EARLY ONE SUNDAY morning last month, thousands of families were enjoying preholiday excursions to the happiest place on Earth. Meanwhile, on those same grounds but tucked inside one of Disneyland’s private conference rooms, the six International Thespian Officers — Spencer Angell, Nic Fallacaro, Anna Hastings, Keith Peacock, Abby Stuckrath, and Maura Toole — were on a different quest. Their mission was to define what it means to be a leader and to learn ways to put their hard-earned theatrical superpowers to work this year as advocates for the thousands of Thespians they represent.

The ITOs were in California to participate in the 2019 Thespians Go Hollywood gala on November 18, which raised nearly $180,000 for the Educational Theatre Foundation’s national theatre education programs for underserved schools. While they played valuable roles preparing for the event and supporting their California peers performing in the show, the ITOs kicked off their weekend with a one-of-a-kind training experience, led by Disneyland Resort Ambassador Justin Rapp, who launched his Disney career in 2012.

Today, Rapp serves as one of two “goodwill emissaries” representing Disneyland’s more than 30,000 cast members in the community and at special events. In a tradition that dates back to 1965 and the park’s 10th anniversary, Disneyland ambassadors are chosen through a competitive application process to serve two-year terms in positions that bear similarities to the ITO program.

Rapp easily connected with the Thespians’ experiences. The former actor performed in high school productions in his native Phoenix before earning a full scholarship to study musical theatre at Texas Christian University.

Rapp worked with the ITOs to identify qualities they believe successful leaders should possess and help them recognize the transferable leadership skills theatre inherently provides participants. When asked what they’ve learned through theatre, the ITOs stressed the importance of adaptability, empathy, communication, organization, collaboration, ideation, diversity, and passion.

Stage mishaps, for example, teach flexibility. “If something happens and someone says the wrong line, you have to work your way back to the script,” Fallacaro said. “Sometimes that happens in leadership too.”

For Hastings, juggling theatre with other responsibilities requires diligent motivation. “Good leaders are also good motivators,” she said. “They have to be self-motivators and motivate others. You need balance.”

“These are all qualities we observe in leaders we admire and things we aspire to include in our leadership,” Toole said.

“The things you listed, I use every day,” Rapp said. Collaboration? “I don’t know a single person in this building who works alone.” Empathy? “Empathy goes so far in business, in your life — in everything you do.” Passion? “Every project we work on we don’t always love. You have to find passion in everything.”

“In theatre, you realize the power of passion,” Stuckrath said. “You can take what you’re passionate about and use that to serve others.”

Anna Hastings, Spencer Angell, Nic Fallacaro, Disneyland Vice President of Live Entertainment Matt Conover, Keith Peacock, Maura Toole, Abby Stuckrath, EdTA Chapter Relations Manager Betsy Singer-Lefton, and Disneyland Ambassador Justin Rapp
Anna Hastings, Spencer Angell, Nic Fallacaro, Disneyland Vice President of Live Entertainment Matt Conover, Keith Peacock, Maura Toole, Abby Stuckrath, EdTA Chapter Relations Manager Betsy Singer-Lefton, and Disneyland Ambassador Justin Rapp at Disneyland. Photo by Christa Skiles.

Rapp also helped the ITOs identify their personal leadership superpowers and how to harness them. For Peacock that includes a focus on growth, “not only trying to grow others around you but also trying to grow yourself. And understanding there is always room for growth.”

Angell saw his analytical tendencies as a strength. “I contextualize everything through a historical lens,” he said. “How can we measure if we’re getting better?”

In the end, Rapp stressed that leadership is also being open to life’s twists and turns, like those intrinsic to his Disney story. “Preparation plus opportunity equals success,” Rapp said. When he first moved to Los Angeles after college — much to the chagrin of his anxious parents — he learned that Hollywood wasn’t the dream world of glitz and glamour he imagined it to be. Rapp’s mother suggested he try finding a job at the popular resort. “That’s for happy people. I’m a brooding artist,” he said dismissively. But his acting talents made him a perfect match for his first Disney role — a skipper on the Jungle Cruise. On a whim, he finished a shift there one day and walked straight into the audition line to play a Jedi Master in the park’s Star Wars show, leading to his seven-year career in Disney entertainment.

Reflecting on the many rewards that followed from taking his mother’s advice, Rapp told the ITOs, “Life is very strange, and you have no idea where it’s going to take you.”

