THE FIRST-EVER Virtual International Thespian Festival kicked off Monday, June 22, with a stirring keynote by Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, who told Thespians to “think big” when envisioning the future.

Leon — who helmed critically acclaimed Broadway productions of A Raisin in the Sun, Fences, American Son, and A Soldier’s Play, as well as television events including The Wiz Live! and Hairspray Live! — told Thespians they “were born to enter the world and be in it at this particular time, with this particular set of challenges and rewards,” but said it’s the responsibility of artists to “observe the beauty and the ugly and tell the stories.”

Kenny Leon

Photo of Kenny Leon by Sewatwood, Wikimedia Commons.

Raised by his mother and grandmother, whose birth came less than a half-century after slavery’s end, Leon said he grew up in rural Tallahassee, Florida, without indoor plumbing, electricity, or commercially produced soap. Despite a lack of material possessions, “We were rich and full of life,” Leon said. “The struggle to make money is small compared to the struggle to make meaning and purpose out of life.”

Leon urged Thespians to find their purpose, noting that theatre provides a strong foundation for all life pursuits. “Thespians, let’s take over the world with your vision and strength,” Leon said. “All answers may not come from our politicians or religious leaders. They may very well come from our storytellers. Trust me, trust me. The world will be fine. It only awaits your dreams made reality.”

Leon then outlined advice for achieving those dreams. Plan, he said, but not at the expense of living in the moment. Remember talent is just one piece of the triangle, with a strong work ethic and good character forming its other legs. Embrace the “four Ls: listening, laughing, learning, and loving. … If you lose them, you may as well go ahead and call it a day,” Leon said.

Leon told Thespians to hold fast to personal confidence in their talents. “Your belief in yourself must be so strong that it doubles everyone else’s collective disbelief,” he said. “You can do anything you put your mind to. Most of the time the hardest thing to do is start something, and the second hardest thing to do is finish something.”

Above all, Leon asked Thespians to cultivate a better world than the one they have inherited, exercising both their rights and privileges as world citizens. “If you trust your ideas, if you passionately develop your own stories and relentlessly pursue truth,” Leon said, “when you have found love and formed unions and raised children and taught students and built businesses and created new economic systems and developed theories and invented new technologies, and produced, created, and told these stories in fascinating new ways — when your life is done and you join the spirits of all those who have come before you, you will have lived truly richly, and only then can you rightfully and honorably lie down to pleasant dreams.”

Leon encouraged Thespians not to be discouraged by current crises but rather to fight injustice in the world and always do more for others than for themselves. “I see a world led by you, a world where your generation will not only come to respect your neighbors but will come to understand that there are some ideas and values of worth in other neighborhoods,” Leon said. “I see a world where your children know less about pop culture and more about their culture. I see a world where we appreciate the act of gathering in sacred spaces sharing stories. I see a world without borders, and everybody loves it. I see a world that stretches across seven continents with real people, real relationships, and real communication that does not tolerate the abuse of women and children anywhere.”

In this world, all human life is equally valued. “I see a world, 2020 Thespians, where young black boys can go for a jog and get home safely. 2020 Thespians, I see a world where there is gender equality and respect, a world where kneeling for human rights is a good thing and kneeling on a citizen’s neck is not,” Leon said. “I see a world where elementary classrooms, churches, synagogues, and theatres are safe, beautiful spaces. I see a world where teachers and educators are valued. I see a world where politics and integrity are synonymous. … I see a world where all God’s children are prosperous. I see greatness, led by 2020 Thespians. It’s your time.”

Success is near, Leon told Thespians. “Think great. Think big. Life — experience all you can, as deeply as you can.”

Leon’s inspiring tone permeated throughout the opening event, which also included a performance of “Me and the Sky” by Tony-nominated Come From Away cast member Jenn Colella; welcome messages from this year’s International Thespian Officers and Educational Theatre Association board members; and a tribute to the class of 2020 from alumni of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmys.

The ceremony was hosted by Michael James Scott, best known for playing Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, who most recently appeared on Broadway in Something Rotten. Scott acknowledged this ITF, like the year generally, would be different from the past but urged Thespians to stay connected and engaged. He said, “2020 is shaping up to be, in the theme of Thespians, quite a dramatic year, to say the least. But in this moment, in this moment, you all have the chance to make real change. You are a voice. We need young, beautiful artists like yourselves to keep us filled with hope. … We need all that beautiful love and light and laughter and joy and energy that you have … we need that more than ever now.

The other highlight of the night came in the form of a virtual All-Star Thespian Choir performing “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. The choir featured 90 students from 38 states and three countries, in addition to guest appearances from celebrity performers Jason Alexander, Norbert Leo Butz, Joshua Colley, E. Clayton Cornelius, Janine DiVita, Matt Gumley, Sam Harris, Annabelle Kempf, and Analise Scarpaci.

“Look out ’cause here I come,” sang the Thespians, “And I’m marching on to the beat I drum.” As the sea of individual voices blended harmoniously into one, they embodied Leon’s Thespian call-to-action.

“This world belongs to you. It is what you make of it,” Leon said. “You have to claim and own that. … You are our hope, our future. This is your world, your country, your economy, your government, your theatre, your future, your time. You will decide what to do with it.”

Learn more about the Virtual International Thespian Festival online.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Quiz: Main Stage Marathon

    Quiz: Main Stage Marathon

    Do you know these International Thespian Festival throwbacks?

    Jun 22, 2020

    You registered for ITF. Now what?

    You registered for ITF. Now what?

    Make the most of your virtual festival experience

    Jun 12, 2020

    Why We Do Theatre

    Why We Do Theatre

    A pandemic “commencement address” for theatre students

    Jun 04, 2020