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High School Theater, Better Than Ever

Comedy. Tragedy. Laughter. Tears. Farce. Pathos. Irony. Disbelief. Wickedness. Agony.

Aren’t you glad the election is over? Now we can find other ways to feel these emotions. Here’s my suggestion: Go to a high school show.

The teenagers of the National Capital Area are immensely talented, and the shows they put on are so good, so fresh, so fun. For eight or ten bucks a ticket, free parking, and a few coins for cookies at intermission, you can see how today’s teens are bringing back that old "That’s Entertainment" glam, reminiscent of the 1930s, with elaborate sets and costumes, big dance numbers, and that old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "let’s put on a show’ attitude — but with far greater skills and distinctly modern technologies.

Wherever I go, across the U.S. and Canada, people are noticing that high school theater is better than ever. Compared with what today’s adults recall of their own time, today’s shows are bigger, the performing better, the direction crisper, the tech far superior — and, as part of the Cappies, teenagers are sometimes the playwrights too.

All those "expert" comparisons between schools in North America and elsewhere in the world always overlook the arts. Go to Italy, Germany, England, Japan, Singapore, Mumbai, or anywhere you want, and you’ll find schools teaching young people about art, theater, and music. However, not many schools outside the United States and Canada put on student shows, and when they do, they’re seldom anywhere close to the level you’ll find here.

Here in the National Capital Area, most school systems give the arts a high priority — funding teaching positions, renovating theaters, even adding "black boxes." And it’s paying off. We now have a reputation as being one of the top locations for high school theater.

We’re home to the Cappies. It was more than seven years ago, in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, that Judy Bowns and I founded this "critics and awards program." We developed a curriculum for teaching high school students to be theater critics. Each year, after training, these student critics (this year, more than 350 of them) attend and review each others’ shows, aided by teacher volunteers, who select the best reviews for publication in The Connection, The Washington Post, other area newspapers, and each school’s own student newspaper. At the end of the spring show season, the critics vote to determine who wins "Cappie" awards and nominations. Next May, these awards will be presented at a Cappies Gala at the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center (on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend).

Cappies Galas also take place every spring in grand theater venues in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Orlando, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Ottawa, and other cities. There are now 16 Cappies programs across the U.S. and Canada. Every summer their lead actor and actress award winners join ours to put on three shows at McLean’s Alden Theater and the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, as part of Cappies International Theater.

Last year, the C.I.T. cast and crew put on "Edit:Undo," a new musical (with 18 songs) about a high-tech high school, written by a creative team of ten students from Virginia and Maryland. WRC-TV’s Arch Campbell praised "Edit:Undo" as "hilarious, a wonderful show," and The Los Angeles Times said it has "all the makings of a cult classic." Disney has its high school musical, and now we’ve got ours, and you can order a CD ($10) or DVD ($15) of the show at editundo@cappies.com.

A new creative team of area high school students is writing a new musical for next summer’s C.I.T. Mark your calendar: Kennedy Center, early August. Don’t miss it.

This fall, area high schools are presenting a terrific lineup of shows, ranging from classic comedies ("You Can’t Take It With You" at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, or "Arsenic and Old Lace" at Hayfield). You can get scared ("Dracula" at Annandale), transported ("Arabian Nights" at New School), and enchanted ("Alice in Wonderland" presented separately at Bishop O’Connell and Stone Bridge). You can see classic Shakespeare ("Macbeth" at Westfield, "The Tempest" at Heritage), or the bard gone hip ("Shakespeare in Hollywood" at South Lakes).

You can find a few new, less familiar plays — like Flint Hill’s time-warp farce, "On the Verge, or The Geography of Learning," Robinson’s gripping story about a clash between science and labor rights, "Radium Girls," and Washington International’s black comedy, "The House of Blue Leaves." And you can get ready for the holidays with "A Christmas Carol" at Montgomery Blair.

If you like musicals — who doesn’t? — you can catch one of the most beloved shows of all time ("Singin’ in the Rain" at Churchill — and, they promise, it actually will rain on their stage) or see a pair of intriguing shows that not many high schools do ("Bat Boy" at Wilson, and "Children of Eden" at Wootton).

Those are just the Cappies shows. Try to come on Cappies night, when there’s always that extra buzz, with reviews and awards on the line, with the student critics in the audience. There are lots of other terrific fall shows presented by schools whose Cappies shows are in the spring. You can learn about those in your area in the pages of this Connection pullout section.

Go see a show at a high school near where you live. But, please, don’t stop there. Go see at least one other show at a high school where you don’t know anybody in the cast. (You don’t know the casts when you go to Signature or Arena, do you?)

You’ll have a great time. That’s a promise. And on your way home, you’ll get that extra little joy you can’t get any place else but in high school theater — the joy of wondering which of those gifted kids might someday be a star.

William Strauss is a co-founder of the Cappies and Capitol Steps, and coauthor of "Millennials and the Pop Culture."