By Lisa Frystak, Drama Faculty

On the first day of every Middle School Theatre class I ask, “What is theatre?” I am constantly surprised by the barrage of answers catapulted in my direction by eager scholars. Common answers include: entertainment, fun, performing, improv, musicals, entertainment again, and my favorite, something people do together. Each answer listed is valid. In its purest form, theatre is defined as, “the area in which something happens.” Or, my favorite answer, “one person performing for another person.” The act of informing my students of this simple definition unloads a Pandora’s box of a discussion. “Are sports theatre?” One student may ask, “What about concerts?” A curious eighth grader could propose, “Are politics theatre?” We then devolve into our own definition of theatre, and what the purpose is of storytelling. We share our own stories, we watch each other’s stories, and we engage with the material created by our community members; we engage locally, regionally, and globally.

In the 2022-2023 school year, I chaperoned two outings to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. One moment that sticks out in my mind was during the seventh grade field trip to see Between Two Knees by the 1491s and directed by Eric Ting. As we entered the threshold of the theatre, Ryan  Winkelmann, Middle School Social Science teacher, turned to me and declared, “Theatre is adult story time.” That sentiment resonated with me. We learn about others through their stories. Theatre is transactional insomuch as it distills a story down to its bare parts exposing emotions (sometimes uncomfortable ones) and engages the audience in a dialogue about a culture, a time, a fantasy, a tragedy, or a forgotten history. Oral tradition is as old as human nature.

When I joined the Fine and Performing Arts discipline five years ago (and I’m now in my ninth year at EPS), I remember assisting with programs, stage managing, costume designing, hanging posters, and now, ultimately directing and teaching the Middle School Theatre classes. One of my most prevalent missions at Eastside Preparatory School has been to create a cohesive, kind, compassionate, and engaging theatre program. Twenty-one years ago, there wasn’t much theatre at EPS. Our most recent all-school musical, High School Musical, had a record number turnout for auditions, and a whopping thirty-three students in total on stage for the performances.

Eastside Preparatory School cannot build a theatre program in a silo. We are part of the lucky list of schools with a theatre and a theatre program. My need for connection among other theatres, schools, and performers came during COVID. Like everyone else, we were learning. Confronted with questions like, “Will theatre ever be the same?” I sought support from online forums (Theatre Education Association, and even local Seattle Theatre Facebook groups). The Seattle Theatre Facebook group proved fruitful this year by linking us with choreographer Marina Cleaver for High School Musical. Marina brings connections in Bellingham, Woodinville, and various other local relationships.

The COVID pandemic also coincided with my first year of graduate studies at the University of Idaho, a virtual program with specialization in Theatre (pedagogy, directing, theatre history, playwriting, and performance studies). With this program, I strengthened my own content knowledge and engaged with various theatre educators from across the nation (we compare notes: one directed She Kills Monsters then WE did She Kills Monsters, one directed Puffs then WE did Puffs). Since then, a collection of theatre professionals entered the classroom (virtually). One recurring guest is Dr. Sarah Campbell, (Assistant Professor, Theatre History, Literature, and Criticism at UIdaho). Dr. Campbell attends our Intro to Queer Theatre Seminar regularly. She provides a depth of understanding serving as an expert in Queer Theory and Theatre, letting students ask questions and asking them to think locally, regionally, and globally.

This past year (2022-2023) was a year of returns. Returning to an in-person Washington State Thespians Society (fondly known as the Thespys). I volunteered my time to adjudicate (fancy word for judge) schools from all over the state at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle. While in the commons of Nathan Hale, I was reacquainted with former EPS theatre teacher Michael Cruz, and talked with him about the benefits of attending a performancebased competition. I met Central Washington University’s (CWU) Kathryn Stahl who shared with me what she looks for when students audition for CWU’s theatre program. Ultimately, the Thespians showcased new material from plays I hadn’t seen before or thought of using with our students. Immediately, I ordered scripts and brought those words to the classroom.

The EPS community is not only actively receiving benefits from these professional development opportunities, but they are getting put on the map. Every year the Kennedy Center has a regional theatre festival (we belong to Region 7; this includes neighboring states Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Hawaii, Wyoming, Nevada, and parts of Northern California). In February 2023, while everyone else was on mid-winter break, I was in Spokane spending a week with students, artists, performers, individuals, and committee members. According to KCACTF (Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival)’s website, “Since its inception, KCACTF has given more than 400,000 college theater students the opportunity to have their work critiqued, improve their dramatic skills, and receive national recognition for excellence. More than sixteen million theatergoers have attended approximately 10,000 festival productions nationwide.”

New plays are constantly developed and performed at KCACTF. The sheer number of workshops is impressive. On any given day, I participated in three to six hours’ worth of activities I have since brought back to our EPS students. Promoting our EPS values at KCACTF, I led a workshop, “SEL (Social Emotional Learning) in the Drama Classroom.” By presenting to over forty educators and students, I forged relationships with professors and future educators.

One of the most fruitful relationships to come out of KCACTF is with playwright, poet, and now artistic director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre Idris Goodwin. To say I nerded out upon meeting him is an understatement. Having already used his script #Matter (about former high school friends debating matters of life and race) in my seventh- and eighth-grade classroom, we sat for over an hour talking about the pitfalls of youth theatre and the two of us continue to exchange emails. At the time of writing this article, another brilliant relationship from KCACTF is blossoming. We are currently in talks with Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre in Seattle to strengthen our relationship with a performance or workshop during Fall Orientations. Another experience on the horizon for 2023-2024 is a partnership with MoPOP wherein I will serve on the Teacher Advisory Board. This unique experience provides our students with immediate access to new exhibitions and brand-new, never-before-usededucational materials.

Finally, I ask all of you, as we embark upon the 2023-2024 school year, what is theatre? For me? Theatre is community. Theatre is engaging. Theatre asks all of us to actively participate in the telling of our own stories and the stories that will continue to be told within the walls of Eastside Preparatory School.