There’s hope for America after all — as long as more and more kids teens become involved in high school theater.

Last week, 4,000-plus teens arrived on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to partake in The International Thespian Festival. They attended workshops, saw shows and performed their own.

All the while they proved that theater kids are the best kids.

Lucky for them that in 1929, a group of teachers decided that theater kids deserved similar honors to the ones that top students and athletes were given. Thus 2019 marks the 90th anniversary of Troupe 1’s starting in Casper, Wyoming. This year, Troupe 8,893 was inducted in the organization that’s under the auspices of the Educational Theatre Association.

Julie Cohen Theobald, Executive Director of EdTA (as it’s chummily known) announced that 2.3 million thespians have joined since that first year. Currently 135,000 student and teacher members represent more than 5,000 schools in all 50 states and 13 countries.

Better still, since 1970, there’s been a 42% uptick in school theater programs. Last year theater festivals were held from Florida to China with more than 12,000 students participating.

Let’s hope that those attendees are as self-actualized as these students were in Lincoln.

We saw that theater has taught them how to be empathetic. During Lansdale, PA’s North Penn High’s terrific A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, the kids moaned in outrage when the unfeeling Demetrius told Helena “I am sick when I do look at thee.”

As Minnesota’s Edina High School was doing James M. Barrie’s 1913 hit THE WILL, two characters used the word “gay” in the old-world sense: light-hearted and happy. Lesser-minded teens would have snorted at the word and elbowed their seatmates’ ribs. Not these kids; they knew what the Victorian characters meant and they stayed silent.

They wanted to hear the next line.

One director’s Program Notes began “When I first saw BRIGHT STAR with my husband on Broadway” and ended with the signature “Tony Cimino-Johnson.” Not that long ago a high school director wouldn’t have dared proclaim this fact about his private life. Yet Cimino-Johnson knew he needn’t be afraid here where most minds are free from homophobia.

You might assume that the students would be a tough audience when another school performed extraordinarily well. Which of us isn’t capable of a few green-eyed feelings?

No. During every rival school’s musical, once these students saw a tremendous production number, they reacted as if they’d just seen “Who’s That Woman?” in the original FOLLIES. Appreciation of excellence obliterated any possible jealousy.

If Corny Collins had been here, he’d retract his assertion that 1962 Baltimore had the nicest kids in town. New York kids’ll knock you down so they can pass, but here a genuine “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” were hurriedly stated by excited students when they happened to step in front of me.

And why wouldn’t they be excited? Many performed at the Lied Center where national tours of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and LES MIZ play. Because the theater seats “only” 2,258, each show must be given twice. EdTA wants as many kids as possible to see them, so at the 850-seat Kimball Hall two performances of each show are also given.

Here’s where Nathan Ayala played Hamlet. Yes: Hamlet – and he was a GREAT Dane in showing the prince who became mentally unbalanced.

Director Barbara Hilt set the abridged version in current day with videos of “Breaking News” and many farcical moments during Act One. The moment the curtain descended, a student spectator groused “But they’re doing it like a farce.”

(The lad’s taste had obviously been cultivated from his many opportunities to see and perform plays. They’ve made him – and plenty of others — smarter.)

But Hilt had, to paraphrase a famous expression from HAMLET, a method to her madness. Using humor would ease her young audience into Act Two, where precious few laughs came. Ayala continued to play the prince as crazy (but not camp — not ever) and brought home that such an illness is indeed a tragedy. Many filing out had more than one tear coming out of each eye.

After HAMLET, could ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD be far behind? In the smaller Howell Theatre, neither the student actors nor the teen-filled audience were flummoxed by Tom Stoppard’s absurdist humor.

That’s more than we can say for many adult theatergoers.

These kids rolled with the punch lines and laughed as if they were at an in-his-prime Neil Simon comedy. And when The Player King described those who do theater as “the opposite of people,” the students gave a cheer that might have reached 8.8 on the Richter scale.

Here and at the Johnny Carson Theatre (named of course named for an auspicious U of Nebraska graduate) many showed themselves to be the best kind of actor — meaning one who doesn’t seem to be acting at all. Although that knowledge usually takes years to learn, so many here already know it.

