SUMMER BRINGS visions of exotic vacations or lazy days relaxing by the pool. But earlier this month, more than 125 people — including 30 students — spent two steamy July days meeting with lawmakers in our nation’s capital. Representing 31 International Thespian Society chapters from across the United States, they were there to speak with legislators and congressional staff to advocate for the value of theatre education and the importance of providing school theatre access to every student.

Advocates participated in daylong training to hone their skills before taking their message to Capitol Hill. They’ll bring these teachings back to their communities to continue similar efforts at the state and local levels.

Dramatics asked your newly elected International Thespian Officers for their best training takeaways, the lessons they’ll be implementing at their schools this fall, and their advice to new advocates on how to get started.

What surprised you most about advocacy training, and what was your biggest takeaway?
Anna Hastings, Troupe 5006, Olathe South High School, Kan.: I was surprised by the number of workshops at the training. Everything from grassroots advocacy to federal policy and legislation was covered. The most important thing I learned was that it is O.K. not to know every piece of information about each topic. When each member of your advocacy team focuses on one or two topics they know well, your overall visit is more informative and effective.

Maura Toole, Troupe 7993, Grimsley High School, N.C.: I was surprised by how informed and engaged every student who attended was. It was incredible to meet other kids from across the country who had come to this event to express just how important the arts have been to their academic and social experience. From talking to students in attendance and better understanding their passion for arts advocacy, I grasped how crucial the work of the Educational Theatre Association is to a massive number of students. This was eye-opening to me.

Nic Fallacaro, Troupe 830, Pennsbury High School, Pa.: The most surprising part of advocacy training was hearing about plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and even get rid of it completely. That showed me how important it was for us to be on Capitol Hill, letting the people who represent us know that we need the NEA and theatre education. One of my biggest takeaways was seeing firsthand that speaking on Capitol Hill is nowhere near as scary as it seems.

Spencer Angell, Troupe 639, Salina Central High School, Kan.: The thing that surprised me most was how many similarities there are between federal and state advocacy. The asks we made in D.C. were the same asks we made at Kansas Arts Advocacy Day, but there was a difference in how we were advocating. When advocating on the Hill, we set up meetings and formulated a game plan, things we did not do at Kansas Arts Advocacy Day.

Keith Peacock, Troupe 5297, Lee County High School, Ga.: The most surprising thing I learned was the idea of a bipartisan approach when talking to different people.

Abby Stuckrath, Troupe 5869, Denver School of the Arts, Colo.: The thing that surprised me most is how important it is for students to advocate at the federal level. I couldn’t stop thinking about how so many students are just as passionate and educated, but they don’t have the same opportunities we do. Students are as inspiring as adults, and we can truly make a difference.

What lessons will you take back to your school?
Anna: In our first advocacy workshop on Monday, we were given an exercise to help us find our “SMIT” — SMIT stands for Single Most Important Thing. It gives a direction and purpose. I hope to bring this exercise back to my school’s Thespian troupe, as it is a great tool to use when deciding the focus for a project.

Maura: I intend to take all I learned about local and state advocacy and make this a priority within my ITS troupe and theatre department. It was informative to hear all the ways arts advocacy can happen not just at the federal level but also in each of our communities. I would love to share this with my classmates so that, collectively, we can make an impact in our school, city, and state.

Nic: The lesson I will take back to my school comes from the workshop “Rise Up, Advocate for Change,” led by former ITOs Alex Minton and Grace Alt. They had us fill in a yearly calendar with one act of advocacy per month. That showed me how we can advocate in different ways throughout the year, and now my board at school will be doing that activity at our leadership summit.

Spencer: I will take back the way to organize and set up meetings with legislators.

Keith: The most important tool I will take back is the idea of creating an elevator speech [a 30-second pitch of your message highlights] when talking to my school board members or principal.

Abby: Student voices matter! Legislators love hearing from students and even encouraged us to continue talking and influencing public opinion. Going back to my school, I will show my peers that we can make a difference if we educate ourselves and are truly passionate.

What did you share with legislators and staff with whom you met about why theatre education is important to you?
Anna: I shared how I’ve seen educational theatre bring students from my school together. The students in my repertory theatre class struggle with a variety of physical and emotional challenges. But this past spring, when given the opportunity to work together to create their own theatrical works, they went above and beyond, overcoming their difficulties. It was incredible to see my classmates strive for excellence through educational theatre.

Maura: It was awe-inspiring to have office visits on Capitol Hill, where the North Carolina delegation had the opportunity to talk about something we love. We were each able to share how participating in theatre has encouraged growth in every one of us. It amazed me to find that almost every person we talked to had participated in theatre communities at some point and cared about it a great deal.

Nic: My favorite meeting was with Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania District 1. I was able to tell him about skills — such as public speaking, organization, and confidence — that theatre has given me. We connected about student leadership when he mentioned he was an Eagle Scout, and I told him I am currently working on my Eagle Scout rank. Congressman Fitzpatrick is my representative, so it was cool to meet someone who directly represents me and tell him about the importance of theatre education.

Spencer: I said that theatre was important to me because it not only prepares you to be onstage but also helps you excel in any profession you desire. Involvement in theatre is never just art for art’s sake. The skills you learn in theatre are useful and transferable.

Keith: My personal visits on Capitol Hill were very relaxed. We met mostly with staffers with whom I shared the growing concern about the lack of whitespace for wireless microphones. The issue affects not only school theatres but also communities.

Abby: I shared my experience at an art high school and showcased how, even though we are arts-based, we still excel academically. Theatre education creates a welcoming community for all students to grow, improves mental health, and encourages imagination. Also, I talked about how Denver is booming because of the arts. Without them, Denver would lose its fun, cultural atmosphere.

What would you say to other Thespians interested in advocating for theatre education?
Anna: Go for it! Advocacy may seem scary at first, but there are tons of resources and ideas online that can help you get started. Not all advocacy is going to Capitol Hill and talking to legislators. It can be as simple as participating in Theatre Shirt Thursday at your school. I also recommend finding a few students or teachers willing to work with you. It is so much easier and more fun to advocate with a team.

Maura: I would encourage every Thespian interested in advocating for theatre education to start at home. Decisions at a local level are incredibly important. Talking to other students, school administrators, family members, or county commissioners is crucial. Effective advocacy can start simply by inviting someone to a show or speaking about the importance of theatre in your school and community.

Nic: Start by going to your school board meetings. Staying informed with what your school board is doing and inviting them to your program’s events is a great way to start. I also encourage them to reach out to their STO and ITO if they are looking for advice.

Spencer: Never be afraid to reach out. Write an email to your city or county council or to a state legislator. This may be to set up the reading of a proclamation for Theatre in Our Schools month or to make your legislator aware of issues involving wireless microphones. For more resources, you can go to the Educational Theatre Association website, where there is information for local, state, and national advocacy.

Keith: I would tell new advocates to find what they’re passionate about. Without that driving force, it’s a hollow push.

Abby: It’s the small things that count. You don’t have to go marching on Capitol Hill to be an advocate. Simply sending a letter to your state legislators makes a difference. There are so many outlets through which to advocate for theatre education: talking to your school board, calling your legislators, even talking to your Starbucks barista. Also, if you have an International Thespian Officer attending your state conference this year, attend our advocacy workshops. You will learn a lot.

Learn more about Educational Theatre Association advocacy efforts online.

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