In June 1941, Indiana University hosted nearly 700 Thespians and teachers attending the first National High School Drama Conference. Below is an excerpt of event coverage from the October 1941 issue of The High School Thespian.

FROM 24 STATES and the Panama Canal Zone, from the Pacific Coast and the Northwest, from the middle West and the deep South, from the eastern and New England states, came the nearly 700 teachers and students who attended the first National High School Drama Conference, held at Indiana University June 2-7, under the sponsorship of the National Thespian Dramatic Honor Society for High Schools, with the Department of Drama of Indiana University acting as host for the gathering. With most of the main events scheduled for the week held in the impressive new million dollar Theatre and Auditorium Building, the conference was pronounced educationally worthwhile and highly successful, marking an important milestone in the progress of dramatics in the secondary schools.

Traveling by bus, train, automobile, and in a few cases by “thumbing rides,” those in attendance at the conference formed one of the most enthusiastic groups ever brought together for a national gathering. The warm response with which the speakers were greeted, the eagerness with which all events were received, and the friendly and cooperative spirit shown by all, was convincing proof that the conference was thoroughly enjoyed and measured well up to expectations. Scores of complimentary letters sent to the National Thespian headquarters, and the fact that already inquiries concerning the next national conference have been received, is accepted as proof that the conference did accomplish the purpose for which it was held and that there is a need for such an event to stimulate and enrich the entire field of high school dramatics. …

May 1941 announcement about the first national Thespian conference in The High School Thespian.
The May 1941 announcement about the first national Thespian conference in The High School Thespian.


The program started in full force on Tuesday morning, June 3, with a short address by Ernest Bavely, secretary-treasurer of the National Thespian Society, on the aims of the conference. Greetings on behalf of Indiana University were extended by Dr. Lee Norvelle, director of the University Theatre and Radio Broadcasting. Greetings from the National Thespian Society were conveyed by Dr. Earl W. Blank, of Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, and by Miss Beulah B. Bayless of Natrona County High School, Casper, Wyoming, both national officers of the society. The main address of the morning was given by Paul Green, nationally known playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner, and now president of the National Theatre Conference. Mr. Green spoke on the importance of the theatre in our democracy and of the highly valuable contributions toward the building of a national theatre being made by educational groups such as were represented at the conference. The audience rose as one and applauded Mr. Green vigorously at the close of his address.

Following Mr. Green’s speech, student members of the audience went to the various sectional meetings on acting, radio, and makeup for which they had registered in advance. … That afternoon, the Division of Play Production opened with the presentation, in three separate auditoriums, of 12 one-act plays entered by various high schools. The performances were discussed by critic judges at the close of each play session.

Nearly 50 students from as many high schools participated in the tryouts for the coast-to-coast broadcast, which was carried by the N.B.C. Red Network on Saturday, June 7. … Students and teachers were given an opportunity to mingle and become better acquainted at an informal dance held Tuesday evening in Alumni Hall. …

Students participate in a coast-to-coast radio broadcast at the first Thespian conference.
Students participate in a coast-to-coast radio broadcast at the first Thespian conference.

The program for Wednesday, June 4, began with an address on techniques of acting by Frederick McConnell, director of the Cleveland Play House. … The Wednesday afternoon sessions were devoted to the production and discussion of plays entered in the Play Production Division. That evening, Professor Robert W. Masters and his student players from the State Teachers College at Terre Haute, Indiana, entertained the visiting groups with two performances, one at 7 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m., of Ever Since Eve, the latest comedy from the pen of Florence Ryerson and Colin Clements. Both performances were well done and enthusiastically received.

On Thursday, June 5, the program began with an interesting address on acting by Miss Lydia St. Clair, well known European actress who made her first appearance on the American stage last season as the Belgian refugee in Elmer Rice’s Flight to the West. Miss St. Clair laid considerable stress on the importance of the imagination in making a part live on the stage. Her address … reflected years of stage experience and wide knowledge of the art of acting. …

A magnificent out-of-door performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream given by the Indiana University Theatre on Thursday evening was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the conference that will long be remembered by those who saw it. …

The program for Friday, June 6, began with an address on modern trends in scene design by Professor Arnold Gillette of the University of Iowa. Professor Gillette illustrated his address with a number of slides showing various stage sets as used in the Russian theatre in recent years. A panel discussion followed Professor Gillette’s address. …

Memorable and impressive was the conference banquet on Friday night, June 6, with over 400 present. Dr. Lee Norvelle ably presided as toastmaster, and Miss Lydia St. Clair gave her second conference address at the close of the banquet. Miss St. Clair spoke interestingly of the differences in the European and American theatres.

A repeat performance, on Friday night after the banquet, of the three best plays chosen from those entered in the Play Production Division, gave added proof that the high school theatre is fully capable of doing excellent work. …

The greater part of the Saturday morning session was devoted to the presentation of prizes to the schools that received superior rating in the Play Production Division and to the students who were chosen for individual honors. The N.B.C. coast-to-coast broadcast from 12 to 12:30 p.m. brought the conference to a happy close.

This story appeared in the October 1941 print issue of The High School Thespian. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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