Filichia Features: Thousands of Thespians

Filichia Features: Thousands of Thespians

By Peter Filichia on July 03, 2015

The late, great acerbic comic Phyllis Diller had plenty of memorable one-liners, but there’s one I remember most.

With half-closed eyes that said she’d seen more fire than rain, Diller droned “I flew an airline so cheap that instead of showing a movie, it put on a high school play.”

Hilarious, no? Well, yes and no, for if you’d attended The Thespian Festival last week on the campus of The University of Nebraska in Lincoln, you’d have come away with more respect for “the high school play” even if you’d justifiably had plenty before.

The week-long event now plays host to thousands of students, teachers, chaperones, well-wishers and of course parents. Plenty of women wear ribbons that proclaim that each is a "Drama Mama".

There are schools from 42 states as well as Saipan and Dubai. Strangely enough, one of the eight missing states is the one in which Broadway is located.

Don’t you want to be a part of it, New York? You should. If you’re a high school teacher, yes, bringing a production here can cost as much as $50,000. That’s a lot of car washes and bake sales. But you can simply bring yourself and your kids to observe the shows or attend the many, many workshops dispensed during the week.

MTI wants even more involvement. Earlier in the year, we made a challenge grant to the Educational Theatre Association to match every dollar raised up to $10,000 for the JumpStart Theatre program that would bring musicals into three Cincinnati middle schools. The challenge was met, and John Prignano, MTI’s senior operations officer, was on hand to deliver the check.

He had to make the presentation twice. You see, so many people are here that admission badges are dispensed in either yellow or blue. Each mainstage performance plays host to only one color; yellows must amuse themselves somewhere else when a performance is given for the blues, and vice versa. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the Lied Center, where the big musicals will be performed, has no fewer than 2,200 seats.

When yellows are welcome in the Lied, the blues need not be blue. From Tuesday through Saturday, across the street at the 318-seat Howell Theatre there’ll be many cuttings of plays (Worland, Wyoming High’s God of Carnage), musicals (Bozeman, Montana High’s Joseph) and one-acters (Round Rock Texas High’s Jack, or the Submission). Behind the Lied is the 250-seat Carson Theatre, named for The Tonight Show’s most famous host, a Nebraska alumnus who donated plenty to the theater department: Johnny Carson.

And if all this isn’t enough, there’s the Kimball, technically a Recital Hall, but good enough for Bishop Gorman High of Nevada’s Lost in Yonkers and Spring Wood High of Houston’s The Addams Family to play there. For these shows, you must get tickets a day in advance, starting at 8:30 a.m. each morning. Woe to those who tarry over breakfast; although the hall seats 850, tickets are usually gone within an hour, snapped up quicker than The Witch’s Act One transformation in Into The Woods.

The Kimball’s first attraction is Dear America: Letters from Vietnam which has a commanding officer fully admit to his recruits that "The training is designed to break you." That may indeed be necessary in the armed forces, but in theater, we can afford a lighter touch. When there’s talk of magazines for rifles, I’m thinking that many in attendance would be better off picking up the magazines from the 80 colleges, conservatories and universities that are recruiting graduates-to-be for their theater and musical theater programs. AMDA – The American Musical and Dramatic Academy – has a brochure that shows pictures of graduates Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Gretchen Mol and Nina Arianda. It asks “New York or Los Angeles? Why not both?” Why not, indeed?

To entice kids to stop by their booths, many schools offer free ballpoint pens. Some have bowls of hard candy – although many junior and seniors are more interested in asking hard questions: “Do you have a New York showcase for graduates?”

See how much these kids know already? Yes, a good education and great teachers are a must, but a day in a New York theater where agents come to see what you can do may well put you on the road to being a working actor.

Many kids will spend the week auditioning for recruiters. They want to make good on the festival’s 2015 theme: "Hit Your Mark." In the corridors of the nearby Embassy Suites, many an argument is heard raging. No, it's not your standard fight between spouses, but kids rehearsing their plays’ most dramatic scenes. On a more peaceful note, outside near the Lied Center, kids are literally singing and dancing in the streets.

Most of the chatter overheard is Broadway-centric. Before Rock Canyon (Colorado) High School’s superb all-female performance of Art, one boy tells a girl that he’d see Fun Home if he could only get to New York; she responds by saying that Something Rotten! looked awfully good at the Tonys. “Yes,” agrees the lad, “but before I‘d see that, I’d see Hedwig -- ”

The Angry Inch is cut off (which doesn’t happen in the musical) because the house lights are suddenly dimming. He, she and everyone else immediately stop talking. These high-schoolers are curious and hungry for good theater, yes, but they’ve also already learned how to behave at a play.

While many of these kids’ peers reserve their guffaws for teen gross-out movies, the students here instead give the same level of belly laughs when they hear that a character has spent $200,000 on a painting that is simply all white and nothing else. Lines at the top of the show that seem to be offhand mentions turn out to have later importance, and the laughs that greet them show what rapt attention the kids have given art and Art. Broadway advocates and worry-warts are always talking of developing new audiences. They’re certainly being developed here.

The centerpiece of Monday night is the revue The Music of Menken, as in Alan – the man whose melodies indeed introduced the majority of these kids to the sound of traditional musical theater a decade or so ago. Six dozen students take to the stage and warble some new lyrics to the tune of “Be Our Guest.” True, "success" doesn’t quite rhyme with "guest" in the line “We are here to inspire your success,” but the sentiment is solid.

A video of Menken has him apologizing for not being able to attend. "It's hard to get to Lincoln, Nebraska," he says, getting a laugh from a crowd who’s learned that all too well. More to the point, Menken’s TV series Galavant has been renewed, his musical version of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is in Montreal and Disney's Beauty And The Beast is becoming a live-action film.

But the eight-time Oscar-winner did take the time to videotape some advice: "Invest in the process, not the results," he says. "You must dig long and hard through a lot of dirt before you strike gold." Menken offers himself as Exhibit A, noting that musical theater took a while to notice him, for he’d endured a few financially unsuccessful off-Broadway musicals before he finally hit “with,” as he says, “a musical with eight characters and a puppet."

The kids in the audience laugh affectionately; they know he means Little Shop Of Horrors. But they’re immediately quiet when he begins to offer what is perhaps his most valuable observation: "When something I write doesn't work, I don't say 'Audiences are stupid.’ Audiences are smart." This statement will be proven time and time again this week.

So as The Music of Menken comes to a conclusion with 72 kids singing the title song from Leap Of Faith, the audience stands and claps in unison. And that brings up the best aspect of attending The Thespian Festival. You're with people who care about theater as much as you. And, as you’ll see in this column for a few Fridays to come, there was so much sharing of theatrical joy during this marvelous week in Nebraska that even Phyllis Diller would have been delighted.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at