a production of Hairspray JR. at Aiken High School, photo courtesy of Educational Theatre Association.

a production of Hairspray JR. at Aiken High School, photo courtesy of Educational Theatre Association.

One of the biggest pandemic-era challenges for performing arts philanthropists has been helping organizations roll out a viable and engaging virtual presence. At the same time, education funders have scrambled to assist struggling schools to ramp up and optimize online learning.

Bridging these two worlds is the fraught state of school theater, which put on over 75,000 shows and served over 50 million viewers annually before COVID-19 struck.

“The pandemic has hit school theater really hard, for a variety of reasons—school closures, need for rapid adaptation to virtual and hybrid teaching/learning models, the ‘digital divide’ for students without home access to Wi-Fi, laptops or pads, the loss of parent and caregiver jobs, and the closure of local businesses,” said Julie Cohen Theobald, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA).

Like their counterparts on and off-Broadway, school theater programs have also grappled with a dramatic loss of ticket revenue. “Our surveys show that programs have suffered substantial revenue losses, with 91% of schools forced to cancel performances in spring 2020,” Theobald told me.

While earned income accounts for 52% of the average professional theater organization’s revenue base, school theater is disproportionately more reliant on ticketed events, advertising and booster clubs. “All of these things,” Theobald said, “have come to a stop.” Nor can schools expect much relief from local governments. A recent EdTA survey found that 44% of participating theater programs received “no financial support from their districts.”

The ripple effect could go beyond dollars and cents. School theater, Theobald said, is the “beginning of the pipeline” that funnels historically underrepresented students into a performing arts sector coming to terms with longstanding racial inequities. By temporarily blocking the pipeline, the pandemic reminds equity-minded funders that “if we are to address racial disparity, we need to open up school theater to all students, including those in underserved schools, and truly be inclusive.”

Theater and educational philanthropists, Theobald said, “can have tremendous impact here in this social justice space.”

Making the case for theater education

In 1929, the International Thespian Society was founded; it rebranded in 1989 under the umbrella of the EdTA. The EdTA “honors student achievement in theater, supports teachers by providing professional resources, and influences public opinion that theater education is essential for building life skills.” The association’s network includes over 5,000 middle-level and high school theater programs in public, private and charter schools, and over 130,000 theater students in its national honor society, the International Thespian Society.

The EdTA makes the case for theater education “through research and stories,” Theobald told me back in 2018. “Research demonstrates that school theater enhances the 21st-century skills of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication. These are the skills that help students achieve success in college, careers, and their life, and are important qualities that leading employers are looking to develop in their teams.”

In June, the EdTA published “Recommendations for Reopening School Theatre Programs.” The document provided educators with guidance on thorny issues like virtual rehearsals and performances, as well as how to safely reopen theater classrooms and facilities. The recommendations, Theobald noted, also apply to community and professional theater. (Grantmakers in the Arts also provides extensive resources and research to help arts educators navigate the pandemic.)

Three years ago, the EdTA launched its philanthropic arm, the Educational Theatre Foundation, with the goal of providing financial support to enhance excellence in theater education and expand access to K-12 theater programs to every child. At the time, the foundation received a major donation from NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt earmarked for the association’s JumpStart Theatre program, which focuses on building sustainable musical theater programs in middle schools that previously had none.

Theobald told me then that the association hoped to capitalize on the growing number of theater professionals, educators and fans looking to give back. “The progress we’ve made to date results from networking and referrals within our community of Educational Theatre Association and International Thespian Society supporters and alumni,” she said. “If you sell tickets, you have a patron base. If you have sponsors and donors, then they have friends and colleagues they can introduce to you. You have to identify and engage before asking for support.”

Two and a half years later, Theobald told me she has “been cheered by the increasing emphasis by foundations and agencies on support-of-budget funding to help us get through this unique and tragic time.”

Ongoing challenges

In mid-October, the EdTA attached hard numbers to “this unique and tragic time” in a report titled The Impact of COVID-19 on Theatre Education” based on responses from nearly 2,400 surveyed teachers from urban (34%), suburban/urban (38%) and rural (26%) districts.

“Many survey respondents reported 2019-20 revenue losses that were substantially more than they earned, and it is likely the economic downturn will limit other funding support this school year and beyond,” the report’s summary reads. For example, a quarter of the association’s thespian troupes face cutbacks in school year 2020-2021 and have no funding to underwrite their fall shows.

