History of EdTA
The Founding of the International Thespian Society
By 1920, most colleges in the United States had dramatic programs staging plays regularly on campus. Dramatic workshops were becoming popular, and an increasing number of regional theatre productions pushed interest in the artform westward from the east coast. In 1921, a group of students at West Virginia’s Fairmont State Normal School (now Fairmont State University) formed their own drama club.
Paul F. Opp, a Columbia University graduate originally from Ohio was hired by the English department to serve as the club’s faculty advisor. Opp christened the group “The Masquers.”
After about a year of searching for a national honorary organization to join – and finding none – Opp joined with two colleagues from Marshall College, Elinor B. Watson and Robert Sloan, to propose a national constitution to form their own college theatre honor society, and on August 12, 1925, the newly formed Alpha Psi Omega initiated its first members from the cast of The Masquers at Fairmont.
By the time of the first national convention of Alpha Psi Omega, held December 27-28, 1926 at the Palmer House in Chicago, 20 “casts” of the society had been formed.
Earl Blank, a member of Alpha Psi Omega who taught drama and speech at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo., wrote to his friend Opp, wondering, “Why can’t we have something like this for high schools?” Opp begins meeting with Ernest Baverly (his secretary) and Harry Leeper (a former student now teaching at East Fairmont High School) to plan a similar honor society for high school students.
The National Thespians is launched in the spring of 1929 as a charter for Troupe 1 was issued to Blank’s school. The student membership fee is $1.50. By May of 1929, there are 71 troupes in 26 states. In October, the organization publishes the first issue of The High School Thespian, which would later go on to become Dramatics magazine. The lead story is “What Shall Present – What?” by S.B. Kurtz, director of dramatics at Newton Senior High School in Newton, Kansas.
The Thespian pledge is drafted, including the promises “to perform my part as well as I can; to accept praise and criticism with grace; to cooperate with my fellow Thespians and work for the good of the troupe; and to share my love of theatre.”
Ernest Baverly becomes the first full-time employee, as both chief executive and editor of the magazine, and the organization is renamed the National Thespian Dramatic Honor Society. As it opens a national office in Cincinnati, the society has grown to 21,000 members across its 324 troupes.
The society marks its 10th anniversary with a celebratory broadcast on NBC Radio, hosted by Pasadena Playhouse founder Gilmor Brown.
Throughout WWII, the society works with the American National Theater and Academy to launch the High School Theatre for Victory program, which raises money for the Servicemen’s Library Fund to buy scripts for U.S. Army post libraries around the world.
In the summer, the society holds its first National High School Drama Conference at Indiana University in Bloomington, aimed at the “progressive teacher anxious to keep up with the latest developments in dramatics.” Registration is $11, including room and board. On the final day, NBC broadcasts an original radio drama featuring an all-Thespian cast.
The organization’s name is changed to the National Thespian Society.
After wartime hiatus, the second National Dramatic Arts Conference returns in 1947 to Indiana University in Bloomington.
Ernest Baverly, who led the organization for 15 years, is succeeded as executive secretary-treasurer and editor by Leon C. Miller, the society’s regional director for Pennsylvania.
The society moves its headquarters to a new building in Cincinnati’s College Hill neighborhood. The new facility is a one-story, two-room structure with almost all of the space devoted to the address plates and machines used in mailing Dramatics.
As the society marks its 25th anniversary, there are 1,432 troupes in 48 states, plus the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Canal Zone as well as Canada and Japan, with active and alumni student members exceeding 200,000.
Oklahoma! and South Pacific make the society’s most-produced plays list, marking the first time a Broadway musical breaks into the top 20.
After 18 years of service, Leon C. Miller retires and is replaced by Ronald L. Longstreth, a Cincinnati theatre teacher who has been Miller’s assistant. Soon after, the society’s leadership forms a nonprofit corporation and establishes a board of trustees.
The organization is renamed the International Thespian Society to reflect its expanding geographical reach, and its biennial play festival is renamed the International Theatre Arts Conference.
The International Theatre Arts Conference begins a 20-year run at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
As the U.S. Bicentennial is celebrated, the society moves into Cincinnati headquarters. Carol Channing is guest of honor at the building’s dedication. She is joined by David Finkel, a Shelbyville (Ind.) Senior High School student who has recently been inducted as the one-millionth Thespian.
The society celebrates its 50th anniversary with a reunion of the three surviving founders (Paul F. Opp, Harry Leeper, and Earl Blank) at the International Theatre Arts Conference, which is kicked off with a keynote speech by playwright Robert Patrick.
The society begins offering summer retreats for high school theatre directors, an activity that eventually grows into the development of the Theatre Education Association, a new professional organization for teachers.
The International Thespian Society board establishes the Educational Theatre Association to oversee the operation of both the International Thespian Society and the Theatre Education Association. Teaching Theatre, a quarterly journal for theatre educators, is launched that fall.
The association launches Junior Thespians, extending its reach to middle schools.
The association contributes to the theatre section of the National Standards for Arts Education, the first such guidelines from the U.S. Education Department. That summer, the Playworks student writing program is established in tribute to Doug Finney, a veteran Thespian executive.
1995The name “Theatre Education Association” is dropped in 1995, and this professional association for teachers and the organization that operates it are now the same. In the summer, the Thespian Festival moves from Ball State University and begins a 25-year run at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
The association outgrows its old quarters and moves to Cincinnati’s Mount Auburn neighborhood. Ron Longstreth retires as executive director after 31 years of service and is succeeded by Michael J. Peitz, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, theatre teacher who was board president and assistant executive director. The society charters its 6,000th troupe.
EdTA 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 society’s 75th anniversary begins with a homecoming conference in Cincinnati. In July, the society receives the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America’s Medallion Award, in honor of the society’s service to theatre for youth and theatre education.
The International Thespian Festival opens with Ragtime: School Edition, with writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in attendance. It is the first Thespian national company production in more than 20 years. It is followed by national casts of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2007 and Hairspray in 2008.
Raymond “R.J.” Harding of Troupe 7321 at Ola High School in McDonough, Georgia, is inducted as the two-millionth Thespian.
After 12 years of service, Michael Peitz retires. A national search leads to the hiring of the association’s fifth executive director, Julie Cohen Theobold.
EdTA and Utah State University release a joint research study about the state of theatre arts education. The association also contributes to the National Core Arts Standards, which are released in 2014.
2013Playworks is joined at ITF by Musicalworks. Criticworks and Filmworks follow in 2018, for the Next Generation Works suite of programs designed to promote original writing by and for Thespians.
The organization outgrows its Mount Auburn building and moves to Cincinnati’s Norwood neighborhood, as the association expands to 5,000 troupes at schools, 135,000 active Thespians, and 2.3 million alumni.