Here's a timeline that traces the history of the Educational Theatre Association from its beginnings some eighty years ago as an honorary society for high school theatre students.
In a small West Virginia town, three educators—Dr. Paul Opp, a professor at Fairmont State College, Harry Leeper, a teacher at East Fairmont High School, and Ernest Bavely, Opp's secretary—begin a series of meetings to discuss the creation of an honorary organization for high school theatre students. In short order they have written a constitution and a member induction ceremony. The organization, which will consist of troupes of students who earn membership by doing good work in their school's theatre program, will be called National Thespians ("Non-secret, non-social"). A charter for Thespian Troupe 1 is issued to Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming, where Dr. Earl Blank, who had made the original suggestion for the honorary society to Paul Opp, is a teacher.
By the end of the 1928-29 school year, seventy-one troupes are chartered in twenty-six states.
The first issue of The High School Thespian, official organ of National Thespians and precursor to Dramatics magazine, is published, having been edited at Harry Leeper's dining room table. It has fifty-six pages, and one page of advertising. The lead story is titled "We Shall Present—What?"
The organization gets a new, more formal name—The National Thespian Dramatic Honor Society—and a new address. The offices are moved to Cincinnati, primarily so Bavely, who is now the organization's secretary-treasurer and both business manager and editor of The High School Thespian, can work more closely with the magazine's printer to fulfill its new five-issues-a-year schedule. There are 320 chartered Thespian troupes.
The first annual play survey, covering productions by Thespian-affiliated schools during the 1937-38 school year, is published. Something called New Fires, by Charles Quimby Burdette, tops the list.
The Thespian Society marks its tenth anniversary with a national broadcast on NBC Radio.
In the second annual play survey, the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy You Can't Take It With You, which had concluded its Broadway run the previous December, makes the list for the first time. It has been ranked among the most popular plays in American high schools every year since.
The Society holds the first National High School Drama Conference and Play Production Festival on the campus of Indiana University. The registration fee for the six-day event is $2.00. With room and board, the total cost of attending is about $11.00.
Six months after Pearl Harbor, The High School Thespian publishes "Decalogue for Dramatics Directors in Wartime," which includes as the third commandment, "Thou shalt carefully integrate all thy dramatics activities with the defense activities of thy school and community…" Throughout the war years the Thespian Society does its part to support the homefront war effort. One major activity is the High School Theatre for Victory Program, which was established to serve as a central collection agency for the Servicemen's Library Fund, raising money to buy playscripts for libraries at U.S. Army posts around the world. A letter to Thespian troupes asking for donations points out: "Doughnuts and coffee are provided to these soldiers by many sources, but the special privilege of providing them with dramatic literature is ours."
The High School Thespian becomes Dramatics. Looking forward to the end of the war, the editor promises "the addition of new departments as soon as more paper is available."
The long version of the organization's name is put out to pasture, in favor of the National Thespian Society.
Ending a wartime hiatus, the second National Dramatic Arts Conference is held at Indiana University, and plans are announced to put the event on a biennial schedule.
While en route to a play festival for Thespians from ten eastern states in York, Pennsylvania, Ernest Bavely dies of a heart attack. He is succeeded as executive secretary-treasurer and editor by Leon C. Miller, who had been the organization's regional director for Pennsylvania.
As the Thespian Society marks its twenty-fifth anniversary, there are 1,432 Thespian troupes in forty-eight states, plus the then-territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and the Canal Zone, and Canada and Japan.
Oklahoma! and South Pacific make the Society's most-produced plays list, the first time a Broadway musical has broken into the top twenty.
Leon C. Miller retires and is replaced by Ronald L. Longstreth, a Cincinnati theatre teacher who has been working as Miller's assistant. The leadership of the Thespian Society forms a non-profit corporation and establishes a board of trustees. There are more than 3,200 affiliated schools.
It is announced without much fanfare that the organization's name has been changed to the International Thespian Society to reflect its expanding geographical reach. The name of the Society's big biennial play festival, still being held at Indiana University, is changed to the International Theatre Arts Conference.
The International Theatre Arts Conference moves to the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
The Society purchases a new building and moves its headquarters. The new facility is spartan—it was formerly an S&H Green Stamp redemption center and overlooks the county jail—but its 6,000 square feet seem luxuriously spacious to the staff of nine, who have been working in two densely packed rooms.
Carol Channing is guest of honor at the dedication of the new headquarters building. She is joined by David Finkel, a student and lighting technician from Shelbyville (Indiana) Senior High School, who has recently been inducted as the one millionth Thespian.
The Society kicks off its fiftieth anniversary year with a reunion of the three surviving founders—Paul Opp, Harry Leeper, and Earl Blank—at the International Theatre Arts Conference.
The name of the annual event is changed again, to the Thespian Festival, and it begins an annual schedule for the first time.
A fire set by an arsonist guts the Society's offices. Staff operations, including all major events and publications, continue without interruption during the nine-month rebuilding process.
The Thespian Society begins offering summertime retreats for high school theatre directors, an activity that would eventually grow into the development of a professional association, which at first operates as an appendage of the Thespian Society under the name Theatre Education Association.
The ITS board establishes the Educational Theatre Association to oversee the operation of both the Thespian Society and the Theatre Education Association.
Fall, 1989 Teaching Theatre, a quarterly journal for theatre educators, is launched.
The organization launches Junior Thespians, extending its reach to middle schools.
Doug Finney, the twenty-year veteran assistant executive director who had come to personify the Thespian Society for a generation of troupe sponsors and volunteer leaders, dies after a long struggle with AIDS.
With increasing attention on arts education at the state and federal levels, EdTA steps up its advocacy activities, including participating in the writing of the theatre section of the National Standards for Arts Education, the first guidelines for the field ever issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
The use of the name Theatre Education Association is dropped. The name of the professional association and the organization that operates the Thespian Society are now the same, reflecting a commitment to providing services to theatre educators as well as honoring student achievement.
The organization outgrows its old quarters and moves again, this time to a stately 1871 Italianate villa in Cincinnati's historic Pill Hill neighborhood.
Ron Longstreth retires as executive director after thirty-one years. He is succeeded by Michael J. Peitz, a former Iowa theatre teacher who has been president of the governing board and for the past two years, assistant executive director.
The Educational Theatre Association tests the waters with a new age demographic, launching the Senior Theatre League of America, which becomes an independent organization by mutual agreement three years later.
The year-long celebration of the Thespian Society’s seventy-fifth anniversary is kicked off with a homecoming Conference in Cincinnati, among other celebrations.
The first Thespian national company production in more than twenty years, Ragtime School Edition, is performed at Thespian Festival 2005.
EdTA, the American Alliance for Theatre Education (AATE), and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) develop and release the first position paper on censorship and freedom of expression in educational theatre.
The two-millionth Thespian, Raymond “R.J.” Harding from Ola High School, Troupe 7321 in McDonough, Georgia is inducted.
After twelve years, Executive Director Michael Peitz announces his retirement. A national search leads to the hiring of the Association’s fifth executive director, Julie Woffington.
EdTA and Utah State University release a joint research study about the state of theatre arts education, 2012 Survey of Theatre Education in United States High Schools.
More than $1 million is raised by Thespians for Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS (BCEFA).
The organization has 4,600 professional members and close to 100,000 active Thespians in more than 3,900 affiliated high schools and middle schools. The two-millionth Thespian was inducted into the organization during the fall of 2009.