Every summer, thousands of high school Thespians bring their love of all things theatre to the Thespian Festival, a celebration of student achievement in the arts. Organized by the Educational Theatre Association and hosted by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the Festival is a one-of-a-kind, weeklong immersion experience in singing, dancing, acting, designing, directing, creating, writing, and memory-making. Festival features workshops presented by theatre professionals, individual and group performances, programs for technical theatre students, and opportunities to audition for college admission and scholarship. It’s an incredible experience for teachers and students and I’m proud to have been involved for the second year.
The week begins with a performance of “An Evening With…”. This year, the show centered around the theatrical work of 8-time Tony-winning composer Alan Menken. Alan couldn’t be with us in person, but a video crew had been dispatched to his home to capture his thoughts.
The show is unique because of how quickly it’s assembled. A cast of 20 student performers is pulled together through remote auditions along with 15 student technicians. They all converge on Lincoln and meet, for the first time, on Saturday night. While the performers attend a vocal rehearsal (conducted by Jason Yarcho, Musical Director of Wicked), the tech students meet and create a plan for each of their respective departments.
On Sunday, the performers have 9 hours of rehearsal, which includes learning the choreography and blocking, cleaning it, then running it in a rehearsal space, all while running lines and attending costume fittings. While they do that, the tech students are devising cue sheets, coordinating microphone plans, and mapping out backstage traffic and activities. In the afternoon, the techs get three hours in the venue to load in and test their respective gear. Platforms are placed, show files are loaded, and other tech elements are set.
On Monday morning, cast and crew meet in the Lied Center for the Performing Arts where they meet the 10-piece band. As they work through the show, the audio crew sets levels, the lighting crew creates cues, the projection crew runs their piece, and the dressers set up their backstage quick-change areas.
After lunch, the cast and crew have one dress rehearsal, then doors open for two back-to-back shows. It’s a somewhat unique experience in that it materializes so quickly, then vaporizes less than 24 hours later. The students run everything backstage – lights, sound, followspots, projection, costumes; under the direction of industry pros. Like last year, I had a great crew with top-notch talent.
For the remainder of the week, I conducted lighting and projection workshops for a total of about 500 students. This is a rewarding experience because it’s where you see the lightbulbs start going off; as students realize that the soft and hard skills they learn in theatre are suitable to all areas of the entertainment industry and that they can work in concerts, clubs, television, cruise ships and many other areas.
What struck me most is the level of super-engagement of these students. Their passion, dedication, and commitment are extraordinary. One wonders why that is; until you meet their teachers. These theatre teachers are deeply engaged with their art and their students; forming a bridge that carries the students from knowing about theatre to creating theatre. They inspire these students to commit, to create, to embrace, to BE their art. It’s thrilling to watch; and I’m already looking forward to next year.