Tom Hanks, Val Kilmer, Kelly Clarkson and Dick VanDyke may not have ever performed on stages in Casper, Wyoming, but the national honorary acting society they and many other Hollywood stars launched their careers from to can be traced to a teacher from Natrona County High School.
NCHS drama instructor Zachary Schneider said the central Wyoming school is proud to be home to International Thespian Society Troupe No. 1.
“It’s something we are very proud of,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I am really happy every time I am able to induct kids into Thespian Troupe No. 1 because they are part of the longest legacy of high school theater in the country. It’s an important thing.”
International Thespian Society
The International Thespian Society can be traced to Natrona County High School drama teacher Earl Blank nearly a century ago. In 1929, Blank traveled to West Virginia to meet with his former college roommate, Paul Opp, to bring life to an idea they had discussed in college.
“They had ideas of starting a high school honor society for theater. And while Dr. Blank was the teacher here, he got the message from Paul Opp,” Schneider said. “So he went out there, and in 1929 they started the organization and wrote the bylaws, came up with the troupe structure. Dr. Blank finished out his school year here and then became the first executive director for the International Thespian Society, which has now become the Educational Theater Association.”
As the story goes, it was luck of the draw that made Natrona County High School the first troupe. Opp, Blank and another West Virginia teacher put their schools in a hat and Natrona County High School was pulled for the honor.
Now there are more than 10,000 troupes around the globe, Schneider said.
Membership in the society is based on points, which in turn are based on the hours a student spends in preparation for a production, class time and competition events.
The theater and stage of Troupe No. 1 has had its moments over the years, whether for practice or performance.
A Performance Tradition
An article the Casper Tribune-Herald from 1930 reports on an assembly at the school that was turned over to the “National Thespians.” Students performed various skits, including “The Little Hindu” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
In November 1936, the same newspaper states that members of the “high school dramatics societies, AKA club, and National Thespians” presented the play “Yankee King” about a henpecked husband who buys a monkey statuette that leads to discovering that he is the heir to the throne of a European nation.
This year, NCHS students won a statewide competition with their one-act play “Selfie” about the differences of portraying one’s life on social media and reality. Several students also won individual awards and will head to a national competition in Bloomington, Indiana, later this year.
Later this spring, the high school drama program and Troupe No. 1 plan to put on the play “Harvey.”
“The last weekend in April, we are doing ‘Harvey,’” Schneider said. “Which is funny, because if I talk to people who are my age and older, they are like, ‘Oh yeah, Harvey.’ But kids, they have no idea. We showed them the Jimmy Stewart movie yesterday and they loved it.
“We like to do a mix of modern stuff that kind of pushes things a little, and also look back at the classic stuff that is the foundation for what we do.”
Several members of the troupe’s alumni have taken their high school theater experience to higher levels, whether that is teaching the dramatic arts or securing roles in the entertainment business.
“I was actually a student here and was a member of Troupe No. 1,” Schneider said. “I have several friends of mine who work either in live music or live theater or even in TV and film.”
One graduate and Troupe No. 1 member is now working as a fill-in musician and actor in New York City and another troupe member is a senior engineer with Procter & Gamble.
Whether students pursue careers related to theater or not, Schneider believes the experience of standing on a stage or building a set gives students and troupe members lifelong skills.
About Those Skills
“The one thing I am very proud of is that theater education isn’t just about training kids to be on stage. The things that you learn through theater are life skills, collaboration, working together, problem solving, budgeting, event management,” he said.
“Our technical theater students build sets and do lighting and they do sound reinforcement, which can either go on to a construction trade or architecture. Architecture lighting design is becoming a huge field.”
Schneider said the Procter & Gamble engineer still uses skills that were developed in drama classes, even if it just doing a presentation to company executives.
“The idea of talking to people, getting up in front of a room of people and performing, which is what that is, comes from doing things like theater,” Schneider said.
Over the past 100 years, Natrona County High School’s John F. Welsh Auditorium stage, where Troupe No. 1 performs, has witnessed hundreds of students make their debuts.
Schneider said for much of the past century, the high school’s junior class would annually present a variety show on the stage. Those in its numbers have included a former NBC news correspondent, as well former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne.
“If you went through (the high school) anytime between 1924 and say 2000, you participated in it,” he said. “So, Pete Williams participated, and Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, performed on this stage.”
Dale Killingbeck can be reached at: Dale@CowboyStateDaily.com
Dale Killingbeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.