To celebrate 90 years of the International Thespian Society (and this magazine, originally called The High School Thespian), we at Dramatics offer this five-part series tracking highlights of our institutional memory, two decades at a time. Follow and add to the ongoing celebration at #ITS90th and #ThespianForever.

BY 1935, Ernest Bavely had become our society’s first full-time employee, as both its chief executive and the editor of its magazine, then called The High School Thespian. He would do much of the work that shaped the organization that it is today. He moved the society’s offices from Fairmont, W.Va., to Cincinnati so it would be easier to deal with the magazine’s printer, and in short order he increased the frequency of publication from one to five times and then eight times a year. In 1941, he organized the first National High School Drama Conference, the event that would become the International Thespian Festival, at Indiana University. The registration fee, including room and board for the week, was $11.

During World War II, the society was deeply engaged on the home front. “Greater than the battles now being fought in Europe and Asia is that battle of ideas and ideals being waged now by the Democratic Way of Life on the one hand and the so-called ‘New Orders’ on the other,” Bavely wrote in a newsletter to Thespian sponsors in September 1941, referencing Hitler’s claim of a “New Order” brought on by Germany’s occupation across mainland Europe and Japan’s military successes in China and the Soviet Union.

“In that battle, we teachers are frontline soldiers. Ultimate victory or defeat … will be determined by the effectiveness of our work in the schoolroom.” To theatre teachers, Bavely wrote, “is given the opportunity to show the meaning of the Democratic Life by that most effective of teaching methods — dramatization. We have it in our power to teach our students and to rebuild and strengthen profound and lasting confidence in Democracy among the people of our communities.”

Thespian troupes were urged to entertain troops with performances, to produce patriotic plays, and to participate in the High School Theatre for Victory Program, which raised money to buy scripts for libraries at U.S. Army posts around the world.

“Doughnuts and coffee are provided to these soldiers by many sources, but the special privilege of providing them with dramatic literature is ours,” an ad for the program said.

After the war, the society turned its attention back to the task of supporting and improving dramatic arts in American high schools. The conference resumed after a wartime hiatus as a biennial event in 1947. The magazine, renamed Dramatics in 1944, once again concerned itself with play selection, stagecraft, and topics like competition in play festivals (we were against it) and “vulgarity, sex, intoxication, gambling, and smoking” on the high school stage (against those, too).

This story appeared in the June 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

International Thespian Society 90th birthday logo
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