The International Thespian Festival Goes Virtual

It was Friday March 13, and the cast and crew of “My Fair Lady” at New Albany High School in Indiana were just beginning to pull out their two-story set and giant floral hats. They were preparing to perform in front of thousands of theater-loving students from across the country when the world entered into the pandemic that changed everything.

When the cast and crew found out that their pilot production of an old classic had been selected as one of 11 shows to perform on the mainstage of the International Thespian Festival (ITF), director Amy Miller started up rehearsals right away. 

“We had a rehearsal in January and February to clean it up,” Miller said. “I told the kids they didn’t get to just let it go, that we were going to keep working it. We would take one Friday a month off of ‘Adams’ Family’ and do ‘My Fair Lady’ instead.” 

Little did they know that soon the world would enter into a pandemic that forced everyone to stay home without physical contact. Many activities, businesses, and festivals were cancelled or postponed. However, ITF refused to cancel—instead, they put a twist on the limitations brought on by the pandemic. Every play will now be performed virtually. 

ITF started in 1941 at Indiana University. It’s a five-day festival where students from around the country go to watch performances, attend workshops, compete in individual events, and meet other students their age interested in theater. A big part of the experience of the festival—and theater in general—is being able to see everything live.

The 2020 ITF was supposed to be special, as it marked the return to its original hometown of Bloomington, Indiana for the first time since 1970. Instead, the 2020 ITF will likely forever be known as the virtual festival.

But a virtual ITF has its advantages. Organizers have been able to bring in many special guests to appear remotely at the festival, including Tina Fey, Dolly Parton, Kenny Leon, and Stephen Schwartz. 

Adjudicators typically travel across the country to view performances put on by theater troupes and select 11 shows to perform on the mainstage. ITF is often considered the biggest stage for high schoolers to showcase their talent. 

“It is a real honor,” noted Nancy Brown—Events Director of the Education Theatre Association’s (EdTA), which is producing virtual ITF—on the EdTA website. “Because we send screening teams out all across the U.S. and Canada during the school year and only 11 schools are selected. These thespian troupes have earned a slot among those honored few.”

If schools already had a recording of their show, they would be able to stream it during the festival. If not, the troupes could create a 30-minute highlight video. 

“Something Rotten!” from Bradford High School in Kenosha, WI, is one of the shows selected that had to think creatively to showcase their performance virtually. Director Holly Stanfield is no stranger to the mainstage experience, as this will be her 15th show selected. 

“For a lot of our students, they think of it as the best week of the year,” Stanfield said, lamenting the lack of in-person interaction from this year’s festival. “They get to go some place with their friends, they get to go to workshops, see other shows, hopefully perform if we are performing, do individual events, and they get to meet other people that are really excited about what they are excited about. As an adult, I love taking the students there.”

But for Stanfield, there’s one important element that will persist—even in this virtual format.

“It’s really fun to share a story with everybody else and to see everyone else’s story,” Stanfield said. “I think that’s the best part of doing the mainstage at the festival.”

Stanfield did not have a full recording of Bradford’s show, but that did not stop her from finding a way to showcase their hilarious production. She decided to use some film that was taken during the show’s run in February, and mix it with some new recordings from a local television studio. 

“It was certainly a challenge to find a way to feature our work on the mainstage in a different format,” Stanfield said. “But once we got past all of [the disappointment of not being at ITF in person], we were able to work on our little 30-minute feature for the main stage. The playwrights of ‘Something Rotten!’ have just approved our script that we are using to highlight. So that’s exciting.”

In order to get the close-up shots they were missing, Bradford’s theater troupe had a videographer film one student at a time to comply with social distancing regulations. Stanfield, along with Backyard Dreams Productions videographer Alex Kurdna, were able to finish up their missing footage in two days to ship off to Jeff Tidwell of Showtix4U for edits. 

New Albany High School has had similar historical luck with the festival, with their production of “My Fair Lady” as their 10th show selected for the mainstage. This upcoming school year will be Miller’s seventh year teaching at New Albany High School, however her theater experience did not begin there. She was first in the production of “Showboat” in middle school and even went on to attend ITF when she was in high school—at a local sister school of New Albany. She was able to perform on the ITF mainstage all four years she was in high school.

“The feeling never got old,” Miller said about being on stage. “The response from your peers and people who are theater people—it’s even better. When you know there are people out there that you met during the week—and since you’ve formed these new friendships with people from different states and different places—it’s just an awesome feeling.”  

Miller went on to continue the legacy her former theater teachers left behind, bringing her own students to the festival and making it to the mainstage for the first time as a director. 

“It has been totally full circle for me,” Miller said. “I never thought I would be here, where I had been on the stage—and as a troop director and a director now, so I think that’s really awesome.” 

Fortunately for Miller, when “My Fair Lady” ran in November, she had a professional videographer record the show. They are now able to stream the full version of their show for the festivalgoers to view. 

“Since this was such a special show, I had a nice recording of it made by a company here in town,” Miller said. “I don’t do that very often. I think I’ve only done it with one other show in the last six years…. But I’m glad I did.”  

“The International Thespian Festival has been the pinnacle of high school theater since 1941,” wrote Julie Cohen Theobald, Executive Director of EdTA. “Now we are making that happen in a virtual environment. While you can certainly find some great performances and workshops online, no one else is pulling together a cohesive five-day program especially for the tens of thousands of teen theater students in the U.S. and around the world.”

This virtual festival took place from June 22-26. For high schoolers around the country—even if they’ve been before—this virtual ITF will be one they will never forget.