It’s a Thursday morning in November (a day where I would normally be in school), and my troupe and I walk through an unfamiliar door to our designated dressing room. I clutch my thin, black binder that probably has twice the number of cue sheets, stage plots, and lighting diagrams that it really needs. I sit there, already dressed, waiting for the actors to put their makeup and costumes on. I keep glancing at my watch, observing as the minute hand brings us closer to our performance time. I begin to sweat in my black polo shirt and pants, and I self-consciously stare at my awkward rubber “Klogs,” the only black shoes I could find that didn’t destroy my feet. There’s nothing comforting about this situation; the dressing room is abuzz with excitement and edginess. And that’s O.K.—I didn’t join Thespians because I wanted to relax.
The above scene (pun, of course, intended) took place at a district-level Thespian festival (a theater competition). I was the stage manager for my troupe’s one-act play, and because our school doesn’t have an auditorium, I had very little experience doing that. It was my first time calling lights and sound cues for a show, and it thankfully ended up as a success. But why do all this in the first place?
You may know your school’s Thespian troupe as the group of people who run around singing show-tunes, complaining about their after-school rehearsal schedules, and yelling at anyone who calls them “Thesbians” (seriously—it’s spelled with a P). Maybe you’ve wondered exactly what they do. Maybe you’ve even thought about joining them. I’m here to persuade you to do just that.
What’s the Deal?
The International Thespian Society is, you guessed it, an international organization that all Thespian troupes are a part of. It’s technically an honor society, so you get cords at graduation (a nice perk). That being said, you also have to hold yourself to a standard of commitment and professionalism that comes with being in an honor society. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all work and no play. You join Thespians because you love theater and you want to promote it & be immersed in it as much as possible.
Compete for Superior-ity
The first and foremost thing that all Thespian troupes do is participate in Thespian festivals, first held at the district (local school zone) level. A district festival spans a few days, and first comprises several days of one-act showcases in which any troupe can perform a previously rehearsed and technically developed 45-minute play on a local high school’s main stage. This includes costumes, props, a set, the whole sha-bang.
In addition to the one acts, troupe members can compete in up to three individual performance events (IEs) each, ranging in category from monologue to duet acting to large group musical number. IEs do not require costumes or props, and they’re a great way to perform just a few pieces in a small setting. There are also technical IEs, which include categories like costume, makeup, and set design, for Thespians who excel backstage (we call them techies).
In all events, participants are adjudicated by experienced judges who provide valuable feedback in the form of constructive criticism. For IEs, three judges watch your performance and score it individually. The average of those scores determines the level of your performance. From lowest to highest ranking, the categories are “Poor”, “Fair”, “Good”, “Excellent”, and “Superior”. If you get a superior on an IE, you get a big orange button that just screams, “Parade me around and brag about your accomplishments!”, and you have the option to perform the same piece at your state’s Thespian festival for additional adjudication. If your performance is really stellar, you may be selected for Best of Show, which is a handful of performances in each category that are performed at the closing ceremonies of each district festival. That’s truly an honor to brag about.
One important thing to note is that festival events ooze rules and requirements. There are many easy ways that your performance could be disqualified, so over time you learn to scrupulously observe every last detail of your entire performance to make sure it won’t set the judges off on a rampage. For me, it ended up being great practice working with constraints, whether they be physical, temporal, or even mental.
Plus, you get to perform any theater piece you want, no matter how raunchy, explicit, or downright offensive it is (as long as you make it clear just how offensive it is before you begin performing) and actually grow as a performer from the judges’ comments. And, of course, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people in your area, most of whom are incredibly talented at what they do.
Be an Ambassador of Theater at Your School
Besides competing with other schools at Thespian festivals, most Thespian troupes participate in theater-related school events throughout the year. They participate in school plays and musicals, and are often the first people considered for lead roles because of their dedication to theater. So if you’re going after that dream part, joining Thespians might give you a leg up.
Many troupes also create and run their own events. My troupe hosts an improv night at the beginning of the year, a haunted house during the fall, a school-wide talent show in winter, and the fine arts award show at the end of the year. We developed all of these events from scratch, and some of them have grown to be quite popular—a testament to the achievements of a club with such committed people.
Grow as a Performer and a Person
While putting on these events does mean a good amount of stress, the rewards are great. I’ve become more proactive, communicative and creative. My fellow Thespians and I had to soldier through a lot of obstacles from dealing with a slew of random talent show audition sign-ups, a last-minute quitting of an improv night participant, or the exorbitant prices of fake blood at Party City. We’ve become event planners as well as actors, and that’s a surprisingly valuable life skill.
As it is with any other club, Thespians have the opportunity to take on leadership positions both within the club’s events and as club officers. It’s interesting being an officer of a club full of theater geeks—they’re (we’re) really an exciting group of people to work with. It’s one of those clubs where everyone’s talent can be put to some meaningful use, and figuring out how to delegate that talent is a tough but
I’m Sold. How Do I Join?
You have to have 10 Thespian points, which you earn by doing activities in theater. For example, if you’re a lead in a full-length production, you get 8 points. If you design a program, you get 1 point. Talk to your school’s Thespian advisor to see how many points you can get for the stuff you’ve already done.
Once you’ve documented your points, it really depends on the troupe. Most of them have an induction ceremony for new members at the end of each year, and some require new members to perform something at this ceremony (which is what my troupe does). I’ve heard of troupes that have a whole complicated ritual that they perform, and troupes that just say each person’s name and give everybody cake afterwords. Remember: usually, the tougher it is to get into a club, the more you’ll get out of it (definitely in this case).
So, if you love theater and you want to be a part of all that this art form can accomplish, you should definitely join your school’s Thespian Society. Rewarding competitions, exciting events and one heck of a group of people make all the butterflies worth it.