In 1963, the then National Thespian Society took another step in its growth internationally with the installation of its first European troupe.

LAST YEAR, the National Thespian Society made its initial bow in Europe with the installation of Troupe 2327 at Frankfurt American High School here in Frankfurt, Germany. What is it like being a Thespian in Europe? Perhaps a quick look at this overseas American high school will afford an answer.

The largest and one of the oldest American high schools for military dependents in Europe, Frankfurt is fully accredited for stateside colleges and universities and, as such, offers not only the necessary academic preparation but also the opportunity for participation in the many extracurricular activities dear to the heart of a teenager. Among these activities, dramatics has always held a secure niche despite many difficulties not generally encountered in stateside high schools.

Because of the recognized “temporary” aspects of the overseas military program, the dependent schools have obviously not been built with the complete facilities usually recognized as essential in their counterparts at home, and areas like gymnastics, auditoriums, and stages are often inadequate or lacking in many essentials for the best performance. The auditorium and stage at Frankfurt High are no exception. Built when the school easily accommodated 500 or so students, the auditorium can no longer adequately serve a senior high school population of 1,400. Assemblies for the students are presented in double sessions at a nearby post movie theatre, which is so widely used otherwise that very seldom do the students have opportunity for even one practice in the theatre before the program is given.

The school auditorium itself is used for early morning homeroom meetings, daily study halls, and after-school rehearsals for plays, musical programs, and school wrestling teams (from November until March), and becomes an actual theatre only for the three-night performances of school plays, when it offers assembled audiences of from 200 to 300 nightly as good a look as possible at a play given under adverse conditions: poor acoustics (actors must really project, almost to the point of shouting, although this is avoided); a stage with a wide proscenium and no depth so that, unless one plans carefully, the illusion is given of the set’s being placed only on the narrow apron; a backstage entrance only on one side with the result that an actor can easily be trapped on the unopened side, unable to leave until the curtain has closed on a scene or an act; a few inadequate footlights and no light board, thus requiring the constant attention of an “electrician” at each outlet to provide simultaneous lighting changes unless a portable light board and spots can be borrowed from the nearby Frankfurt Playhouse, a military theatre for adults (during our last year’s senior play we were “fortunate” to be able to borrow this equipment the afternoon of our opening!)

However, it has been said, and wisely, that one can have good theatre with simply a playing area and actors, and these we have at Frankfurt. Our students are service-experienced and travel-trained and as a group are far more sophisticated than the young people of their age group at home. One of our best actresses this year came from Warsaw, where her father was attached to the American Embassy; one of our actors had previously spent four years in Hong Kong and will this next year proceed on to Iraq with his family; others have traveled extensively in Europe or the Far East. Thus, they bring to us a feeling of maturity, a savoir faire, which is of great value in producing really good plays. In addition, they possess a great eagerness, a desire to do and be a part of something beyond the usual, for theirs is an insecure life at best, and the recognition and approval afforded them by active participation in plays gives them a feeling of really belonging to a group. Thus, we have our actors.

The program has been varied. Two years ago, Our Town was produced by the junior class with particular success, for the play itself simplifies production difficulties. A bare stage we had, with one backstage entrance and steps leading up on either side of the auditorium to the apron. We placed the choir — and a borrowed portable field organ — in the front of the auditorium to one side near an exit, spotted certain required actors in the auditorium itself, had front entrances as well as back, and brought the whole wedding procession down the aisles past the audience — not a new trick, surely, but a convenient one, which brought the audience and the play closer together and produced greater enjoyment on both sides.

Two following plays, The Late Christopher Bean and The Curious Savage, were done in the round (perhaps we should say three-quarter round, since we did put up flats on one end to bring the actors in), on the floor of the auditorium with the audience sitting around the “stage.” Both actors and audiences enjoyed these productions too, although they were necessarily limited as to seating capacity and visual possibilities since we didn’t have satisfactory risers for lifting seats beyond the first few rows.

The cast of the 1966 Frankfurt American High School production of Bye Bye Birdie.
The cast of the 1966 Frankfurt American High School production of Bye Bye Birdie.

This past year, we returned to our difficult proscenium staging with Gramercy Ghost, which was reasonably easy except for lighting and the Revolutionary war costume, and Stage Door, which presented the problem of placing 20 girls where they could all be seen and heard on what seemed to be, all at once, a remarkably small stage. Some sat on the floor, some on chairs, some on arms of chairs; some leaned on available furniture; one even reclined on the top of a small upright piano. But they all managed to be seen and to move freely, and we felt that in itself was an accomplishment.

As mentioned with Gramercy Ghost, costumes also present a problem which can be solved but with difficulty. In the States, people have attics that can be ransacked; there are secondhand shops and thrift shops and the Salvation Army and mothers who sew. Over here, there are no attic supplies, for traveling families do not carry their clothing past with them; there is no Salvation Army store to ramble through; and mothers have better things to do than to make costumes for plays. There is, however, an Army costume depot at Aschaffenburg, about an hour’s drive from Frankfurt and open only during the hours school is in session. However, if the need is great enough and an effort is made, the costumes can be borrowed.

Furniture is another matter entirely. In all of the American installations in Europe, there is one kind of furniture known as G.I. — chairs, tables, davenports, rugs — identical in all aspects everywhere. If one wants to do a period play, one uses G.I. furniture; if one does a modern play, one uses G.I. furniture. Slip covers can help, and a heavy throw for a tablecloth can disguise the age of a table, but not its shape; drapes (purchased secondhand through the Army thrift shop or borrowed from some prop girl’s bedroom) will help create an illusion; and paintings from the school art department do dress up things somewhat.

In other words, if one has the will and an eager and talented group of young people to work with, there can be good theatre anywhere. And that is what it means to be a National Thespian in Europe. Our students have been most thrilled by acceptance into NTS, and certainly there has been a greater interest expressed for drama itself as a result of this move. Even though we lose many yearly through rotation, we feel that enough interest has been engendered to keep Thespians as a permanent and necessary part of Frankfurt High School.

This story appeared in the February 1964 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
  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Thespian Throwback: Rise of Musicals

    Thespian Throwback: Rise of Musicals

    High school musicals began to thrive in the 1960s

    Jul 11, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Thespians Onstage 1960s

    Thespian Throwback: Thespians Onstage 1960s

    View popular Thespian shows 50 years ago

    Jul 04, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Troupe 2000

    Thespian Throwback: Troupe 2000

    Milestone passed in June 1959

    Jun 20, 2019