MOST OF THOMAS RIOS’ interactions with classmates before high school were dreadful. The senior’s high-pitched voice often made him the source of jokes and name-calling so traumatizing that he welcomed moving to Leavenworth, Kansas, to live with his father. When Rios joined Stella, Leavenworth High School’s drama club and home to Thespian Troupe 287, he experienced meaningful relationships and camaraderie for the first time at school.

“Ever since that day, theatre has given me a chance to grow as an individual,” Rios, the troupe’s student advocacy chair, told a room full of city commissioners and Leavenworth’s mayor on March 26, 2019. “One time I told myself I wouldn’t live past 16. But here I am, 17, healthy, bully-free, and more importantly, here to say how crucial it is to keep theatre in our schools and [to explain] the importance of the arts in students’ lives.

Leavenworth Thespians garnered coverage in their local newspaper for Theatre in Our Schools Month.

Leavenworth Thespians garnered coverage in their local newspaper for Theatre in Our Schools Month. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Morgan-Beuchat.

Rios’ presentation marked the culmination of a monthlong series of advocacy activities Leavenworth executed last year for March’s Theatre in Our Schools (TIOS) Month. During TIOS Month, thousands of students and theatre educators from across the country raise awareness about the impact of theatre education and the importance of access to quality school theatre programs for all students. Each year, Thespian troupes, educators, and students like Rios pledge to participate in the grassroots initiative.

Last year, Leavenworth students earned the first place TIOS Outstanding Impact Award from the Educational Theatre Association for their TIOS activities. Although TIOS Month began in March, the troupe started preparing weeks before.

“Every year, the kids and I sit down and plan out the month,” said Leavenworth Theatre Director Jennifer Morgan-Beuchat. “We map out what we need to do each day and share that document in our team drive to ensure we stay focused on what we want to achieve.”

The troupe’s 31-day plan included daily social media posts, theatre facts read by students and administrators during school announcements, theatre trivia posters mounted around school, and the spring performance of Celtic Tales, an original script featuring traditional stories pulled from the folklore of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales. The show was written by Leslie Coats, the theatre director at Kansas’ Paola High School.

In addition to their theatre advocacy speeches at the Leavenworth City Commission meeting, the students also met with two Kansas state legislators at the Lunch with Your Legislator event, part of the statewide Theatre in Our Schools Advocacy Day on March 11. Leavenworth Thespians joined 200 students from 14 Kansas high schools. During their 45-minute conversation, Stella Thespians were more than ready to use their voices to discuss the issues that concerned them.

“The kids were excited to share their stories to help legislators understand the importance of theatre education’s impact,” said Morgan-Beuchat. “There are many different components that impact theatre in our schools, and they got to talk about why they were important and why funding was important.”

During the Lunch with Your Legislator event, Leavenworth Thespians were able to explain the importance of theatre education in their lives.
During the Lunch with Your Legislator event, Leavenworth Thespians were able to explain the importance of theatre education in their lives. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Morgan-Beuchat.

Working with Representative Jeff Pittman, winner of EdTA’s 2018 Legislator Leadership Advocacy Award, the troupe garnered a proclamation from Kansas Governor Laura Kelly. They also invited Representative Pittman and Senator Kevin Braun to attend Celtic Tales, with both men taking them up on their offer.

Many schools need additional resources to present annual play productions because school districts often only budget for faculty salaries and benefits. Since legislators are moved by personal stories, advocating for funding is one of the most important activities students can do during TIOS Month.

“Attending the Theatre in Our Schools Advocacy Day [was important] because we were able to voice our opinions and stories to the officials who make the decisions that affect our educational systems and the funding for our districts,” said Rios. “These days, the arts are underfunded, and fine arts are the first to be cut in budgeting. As students, we need to be the voice of how important the arts are to us.”

When the Thespians weren’t giving speeches to community leaders or preparing for their production, they also reached out to the community to promote the benefits of theatre. They presented stage combat workshops at the Kansas Junior Thespian Festival, traveled to Warren Middle School to lead students in theatre activities and promote the high school program, and even participated in the Omaha Film Festival, where troupe members tried their hand at screen acting. Many of the students’ efforts were shared by local print and television media, helping them reach a broader audience.

The film festival was one of Student Thespian Officer Faith Lopez’s favorite TIOS activities. “I loved learning the different aspects of screen acting,” said Lopez. “In theatre you are only thinking about what you are doing onstage and how that’s displayed to the audience. In this case, the audience is beyond the screen, so you see a different side to acting. It was fun applying my theatre skills to that area.”

Lopez believes her theatre skills have prepared her not only for the big screen but also for life. Although the high school senior plans to major in political science and law, her experiences during TIOS Month, paired with what she has learned onstage, have given her confidence to pursue new passions.

“Because of theatre, I can go after these things,” she said. “Soft skills are being built, and you don’t even realize it. You’re not just advocating for theatre; you’re also learning people skills, how to delegate, and how to speak up for yourself.”

Stella Thespians set up an information table at the Leavenworth new student orientation.
Stella Thespians set up an information table at the Leavenworth new student orientation. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Morgan-Beuchat.

For Troupe 287, advocacy goes beyond March. In 2018, Leavenworth was the only Kansas school awarded the Educational Theatre Foundation’s R.I.S.E America grant, a competitive $10,000 grant inspired by the TV series Rise and funded by NBC to 50 high schools. Grants were intended to cover critical theatre program needs, and Leavenworth used the funds to repair the theatre’s stage floor. Advocating for this award inspired the Leavenworth school board to fund the additional expenses required to remodel the entire theatre.

The students’ advocacy efforts continue to increase the Leavenworth community’s understanding of the importance of theatre education, and the school’s annual TIOS Month activities keep those messages top of mind. “It’s not that our parents, teachers, or administrators do not care, but I think TIOS helps them understand how important theatre is and how essential it is to learning,” said Lopez.

Visit the Theatre in Our Schools webpage to learn more about TIOS Month and gather ideas for your TIOS advocacy plan.

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