Sixty-five years ago, what is now the International Thespian Society celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion in 1954, Mary Miller, who chartered Thespian Troupe 59 at Danville High School in Illinois, looked back on the significant growth and accomplishments of the organization.

WHEN EDITOR LEON MILLER asked me, as one of the two remaining charter sponsors, to write an article commemorating the celebration of our society’s silver anniversary, I said yes readily and proudly. His letter came in May. The article was not due until December; that gave me plenty of time. A wonderful summer — properly blended of travel, work, and relaxation — passed quickly, and before I knew it, September had arrived. With September came all the duties attendant upon the opening of high school, and the added responsibility of Danville Junior College registration. Then October arrived with one-act plays, club meetings, a college mixer, period tests, state conferences. The weeks slipped by without giving me a single creative urge.

Mary Miller

Mary Miller

Now it is November. There can be no more dilly-dallying if I am to beat that December deadline. Had I really said yes readily and proudly to Mr. Miller’s invitation to write the article? Now I would omit that second adverb. As I re-read his letter, no sense of pride comes to sustain me, rather inertia and a feeling of senility. Twenty-five years! Ghosts of the past flit by me. … Yes, perhaps I should feel old. But I don’t! With this realization comes renewed vigor and alertness; I can now fearlessly meditate on 25 years in the field of secondary-school dramatics without feeling too ancient. After all, and I add this for the benefit of my own little Bogarts and Bacalls, just because I was fortunate enough to secure a troupe in the first year of the Thespians organization and remain with that troupe all these years, I am not necessarily so antique that my bones are creaking; nor am I the oldest director of dramatics in the country. There! Now I feel normal once more. I shall drop the foolishness and seriously set about showing all those connected with high school dramatics some of the changes that have come about during these 25 years and how much Thespian has meant to us here at Danville High School.

When in 1929 I secured the charter for Troupe 59, our dramatic club, the D.H.S. Players, had membership of 60. Now 160 students claim membership, and our waiting list grows. Without Thespian as an incentive, I doubt if we could have achieved this justifiable popularity. We have always used Thespian as an honorary, the coveted awards being conferred each spring at the annual Honors Day Assembly. That first year — 1929 — we had only three Thespians. … Now, each year, we average from 25 to 30 students who are eligible for our highest award, National Thespian.

In reviewing this quarter century of work with the national organization, I unfailingly see Thespian as I described it in an earlier article for Dramatics … “as a strong, helpful hand — extended at all times — willingly and gladly; as a clear head — with definite and worthwhile suggestions and directions; as a kind heart — offering friendly, kind, and inspiring counsel; as a powerful body — upon which to rest for decisions and instruction.” As far back as the early ’30s, the national organization offered new and real encouragement to us high school teachers who were trying to prove to the educators the values to be derived from dramatic work. We were endeavoring to show that dramatics could give something never found in the formal classroom. Like the application of one of the recent wonder drugs, Thespian came to give needed stimulus and directives. Of course at that time, Thespian was unable to function so efficiently as now; during the first five years only one issue of the national magazine appeared each year. There were no monthly newsletters; regular publications of any kind were nonexistent; the office was not equipped to handle its orders and mailing problems so expertly. Still, the national organization did manage to minister to our needs and give all of us in secondary school dramatics the inspiration and foresight we needed so badly.

Sylvia Kreidler, Barbara Powell, Judy Williamson, Sharon McMullen, Carol Bahls, Jean Haskell, and Carol Leverenz of Troupe 59 at Danville High School participated in the variety show at the 1954 National Dramatic Arts Conference.

Now in 1954, we receive regular newsletters, eight issues of Dramatics each year, and many helpful brochures and pamphlets. We have regional and national drama conferences to look forward to, and a brand new, well-equipped national headquarters to serve us. Yes, through a quarter century of service, the work of the national organization has borne real fruit. The periodicals and letters sent from College Hill to administrators and boards of education throughout the country, acquainting them with the work being done in this important field, have helped to “point up” the true worth of dramatics. No longer do educators look upon plays merely as “busy work” or a lacy frill on the tailored mantle of learning. The study of dramatics is coming into its own and is being regarded as an educational tool unsurpassed by any other subject in the curriculum. Wise administrators are fast realizing that no course does more to develop poise and bodily coordination, to improve voice and diction, to promote self-confidence. They recognize the fact that acting demands long hours of concentration, that onstage the student learns to meet deadlines and acquires the singleness of purpose to see a job through. I feel that our National Office has been instrumental in bringing this about.

Who can begin to tell the influence the National Thespian has had upon a high school group, upon its individual members? Assuredly it has helped to foster in them an appreciation for good theatre. It has done much to create in the students a desire for programs worthy of Thespian standards. Since we use Thespian as an honorary, I am sure that the ambition to become Thespians has added much to the sincerity and enthusiasm with which my young actors have played their roles. … When we pause to look with pride at our framed charter, hanging in the north hall of Danville High School, we cannot help being proud that — since 1929, Thespian has dominated the thoughts of countless boys and girls histrionically inclined. …

Furthermore, Thespian has helped us to become a vital factor in community theatre. By the high standards we have set in our high school productions, we are recognized as a troupe that is content with nothing but the best. Our young players upon graduation are eagerly sought by the local civic theatre group. Because we stress such by-products of dramatics as service, self-discipline, respect for the rights of others, and appreciation for a job well done, our Thespians go forth to take a real place not only in theatricals but in community life as well. Yes, I know that dramatics — fostered by National Thespian — has helped our students to become better citizens — both in school and out. …

In closing, may I say that none of us knows what the American theatre of tomorrow will be. But we who work in high school dramatics are sure that secondary schools will still be showing the public their best in artistry, their fullest measure of creativeness, and a real lesson in democracy. Looking back over the past 25 years, we become aware that the heart of the nation’s theatre is not Broadway. Rather it is to be found in the high schools of our land — sets being constructed, actors rehearsing, costumes being made, stage crews working — curtains going up, all over America! Yes, it is the high schools in towns and cities all over our country that are providing the real theatre for most of America’s millions. And we who have given countless hours, days, years to the work of high school dramatics feel that it is a job worth doing, and we push on with eager hearts and ready minds for whatever the future holds. Thoreau once said, “The world is a fit theatre in which any part may be acted.” If this still holds true, then we in high school dramatics, under the guidance of National Thespian, are sending our boys and girls out into the world with knowledge that will serve them well on a larger and more important stage. May they always bear as their motto, “Act well your part; there all the honor lies.”

This story appeared in the February 1954 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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