THIS SUMMER, when Thespian Sophia Moore-Smith’s troupe director, Cathy Archer, asked her to address their Rutland City Public School Board Meeting with her classmate Evan Breault, Moore-Smith felt honored — but not overly optimistic.

The Vermont school board was not known for its support of theatre arts. Despite Rutland’s beloved 34-year-old drama program Encore Theatre and active Thespian Troupe 5698, the last time the topic of school theatre had made a board meeting agenda was 10 years earlier — when a corps of dedicated parents and former students prevented the board from cutting Archer’s only theatre class.

Cathy Archer and Sophia Moore-Smith

Cathy Archer and Sophia Moore-Smith

“There’s been a sense for a while that there was a lack of recognition for everything we [Thespians] did and what Cathy does, but I was never terribly active about trying to change that. My philosophy was more that, if we do amazing work, they can’t help but notice us,” said Moore-Smith. Meanwhile, Archer had become accustomed to defending her part-time status at the school, teaching her one theatre class and supplementing her income and directing stipend through substitute teaching.

But with new superintendent Adam Taylor came new opportunity. In fact, Taylor invited Archer (who was on vacation and couldn’t attend the meeting) and her Thespians to address the school board to recognize the students’ successes at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Moore-Smith, who had won three superior ratings at the festival in her National Individual Event for lighting design, readily accepted the opportunity. She researched ITS, as well as the impact of theatre education on students’ academic performance and career readiness. Then she prepared her presentation, complete with an information packet about ITS and a letter, which she distributed to the superintendent and the board of school commissioners.

Following her presentation, one commissioner asked Moore-Smith what she wanted from the school board. Her response? The acknowledgement that theatre is just as important as better-funded school programs like athletics. “I told them that theatre is our sport. I don’t think people realize the time commitment, the teamwork. How you push yourself to do your best, whether you’re competing against yourself or against other people,” said Moore-Smith.

Within two months of that board meeting, Superintendent Taylor promoted Archer from part-time status to a full-time teaching position at Rutland. Archer, though not surprised that her Thespians impressed the board, was astonished at the promotion, which went into effect after the start of the 2018-19 school year. “That never happens!” she said, adding that she is thrilled to be enhancing her regular workload. “I absolutely love my job. I don’t ever want to retire.” Archer immediately began brainstorming ways to use her new teaching hours, from adding a public speaking course to creating a unified arts class for special-needs students.

We caught up with Moore-Smith this fall on a video chat from Tangará da Serra, Brazil, where she’s taking a gap year to volunteer with the Rotary Youth Exchange and learn Portuguese before entering New York University in fall 2019 to major in journalism. Although Moore-Smith has pursued many interests unrelated to performing arts — from speech and debate (for which she also competed nationally) to tennis to volunteering abroad — she believes that, without Encore and ITS, she never would have gained the confidence to try any of those activities.

“Theatre changed my life for the better. I used to be the shyest person. I came from a small Catholic middle school, and my voice would crack when I got home, because I hadn’t spoken all day,” Moore-Smith said. “Then the first few weeks of high school, somebody I know told me to go to an Encore meeting. At the first meeting, I didn’t say anything, but I ended up as tech support on a show, and the community was so ready to accept my help. Everyone was so welcoming, like they wanted you there, they wanted to see you. I gained so much confidence from that.”

Members of Thespian Troupe 5698 in 2018. Photo courtesy of Sophia Moore-Smith.

By the following year, Moore-Smith had taken the lead in Encore’s lighting design, inspired by her mother, who had worked in the field. Moore-Smith designed two Encore productions, The 39 Steps (2015) and A Wrinkle in Time (2016), both of which won her superior ratings at regional (Northeast Thespians) and international (ITF) Thespian festivals.

Moore-Smith believes being inducted into the International Thespian Society helped train her sights on excellence. “It would have still been transformative to do theatre with my friends in a creative environment, but having clear goals and standards with rewards in place — like getting your hours in or going to a regional Thespian festival and getting an overall superior, with the reward being that you get to go to ITF — really pushed me. We were defying the expectation of just some kids goofing off, doing theatre just for fun. ITS made it more real.”

In addition to regular academics, ITS, college-shopping, and other extracurriculars, Moore-Smith served her senior year as vice president of the Vermont Youth Drama Council. This involved, among other things, traveling across the state to attend one-act festivals and helping with fundraising.

All of her high school achievements contributed to Moore-Smith’s poise and professionalism at that unexpectedly fruitful school board meeting, an experience that taught her the power of advocating for the arts. “I didn’t really think there could be many benefits from going to the school board, if they didn’t already recognize us. I realize now that I was wrong.”

This story appeared in the February 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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