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Standing Stronger: Lessons from the 2020-21 School Year

School theatre programs streamed hundreds of performances this year, including this Clue performance highlighted at ETF’s Theatre Alive gala.
School theatre programs streamed hundreds of performances this year, including this Clue performance highlighted at ETF’s Theatre Alive gala.

By Julie Cohen Theobald

As the 2020-21 school year draws to a close, it’s a good time to reflect on how the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) has served our students and teachers. While no nonprofit has been untouched by the pandemic, EdTA operates at the intersection of three dramatically impacted industries: theatre, education, and live events. As such, this school year has been filled with challenges, change, and crisis.

And yet here we stand. We have pivoted, restructured, and reinvented, helping school theatre programs find their way to other side. While no one would ask for the challenges we faced this year, we’ve learned valuable lessons that will make school theatre stronger in the end.

1. Virtual events are a tremendous opportunity to reach new audiences.

Like most organizations, EdTA has contemplated virtual events for years, but there’s nothing like a good crisis to force action and change. The International Thespian Festival, one of the first major theatrical virtual events at the beginning of the pandemic cycle, reached more than 2,000 attendees, more than half there for their first time. The EdTA National Conference — made available for free to member teachers — attracted a record 900 registrants compared to an average of 400-500 in person. Schools are streaming productions to new audiences, enabling happy grandparents, friends, and faraway relatives to enjoy their shows from a distance.

EdTA’s 2020 National Conference provided teachers with guidance to future-proof their theatre programs.
EdTA’s 2020 National Conference provided teachers with guidance to future-proof their theatre programs.

2. What schools lack in resources, they make up for in resourcefulness.

The skills taught in school theatre programs — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and especially creative problem solving — made our organization uniquely equipped to lead in this crisis. High school students have learned video editing, shown innovation in planning outdoor and drive-in performances, and improved their communication skills over digital platforms.

This flexibility along with an educational mission has led schools to stream hundreds of performances every week, more than professional theatre and any other segment of the industry. While we miss the foot-stomping large-cast musicals on our stages, teachers and students have shown remarkable creativity and resilience to keep theatre alive.

3. The generosity of our supporters has never been more critical.

Despite the great response from teachers and students, school theatre programs have suffered substantial revenue losses: 91% of schools were forced to cancel Spring 2020 performances — devastating programs whose primary funding source is ticket revenue.

With so many school theatre programs in financial jeopardy, ETF created the Thespian Relief Fund, a grant program designed to help survive box-office and fundraising gaps caused by the pandemic. Fundraising efforts began with Project Sing Out!, where founder and Thespian alum Hailey Kilgore and friends raised more than $50,000. Many celebrity friends, able to join us without boarding an airplane, helped ETF gain unprecedented attention and reach. Corporate sponsors such as Concord Theatricals stepped up with significant gifts to be distributed directly to schools.

Celebrity supporters and students perform “We Tell the Story” for Project Sing Out!

In January, ETF’s Theatre Alive! gala was the most successful fundraiser to date, netting more than $200,000 from a single event. Through all these efforts, $103,500 in Thespian Relief Grants have been granted to 114 schools across the country, benefiting 10,770 students.

One of those programs is Thespian troupe 89056 at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Rockville, Maryland. “Our community continues to be hit hard by the pandemic, and our Thespian troupe/drama club is such an important place for maintaining a (virtual) place for expression and belonging,” said troupe director Robyn Paley.

That’s why it’s even more critical that when school theatre can return in full force, all students have access and opportunities, especially in schools that struggled most in the pandemic. We are hearing short-term concerns from teachers about student recruitment, morale, and motivation, as well as longer-term uncertainty about reductions in program capacity, external funding, and student opportunities. Arts education supports the social and emotional well-being of students — which is needed more than ever. Theatre is not for the privileged few; it is a critical part of a well-rounded education for every student.

The Theatre Alive! gala featured Rock Ridge High School’s virtual choir performance of “Sun Is Gonna Shine” from Bright Star.

Picture of Julie Cohen Theobald

Julie Cohen Theobald

Julie Cohen Theobald is the executive director of the Educational Theatre Association and president of the Educational Theatre Foundation. She has a lifelong involvement in theatre and 20 years of business, marketing, and management experience.


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