None of these teenagers clustered around a high school theater stage seems shy, self-conscious or unwilling to stand up and speak to a crowd.

None of these teenagers clustered around a high school theater stage seems shy, self-conscious or unwilling to stand up and speak to a crowd.

But that's to be expected of drama students who have spent hours practicing to be seen and heard.

What may surprise people other than the students' parents, teachers and college admission officers is that kids who participate in theater learn vocabulary, history and other testable facts that help them succeed off stage.

Research findings — including those released by the College Board, which administers the SAT — show that children involved in theater have better attendance records, reading comprehension and standardized test scores than classmates not involved with the arts.

That blows one stereotype of the airhead actor.

Here's another. In the Rogue Valley, the cliché of the unemployed young actor is being replaced by students earning paychecks from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other professional companies.

Making students even more marketable is that high school programs prepare them not only to act, but also to write, direct, design and perform backstage duties.

At Ashland High School, drama teacher Betsy Bishop has a long list of former students who have worked for OSF. Ten current students work backstage.

Over a 19-year partnership, OSF actors, directors and technicians have taught high school students, giving them not only insight into the profession but an outsider's view of their ability. It's hard to be typecast when the new director doesn't know a performer's past work.

Variety, after all, is part of the learning process.

During four years of high school, students can participate in an experimental piece, slapstick comedy, drama and a musical, maybe even one they wrote, says John Doty, North Medford High School's director of theater.

"Theater helps students to grasp what they can truly accomplish and provides very clear demonstrations of synergy and cooperation," he says.

NMHS students stage Improv nights with as few as six students to musicals such as this year's "The Wizard of Oz," which involved 80 kids from elementary through high school.

Tossed into the mix are dozens of high school musicians and crew plus parents and faculty.

"Mobilizing and organizing that many people is not just my job," says Doty. "Students are given innumerable practical opportunities to problem-solve, time manage, prioritize and execute."

This school year, four NMHS students directed a play. Two wrote the original works they directed and Spencer Funk composed the music, wrote and directed "Zombie! The Musical." He is one of four thespians in the Class of 2013 named valedictorians.

At AHS, thespians Maya Zundel is a valedictorian and Griffin Hadden is a salutatorian. (Salutatorian name has been changed from the printed version)

North Medford and Ashland high schools are two of a handful of theater programs in the state recognized as Honor Troupes for their level of production activity and theater education.

At South Medford High School, drama director Mike Fitzgerald is preparing to premiere his students' staging of "Grease," which runs May 15-18.

He has found that theater helps students look deeper into literature and psychology. Students who read a lot, including plays, also write more precisely.

"My greatest thrill is when a student actor sees his or her connectedness to everyone and everything," says Fitzgerald, who thinks drama teachers don't receive the credit and pay they deserve for their after-hours work.

Ashland parent Shelley Elkovich says theater plays a pivotal role in her children's educational experiences.

Her son, Rowan Heglie, 19, is an aspiring playwright who graduated AHS last year and is attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York this fall on a scholarship.

Her daughter, Aubyn Heglie, 17, is an AHS junior who was named one of the winners in a recent national competition.

"My children are homeschoolers who attend AHS part time and also take classes at Southern Oregon University, in addition to their home study," says Elkovich. "Without AHS theater, it is unlikely my kids would have enrolled at the high school at all."

This year, 12 percent of AHS seniors are involved in theater, says Bishop, whose program recently earned the Educational Theatre Association's outstanding school theater award.

On Wednesday, the AHS Drama Club was meeting in the black-box theater on campus to discuss initiating new members.

Sitting in a circle were the current stars and crew of "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," which runs through Sunday.

A few days before, they were on stage making their audience believe that foot-stomping, blanket-carrying, piano-playing "Peanuts" comic-strip characters had come to life.

Sophomore Jackson Richmond, who plays the sometimes long-winded Linus, says his memorization skills have been sharpened by theater work.

When preparing for an advanced placement U.S. history test, he reads memory aids over and then recites them back as he would lines from a play.

"Academically, theater keeps me motivated and teaches me dedication," he adds. "To be in a show takes more than just memorizing lines, knowing where to go and reciting those lines. You have to be determined to do the research and make the character come to life."

He and other drama students write biographies of their characters to understand them better.

Jeremiah Lieberman, a junior, says being the new co-president of the Drama Club has helped him display his leadership skills and that student actors who discuss Shakespearean plays score well on English tests.

Nathan Ostovar, a senior, says since he joined the theater this year, he has learned life skills of construction, carpentry and lighting, and has earned money working as a technician at the school's Mountain Avenue Theatre, which is rented out to groups.

"I have marketable skills," says Nathan, who has applied for a tech job with OSF.

There are also unexpected social perks to acting.

Classmates wander by to compliment senior Lisa-Marie Werfel, who has been acting since she was 10.

She plays a character-perfect bossy Lucy in the current Peanuts' play. Last year, she played a mother in the drama "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank," which was selected as a main stage production for this year's Oregon Thespian Festival in Salem.

Sitting near the stage, she rattles off ways theater training benefits teenagers academically and socially, including that stage actors aren't self-conscious about their appearance.

"I want people to judge me on how I act, not how I look," she says.

Knowing her way around costumes and wigs, however, does bring dressing up to a new level.

"We had a performance right before the prom and it was fun to get out of the costume and get glammed up," she says. "Theater trains you for everything."

Noah Yaconelli, a senior who has played disparate roles at AHS, including Hannay in "39 Steps" and Bernardo in "West Side Story," says performing has made him more spontaneous and open to change.

He and others in the troupe also have found that studying characters teaches them to be more compassionate about people they meet in real life.

"We are trained to see motivations," says Noah, who plans to pursue acting in college and as a profession.

Noah Werthaiser, who plays the laugh-provoking beagle, Snoopy, says one of the main missions of high school is not just learning from textbooks but discovering who you are and what you want to be.

"What better way to do that," he asks, "than acting on a stage where you can be whoever you want to be?"

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or