WHEN THE 2020 International Thespian Festival transformed into a virtual event this spring, the International Thespian Officers faced a tricky question: How would they similarly shift the International Thespian Society’s annual student leadership training (which has traditionally taken place during ITF) online, while maintaining the camaraderie critical to the program’s success?

Their answer was Looking Through the Leadership Lens, a five-hour session on the first day of Virtual ITF. The event included workshops about defining and optimizing personal leadership styles; networking opportunities for student leaders from across the country; and keynote addresses by Sarah Singer-Nourie, leadership coach and author of Tap Into Greatness, and Alton Fitzgerald White, Broadway’s longest-running Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King.

For the ITOs, the priority was encouraging personal connection. “One of our biggest concerns was the fact we wouldn’t be able to interact with people we were working with then and there,” said Keith Peacock, a recent graduate of Troupe 5297 at Lee County High School in Georgia. “We talked about that a lot: What are our options? How can we get that person-to-person interaction we craved so much from going to ITF? Going to Virtual ITF, we wanted to replicate that experience.”

Maura Toole ― a rising Thespian senior in Troupe 7993 at Grimsley High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was recently elected to her second ITO term ― says these interactions are invaluable to student leaders. “Something we all have experienced as so important in the leadership day typically at ITF is that students have an opportunity to connect not just with the ITOs but also to connect with each other,” she said. “That was a priority for us: to create opportunities for students to connect with each other and share ideas.”

Alton Fitzgerald White gave a keynote to student leaders at Virtual ITF.

Alton Fitzgerald White gave a keynote to student leaders at Virtual ITF.

One happy surprise of the virtual transition was creating activities that hadn’t existed before. “We’d never had keynote speakers quite like we did this year, so that was neat to build into our schedule because it meant students weren’t just listening to us but were able to connect with folks who have really great ideas to share,” Toole said. “So, I thought that was a success and hopefully something that can happen whether we’re at ITF next year or doing our leadership day virtually again.”

Not all activities were strictly educational. “One of the bigger challenges, at least for me, was trying to think of ways to keep students entertained and make sure they’re completely immersed in this workshop we’re doing,” Peacock said. “I understand a lot of times sitting behind a computer for seven, eight hours a day can be a lot. In the workshops, we’d play games. We had them up and moving, having fun.”

The ITOs recognize the importance of virtual training is likely to grow in the upcoming school year. “I think lots of festivals this coming year will either have to be virtual or some variation of in person and virtual,” said Anna Hastings, a recent graduate of Thespian Troupe 5006 at Olathe South High School in Kansas. “So, I think showing that a virtual student leadership day or student leadership workshop is possible is probably our biggest success.”

Toole concurred. “Something like this, even though it can be hard to pull off, can be pulled off and can still be student-driven,” she said. “When students are given responsibility like this, they thrive. I’m excited to see what other chapters do with their student leaders and programming.”

The challenges the ITOs faced and lessons they learned provide valuable tips for student leaders interested in coordinating similar programs in their troupe or chapter.

Script the day
The ITOs said that while in-person events are broadly outlined, online events must be more carefully scripted. Add time in the schedule for unexpected technology issues that can occur when everyone is remote.

“The development of the workshop was very different from the development of the workshops we had taken on the road all year,” Toole said. “When I went into a room to teach a workshop at a festival, I had a plan. I knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end, and wherever the room took me was how we got to where we needed to end up. But we found that, in developing this virtual workshop, we needed to have every second planned to keep students engaged. … We couldn’t ebb and flow.”

Abby Stuckrath, a 2020 graduate of Thespian Troupe 5869 at Denver School of the Arts in Colorado, agreed. “One thing that was vital to how we scheduled our time was having a specific outline of everything we would do and having a script,” she said. “You don’t have to stick to the script word for word … but it’s easy, especially on Zoom calls, to go over the time you’re allotted. Have that timeline so you respect everyone’s time.”

