MARCH IS Theatre in Our Schools Month (TIOS) and a perfect opportunity to make your voice heard after a year like no other. To do that, you need to know what you’re talking about — theatre in this case — and why you feel so strongly about it. In other words, you must become an advocate.

Getting involved in TIOS is a great place to start. On the TIOS web page, you’ll find all the tools and resources you’ll need to promote theatre in your school and community. Along with sponsoring TIOS, the Educational Theatre Association is a founding partner of Arts ARE Education, a new national advocacy campaign on behalf of arts education. The campaign has a series of actionable tools — a pledge, a resolution, and template letter for state legislators — that allow advocates of all ages an immediate way to indicate support for arts education in their communities.

As part of the campaign and TIOS, EdTA is sponsoring Virtual Capitol Hill Week to make the case for equitable access to theatre education for all students. Student and teacher members will meet with their senators and representatives to present the organization’s federal legislative appropriation and support requests for FY2022. Check out how to get involved.

In the meantime, you’re going to learn how you and your fellow students can become your school’s go-to theatre education advocacy group. You are probably as busy as ever, COVID-19 or not. But the need to advocate on behalf of something you believe in can’t wait — advocacy is simultaneously about the present and future, particularly now. Along with the tragic loss of lives, the pandemic has prompted economic hardship that has cost thousands of people their jobs and upended education, including arts programs in schools like yours throughout the country.

Kansas Thespians advocate for theatre education during the 2019 Theatre in Our Schools Month. Photo courtesy of Kansas Thespians.


Most of the tools and guidance addressed here are available in EdTA’s Rapid Response Advocacy Center page. To begin, start with three steps that will form the foundation of your advocacy strategy going forward. There are always choices being made about how education will be conducted at the federal and state level. But the decisions that will most immediately impact theatre education in your school are likely being made at the local level. So the three steps of advocacy we are addressing here are imagined at that grassroots level of decision making. Keep in mind that most of the local strategies detailed can also be applied at the state or national level.

1.  Analyze your school or district’s need for change.
Step back and consider how theatre is perceived by your school leaders, teachers, other students, parents, and your community. Are your shows well attended? Is your program robust and active, with curricular classes, with parent and alumni support, and annually supported financially by the district? Decide what are both the strengths and weaknesses of your theatre program, and why both characteristics are true.

You might consider doing a program SWOT analysis that will help you determine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of your school theatre program. Whether the answers to these questions are not as positive as you think they should be, or you decide that your program is in excellent shape, your advocacy should move forward. Advocacy can be about improving things or about making sure that they continue in their positive and productive state. Plus, things change, sometimes unpredictably in a way that puts a school program at risk, so you want to be ready.

Members of the Valley View High School 2019 TIOS team. Photo courtesy of Jeanine Lopez.

2.  Form a committee and assign roles.
To start planning your advocacy strategy on behalf of your program, identify and recruit your team of students. In some ways, this is your first bit of advocacy — convincing them that they need to step up to protect the theatre program that has been so important to them.

Regarding creating committees, you do this all the time as a member of a theatre production and anytime you lead a group project in class. None of us are good at everything — assigning responsibilities for different tasks will make your advocacy efforts stronger and more sustainable if you have like-minded advocates. You and fellow theatre students are the walking, talking embodiment of why theatre education should be available to every child — you have learned great communication skills, are poised before an audience, and know how to tell a story. These are all key traits of effective advocates.

The roles you assign can range from researcher and writer to public speaker and social media director, basically anything that will help you organize and activate an advocacy campaign. And by the way, like any other school group, brand yourself. You want everyone to know who you are what your essential purpose is. It can a simple as the “Smith High School Student Advocacy Task Force” or something more clever — just make sure that the word “advocacy” or “advocates” remains in the title.

3.  Develop your campaign plan.
Start by answering this question: What exactly do you want? You need to define your advocacy “ask” in such a way that it is clear to your team and can be succinctly communicated to the decision makers who are empowered to effect the change needed to achieve your goals (more on those decision makers in a minute).

It’s OK to have multiple requests, but they should all be girded with an overarching and focused need that you can state in a single sentence. For example: “We would like the Smith Board of Education to allocate $5,000 to the Smith High School Theatre Program in the 2021 district budget.” A secondary request might be, “We would like $1,500 of the Smith High School annual funding to be dedicated towards the purchase of new lights for our auditorium.”

Whatever your ask is, create a plan with short and long-term goals. Perhaps your short-term goal is to simply get a meeting with the principal, and your long-term goal is to gain a commitment from the school board for funding support for the coming school year. Even more strategic, think beyond a year and what you and your committee envision might be needed to support your program long after you have graduated. Committed advocates are always looking ahead beyond their own interests and needs.

In 2019, Kansas Thespians earned a proclamation from the governor for Theatre in Our Schools Month. Photo courtesy of Kansas Thespians.


Once you have analyzed your school’s theatre program, activate your team and follow these six actionable advocacy steps.

1.  Research your facts and figures.
As theatre people we are an emotional group. We wear our passion on our sleeve and in our hearts because we care about the people we know and work with and the stories we watch or tell onstage. But in the advocacy game, you need to keep your emotions in check — available at the right time in an advocacy meeting — but only after you have presented a measured facts- and figures-based case in support of your advocacy request.