That message was echoed by Thespian alum Matt Conover, who stopped by to meet the team and wish them well on their ITO journey this year. Conover has enjoyed a 30-year career with Disney and currently serves as vice president of live entertainment at Disneyland. “Opportunities present themselves, and they often present themselves when you are not seeking them. Think really hard before saying ‘no.’”

In addition to their time with Disney representatives, the ITO also participated in a hands-on workshop on diversity, equity, and inclusion, led by Equity Consulting Group’s Lisa Walker. They learned to negotiate differences of ideas and how to engage in “conversations with courage” with those who may not share their experiences.

We asked them to provide the best takeaways from their California adventure by reflecting on three questions. Read their answers for inspiration or ideas you can apply to your leadership goals.


Spencer Angell, Troupe 639, Salina (Kan.) Central H.S.: The workshops and discussion we had with Justin Rapp and Lisa Walker. There were great discussions about leadership that will certainly help me moving forward.

Nic Fallacaro, Troupe 830, Pennsbury H.S. (Fairless Hills, Pa.): The leadership workshop with Disneyland Ambassador Justin Rapp.

Anna Hastings, Troupe 5006, Olathe (Kan.) South H.S.: My favorite part of the weekend was meeting the California Thespians who performed at Thespians Go Hollywood. They were all so passionate, talented, and kind. It was so fun to watch them perform with the professionals at the event.

Keith Peacock, Troupe 5297, Lee County H.S. (Leesburg, Ga.): Personally, I really enjoyed meeting all the California Thespians and making bonds with students I will see later in the year at the California State Thespian Festival.

Abby Stuckrath, Troupe 5869, Denver (Colo.) School of the Arts: I loved meeting and interacting with the California Thespians performing at Thespians Go Hollywood. It was inspiring to be surrounded not only by passionate professionals, but also passionate students.

Maura Toole, Troupe 7993, Grimsley H.S. (Greensboro, N.C.): I loved our time in California and particularly enjoyed our workshop with Lisa Walker, the former director of multicultural affairs at U.C. Berkeley. She led us through an insightful conversation about equity, diversity, and advocacy, which was incredibly valuable.

The ITOs got a dose of Disney magic as they explored their leadership superpowers
The ITOs got a dose of Disney magic as they explored their leadership superpowers. Photo by Christa Skiles.


Angell: Make sure that, as a student leader, you are asking the right questions. Figure out your own and your team’s strengths and weaknesses and strive for success.

Fallacaro: One of the most valuable things I took away was the theme of “Preparation + Opportunity = Success.” I thought this was a great mindset to have, especially as a student leader.

Hastings: One of the most valuable things I took away from the workshops is that many of the skills we learn and value as theatre students are also skills that are valuable in leadership. It might seem obvious, but I think sometimes people outside the arts don’t realize how much theatre education prepares the leaders of the future.

Peacock: The most valuable thing I learned from the leadership workshops is how to handle conflict within a team with many ideas.

Stuckrath: A leader must be willing and open to the idea of failure before they can grow and improve. Also, the importance of asking individuals what their pronouns are; this will help create a space where all students feel accepted.

Toole: In the leadership workshops, we spent time talking about identifying skills in leaders around us and using them as examples to continue developing our leadership skills. This is such an excellent way for people in communities of leaders to grow together, which I believe is so important.


Angell: By being thorough in reflecting on my performance as a leader and always working to improve.

Fallacaro: By always working hard to prepare for great opportunities, then taking full advantage of them when they arrive.

Hastings: As I continue to travel to state festivals this year, I will make sure to emphasize in my workshops that simply by being involved in theatre, students are constantly learning leadership skills, including empathy and enthusiasm, without even realizing it.

Peacock: If there is ever a conflict with my fellow ITOs or another group while I am at a conference, I plan to use the mediation skills I have learned to calm the situation and find a happy medium between ideas.

Stuckrath: When meeting and interacting with student Thespians at conferences, I will remember the warmth and kindness that the California Thespians gave me and give that to others. Also, in my workshop, I would like to introduce the opportunity for students to share their pronouns.

Toole: There is no doubt that as a result of our workshops with Lisa Walker and Justin Rapp, I will more consciously seek to identify leadership superpowers in every Thespian I meet. I hope to be reflective about ways I can recognize and foster skills in these leaders and actively think about how I can learn from talented people around me.

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