Millennials in School Drama: The Cappies

by WILLIAM STRAUSS
Perhaps the best single way of seeing how today’s teen-agers are bringing something new to the culture—and are notching up in ability and achievement in school—is to attend a high school musical. Millennials are bringing back much of what Boomer youths took out in the 1960s and 1970s, the scale, glamour, romance and choreography, bringing to mind the 1930s film director Busby Berkeley.

Nowhere is this on better display than at a Cappies Gala, a new-millennium celebration of high school theater that has taken hold in a number of major cities.

The Cappies, the Critics and Awards Program for high school theater, began in 1999 as a response to the Columbine tragedy. Initially, it was an effort to bring public recognition to creative high school students on a level equivalent to that widely enjoyed by high school athletes. Over the years, it has greatly expanded in scope and has come to reflect the Millennial-era renaissance in student performing arts.

The first Cappies program was established in Fairfax County, Va., and soon spread to the entire Washington, D.C., area. There now are well over a dozen programs in such cities as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, south Florida, Dallas and Orange County, Calif., with new ones starting in Philadelphia and San Diego.

Through the Cappies, high school theater and journalism students are trained in theater criticism, organized into teams and assigned to attend plays and musicals at other schools. On a Cappies show night, up to 50 student critics are given tickets for prime seats at performances. Before, during and after the show, the critics gather in a special Cappies room, where two volunteer theater teachers lead discussions critiquing aspects of the show.

When the critics return home, they write 400-word reviews on deadline, on a special teen-designed online system. The mentors select the best written and most accurate reviews and forward them to local newspapers, including major dailies like The Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer, which publish them with the students’ bylines. All reviews are sent to the host school, contributing to an important learning moment.

At the end of the show season, the critics vote for Cappie awards. The fact the student reviewers are the judges make each Cappie award all the more prestigious. The school year culminates with a Cappies Gala in each city.

Beyond providing a mirror of Millennial culture, the Cappies strengthen the sense of community among theater programs, build support for arts funding in schools and most importantly provide a real-world learning experience for aspiring journalists, performers and drama tech crews.

Visit the Cappies website (www.cappies.com) to learn more.