The winner of the 2019 Democracyworks essay competition is Brannon Evans (left), Millard West High School Thespian Troupe 5483, Omaha, Nebraska. Her winning essay was one of a record 68 essays submitted by members of the International Thespian Society (ITS) for this year’s competition. First runner up is Lena Dougherty, Middle Township High School, Thespian Troupe 7564, Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Second runner up is Julie Matta, South Tama (Iowa) High School, Thespian Troupe 1038. The winner earns $250 cash and a trip to the National Arts Action Summit (formerly known as Arts Advocacy Day), the annual Washington, D.C. gathering of arts advocates from throughout the country. The runners-up also receive cash awards and certificates of recognition. As the winner, Evans and a chaperone will participate in one day of advocacy training and another visiting the offices of their Congressional representatives, asking for support on a wide range of arts and arts education initiatives and legislation. More than 30 members of the Educational Theatre Association, home of ITS, from around the country are expected to attend the Americans for the Arts sponsored event that takes place March 4-5.
The goal of the Democracyworks essay competition is to honor and showcase the voices of student advocates. The competition, sponsored by play publisher Samuel French, was founded in 2008 by EdTA Director of Educational Policy Jim Palmarini to inspire more students to become involved in advocacy on behalf of theatre and other arts education. According to Palmarini, he created Democracyworks after witnessing Arts Advocacy Day student advocates “make the case” for theatre and other arts education on Capitol Hill. “There are no more powerful spokespersons for theatre and other arts education than students,” he said. “Thespians have great communication skills, are poised, and passionate about how theatre has shaped their life choices.” Over the years of the competition’s existence, Thespians have addressed a range of advocacy related topics—including why every student should have access to a theatre education, how theatre teaches empathy and other twenty-first century life skills, and the value of STEAM education.
This year’s essay prompt was “What’s your theatre story and how has it made a difference in your life?” The prompt was chosen to help celebrate the International Thespian Society’s its 90th anniversary. “We all have a theatre story to tell, including students,” said Palmarini. “We wanted our Thespians to write about a moment, an event, or individual that made them want to be on stage or back stage, or in some other meaningful theatre role.”
Essay winner Brannon Evans detailed her experiences as a young African-American woman and how her school’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird taught her to love theatre and inspired her to become an advocate and State Thespian Officer. She wrote, “Race and self-identity are two things I wrestled with for most of my life. On stage I discovered theatre empowers those of us who may feel marginalized by who we naturally are. My school did To Kill a Mockingbird my sophomore year. I found almost everyone cast had felt out of place at some point, and we’re all more alike than we had thought. People I hadn’t expected to discussed being bullied because of their skin, background, sexual orientation, or any and everything that made them different yet unique. Theatre is what brought us together, and that feeling is something everyone should have the opportunity to experience.”
First runner up Lena Dougherty (right) told the story of her journey as a hearing impaired child who found strength and fulfillment in music and theatre. She wrote, “I love being the actor with the big voice who just happens to have one ear. I love being the girl who believes in herself and loves herself for who she is, imperfections and all. I still don’t hear everything, but I feel as though I haven’t missed anything either. Because of theatre, my life is full.”
Second runner up Julie Matta (left) talked about how she discovered theatre in the sixth grade and how it introduced her to a whole new world and gave her a sense of purpose. She wrote, “Theatre creates a world where a nobody can be anybody. The stories of my ancestors have shaped me into being the person that I am today. And the theatre provides the stage where those stories and shared experiences become entertainment that plays into new experiences, new lessons, and new opportunities to appreciate one another.”
In a short interview, Evans said she was excited about participating in the National Arts Action Summit. “I’m hoping to learn as much as I can,” she said. “I want to share my experience with other students and show them that they have a voice and not to be afraid. I almost didn’t write my essay, but I had confidence in myself, so I did. Theatre has made feel safe. I want other students to feel the same.”