To celebrate 90 years of the International Thespian Society, Dramatics offers this five-part series tracking highlights of our institutional memory, two decades at a time. We cannot include every detail, of course, and though ITS is an organization of great heart, we won’t exaggerate much. We don’t have to, because Thespians have a lot to be proud of, including an origin story of spirited vision, which we present here as the first in a series of articles of great emotional value, touched by memory, for your enjoyment.

TODAY, THE EDUCATIONAL Theatre Association reaches into nearly every corner of North America and beyond. It has 135,000 active members, publishes two bimonthly magazines, operates an international festival of school theatre, and aspires to be the voice of theatre education in the halls of government from the local to national levels. Since its founding in 1929, it has honored more than 2.3 million theatre students, supported and enhanced the training of countless teachers, and led in the development of educational standards.

Ninety years ago, it was three guys sitting around a table in the Rose Anna Tea Room in Fairmont, W.Va.

That was 1929. The story of the founding of National Thespians, which eventually became the International Thespian Society, actually begins a few years earlier in 1921, when a group of students at Fairmont State Normal School formed a drama club and began pestering the dean to hire somebody who knew something about theatre to serve as their faculty adviser.

That was how Paul Opp, a young man from Ohio who had recently finished graduate school at Columbia University, landed in the English department at Fairmont. Opp christened the group The Masquers and, seeking a way to provide recognition for the hardworking members of the troupe, applied to start a chapter of first one and then the other national college drama fraternity. Both turned him down, sniffing at Fairmont State’s status as a normal school (a two-year college for teachers) rather than a four-year college. Undeterred, Opp contacted friends at Marshall College in 1925, and together they launched their own college theatre honorary society, which quickly grew into a national organization. They named it Alpha Psi Omega. A companion organization for junior colleges was called Delta Psi Omega.

International Thespian Society founders (left to right) Paul Opp, Harry Leeper, and Ernest Bavely.
International Thespian Society founders (left to right) Paul Opp, Harry Leeper, and Ernest Bavely.

The idea that would become the Thespian Society came from Earl Blank, an APO member who was teaching drama and speech at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo. “Why can’t we have something like this for high schools?” Blank wrote to the APO founder and national director. Opp knew Blank because they were members of the same college social fraternity, and he knew that when Blank had obtained an APO chapter for his college drama club he had called it “Thespians.” Nice name, Opp thought.

One day in 1928, Opp showed the letter to Ernest Bavely, his secretary, and to Harry Leeper, a former student who was then teaching at East Fairmont High School. In a 1979 interview with this magazine, Leeper explained, “The idea had already occurred to Dr. Opp. This letter now stirred us to action. I talked to some students at my school and they reacted favorably. So the three of us decided to make the idea reality. Dr. Opp, of course, was the obvious leader and expert. He had already been through the organizational process for two other organizations. Mr. Bavely, as Opp’s secretary, was also very familiar with how Alpha and Delta Psi Omega were organized. Since I was teaching high school and directing a few plays there, I was able to furnish a high school viewpoint.”

They set to work, meeting after school in Opp’s classroom and on Sunday afternoons, sometimes at the Rose Anna, a popular Fairmont eatery. On pleasant days, the meetings became expeditions. Leeper said, “I would pick up the other two and we would drive around for a while; ideas often seemed to flow better as we drove. The drive sometimes ended with a session on my front porch, where we eventually wrote a constitution and initiation ritual.”

The founders used the college honor societies as a model, Leeper said, but they had a larger agenda, too. “We felt that our society could do more than just honor students for outstanding work in dramatics. We wanted it to serve as a vehicle to improve high school dramatics in general.”

They called the organization National Thespians. “Non-secret, non­social,” their early membership materials assured. A $500 loan from APO covered startup costs. Leeper designed a comedy and tragedy mask insignia and had a jewelry company cast the first Thespian pin. Blank, still in Casper, was named the first national director and his school was assigned Thespian Troupe 1. The founders outlined their plans for the organization to the drama directors at the two Fairmont high schools, and both agreed to start troupes. “Though one of them,” Leeper recalled, “thought the $1.50 membership fee was a bit high.”

They began writing to high schools around the country, and the thing took off. By the end of the 1928-29 school year, the new organization had 71 troupes.

This story appeared in the April 2019 print issue of Dramatics. A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Dramatics, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of ITS. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

International Thespian Society 90th birthday logo
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