Nic Fallacaro leads discussion during the student leadership training.
Nic Fallacaro leads discussion during the student leadership training.

Incorporate activities
Screen fatigue is real and can be deadly to engagement during online events. The ITOs recommend incorporating as much interaction as possible in presentations. Provide handouts, quizzes, diagrams, and other tangible activities. Ask questions, seek feedback, and take advantage of technology to create real-time polls or surveys. “Have things that students can print out or scribble down if they don’t have access to a printer,” Toole said. “Have something tangible that students can keep.”

Most importantly? “Don’t make it a lecture,” said Spencer Angell, a rising senior in Thespian Troupe 639 at Salina Central High School in Kansas, who will serve as an ITO again in the 2020-21 school year.

Use the chat function liberally
A robust chat stream provides instant feedback to speakers during presentations, allowing them to adjust for questions or confusion. Chats also add collaborative elements to prerecorded sessions and provide ways for participants to connect. The chat during the student leadership program gave every student “an opportunity to be heard by their peers,” Toole said, adding that’s not always possible in the larger, in-person setting. “I was surprised there was more of an opportunity for students to feel connected to what we were talking about and what we were learning.”

Organize break outs
Streaming software such as Zoom allows meeting organizers to segment participants into smaller breakout rooms, simulating the small-group discussions that happen organically in person. “I was thinking it was going to be a little bit awkward … a bunch of strangers thrown into a room together, but then it was like the atmosphere of ITF was still there [even though] it was virtual,” said Nic Fallacaro, who graduated this year from Thespian Troupe 830 at Pennsbury High School in Pennsylvania. “Everybody was super friendly. It was just Thespians who want to know each other. Everybody is there with a genuine interest in your life.”

Plan breaks
It’s important to give participants time to move, stretch, and take necessary physical or mental breaks throughout the day. “We found 15-minute breaks worked well because people could grab a snack, grab a drink, or take a bio break,” Hastings said. “And that helps with attention spans, keeping people engaged.”

Leave time for questions
The ITOs planned workshops in 30-minute blocks but say they wish they had considered 45-minute sessions. “People had more questions, and they had a lot of input,” Hastings said. “We didn’t quite get to all of it.”

Define takeaways
Provide students with clear action steps so they know how to implement their training once the event ends. “I think that’s especially important virtually because sometimes watching things on Zoom can feel like watching Netflix, and there are no action steps for something like that,” Toole said. “To give students a way to be involved in their communities outside of this workshop is huge.”

The ITOs met regularly as they planned content, and they carefully reviewed logistics in advance of the day. “We had a quick run-through of the basics,” Hastings said, “then we had a ‘tech’ rehearsal, a real run-through of how the workshops were going to flow.”

Though there are aspects they would handle differently, the ITOs were pleased overall with the results of this year’s event. “We were able to show students they could connect with other student leaders virtually, outside of this event,” Toole said. “In talking to students after the fact, they were able to build leadership relationships where they can now, virtually, be sounding boards for each other, even if they live all the way across the world.”

For Stuckrath, the virtual transformation was a classic example of making lemonade from lemons. “Even though it can be disappointing to have your festival online or to realize you have to teach a workshop online, it’s still possible and it’s still fun,” she said. “It’s also a great opportunity to expose yourself to new technical elements and to challenge yourself as a leader. Don’t think of it always as a bad thing. Think of it as a new opportunity for you to grow as a student, leader, and person.”

Leadership Toolkit

This year, the ITOs spearheaded a project to make leadership resources more accessible to students everywhere. The Student Leadership Library, hosted on Schooltheatre.org, offers resources, tactics, and tips built for students by students. It gives blossoming student leaders a crucial foundation for taking on passion projects at the local level.

Topics include advocacy, leadership skills, running a meeting, social media management, and more. Over the coming year, the new International Student Leadership Council will continue to refine and expand these resources. Explore the library online.

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