How many 17-year-old girls in the world can seriously say that their dream summer getaway is in the cornfields of Nebraska?

I’m a living testament to the fact that I am not the only teen on earth with this affinity for the smack-dab-middle of America. The International Thespian Festival, annually held at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, is a wonderland for young theatre lovers. For one whole week I was the farthest and longest I’ve been from my home and family, on a totally new college campus, baring my talents and school name to a score of strangers. And it immediately felt as though I fit right in.

International Thespian Society is the ultimate association linking the screlting drama kids of high schools and middle schools. This honors society is a program of the Educational Theatre Association, superheroes of school arts advocacy. The organization has not yet celebrated its hundredth birthday, but has, within its lifetime, seen numbers like 4,500+ troupes and 2,000,000+ historical inductees. Theatre kids: we get the job done.As a student of Gloucester County Institute of Technology’s School of Performing Arts, I joined all my Jersey hearts at NJ ThesFest 2017 last January. There, students presented individual/group pieces (monologues, songs, scenes, improv and even pantomime) and gained feedback from professional adjudicators. Adequately-scoring events became Nationals-eligible and contend for a spot in the Nationals Showcase. The best musicals and plays of each state, full length and one act, also send troupes to ITF. The piece that flew me to Nebraska was the morbid, absurdist Dave Campton one-act The Cagebirds. This show is something we’ve rehearsed/performed in so many locales that we call it “on tour.”

I felt my Thespian identity in all its blazing glory the week of June 19th. I’ve always known ITS links middle and high schoolers from state to state to country to country. It did not become real until I saw Thespians in their own high school musical show shirts from towns I’ve never heard of. This just in: drama kids exist! In California! And Arkansas! And Texas. A LOT exist in Texas.

Basically, we’re a small army of stagefiends. We come from every corner of every county, we’ve all performed 12 Angry Jurors at least once, and we’ve all memorized the Witch’s rap. We all have different opinions on the true winner of Best Orchestrations at this year’s Tony’s but we all call Jenn Colella our mother. Some things are just inherent to the Thespian name.

I attended workshops of all kinds, soaking up all the exclusive advice this week could offer. Playwriting As You Like it with Jonathan Dorf was a remarkable jam session of all-things-script. Samuel French’s Identity In Theatre discussion was the neatest educator/student mini-colloquium, swapping stories about what it takes to put on unconventional and relevant work. I even took a Stage Combat workshop, something my nervous heart would have never allowed if this week didn’t challenge me to surprise myself again and again. (I also sat in on the EdTA Town Hall, because where else would I be? It was outstanding.)

At ITF I also had my first college audition,–by-far, one of the most valuable experiences. I was able to speak with program representatives at callbacks and the college fair booths. Every adult at ITF was willingly available to assist all students–this lent to my feeling of safety and validity. I even had a chance to meet the writers of Heathers: The Musical, Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, at the Samuel French Panel. They took the best selfie ever with me and my writing partner, wishing us luck on our future endeavors.

I hold this to be ever-true after my time at ITF–there are also prizes in the “How to be Goofy” classes drama kids naturally offer by just being themselves. Throughout the week it was common to see a nametag with a Nemo sticker–part of an Kansas Thespian’s project to meet new friends and celebrate the last ITF of his best friend, nicknamed Nemo. Outside a workshop, I saw one Thespian with a fake microphone and another with a clapboard, assigning random improv scenes to passers-by. At any given moment a Thespian could shout “The floor is lava!” and all nearby would jet to hop on benches. And before every show at the Lied Center, the largest performance space on campus, the audience would FLIP OUT for the techies rolling the podium off.

One particular example of Thespian ingenuity still sticks with me–I even teared up at the sight of this. A Come From Away fan taped up a USA poster map in the dining hall, inviting all to mark their home, an homage to that show’s theatre’s queue. By the end of the festival, the map was bestrewn with Sharpie troupe numbers. It was the cleverest way to chronicle the far-reaching unity of our society. And this was in only one of the dining halls on campus–I could only imagine the shenanigans in the others.

My school and Thespian identity make it so that I am not waiting to live my dreams. I am not counting down the days until I storm the stage, because I’m already standing on it. My Thespian siblings and I will forever have Nebraska stamped onto our hearts and vocal boxes, the telltale sign that we’re in this theatre thing for the long run.  Spectators, participants, onstage, backstage, in our earphones–we all lend a hand to the next arts legacy. I got to live theatre with thousands of kids who I don’t know the names of but I know love to give standing ovations five times before the finale. It takes ITS to get me to imagine the American states in a whole new light. I don’t see west or east. I don’t see red or blue. I don’t see their shapes. I see their Thespians, and they are chronically excited about everything.

I’m forever grateful to my school for sending my troupe to this inimitable moment of our lives!

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