Cole’s Corner: Trojan theater on the rise

While “popularity” is rarely the first adjective associated with high school theater, Topeka High School’s theater program has seen an upward trend in recent years proving it to be one of the fastest growing extracurriculars in the Halls of Troy.

Within this trend, outward involvement is surprisingly the most minimal part of the department’s growth. Yes, shows certainly are the program’s money maker, but since the 2013-’14 school year, the department has seen a rather minimal growth in ticket sales at only .8% growth. Instead, the most noticeable growth lies from within the department.

In the past two years alone, the department’s International Thespian Society (ITS) troupe, troupe #210, has seen substantial growth with an 82% increase in annual inductions of new members.

“I think we’re definitely on an upward trajectory,” Derek Jensen, acting teacher and troupe sponsor, said. “We’ve built a lot of momentum over the last couple of years.”

While the troupe has found nothing but success its past two years, it was riddled with inconsistencies before striking gold.

Jensen, who officially took over as troupe advisor in 2015, was the fourth troupe advisor, and hire, in a span of four years for Topeka High’s theater department. Previously, acting teacher Geoffrey Kaufman had served as troupe sponsor until switching to “half-time” and only teacher for a semester annually at Topeka High.

“There’s always been two full-time drama teachers and a ‘half time’ teacher. The idea was that I’d trade out with the half time person and they’d become full time. That person then left Topeka High School,” Kaufman said. “There was a series of three to four years where we couldn’t find anyone to fill that position that would stay more than a year, so there was a drop off [in troupe numbers], but then we found Mr. Jensen and [our] problem [was] solved.”

Not only has Jensen helped increase the size of the school’s thespian troupe, he’s also helped with the addition of an “underclassmen show,” which allows younger students to take on bigger roles their freshman and sophomore years, and as of last year, Jensen has begun directing the school musicals. Just as well, Jensen has a clear vision for both the troupe and the department.

“It’s all going to hopefully grow on its own,” Jensen said. “We’re having fun, we’re doing good things, and we’re welcoming to everybody, which is one awesome thing about theater. It’s family almost. You can be yourself in the theater department in ways that you can’t always if you’re needing to ‘meet the stereotype’ of other cliques or activities.”

While Jensen sees a future full of self-sustaining growth, he certainly believes part of that growth will come from the benefits he gets working at Topeka High.

“The administrators are very supportive [at Topeka High] and are willing to let us take risks on shows,” Jensen said. “We’re not afraid to push the boundaries. And that may mean we do surprise some people, shock some people, make people take a second glance and think, ‘A high school’s doing that show?,’ but I think that’s a really cool thing and I hope that’s something that appeals to — and I think it does — to our students that participate in theater.”

In the past two years, Jensen and Kaufman both have directed shows which push the boundaries of high school theater in 2015’s production of August: Osage County and 2014’s production of Getting Out. Next year, Jensen will be taking on another which takes risk in the famed musical RENT.

The past few years have not only seen Topeka High re-build its theater program from the ground up, but witness the building of a program which has continued to push the envelope of edgy high school theater, time and time again.

“Having Mr. Jensen around here full time with his positive attitude, enthusiasm, and morale, desire to participate is as high as I’ve seen it in the theater program in my entire time here and I give him credit for that,” Kaufman said.