April 8, 2016
National Volunteer Week is celebrated April 10 through April 16, and like most associations and other non-profits, the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), and the student honor society it manages, the International Thespian Society (ITS), rely on a volunteer Board of Directors to inspire the vision, set policy and give direction. EdTA and ITS also have a strong network of volunteer chapter directors in forty-six states. Plus many Thespian troupes, just like school sports teams and other curricular endeavors, rely on parents, local community groups, and sponsors for active and financial support; the volunteer network for school theatre is broad and deep!
On top of all this involvement, ITS has a special group of volunteers—the International Thespian Officers (ITO)—six students who are elected by their peers to serve as the voice of the 100,000-strong student membership.
The ITO bring the needs of Thespians, and ideas regarding policy and service changes, to the EdTA Board. At the state and national levels they also provide student leadership training, run workshops, sponsor student-oriented functions, and fundraise.
This year, the program they directly led during state festivals is to raise funds for grants for Thespian troupes to attend the International Thespian Festival (ITF), held annually in June in Lincoln, Nebraska. They have exceeded the goal by 50 percent, raising in excess of $30,000.
Not only are the ITO a voice, they serve as a role model for student Thespians, and any student who aspires to leadership. In fact, the year of ITO service is itself a role model for a student leadership development program. It requires a level of investment, dedication and commitment that few can achieve. Yet those who do reap life-long benefits.
EdTA Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald explains, “Students are at the heart of our mission. In striving to shape lives through theatre education, we honor student achievement. One way to honor it is to create opportunities and provide a structured path for developing knowledge, skills, and experiences. This aligns perfectly with the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking that grow out of participation in school theatre.”
To be considered for this prestigious and influential national office, student Thespians must first be a leader of their troupe or state chapter. Then, at ITF, they must attend a week-long leadership training. To put this in context, they’re in leadership class every morning from 8 am to 10 am, then go on to the rest of the Festival activities, including rehearsals, workshops, auditions and other competitions, as well as watch their peers in performance every afternoon and evening. And then, being high school students after all, hang out for a while afterward.
As high school students at home, the ITOs maintain their grades at dean’s list level and they support their own troupes' efforts from shows to community service.
As ITOs they each travel to numerous local and chapter Thespian festivals, where they mentor students, presenting workshops on leadership and advocacy. They do this from first-hand experience. Highlights of their travels including volunteering for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and being part of the Arts Advocacy delegation in Washington, D. C., this year on March 7 and 8. They have major responsibility for the ITS presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and they write their own blogs.
Some of the responsibilities mirror those of the EdTA Board of Directors; they advise the national association staff and serve on standing committees, such as Development, where they learn hands-on what it takes to run a national association.
Diane Carr, EdTA Director of Chapters and Communities, beams with pride as she describes their work, summarizing, “In March, 2016 alone, the ITOs were on the road every week. All six were in D.C. advocating for school theatre nationally as part of the EdTA Arts Advocacy Day delegation. From there the group fanned out over the month, taking leadership roles at state festivals in Nevada, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and New Jersey.” Collectively this year they’ve logged eighty thousand miles.
These students step up and exceed expectations, she added. “They are kids from a wide range of communities who are told you can do anything, you can be anything, and here is evidence.”
Alex Minton, the ITO Chair in 2014-2015, received several scholarships to Loyola University Chicago in recognition for his leadership work in that capacity. In addition, he has been instrumental in helping the university solidify a leadership minor. Designed as an interdisciplinary minor that can complement any academic major, the program prepares students to excel in leadership in a variety of career fields. Minton credits his year of service providing leadership training to students from across the country and around the world as preparing him for this initiative.
Here’s a National Volunteer Week "Bravo" for the International Thespian Officers 2015-16: