I REMEMBER THE day I was inducted into the International Thespian Society: December 17, 2011. It was a snowy day in Omaha, so snowy that I had my mom leave an extra 15 minutes early, even though we only lived five minutes away from my alma mater, Millard West High School.

As I walked into the darkened auditorium, waiting for the ceremony to begin, I remember a feeling of belonging wash over me. Unlike the feeling of stage fright on opening night, my feet felt firmly planted on the ground, my heart kept a steady beat, and — as I signed my name on the Troupe 5483 charter — my hand did not quake.
As the induction ceremony continued, we listened to tales of Thespians past and present. From Emmy winner John Goodman to Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter Stephen Schwartz — even Madonna. These legends have one thing in common: their Thespian heritage. My troupe director, Brooke Phillips, closed the ceremony by reminding us of the countless opportunities we had as new members of ITS.

Alex Minton as an intern for Southwest Airlines.

Alex Minton as an intern for Southwest Airlines. Photo by Anna Bebermeyer.

She told us, “You are part of an honor society, and the honor is demonstrating the positive benefits theatre has on us and on our audience and the people around us. You are who the rest of the department looks up to. You are our leaders. You are a Thespian.” On that day I knew I was joining a community of leaders. And I was ready to go all in.

I took my director’s words to heart and ran for our troupe officer board. As an elected state representative for Nebraska, I was able to attend state festival meetings and join other Nebraska Thespians to help plan our state Thespian festival. It was through this local and state leadership that I discovered my enthusiasm for event management.

Whether we were brainstorming what items to sell at our Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS silent auction or trying to wordsmith the theme for the upcoming festival, we tackled everything as a team. As a troupe officer, I took the ideas and inspiration from state meetings back to my troupe, such as organizing ticket swaps for each of our shows and creating a district festival to highlight student achievement through theatre. Through these experiences I learned there is no rigid handbook for any event. Successful management requires flexibility and the ability to anticipate your attendees’ needs to solve problems before they arise.

During my senior year, I ran for national leadership and was elected to serve as the 2014-15 chair of the International Thespian Officers. As ITO chair, I traveled to more than 12 state events, pioneering the Minute to Give It fundraiser for Send a Troupe to International Thespian Festival grants (which raised more than $20,000). The fundraiser was designed in collaboration with EdTA’s development department to support low-income schools. Every dollar we raised helped fund expenses incurred for high school troupes to attend ITF.

Alex Minton (bottom right corner) poses with his fellow 2014-15 ITOs. Photo by Jim Talkington.

In addition to fundraising, I had the opportunity to design workshops on leadership and arts advocacy. The first, “Leadership at the C.O.R.E.,” focused on strategies for working as a team, including communication, organization, respect, and empowerment. In developing this workshop, I realized that no great leader works alone. At the core of every organization is a team, each member equipped with unique skills — and the role of great leaders is to harness these unique strengths.

For the advocacy workshop, the rest of the ITO board and I worked together to create “National Advocacy Plain and Simple,” designed to show attendees that opportunities for arts advocacy are all around them. Whether they are talking to their friends about an upcoming show, to their principal about increasing the drama budget, or to their legislators for a statewide advocacy event, advocacy is just having the courage to speak up — plain and simple.

I had the privilege of advocating for arts education in front of senators Ben Nelson and Deb Fischer at the 2015 Arts Advocacy Day, for which I also helped review national scholarship and grant applications from ITS members. Meeting Senator Fischer was a highlight of my term. I felt so nervous walking into her office. I’d spent hours the night before preparing my elevator speech and making sure I had each fact and figure down.

Before our meeting, I drew on my days in Drama I by focusing on the senator’s “moment before,” connecting with this “scene partner” by developing in my mind what our characters were doing the moment before the scene began and letting that continuity drive the momentum of our scene. As I thought about how I could effectively and efficiently communicate my message, I realized that advocacy was a lot like improvisation. By engaging in active listening, I managed to avoid spewing a bunch of memorized figures. Instead, I discussed how arts education impacted my public school experience.

That trip taught me that the arts impact all walks of life. Art connects us, challenges us, and sometimes divides us. But at its best, it always encourages cultural conversation by presenting ideas in different media. The arts must be discussed. I am a product of arts education, and — whether by posting on social media or meeting with a representative — I will always fight for it.

My experience as an ITO also taught me the importance of ongoing, daily dedication. It was the responsibility of the ITOs to brainstorm, strategize, and implement projects. Through daily group texts, biweekly conference calls, and a few in-person meetings sprinkled throughout the year, I discovered how complex it can be to communicate. I have always valued face-to-face interactions, but we ITOs were rarely given that luxury because we were scattered around the country.

When the board met in Cincinnati for our spring planning meeting, a few ITOs joked they felt that whenever I sent a text message, it came across as angry. I took a step back to look at my communication style and realized my “short and to the point” messages, coupled with my lack of exclamatory punctuation, did look a bit snappish. Throughout the rest of our term, I made sure to keep that feedback in mind when crafting emails to my board. I would throw in exclamation points and even an emoji every now and then! 😊

Minton and other ITOs during the 2015 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Cori Johnson.

