City of Thespians
By Don Corathers
The Thespian Society has inducted more than two million student members since it was founded in 1929. If they were all gathered in a single place, it would be the fourth largest city in the United States, bigger than Houston, not quite the size of Chicago.
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If you're a Thespian alum, we'd like to hear from you. We're particularly interested in hearing about what you've been doing since you left high school, and how your experiences on stage helped shape the person you are today-no matter what you do in life.
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And like Houston and Chicago, the population of the Thespian city would include doctors, lawyers, carpenters, baseball players, and pastry chefs. Chances are it would have a few more professional actors and other show business folks than might be expected for a town of two million. Tom Hanks would live there, and so would Madonna, John Goodman, Val Kilmer, Goldie Hawn, Stephen Schwartz, Dick Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Bobby Short, Anthony Kiedis, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Jai Rodriguez, Kathy Bates, Mare Winningham, and James Marsters (view a larger list of distinguished Thespians).
More significantly, the Thespian citizens who followed a path that took them out of the theatre after they left high school would, on average, speak with more confidence than their non-Thespian counterparts, present themselves with more poise, measure a two-by-four with more accuracy, and always start a cross on their upstage foot. Sometimes we think it would be nice to live in a city like that, although the tendency of police officers and dental hygienists to break into show tunes in the middle of their work might be a little disconcerting.
We got in touch with a few of our better-known Thespian alumni recently, and based on the responses to our questions about how their high school theatre experiences have helped shape their lives, we have to say that the Thespian city would be a place where teachers are held in very high esteem. Here’s what some of your fellow Thespians had to say.
John Goodman, actor (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Treme, Roseanne); Affton High School, St. Louis, ’71: “We had a wonderful teacher named Judith Rethwisch…. She had so much spirit it just infected everybody else. It really carried the day a lot of times.”
Goodman said he fell into theatre casually in high school. “At my school they’d do a musical every spring, and I was just cruising around with another guy. He said he was going to go try out for it, and did I want to come with him. I wound up auditioning and got a part. It was L’il Abner. I think the part I played was Earthquake McGoon.
"But anyway I wound up doing that and just had so much fun I did it again the next year. It was fun and it was relatively easy and there were a lot of girls around. It just kind of clicked and I went to a junior college the next year. Then I went to Southwest Missouri State where they had a great program I was lucky to get into. It just kept building up.”
Through his career, Goodman said, the things he learned on the Affton stage that he still takes to work with him every day are “basic courtesy and professionalism, and focus. They’re just simple things, but they stick with you through thick and thin.”
Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Tony-nominated actor/singer/puppeteer, Avenue Q; Peters Township High School, McMurray, Pennsylvania, ’89: D’Abruzzo’s theatre teacher and Thespian sponsor at her suburban Pittsburgh high school was Barry N. Wood.
“The passion he brought to teaching theatre was unmatched by anyone,” she said. “We did five productions a year, plus he ran a dance company in the mornings before school. He's the reason why I read an entire script and not just my lines. He's the reason I am notoriously early to work. He's the reason I have the work ethic that I do. And he is the reason why I believe that professionalism and all that it entails is more important than anything one brings to the stage. He's also inspired me for a long time by something he casually said in passing: ‘Maybe when I'm eighty I'll try to make a career of acting.’ That has stayed with me since the day I heard it—it's a constant reminder that we have no idea where life will take us, and that success can happen at any age. Everyone I knew wanted to make Citizen Kane at twenty-five like Orson Welles. But look at what happened to Orson Welles. No one should want to be Orson Welles. You should want to be you. That's what I learned from Barry Wood.
“My Thespian experience shaped my life in the sense that it gave me a place to do what I wanted to do. Nobody encouraged me to go into acting. But Thespians wasn't about making a career. It was about doing shows and learning and having a great time. And everyone was welcome. I devoured my experiences doing the high school productions...
“I played every kind of role imaginable, from the chorus to the characters to the leads. And all of it helped me become the actor I am today. But more than that, all of it helped me become the person I am today. I respect my crew (you'd be shocked how many people do not), I value my job, and I never phone it in.”
Stephen Schwartz, composer (Godspell, Pippin, Working); Mineola (New York) High School, ’64: “The best thing about [drama teacher] Dan Wargo and the way the troupe at Mineola worked was that the students were given a lot of autonomy over the shows, so that it was a great learning experience. For instance, in my senior year, I directed a production of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) and was allowed to revise the ending so it conformed more to the original novel rather than the watered-down ‘happy ending’ of the published play script. Being in charge of a project like that at age sixteen, and being allowed so much creative freedom, was a great start for me.”
Seven years later he was working with John-Michael Tebelak (who was a Thespian at Berea High School in Berea, OH) on Godspell.
Mare Winningham, actor (E.R., Georgia, St. Elmo’s Fire); Chatsworth (California) High School, ’77): There was a remarkable concentration of talent in Mare Winningham’s high school, where Robert Carelli ran the theatre program and sponsored the Thespian troupe. She and Val Kilmer are listed together on the same Thespian membership form. In her senior year she played Maria opposite Kevin Spacey’s Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. (Spacey somehow escaped high school without joining the Thespian troupe.)
“[Robert Carrelli] gave us, the drama students. multiple creative outlets,” Winningham said, “and chose wonderful material to present high quality shows and musicals. He kept us wonderfully busy with drama competitions and traveling children's theatre shows. In addition, we raised money to go on major Thespian Society theatre trips. England for seven days to see eight shows, including the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. And New York, Broadway! These experiences gave me dreams and ambition.”
Gary Beach, actor (The Producers, Beauty and the Beast); Groveton High School, Alexandria, Virginia: Gary Beach won a Tony for best featured actor in a musical for his Roger De Bris in The Producers, and a Tony nomination for Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast.
“Theatre experiences haven't shaped my life; they are my life,” he said. “And thanks to Mrs. Dorothy Kogelman, our drama teacher, I was handed a curiosity about life that has indeed helped form my career.”
Doug Rand, president, Playscripts, Inc.; Stanton College Preparatory School, Jacksonville, Florida, ’94: "I could say that my Thespian experience helped me gain confidence, learn teamwork, and build character, and this would all be true. But I'm also pleased and grateful to say that my Thespian experience led directly to my entire livelihood. My high school drama troupe gave me the impetus (and the deadline) to write my first play; the Florida Thespian Festival and the Thespian Playworks program helped me revise and publicize it; and in the end, Thespians gave my brother and me the inspiration to found Playscripts, Inc. and dive into the business of promoting new plays. The International Thespian Society is an incubator for entrepreneurship and an engine for job growth!"
Just a few of the two million stories in the city of Thespians.