by Jennifer Smith, PortalWisconsin.org
Many high school students eagerly await Wisconsin's state football tournament each year. It's a chance for kids from all over the state to come together and see the most talented players compete. But not every high schooler dreams of competition on the grassy turf of a football fieldsome prefer the stage.
Young theater enthusiasts look forward to the annual Wisconsin High School Theatre Festival, held this year from Nov. 20-22 in La Crosse. However, the sort of competition that takes place at the Theatre Festival is not necessarily about carrying home a shining trophy. As the Web site of the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association, one of the event's producers, states its motto: "Not to defeat each other, but to pace one another on the road to excellence."
Harv Thompson, chair of the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes that viewpoint. "It's critically important for kids to see other kids' plays," he notes. During the Festival, students have the opportunity to catch performances from a series of 40-50 one-act plays performed by other students, as well as full-length "showcase" productions.
The students performing at the state event have made it through regional competitions to earn their spots. By seeing the work of their peers, students become engaged in the process of "improving the arts," something Thompson cites as one of the Festival's major goals. Exposure to a broad range of work helps students boost the quality of their own shows.
Building future audiences for the theater is another key goal of the event. Even if students don't go on to pursue college majors or professional careers in the theater, they can build a lifelong enjoyment of arts. Young people who enjoy participating in theater today may be the ticket-buyers of tomorrow.
Still other students may be inspired to go on to teaching careers. Thompson states, "We want to challenge these kids to think about a career in theater education." He wants high schoolers to consider the commitment and planning on the part of adults who have made the Festival an annual tradition for more than a decade. "If you [students] enjoy having things [such as the Festival] happen, maybe you should become one of those people" instrumental in organizing, Thompson encourages.
Joe Ringeisen, a teacher at Verona Area High School, is enthusiastic about the impact of the Festival on his students. "The kids look forward to it," he says. "They love it." This year, Ringeisen will accompany 32 students to the event held on the campuses of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Viterbo University. His students will join some 2,000 others from 57 schools who are performing, viewing plays, attending workshops, and competing in events like the Tech Olympics. The Tech Olympics test students on the technical aspects of theater production, such as costume and prop changes, lighting techniques, and more.
Ringeisen supports Thompson's view that exposure to theater at a young age can build the foundation for decades of future artistic enjoyment. "It's like learning a musical instrument. They can pick it up in years to come," says the educator, by seeing plays, participating in community theater, and through other activities.
Some of Ringeisen's students have also gone on to further study and professional careers in theater, studying at places like Stanford University, New York University, and Pittsburgh's Point Park College.
The Wisconsin High School Theatre Festival is the product of a unique partnership between three organizations: The UW-Madison Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts, the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA), and the Alliance for Wisconsin Theatre Education. J. Peter Shaw, executive director of the WHSFA, calls the event, now in its thirteenth year, "the premier theater event in the state...It's wonderful that students have this opportunity; it's a wonderful time of camaraderie."
Because the Festival is hosted on university campuses, it brings the world of higher education into closer contact with high schools and professional theaters. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater hosts the Festival in even-numbered years, while the location varies for odd-numbered years.
While students must register to attend the event, the general public can take advantage of inexpensive tickets to performances. Persons interested in the Wisconsin High School Theatre Festival may contact the Theatre Information Clearinghouse for more information via phone at 608-265-8041 or via e-mail at email@example.com. The Web site of the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts also contains useful information about a wide range of theater offerings.