“And add to all this the challenge of learning new teaching methods in the most multidisciplinary subject of all—theater—plus figuring out how to perform when you can’t have live audiences. You have to sing with masks, and you may have to do it all outside, if it’s not too cold,” Theobald said.

Elaborating on this “challenge of learning new teaching methods,” Theobald said that 75% of theater educators “started the school year virtually or in a hybrid model. In the spring of 2020, the most frequently realized instructional strategies were virtual lessons taught asynchronously and available on demand, project-based lessons spanning multiple class periods, instructional videos or digital games, and digital versions of lesson packets with worksheets.”

These efforts, not surprisingly, remain a work in progress. Theobald said less than 20% of theater educators think they will be able to produce live shows with their students in the 2020-2021 school year.

To help educators navigate this complex and changing terrain, the association’s Theatre Educator Pro initiative develops curriculum and techniques for online learning, virtual performances, DEI and theater for social justice. Theobald told me donors can help the association move the needle by building out this initiative. That said, the EdTA’s “biggest need” at the moment “is for donations to support the Thespian Relief Fund to help school theater programs survive the pandemic, and especially to help underserved students who most need access to school theater and the life skills that it imparts.”

“Start at the Beginning of the Pipeline”

According to Theobald, theater education can diversify a historically homogenous professional sector, which was cause for concern well before the current reckoning around racial justice. 

A 2019 report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition called “Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages” crunched collected demographic data for playwrights, actors and directors working on and off Broadway for the 2016-17 season. The coalition found that 86.8% of all shows produced were by white playwrights, 87.1% of all directors hired were white, 75.4% of all plays written were by men, and 33% of all available roles went to “minority actors,” defined as actors of color or those with a disability.

The pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans galvanized what American Theatre’s Jerald Raymond Pierce called an anti-racist reckoning.” In July 2020, a coalition of BIPOC theater makers calling themselves We See You White American Theatre released a list of demands for change in areas like hiring, work conditions and philanthropy.

Around the same time, five Black theater professionals launched the Black Theatre Coalition, which aims to increase employment opportunities for Black professionals by at least 500% by 2030. In announcing the coalition, its leaders noted that there have only been two Black lead producers of a musical, 10 Black directors of a musical, 11 Black directors of a play and 17 Black choreographers in the history of Broadway, which dates back to 1866.

So when I asked Theobald to comment on the most effective way to build equity across theater, her answer was immediate: “Start at the beginning of the pipeline—school theater!”

“School theater is the foundation of the theater and entertainment industries—few theatrical lighting designers, for example, decide on that profession after they have been in the workforce for decades,” she said. “Interest in a career in creative, performance or technical theater starts in school, and the decision to become a theater educator almost always comes from students’ positive reaction to their theater teachers.”

“Philanthropy Will Play a Critical Role”

Few educators or arts advocates would disagree with this assessment. The real challenge is creating and generating funder buy-in for collaborative curriculum and programs that, to quote Theobald, “change the access and equity ratios in the system from the beginning” and “encourage BIPOC students to see theater and theater education as a viable career.”

Theobald cited two EdTA programs that address access and equity—Pathway, “which impacts communities facing racial disparity by creating opportunities for students to work with industry professionals of color while performing works that encourage dialogue around racial equity,” and JumpStart Theatre.

She highlighted how a JumpStart Theatre middle school had a majority of students who were immigrants from Central America, whose families had no experience or exposure to musical theater. “The students were all in ELL classes. After two years, they were doing great performances, and two-thirds of the theater students were in regular classes—they had to learn English to perform the Disney Jr. musicals.”

Theobald also encouraged educators and funders to think more creatively about how best to guide students toward a career in the theater field. Historically, the emphasis in regional theater has been on student attendance at professional performances, or more recently, on visiting artists teaching in classes. Yet Theobald’s work with participating JumpStart Theatre schools underscored the need for students to gain hands-on experience with regional producing theaters and their education departments.  

“Our programs are pushing beyond these boundaries to give students the full experience on stage, on the crew, and/or writing plays and musicals,” she said. “Partnerships between producing theaters, including those in higher education and school theater programs can do this because they can assemble students, teachers, teaching artists and professional facilities in one collective effort.”

Theobald said “philanthropy will play a critical role in rebuilding” the school theater sector in the months and years ahead. To that end, she hopes “grantmakers will continue to support the national expansion of JumpStart Theatre, as well as help in the launch and expansion of the Pathway program, which will have a profound impact on the future of diversity in American theater.”