This year’s winner of the Thespian Democracyworks essay contest, sponsored by play publisher Samuel French, is Carol Loja, a senior at Flushing High School in New York, Troupe 7892. As the winner, she earns $250 cash and a trip to Arts Advocacy Day, the annual Washington, D.C. gathering of arts advocates from throughout the country. The runners-up also receive cash awards and certificates of recognition.First runner up is Ellie Rose Mattoon, Lake Travis High School, Austin, Texas; Troupe 4535, and second runner up is Maeve Knepper, East High School, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Troupe 2162.
Later this month, Loja and a chaperone will travel to Washington, D.C. and participate in one day of advocacy training and another visiting Congressional representatives, speaking of the importance of supporting the arts and arts education and asking for support on a wide range of arts and arts education initiatives and legislation. More than 30 adult and student EdTA members from around the country are expected to attend the Americans for the Arts sponsored event that takes place March 12-13.
The 2018 essay topic addressed the role of empathy in our society, prompted by a 2017 EdTA National Conference keynote address by Patricia Raun in which she spoke passionately about the need for students to develop “muscles of empathy, authenticity, trust, awareness, and flexibility.” Raun went on to say that the most important ethical choices of our time require us to understand the experiences of other people, and the willingness to put the well-being of others above our own desires. Bearing in mind her comments, students were asked to respond to this question: “How can theatre and other arts nurture dialogue and understanding between individuals with differing points of view?”
Loja began her essay by noting how the arts give people the opportunity to explore new ideas and different cultures and how those experiences nurture empathy and understanding. She went on to write about her school’s production of The Laramie Project and how such a show can prompt dialogue and change. She said, “A dialogue around hate crimes began because people were introduced to a controversial topic in a brand new light.” Loja also touched upon a production of Julius Caesar in New York in which the title character was portrayed as Donald Trump. “This show got people talking about the limit of free speech and artistic liberties.” She wrapped up her essay by declaring that a show’s message could be all an audience member needs “to go out and be the change they want to see in the world.”
Ellie Rose MatToon wrote about how a production of Rent impacted audience members in her conservative suburban community: “I think for many people in my community, watching Rent was the first time they had seen the LGBT community characterized for something other than their sexuality. Tom Collins was not a gay man but a witty philosopher. Joanne was not a lesbian but a successful lawyer. Angel was not a cross-dresser but an energetic soul… By characterizing these people beyond a sexual preference, the art form of theatre had invited the audience to forego their predispositions for a single night and listen to another side of the story.”
Maeve Knepper talked about how theatre can help educate people about important issues, using a devised theatre piece she and her fellow students wrote about child soldiers as an example: “By combining various forms of art and media including song, dance, poetry, research, and portions of our own writing, we were able to create a performance that spread awareness and promoted change regarding an issue that is often swept under the rug. And it is by sparking dialogue on a topic that is so easily ignored, that we promote globalization in a world that is so frequently divided.”
Loja, in a short interview said she was inspired to enter the Democracyworks essay competition by her theatre teacher, Lindsay Shields, who participated in EdTA’s Summit Advocacy Day. “Shields talked about her advocacy experiences last summer and I was really intrigued. I like the idea of using the arts to make a difference and becoming a better advocate for theatre sounds like a great way to do that. So I’m really looking forward to going to Washington, D.C.”