Credit their directors who are especially remarkable in casting. Of the 19 shows I saw, each had the right kid in the right role. Of course, some actors were better than others, but there was no instance of miscasting.

BRING IT ON had some bad luck. One kid pulled a ligament an hour before the cheerleading-intensive musical started. Then another injured herself mid-performance. The result? Oh, you know the five words that follow in such situations.

(And indeed it did.)

I was there to teach a dramatic criticism workshop. Each day, Walker Dixon, Christopher Martell, Janie Nalbandian and Josie Palmarini — four super-bright high-schoolers – continually astonished me.

When we spoke about BRING IT ON – where Jackson High is pitted against Truman High — I told them a line I’d use in a review: “Will Jackson defeat Truman?” I started to explain that this was a riff on the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline that the Chicago Daily Tribune brandished on the front page of its early morning edition right after the 1948 election.

I didn’t need to. All four were nodding in recognition as soon as I’d started explaining. They knew it, and Palmarini was quick to call up on her cell the famous picture of the exuberant 33rd president-elect holding up the newspaper and displaying – well, fake news.

We hear that today’s students don’t know much about history. Many probably don’t. But these are THEATER kids — a cut or two (or seven) above the norm.

Dixon told of a production of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE where Man in Chair inadvertently put on the wrong record. “But it wasn’t THE ENCHANTED NIGHTINGALE that’s in the script; it was SHREK’s ‘Freak Flag,’” said Dixon before triumphantly noting “But SHREK has never been released on vinyl.”

When I asked whom they admired, Nalbandian surprised by not saying some current star-of-the-month but “Carol Burnett — one of the first women comedians to make a difference.”

Nalbandian likes Golden Age musicals (nice that she knows the term) and hates split infinitives. Once she heard me refer to FUNNY GIRL’S “The Music That Makes Me Dance” as a euphemism to describe the crush she had on an actor (never mind who), she delighted in it. “I’ll use that expression from now on,” she promised.

When I asked what show they’d see if a time machine were invented, Palmarini gave the best answer of the thousands I’ve received since I began asking this question decades ago.

“Every year my family and I go to see A CHRISTMAS CAROL,” she said. “It’s the first show I ever saw, so even though I’ve now seen it nine times, I’d like to go back to see it for the first time so I could again feel what it was like to fall in love with live theater.”

Martell missed one class because he was rehearsing THE LARAMIE PROJECT with his colleagues from New Kent High School in Virginia. Last September when he was cast, Martell was savvy enough to find a way to contact the actual people whose fates had intertwined with Matthew Shepard. Dr. Rulon Stacey not only answered Martell’s questions, but also actually traveled to Lincoln to see the show.

Here’s hoping he was as impressed as the teens in the audience. After they heard of Shepard’s gay-bashing and murder, they gasped at the irony that Wyoming’s nickname is “The Equality State.”

Many others showed their sensitivity during 26 PEBBLES, performed by Parkland High School in Allentown, PA. You might not have been able to, as the famous cliché goes, hear a pin drop. What you would have heard, though, were many squeaks coming from seats as spectators squirmed in discomfort.

In Mark A (no period) Stutz’ miraculous production of

Eric Ulloa’s play, we were reminded of what had happened on December 14, 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Not long after the area had been deemed as one of the country’s 10 best towns to raise children, a crazed 20-year-old gunman gave it its darkest-ever day. As one townsperson in the play stated, “When someone’s not connected, bad things start to happen.”

Has any school shooter ever been a member of the Drama Club? No – because kids in drama programs do connect with each other as well as with sophistication and enlightenment.

That the audience was in tears at 26 PEBBLES’ curtain call was to be expected. More compelling, though, was that many cast members who’d been living with these lines for months, were weeping even more copiously. Yes – theater kids are the good kids.

For the best possible reason, this was the final year for the International Thespian Festival to play Lincoln. Even four theaters can no longer accommodate all who want to attend. From now on, The University of Indiana, which can handle 2,000 more students, will host.

Although the festival has used Nebraska for 25 years, here’s hoping that it won’t last nearly that long in Indiana. Let’s see it outgrow its facilities as soon as possible. The more kids we get into theater, the more empathetic, intelligent and appreciative nation we’ll be.