!nsp!re – Young Drama Students Honing Their Craft

Recently, I had the great pleasure of participating in the International Thespian Festival, held annually on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We were treated to unusually cool temperatures and only a little rain, which made the week all the more pleasant.

The campus at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
The campus at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The festival is produced by the Educational Theatre Association. It features a full week of activities for high school drama students. Some of the activities include performance and technical competitions (National Individual Events), college auditions, a wide variety of workshops for directors, choreographers, actors, techs, and playwrights, and fully-staged student plays and musicals. Among this years shows were, “Catch Me If You Can”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Mary Poppins”, and “Violet”.

Students rehearsing onstage (Photo by Matt Conover)
Students rehearsing onstage (Photo by Matt Conover)

Also included is an opening night event staffed onstage and backstage by specially selected students. Opening the festival this year was “An Evening with Shaiman and Wittman”, featuring the writer/composer duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, a cast of eight students, and two Broadway singer/actors.

Rehearsing "An Evening with Shaiman and Whittman" (Photo by Matt Conover)
Rehearsing “An Evening with Shaiman and Whittman” (Photo by Matt Conover)

The student technicians are mentored by seasoned pros and are afforded a unique learning opportunity; given that the show is blocked and choreographed in a day and teched in about an hour, with no cue -to-cue or other rehearsal.

Lighting focus with me and student Sam Molitoriss (Photo by Matt Conover)
Lighting focus with me and student Sam Molitoriss (Photo by Matt Conover)

It’s a great way for the students to learn how to pull a show out of thin air. I worked with three bright, motivated students and enjoyed my time with them immensely.

Me, with my three lighting students (Sam, Jalyn, and Madison)
Me, with my three lighting students (Sam, Jalyn, and Madison)

The students were also treated to a special cabaret featuring Broadway performers Carla Stickler and Justin Brill.

Carla Stickler, Broadway's current Elphaba from Wicked
Carla Stickler, Broadway’s current Elphaba from Wicked

This week drove home for me, yet again, the importance of introducing and nurturing a love of the arts in our nation’s schools. Only a small percentage of arts/drama/music students choose to pursue a career in the arts. Those who do pursue a career in the arts face a mountain of challenges; made all the more daunting by a culture that devalues artistic contribution and rewards “celebrity” instead.

Those who do not pursue a career still carry a love of the arts into adulthood, introducing their friends, family and children to art, drama, music, and dance; four forms of expression that make us more well-rounded humans; that teach us more about ourselves.

It’s difficult to not be cynical about the state of the arts in our nation. With threatened cuts to the N.E.A, arts programs being cut out or scaled back in public schools, and theaters, operas, and symphonies folding all over the U.S., the outlook appears bleak. This, despite the numerous studies conducted within the last five years concluding that the arts support and cultivate creativity in the nations youth and that creativity is the number ONE quality sought by the world’s business in their leaders.

The conclusion ought to be obvious to our political leaders, but it’s clearly not.

In order to not cave into that bleak cynicism, I volunteer my time to work with these students through the California State Thespians. The time I spend with theatre students rejuvenates my own passion for my chosen career. I see their youthful drive, their unbridled love for their craft, their excitement, energy, and clear sense of purpose and it re-inspires me all over again. I hope they find their experience to be as enjoyable and rewarding as I do.

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