As an active alumnus, I continue to serve on the Educational Theatre Association’s Nominations Committee, Development Committee, and Student Leadership Committee, in addition to being national advisor for the ITO and the Nebraska Thespian Student Leadership.

I graduated from Loyola University Chicago this year with a bachelor’s in business administration and a concentration in marketing, and I continue to tell stories — just not onstage. As an intern for Southwest Airlines and the media agency Starcom, the stories I was telling involved data instead of scripts, and my audience shifted from patrons to consumers.

My daily life might be different from when I was an ITO, but the lessons I learned as a Thespian leader stick with me. I learned how thinking on your feet during an improv scene or gathering the courage and poise to deliver a monologue as the Foreman in 12 Angry Men are skills applicable to a boardroom presentation. My arts education laid the foundation of my professional skills. My experience taught me how to listen to the world around me, communicate my ideas in a confident manner, and always act well my part — for there all the honor lies.

Other Perspectives

Grace Alt (left).

Grace Alt (left). Photo by Diane Carr.

Grace Alt
2015-16 ITO vice chair, 2016-17 ITO chair
Sophomore at Rutgers University
Alum of Troupe 1154, Springfield Township H.S. (Oreland, Pa.)

From student organization e-boards to research positions to professional development pursuits, I have applied skills from Thespian leadership to my college pursuits. Improvisation, public speaking, confidence, organization, and time management are some of the many strengths I am proud to have developed from participation in ITS. Although I am not pursuing an arts-related college degree, I constantly strive to connect my academic experiences back to the arts and advocate for the relevance of the arts in 21st-century educational goals.

I believe it is extremely difficult to build connections with others that can sustain strong working relationships without trying to understand people and create common ground. I recognize that empathy requires a level of experiential understanding I will not always have, but that does not mean that my ability to connect with others stops with sympathy. There is always more I can do as a student leader to advocate for and raise up other voices.

Katie An Siegel (right). Photo by Katie An Siegel.

Katie An Siegel (right). Photo by Katie An Siegel.

Katie An Siegel
2013-14 ITO chair
Artistic coordinator for Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Alum of Troupe 4590, Randolph School (Huntsville, Ala.)

My Thespian leadership experience helped me discover who I am and what my leadership style is. It taught me what my weaknesses are and how I can actively work to improve those. It gave me endless connections, for which I am forever grateful. It empowered me to speak up and work for what I want.

I now live in Montgomery, working at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. We partnered with Montgomery Public Schools to produce Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, by Christina Ham. The production had a professional director and designers and a cast of 24 MPS students. For many, this was their first theatre experience. Not only did they produce an incredible show, but they also became more confident through the process. One student shared that this show helped her to improve her English. Through their dramaturgical work, they discussed the history behind the show and how it is still relevant today. They connected with people they may not have met or been friends with otherwise. The students honed life skills such as communication and creativity that will continue to help them no matter what path they choose.

Ariana Hayaud-Din.

Ariana Hayaud-Din. Photo by Diane Carr.

Ariana Hayaud-Din
2015-16 ITO
Senior at University of Texas at Austin
Alum of Troupe 6069, Hebron H.S. (Carrollton, Texas)

Being an ITO taught me resilience, courage, and independence — as well as how to power through a full day after a 5 a.m. flight. Getting to learn alongside young leaders all across the nation was humbling and inspiring. I worked with a board of fearless young women, which reiterated to me why the future is bright when women play a role in decision-making.

The most influential trip of my time as an ITO was our journey to Washington, D.C., for Arts Advocacy Day. This was in spring 2016, when the nation was wrapping up the presidential primaries and heading into a monumental election. Getting on the Hill, speaking to my state legislators, I knew this was something that would keep me on fire for my entire career. I now study political communication at University of Texas and have gotten to work in a few different spaces that share the same goal: empowering young people to use their voice and be the seed of change within their communities.

I am spending my final semester in Washington, studying advocacy, political memory, and the narrative of the two. While there, I am interning at a nonprofit focused on engaging, inspiring, and connecting young leaders. President Obama put it best when he said, “One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.” Advocacy, much like theatre, is the art of telling stories that can change the world.

Katie Ferchen

Katie Ferchen. Photo by Katie Ferchen.

Katie Ferchen
2013-14 ITO
Advocacy associate at the Educational Theatre Association
Alum of Troupe 1102, Princeton H.S. (Cincinnati, Ohio)

My ITO experience had a huge impact on my personal and professional paths. I went from a shy Cincinnati girl — who had never been on a plane — to a confident young woman representing a country’s worth of Thespians. Since this experience, I’ve come to appreciate the act of seeking discomfort to reach new heights. Toward the end of college, when I felt lost in identifying the purpose for my career path, I thought back to the impact of my Thespian experience and knew I wanted to provide arts education to as many students as possible.

The most important thing about Thespians is storytelling. Theatre teaches students to learn and develop not only their own stories but also the stories of their peers. Storytelling makes students more empathetic and provides a sense of community. It also makes Thespians strong in their leadership. They listen to their peers and weave those stories together to develop an inclusive and impactful voice in the world.

Ultimately, you aren’t just a Thespian for four years. You are a Thespian for life. The skills you begin developing now in your troupes and in your states will impact whatever field you decide to embark on post-graduation. And with a network of over two million Thespian alumni at your back, the world is your stage.

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.

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