources they receive compared to other faculty members. Based on this, Gershon began devising study guides that tie aspects of popular and classic plays to national learning standards. He later conceived MTI’s Broadway Kids/Broadway Jr. scripts, which adapt Broadway musicals to 30- to 60-minute versions based on the curricular needs and technical skills of elementary and middle school students.
While watching Annie may spark classroom discussions on everything from economic history to political philosophy, being involved in the actual production offers a range of technical, creative, and life skills training that simply cannot be found elsewhere. “Theatre teaches kids how to get along with a team, how to dream, how to inhabit other people’s worlds, how to work together to accomplish something otherwise impossible,” Gershon says.
But the most important lessons that theatre educators impart? According to Gershon, they are “tenacity and fortitude.” He notes, “In theatre, you will not get every role you want. You will have to improvise when things go wrong. You will have to show up, and then keep on showing up. … Like in the opening scene of All That Jazz, no matter how you’re feeling first thing in the morning, once your reflection in the bathroom mirror comes into focus, ‘It’s show time, folks.’ That’s theatre. But also, well, that’s life.”
Next year, Gamble Montessori and two other greater Cincinnati schools conclude their JumpStart Theatre training and fully take the helm themselves. Six more Cincinnati-area schools have joined in subsequent years, as the program has added three new schools each year. Also next year, JumpStart Theatre will launch its first schools in the St. Louis and San Diego areas, through STAGES St. Louis and the La Jolla Playhouse.
STAGES St. Louis Executive Director Jack Lane firmly believes that the skills he learned through school theatre set him up for success. “Teamwork for sure, confidence absolutely, but I would say the biggest thing I learned was vision. Without vision I would not have been able to build what has been an extraordinarily exciting and rewarding life.”
Lane, a member of the ETF national board of trustees, began performing in grade school, where his budding vision withstood resistance from a nun at his Catholic school in Queens who initially spurned his idea for starting a school drama club. “Needless to say, I started a drama club.” Lane says. “I was a grade-school drama rebel.”
Now, through JumpStart Theatre, Lane aims to start a “drama club revolution” of sorts across St. Louis. “I like projects that are bold, brave, and game changers,” Lane says. “That describes JumpStart Theatre to me.”
In addition to JumpStart Theatre, ETF provides funding for other EdTA programs, including New Troupe Charter Grants, professional development opportunities for theatre educators, the Send a Troupe to Festival program, competitive grants to enhance school theatre productions, student scholarships, arts advocacy programs like Democracyworks, and individual creative grants for young writers.
For example, the Next Generation Works programs promote original writing by and for active student Thespians. They include Playworks, Musicalworks, Filmworks, and Criticworks. Finalists in Playworks and Musicalworks work with professional directors and dramaturgs at EdTA’s International Thespian Festival to refine their scripts in preparation for a live festival performance and subsequent publishing and licensing by sponsors Samuel French and TRW, an experience that 2016 Playworks finalist Phanesia Pharel says “totally changed my life for the better.”
Pharel wrote Penelope as a junior in Troupe 3637 at South Dade Senior High School, which she describes as an underserved school on “the ultimate south side of Miami.” Playworks fanned her passion for writing and directly contributed to subsequent opportunities, like her participation in the Horizon Theatre Company’s New South Young Playwrights Festival in Atlanta and her acceptance to Barnard College in New York City, where she is now a freshman.
As a young black woman of Haitian descent, “it has been hard trying to find a world for myself,” she says. “I identify with people who are outsiders, and as a writer, I want to tell those stories.” After seeing Penelope performed at the International Thespian Festival, Pharel realized the impact she could have on others through theatrical storytelling. “There was one particular moment where a black woman came up to me, crying, to tell me how much my play meant to her. That was one of the most important things that has ever happened to me in my life, because I don’t think anything I do should be just for me,” she says. “Knowing that I validated something that someone else felt was just so perfect.”
This is the same effect Gamble principal Jose sees from JumpStart Theatre: that participation in the theatre arts builds confidence, which he sees as the foundation for creativity. “The artist is the one who hears that voice in himself, recognizes it as a truth, and speaks it,” he says. “It isn’t even necessarily about being ‘an artist,’ it’s about being confident. It’s about trusting yourself. That’s what the arts give to a child. This confidence that ‘I can do this’ — that my dancing is worth looking at, that my song, my voice, is worth somebody hearing.”
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