Over 150 high school students, teachers, and mentors from the Minnesota theater arts community gathered at PiM Arts High School (PiM Arts) in Eden Prairie on Jan. 14 for the Minnesota Thespians (MN Thespians) Annual Conference.
The theme this year was “Together Again”— an appropriate choice since it was the first time in two years the student-led group met in person, after a pandemic-induced hiatus.
The 156 student attendees came from all over the state and included 18 of PiM Arts’ theater and musical theater students.
Throughout the day, students participated in workshops, viewed performances, and networked with other students, teachers, theater professionals, and college representatives. Many also presented their work for feedback and recognition.
“Our No. 1 goal is networking for students and teachers around the state of Minnesota,” said Glenn Morehouse Olsen, who is the chapter director for MN Thespians as well as a journalism teacher at St. Francis High School.
“Also, we hope to connect kids to what comes next. That’s why we have colleges here —so they can explore what comes next. Even if they’re not going into theater, they can take a look at ‘what is the next step for me when I’m done here?’”
MN Thespians is the state chapter of an international organization for high school students who are interested in or who participate in theater arts. The MN chapter is run by a volunteer board of educators as well as a student board.
PiM has hosted the conference previously and will host again next year on Jan. 13, 2024. “PiM loves having the MN Thespians in our building,” said Rob Thompson, PiM Arts’ director of communications and development, adding that the school is uniquely designed for hosting events like this conference.
“With our large dance/performance studios, the White Box Theatre, and the Loading Dock Theatre, we have spaces that the Thespians Conference can utilize for their workshops, Chapter Select One Acts, Thespy Competitions, and college and scholarship auditions,” he said.
Workshops, performances, and college networking
Students attending the conference were able to choose from a variety of technical workshops being taught by theater professionals. “We cover technical, dance, singing, acting, stage combat, intimacy coordination,” and more, Olsen said.
Additional workshop options included projection design, portfolio presentation, prop building, acting for the camera, Alexander Technique, and accent work.
Students were also able to attend four adjudicated live One Act Performances. The winners of the One Act competition qualified to advance to the International Thespian Festival, scheduled to take place June 19-23 at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
They will join MN Thespians who already qualified in categories such as monologue, duets, scenes, musical theater, and technical areas like costume design or stage management.
Minnesota Thespian Original, which is an original script written by a student, was workshopped and performed at the conference. Students also performed short plays and took part in costume and lip-sync contests.
In addition to the workshops and performances, students had the chance to visit with and audition for representatives from 16 colleges that came for the purpose of recruitment and offering scholarships.
MN Thespians also awards $2,000 in scholarships annually to senior Thespians who perform or do technical presentations such as costume and stage managing. Ten students submitted applications and took part in auditions and interviews during the conference, Olsen said.
Theater entertains and teaches life skills
Organizers said that the conference brought students and faculty together for an important cause.
“It’s important to train people and get them excited about the arts. We’ve seen that when schools are cutting programs, arts are typically one of the first things to go,” said Miz Diagnosis, who is the head of the MN Thespians Student board as well as a student services mental health advocate at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.
As the conference’s keynote speaker, Miz Diagnosis talked to the students about mental health and the importance of taking care of oneself. Diagnosis said they believe entertainment plays a key role in mental health: “People seek entertainment for escape, and here we have a whole new generation of entertainers and entertainment creators.”
But while entertainment is important, involvement in theater arts has additional benefits, according to Dawn Skinner, an English and theater teacher at Waseca Area Learning Center who also serves as treasurer for MN Thespians.
“I think Thespians is important because theater is about more than performing,” she said. “If you think about it, we perform every day. We perform in our roles as teachers, we perform in our roles as students, we perform when we go into an office as a role.
“When we can teach kids how to take on a role and create that character, it’s going to help them in every aspect of their life.”
Olsen agreed. “A lot of these kids are not going to work in theater, but theater has a foundational part in preparing them for any kind of a job that happens after this,” she said.
Olsen said theater teaches important personal skills. She said one college recruiter at the conference told her how impressed they were by the students’ poise and professionalism. “[Theater students ] can go into a job interview and make eye contact with others. Those soft skills are the skills that the business world is looking for.”
She said these conferences are also important to create a larger theater community in the state.
“We want lifelong theater attendees who support the arts. And they can continue to create even if that’s not their primary job,” Olsen added.
Students and schools interested in starting a chapter of MN Thespians or attending next year’s conference can learn more on the organization’s website.
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