Filichia Features: Teachers: Thinkin’ about Lincoln?

Filichia Features: Teachers: Thinkin’ about Lincoln?

Here’s an easy prediction to make.

Theater teachers and high school drama club members who weren’t in Lincoln, Nebraska last week didn’t have nearly as good a time as those who trekked to the Midwest metropolis.

The Thespian Festival marked its second decade anniversary in Nebraska’s second-largest city. Coincidentally enough, Lincoln’s official nickname is Star City – and plenty of stars-to-be were in evidence in dozens of high school productions during the six-day festival. More exciting still was that kids were performing on the stage of The Lied Center where genuine first-class Broadway tours stop during the rest of the year.

Many a program's cast list offered an asterisk next to a performer's name. In New York, this means a member of Equity; here it "indicates membership in International Thespian Troupe" -- an organization to which all high school actors should belong.

Really, teachers: have your kids join International Thespians so that they too can partake of local competitions and get the chance to come here. Even those performers who don’t wind up as the talk of the festival will love rubbing elbows with kids who care as much about theater as they.

I loved hearing the kids’ sing-a-long to Mamma Mia's "Dancing Queen" when it played over the sound system. Classmates, old friends and newly made ones stressed the subtext of the words "having the time of your life." Indeed they were.

And they weren’t the only students who felt a stage was unnecessary to break out in song. When I passed by hordes of kids, I’d occasionally hear a few measures of "Come up to My Office," “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Biggest Blame Fool” and plenty of others.

These snippets came from kids who knew the proper dress code for such a festival started with theater-centric T-shirts. Many of course promoted the shows that they were doing, but some instead gave nods to Broadway with logos from Into The Woods, Pippin and plenty of others. No one wore a shirt that said "I'm with Stupid" because no one was with anyone stupid. These are theater kids – now and forever the smart ones.

Exhibit A: at a performance of Dubuque Senior High School’s Time Stands Still, the teen sitting next to me laughed knowingly when he heard James (the excellent Jack Zanger) tell Sarah (the extraordinary Taylor Ryan) that a certain film was "an allegory of the McCarthy era." It takes a learned kid to get a joke like that, but we shouldn’t be surprised that he did. Study after study proves that kids who get into theater become better all-around students. This lad proved it.

Some of the dialogue in Time Stands Still showed how much high school theater has changed in the last couple of decades. Four-letter words that would have been out of the question a generation ago now went unexpurgated and received no perceptible adverse reaction.

All right, but how would high-schoolers do with Chekhov's Three Sisters (courtesy of Denver School of the Arts)? It is, after all, a play that says time passes right under our eyes and that people realize only too late that marrying the wrong person has lifelong ramifications. Aren’t these themes beyond a young person’s purview? And yes, there are coughs -- but no more than one hears in a predominantly adult-attended performance of the play.

More to the point, the kids proved their urbanity after Masha said that she missed "the gay parties" that her family constantly had. No sniggers or spurts of laughter followed; these kids are sophisticated enough to know what “gay” meant in Chekhov's day. However, in contemporary pieces in which “gay” referred to sexuality, many if not most of the kids cheered mightily.

So Lincoln’s a good place for the festival. Said my chauffeur with a tinge of pride in his voice, “We’re gay-friendly to the point where we're known as the San Francisco of the Midwest." But the kids are supportive of everyone, be they gay-seeming, straight-acting, upperclassmen, underclassmen, heavy-set, underweight, black, white, amber; are all judged on talent alone. Performers who excel get titanic roars of approval; even those who are adequate receive a solid vote-of-confidence handclapping. Teens in this audience were introduced to this marvelous art form through High School Musical and they know that they’re all in this together.

Truth to tell, kids did give out loud and salacious "ooooooooohs!" when a boy’s lips met a girl’s. Yeah, the kids are smart, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re mature.

Still, they’re not far away from their college years, which is why the second and third levels of the Lied Center were filled with college recruiters who gave numerous reasons to passers-by why they should chose their school and no other. This year there were so many colleges represented -- 52 in all – that another part of the building was needed for additional recruiters. Pens, magnets, “fun-sized” chocolates and hard candy dotted their tables – all the better to entice you with, my dears.

But some professors were less interested in doling out swag and were here to conduct serious auditions and find the crème de le crème de la crème. Aubrey Berg from the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music and Stacie Lents from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey were among the many that enjoyed speaking about the seniors who’d greatly impressed them.

With approximately 4,000 on the premises, even the 2,258-seat Lied Center couldn’t accommodate everyone at one performance of a show. As a result, each attendee was given a badge that was either blue or yellow; a main stage performance was scheduled for each group so that no attendee would miss anything. So, unlike the Old West, when someone asked another, "What are you, yellow?" the question here was not meant as a mocking pejorative; the questioner wanted to know if the person to whom he was speaking had already seen a certain show so that they could then discuss it at length.

Come to the festival and you’ll enjoy Lincoln, too. It’s a town where street pay phones still exist and -- mirabile dictu! -- offer dial tones when you put them to your ear.  I was hardly disappointed as I approached “A Novel Idea Book Shop,” for I spotted the sandwich sign that proclaimed "Welcome, Thespians!" Inside was a trade paperback of the London musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be. It's not in great shape, but what do you want for fifty cents?  What was there that I never knew existed was a 1950 paperback of Scottsboro Boy (yes, singular) co-written by no less than Hayden Patterson, who was memorialized in the recent Kander-Ebb musical. I bought it, and while waiting for the doors to The Last Five Years to open, I thought, “Let me bring out the book, start reading and see if anyone recognizes the title." Only seven seconds had to pass before a young miss from Utah cried out "Oh! The Scottsboro Boys! I love that show!" Yup – bright kids!

Their bright teachers made them that way. One from North Carolina told me about the minuscule budget that she annually gets to mount shows. She laughed resignedly and bravely, but I flatly told her that being denied resources wasn’t anything to laugh at. She soberly noted the truth of the matter. (Perhaps she feared that she was depressing me, for she soon told me about her days working at Virginia's Barter Theater, where four ghosts are alleged to reside. "Well, I know that I saw two of them,” she insisted most adamantly.)

Sad to say, she wasn’t the only teacher who mentioned a lack of funding. Early and often they revealed that their administrations don’t value what they do, at least not enough to put money on the table. And yet, all these teachers find ways to go on. While each production I saw was excellent in its own way, I wondered how much better they’d be if their directors didn’t have to waste time on holding flea markets, car washes and bake sales.

Julie Woffington, the executive director of Educational Theatre Association, took to the podium and gave all in attendance a challenge grant. Would everyone donate a dollar to send a troupe to next year's festival? I of course did my part, but I was moved to see kids for whom a buck represents a greater percentage of their income or allowance r-u-n frantically after kids collecting the money to throw their bucks into the buckets.

Let your kids have this experience, and let them be part of an audience that even applauds scene changes. Students who have starred in their own productions have witnessed firsthand how hard-working those girls and boys dressed in anonymous black have been in their many races against time.

Encourage your students to attend any of the scores of workshops. This year’s most popular one was “Musical Theater Audition Coaching” given by no less than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who wrote HAIRSPRAY and Catch Me If You Can. One young man in their workshop may have found his life profoundly change as a result of performing for them.

More on him later – and more on everything else later, too.

So much went on that I can’t begin to cover it all in one column. Thus, in the weeks to come, you’ll get my reports on a few workshops as well as the productions of Catch Me If You Can, Fiddler On The Roof, The Last Five Years, Mary Poppins and Violet. Watch this space – but not to the point where you ignore making plans to have your kids join the Thespians and get themselves next year to Star City.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at