Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.


  • August 14, 2023

A little competition may be a good thing. But forward-thinking arts organizations like Arizona Thespians recognize personal and professional development are ill-served by “win or go home” sports-inspired rankings. Instead, the educators, students, and professionals who comprise Arizona Thespians rely on a more inclusive Festival model, offering non-competitive ratings (as opposed to rankings) that can still advance participating regional schools into statewide, national, and even international showcases. 

Since its inception in the 1970s, Arizona Thespians has provided arts enrichment to more than 70,000 adolescents and thousands of educators. Its program, aided by a robust supply of alums and volunteers, is recognized as a Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO) in stagecraft.

While being a “Region I Chapter affiliated with the International Thespian Society and the Educational Theatre Association” may sound a little starchy on paper, in practice, according to Joe-Benjamin Mauricio, Alum Coordinator for Arizona Thespians, it is anything but. “The best way to describe the world of AT would be ‘Controlled Chaos,’ in the best way,” he said. “We see the love and passion for the arts flowing out of the teachers and directors, and they share the love with any and all coming to our events.”

“Arizona Thespian State Festival is such a positive experience, from the amazingly helpful and kind alums that help everyone at the start to the constant positivity from the leaders,” said Kevin Schneider, Ludus Co-Founder. “And the students are so respectful and energetic, a great combo!” he added.

As Arizona Thespians’ exclusive ticket sales partner, Ludus appreciates being able to give back to Arizona’s arts community. “The fact that we have this opportunity to support the Arizona Thespians through our partnership program,” said Schneider, “is a point of pride.” Jenell Riordan, Arizona Thespians Chapter Director, agreed: “Our partnership has been great. What you are able to contribute will go towards our scholarship fund.”

Below, Arizona Thespians’ Riordan shares with Ludus’ Schneider her witnessing the growth of the AT program, the impact the organization has on the lives of Arizonans, and its vision going forward:

Schneider, Ludus: How did you personally get involved with AT? 

Riordan, Arizona Thespians (AT): I have been with the organization since 1998. I am currently the chapter director. But my involvement started before I was even a board member. The school where I was working as an assistant technical director hosted the annual Arizona Thespian Festival in 1992. 

Ludus: Tell us about the team of directors/educators that work with you. 

AT: We have approximately 2,600 inducted Thespians. That includes Junior Thespians at the middle school level and 130 adult members who include troupe directors, professional members, and emeritus members. 

Joe Benjamin Mauricio oversees our Alum Board, all former high school Thespians who help with all our events. Honestly, they play an integral part – not just volunteers who help. 

At 30 members, the Arizona Thespian State Board is one of the few states with a sizable board. Most are educators/directors, but we also have community members who offer great insights into our operations. And we have student State Thespian Officers (STOs), although those are not on the board.

Ludus: How has Arizona Thespians grown during your tenure? 

AT: Since I started, AT has more than doubled attendance for our State Festival. We’ve gone from holding that annual event at a high school to holding it at a convention center. We’ve also divided the state into five regions for regional festivals because student involvement has increased over the years.

Ludus: Sounds like a great “problem” to have! What kind of event opportunities are there for the members? 

AT: Our current Festivals include five regional events leading to our annual statewide event. Then there are our three-day, student-centered Leadership Camp, a yearly event that just finished July 13, and our Troupe Director Summit, a teacher-centered event to help provide professional development hours.

Ludus: Your Leadership Camp is pretty cool, BTW. Zachary Collins, Ludus’ CEO & Co-Founder, told me, “The summer Leadership Camp is such a well-designed and executed event; it is no wonder Arizona has such incredible student leaders and alums. The leadership from adults to students is exceptional!” 

AT: Thanks! That all goes back to creating strong events for students to participate in – not just the “competition” part but the workshops, training, and leadership opportunities we offer. The Arizona Thespian team is driven to make all events successful for teachers and students. They are very passionate about theatre education, which shows in our events. And we consistently evaluate how we can do things better.

SIDEBAR: Trust Issues

“Regarding competition, things have changed at AT – for the better! As time goes on, we see customary competition transitioning to a healthy competition that intertwines the teaching and learning aspects of how to perfect your craft. Hopefully to pursue a future arts career, whether that be on-stage acting or backstage tech jobs!

“My favorite moment was working at our student-run Leadership Camp. I was working with a specific school running a workshop for ‘Troupe Trust’ and assisting with their exercises one-on-one. The workshop was created to instill trust in each member, who can then take those experiences back to their school. After the workshop, a student said, ‘I wanted to thank you for that. I am walking away from this with a newfound trust for people I did not know I could have for them.’ After that, I was able to see how the work we do actually helps people.”

Joe-Benjamin Mauricio, Alum Coordinator for Arizona Thespians

Ludus: We would love to hear about the students and how your program serves the students of Arizona. 

AT: As an arts education organization, we help students learn to manage behavior, create a positive self-image, and develop such skills as collaboration and communication. How do we know we’ve done a good job? Well, if I or any board members are out and happen to be wearing an Arizona Thespian shirt or jacket, we’ve had people stop us and tell us how they were a Thespian and how theatre helped them get through high school or helped them become confident as they got older. 

Ludus: How were you impacted by the pandemic? Has COVID had any long-lasting effects on your organization?

AT: Our chapter was very fortunate to come out of COVID strong. We went into the lockdown financially stable and didn’t suffer financial repercussions from canceled events. Which, unfortunately, did happen to many chapters. 

While we could not hold live events during the year 2020, we were still able to help our membership. We modified our scholarship auditions to be online, so seniors still had that opportunity. We were stable enough to support many troupes with their dues because they had lost so much money when they had to cancel productions. We also started to offer a grant for troupes that faced financial hardship due to COVID to attend our Leadership Camp.

SIDEBAR: Coming Back from COVID

“Because I started as a Student Thespian Officer (STO) on the heels of the pandemic, we had to rework everything we’d [done before] to fit the parameters of government regulation and satisfy protocols. But by doing so, we’ve adapted to accommodate even more Thespians who are starting to get involved in our organization. Coming out of COVID, people want to be involved in the arts and other creative pursuits because we missed out on so much for so long. It’s been really awesome to watch our organization grow.”

Anna Fountain, AT graduate, former STO

Ludus: What’s on the horizon for Arizona Thespians?

AT: “This is new for Arizona: The first-ever Arizona Thespians Adaptive Theatre Festival, focused on giving ALL students an opportunity to do theatre. 

Many schools [around the country] are starting to have Adaptive/Unified Theatre classes, where special needs students work with their general education peers. It is a benefit for students all around. I don’t know if other states are doing a Festival geared toward students with special needs. As an organization, we see a need for theatre arts to be available to these students. Workshops will focus on musical theatre, puppetry, and character development.

Join the Arizona Thespians at their State Festival on November 10 & 11, 2023, at Phoenix Convention Center.