To do that you must do your research. Maybe someone in your committee loves research — it demands patience and double-checking for veracity, and it doesn’t hurt to have skills in statistics and money management. It could be something as simple as annual audience attendance figures, or revenue generated, or perhaps the number of theatre students in the program who went on to college or professional careers. More complex would be a comparison of funding across arts areas within the school over a several year period.

Gathering school-based data should part of a long-term strategy that can become embedded into your program long after you have graduated. For national research-based data on the value of theatre education, check out the Rapid Response Center.

2.  Educate yourself and your team.
Once you’ve gathered your facts and figures, go into study mode and master them or, in theatre parlance, get “off book” and prepare yourself to share them with a decision maker. As a theatre student, you are adept at storytelling; that skill will serve you well in your advocacy — but only if you know what you are talking about. You and your committee need to be on the same page, so it’s critical that everyone prepares with the same information and messaging.

Remember how we talked about being able to communicate what you want in a single sentence? An “elevator speech” is a boiled down version of all your study and preparation. If there’s interest during a meeting, you can share the in-depth information that supports your ask, either as part of an oral presentation or as a “leave behind” document that your decision maker can reference later. Even if you do cover the facts and figures in your formal presentation, sharing documents is always a good idea — you educated yourself and now, in turn, you’re educating someone else.

Thespians from Troupe 3156 visited with Legislative Aide Eric Connelly to promote Theatre in Our Schools Month in March 2019.
Patti Doud from Troupe 3156 visited Legislative Aide Eric Connelly to promote Theatre in Our Schools Month in March 2019. Photo by Susan Doud.

3.  Identify key decision makers and allies.
Like theatre, advocacy is an ensemble endeavor. You need to know who the key decision makers and influencers in your school and district are. The list of decision makers generally is this: board of education members; the district superintendent; principals and other school-based leaders such as curriculum directors; and parent-teacher organizations. Reach out to them on a regular basis. Invite your principal, superintendent, and school board members to your productions — even if they don’t take you up on your offer, they will at least know who you are and that you are actively working on behalf of theatre education in their schools.

Your allies and supporters are everyone who believes that theatre is just as important to your school and community as you do. Start with your fellow students who aren’t necessarily active advocates but do care about the school’s theatre program. Move on to the parent booster group and the community members who are regular patrons of your shows and fundraisers. Cultivating them can be as simple as sharing reports of your activities through social media or posting some of your facts and figures about the value of theatre in your school in show programs — whether that’s digital or print. Your allies will be important when there is a moment of crisis — perhaps an unexpected layoff of a teacher or proposed elimination of an advanced theatre class — and there is a need to act quickly and know exactly who to call or email to help you make your case. In the big picture, you will also need them when the school board or other decision-making body meets annually to determine budgets, classes, and staffing.

4.  Make your first meeting with a school decision maker or community organization.
You’ve gotten this far, so now you and your team are ready to try out your newfound skills. Begin modestly if you must. You may be eager to meet with the president of the school board or the district superintendent, but consider starting with the program’s booster group or parent-teacher organization. This first meeting doesn’t have to be about a request. Rather, regard the meeting as an opportunity to share your group’s work thus far — your facts and figures about program success and the research-based data you have gathered. The goal is to make your group visible and to let your decision makers know that you would like to be considered a resource and sounding board when decisions are being made about the school’s theatre program.

Thespian Brannon Evans spoke with legislators and advocated for theatre at the 2019 National Arts Action Summit. Photo by Katie Ferchen.

5.  Be ready to make a direct request for support.
This might, as noted a moment ago, focus on a short-notice concern that needs immediate and decisive action, or it could be something that addresses a larger need — such as updates to the school’s theatre space, additional staff, or classes — that would likely be included in the district’s yearly budget process. Whether you are presenting before an individual, such as the principal or superintendent, or the entire school board, you should designate one member of your group as chief spokesperson. This individual is responsible for stating your advocacy group’s position and why. You may get 30 minutes, or you may get 5; your spokesperson should be prepared for both time frames. One way or another, that spokesperson must state, clearly and specifically, what the group is asking for. It’s easy to get caught up in your facts and figures and to forget to actually state your ask.

Important: You want to be heard, but you must also be prepared to listen. People who are empowered to make decisions regarding what and how students are educated in the community have an enormous responsibility. It’s not an easy job, so assume they have you and your fellow students’ best interest at heart. Hear what they have to say, what their positions are, and why. No matter the outcome of your advocacy, be prepared to try again. And never burn your bridges with your decision makers. It will not help you to criticize their positions or, even worse, belittle them personally. Upon completing your presentation, your group should thank the decision maker or group for their time and state that you are available to help the school and district best determine future support for the school’s theatre program. In other words, your advocacy should be positive, not negative.

6.  Tell your story.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of facts and figures — things like the success of your school’s theatre students, the economic impact of the program, and research-based data — but the most important advocacy tool you have is yourself and your theatre story. Always be ready to share that story, whether it be with another student, parent, board member, or legislator. This is where your passion can make a powerful personal statement about what theatre education experiences can do for an individual student like yourself. Maybe a role brought you out of your shell, or you learned to be a leader when you were a stage manager, or perhaps you felt like you belonged for the first time when you met the cast and crew of your first show. Whatever your story, it’s why you became an advocate in the first place — you are who you are because of theatre, and now you want to make sure that every student that follows gets the same opportunity to create their story. Good luck and keep advocating.

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