First-round drama picks

When you think college recruitment, you think athletes, not actors. You figure the propagation of comedy and tragedy owes more to coaching than to characterization. You hail the glories and lament the infamies of, say, the Ohio State football team, not the CSUS drama department. In the latter’s case, though, recruitment was the original motivation for its annual Lenaea Festival, which became a tradition there in 1956 (it had been a tradition in Athens since about 492 B.C.) and is now the longest-running high-school theater festival in America. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend, California State University, Sacramento’s Lenaea Festival remains an honorable and vitalizing way for the university to invest in young talent—particularly, as participants embark on the college-application process, by fortifying them against the deluge of unsolicited advice to study something more practical.

“The kids look forward to it all year long,” festival director Scott Adams said recently. “You never forget your Lenaea. Even if you only go once. My wife went 20 years ago, and she vividly remembers the comments that were made for her performance.” Presumably, the comments were positive. A three-day series of monologues, duet scenes, one-act plays and musical-theater solo performances, Lenaea assembles more than a thousand students from high schools throughout California and other western states to hone their crafts through workshops with local faculty and distinguished theater professionals. “We bring back a lot of graduates because so many of them have gone off and done wonderful things,” Adams said.

Thespians deserve such encouragement in their delicate formative years. Like the sports field, the theater in high school can be a sort of crucible—if not in Arthur Miller’s communal-hysteria sense, at least as a place where young people may creatively work out their identities and stances toward the world. They have help from wise souls and theater-festival mainstays like Aristophanes (a veteran of Lenaea festivals from day one), William Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, Jane Wagner, Eve Ensler, David Rabe, Christopher Durang and many others.

“We had quite a few from Neil Simon last year,” Adams said with perceptible resignation, “which is nice and safe. But I think more schools are taking risks. Some of the teachers are doing their research and getting more cutting-edge.” Gradually, it seems, the hegemony of The Odd Couple (albeit in both male and female versions) has abated, allowing for the likes of The Kentucky Cycle and The Laramie Project. But the mysteries of human relations, and the tolerance they require, seem like perennial subjects.

“This year, we’re again offering a dance for the kids,” Adams continued, “and a networking forum for the teachers.” If it’s not careful, or maybe if it is, Lenaea might soon become the Sundance of high-school theater. Making a scene was always the idea. “Here’s the talent of the future,” Adams said, “and they’re in your own back yard.”