ALTHOUGH MARISSA BARKER, Tavis Cunningham, and Caleb Mosley had not met before the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival, they had many things in common. Each Thespian discovered theatre later in high school, all grew up as leaders in their communities, and all were recipients of the new Send A Leader Diversity Grants, funded by Broadway Licensing.

The International Thespian Officers established the grant program to increase opportunities for students with experience in diversity-based leadership, service, and social justice activities at the Thespian troupe, chapter, and national level. Seven high school Thespians from Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas received inaugural grants allowing them to attend Virtual ITF and the annual leadership training, Through the Leadership Lens.

The Send A Leader grant recipients joined 165 students from across the nation for a five-hour student leadership program on the first day of Virtual ITF. The training helped student leaders identify their leadership styles, learn best practices for maximizing arts advocacy in schools, meet the 2020-21 International Thespian Officer candidates, and develop skills as collaborative team members and leaders.

The training also featured keynote addresses by Sarah Singer-Nourie, acclaimed leadership coach and author of Tap Into Greatness, and Alton Fitzgerald White, an actor best known as the longest-running Mufasa in Broadway’s The Lion King.

White’s keynote address was among Mosley’s favorite activities. “My top moments would be Sarah Singer-Nourie’s genius and animated lesson on ways to connect with whomever you’re leading; the V-ITF packing list activity because it grouped us with people we didn’t know and still showed how we could compromise without being condescending; and lastly, of course, hearing Alton Fitzgerald White.”

Caleb Mosley helped students at his Texas High School participate in Black History Month.

Caleb Mosley helped students at his Texas High School participate in Black History Month. Photo courtesy of Caleb Mosley.

Mosley, a Thespian Troupe 3743 alum, felt a personal connection to White’s story. Like White, Mosley viewed being one of the few students of color at Smithson Valley High School in San Antonio, Texas, as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage. Mosley became active on numerous school culture committees for spirit weeks and pep rallies. He also partnered with the student council to help all Smith Valley students intentionally participate in Black History Month.

White’s keynote about his experience as a Black actor on Broadway is what Mosley believes he needed as he shifts from leading others to pursuing his own acting career. “He was just blessing all of us with such a powerful and inspiring story,” Mosley said. “As a young, Black man going into such a challenging industry, it felt good to hear about a journey from the perspective of a Black man who successfully beat the controversies of the industry.”

Cunningham, a Thespian Troupe 4599 alum who got involved in theatre in 10th grade after playing Ren in the Hoke County (North Carolina) High School production of Footloose, agreed. “It’s always good to see a person of color in theatre,” he said. “That inspired me so much. It also allows us to see there are other people like us in this field, and if they can do this, so can I.”

Cunningham did not realize the importance of seeing other people of color onstage until he was pulled aside by another student after his first production. “After one of my shows, a little Black boy ran up to me and told me that, after seeing my performance, he wanted to pursue dance. This was important because, in my town, most Black people are pushed to do sports. I realized seeing someone who looks like you can be motivating for children of color,” he said.

The keynote addresses were not the only activities that left these Thespians hopeful. For the first time in the leadership training’s history, the program was online. Concerned about staying engaged on their laptops, both Barker and Mosley were surprised the virtual training remained interactive throughout the day.

“I was worried the training was going to be hours of lecturing,” said Barker, a Thespian Troupe 549 alum from Copperas Cove High School in Texas. “As an interpersonal learner, that would not have been my speed, but the training included everyone listening and felt like I was there in person. It was so nice to feel seen and heard at an event so large.”

Marissa Barker, left with members of her Thespian Troupe 549, plans to become a theatre teacher.
Marissa Barker (far left, with members of her Thespian Troupe 549) plans to become a theatre teacher. Photo courtesy of Marissa Barker.

Mosley echoed her sentiment. “Every presenter took the time to hear from the participants on the Zoom call. Because so many people attended, the ability for everyone to interact, ask, and answer questions was something I appreciated.”

All three Thespian alums agree the training will be applicable wherever they go in their futures.

Barker, who plans to major in theatre education this fall at the University of Texas at Austin, has worked throughout high school to make people who felt like they did not have a voice feel safe and included. In addition to being a Thespian, she participated in several clubs, including the Gay-Straight Alliance and student council.

She looks forward to using the leadership style tools in her future role as a teacher. “One thing that stuck with me was the different styles of leadership and how they work together to come to one goal,” she said. “Being a leader isn’t something you are only because you have a title, so I will take learning how leadership styles work together with me into the future.”

Tavis Cunningham says its important for children of color to see people like themselves onstage.

Tavis Cunningham says it is important for children of color to see people like themselves onstage. Photo courtesy of Tavis Cunningham.

Cunningham, who will attend the University of North Carolina Greensboro in August, also plans to use the leadership style training. “I will use the knowledge I have learned about the type of leader I am to continue to influence other children of color and people in my community,” he said. “As I move into college theatre, I now know I like leading people and leaving an impact on their lives.”

Mosley said he would use Sarah Singer-Nourie’s listening strategies as he connects with new classmates this fall at Southern Methodist University. He encourages any student who can to attend the leadership training, especially students of color.

“It’s so important for people of color to participate in this leadership training because in school, theatre, and in other school activities so many perspectives in leadership only come from a White perspective,” Mosley said “Taking this course will help people of color be more vocal and empowered to lead in our schools.”

Because the national conversation about systematic racism reignited discussions in the theatre industry about racial equity, Barker believes the training could not have come at a better time.

“People of color are underrepresented in leadership across the world,” she said. “With the skills taught in this training, students will be more equipped and ready to lead, no matter what they look like.”

Learn more about the Send a Leader Grant and its 2020 recipients.

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