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Theatre Counts for Everyone

Date: 06 December 2021
Students onstage in various costumes and positions, with main character Honk in the middle. All students appear to be mid-song.

The 2017 JumpStart Theatre production of Honk! JR. at Felicity-Franklin (Ohio) Middle school. Photo credit: Susan Doremus/EdTA

The educator and playwright Timothy McDonald once described theatre as “the superfood of the arts.” He was speaking to a boisterous audience of middle schoolers and adults awaiting the performance of their school’s musical theatre play — produced through the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Theatre program — in which the students and their volunteer teachers had bravely immersed themselves for a whirlwind two months of casting, acting, dancing, singing, set building and rehearsing. More than anything else, those students were there to tell stories and learn about themselves and their peers through the “superfood” of theatre. 

The Arts Education Partnership’s Theatre Counts publication echoes McDonald’s description, articulating through research and reflection, “the power of [theatre] to transform students’ experiences of themselves as well as their relationships with peers and the larger world.’’ 

The impact of theatre education is most often apparent in an onstage performance that integrates lights, sets, actors, sound and costumes; this is always preceded by a process journey of collaborative discovery, one that leads each student toward independent decision-making, creative fluency and, as Theatre Counts notes, learning that encourages risk taking.

Looking at the broad buckets outlined by the Theatre Counts study — self concept and identity, peer relation and empathy and learning across subject areas — begs the question, “What does student (and educator) success look and sound like in a meaningful theatrical experience?” The authors of the report have already given readers a foundation of data to make the case for theatre’s value. In this blog, I’m going to offer some examples to illustrate that data and its companion narrative. 

Self-Concept and Identity

Back to those energetic JumpStart Theatre students: Their production that night, presented at a K-12 school in a rural community beset with opioid addiction, unemployment and declining population, was Honk! JR. — a charming retelling of the Ugly Duckling fairytale, a story with a message about being different and accepted. More than 40 students — Honk!’s duck townspeople — acted, strutted and sang before a capacity audience of more than 200 that gave them a standing ovation lasting five minutes. Honk himself — the Ugly Duckling — was portrayed by a student known schoolwide to be a loner by some, a bully by others. Through the experience, he became a leader the following year, encouraging his peers to sign up for the musical and becoming the show’s biggest cheerleader throughout rehearsals. This student and his fellow cast members, given the opportunity to make meaning, collaborated and told a story with a positive, universal message that allowed them to explore their self-concept and identity in a safe space, with the support of each other, their teacher-directors and community members.

In another instance of self-exploration, in the play She Kills Monsters — currently one of the most popular plays in the high school canon — Agnes, a young woman who lost her parents and younger sister in a car accident, discovers that her sister, Tilly, was gay. Agnes embarks on a journey through a fantasy trip within her sister’s Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game world to better understand her and Tilly’s struggles to know one another. The play brings complex LGBTQ+ characters to the stage who are exploring “possible selves” while working to meet other goals beyond understanding their gender and sexuality. She Kills Monsters offers young actors an opportunity to learn that sexual and gender identity is but one aspect of a human being and understand that the difficulties that LGBTQ+ students face when coming out to friends and family. The ultimate power of this play is the dialogue that it can prompt between students, families and communities themselves, all within a rich story of adventure, triumph and ultimately a positive sense of one’s own value in the world. What’s more, it simultaneously presents the educator-director their own opportunity to reflect on their personal biases and pre-conceived notions of identity as they guide the students through the production process.

Peer Relations and Empathy 

In these challenging and divisive times, civil dialogue between those with opposing points of view has become extremely difficult. Theatre’s foundation in storytelling inherently includes conflict and resolution featuring characters who illuminate these elements. The often stated “walking in someone else’s shoes” aspect of any play performance demands that students truly reckon with other perspectives. They must both portray an individual with a particular belief system and listen to other characters’ points of view to advance the play’s story. In the rich stew of playmaking, this commences the moment a student is cast and begins an ongoing process of creative problem solving and reflection that builds collaboration and empathetic behavior unmatched by any other learning discipline. 

Some years ago, Jonathan Katz, the former director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, gave a keynote speech at EdTA’s national conference in which he discussed the public value of theatre education. Katz suggested that providing students with theatrical experiences can play an important role in a democratic society, where all members have an equal voice. He went on to explain that all democracies needed activities that benefit the public good by encouraging and tolerating multiple points of view; something, he said, that theatre strongly embodies with vivid storytelling and character building. Having empathy for one’s fellow community members and willingness to listen and consider other views on critical issues, said Katz, is key to a successful democracy as its citizens must be informed and reflective human beings if they are to make well-considered decisions on how they vote for leaders and onissues. Similarly, Theatre Counts states that students who engage in theatre learn “how to authentically embody people and ideas different than their own.”

Transforming Learning Across Subject Areas

Imagine this for a moment: High school students studying the influx of migrants in their community launch a project in which they begin by studying the wave of late 19th and early 20th century immigration from Europe into the United States. They study history through digital texts, recent news stories and videos. They create guiding questions and interview local immigrants about the obstacles they faced in coming to the United States and issues with which they still struggle. The students use these interviews as a basis to write and perform original monologues. This docudrama strategy promotes student ownership of their learning, encourages creative thinking and promotes community understanding by engaging them in the full range of National Theatre Standards across creating, performing, responding and connecting. Such a project might have emanated from any number of subject focused classrooms — history, government and politics, library science, a language class, social studies and yes — theatre — all in the service of helping students better understand their relationship to the larger world through different academic areas of learning.   

Here’s a final example that, in its way, encompasses all of Theatre Counts’s research-driven buckets. Among Tim McDonalds many wonderful plays is The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley JR. adapted from the beloved children’s book series by Jeff Brown. In the story, Stanley Lambchop is a ten-year-old boy who becomes flat when a bulletin board falls on him. His unhelpful brother turns Stanley into a kite and Flat Stanley travels the world singing and meeting people wherever he goes. Offered a movie contract, the world is his until he realizes that family and home are more important. So, Flat Stanley goes home and becomes Stanley again. In the production at another JumpStart Theatre school, in preparation for rehearsal, the cast was encouraged to imagine what it would be like to be flat—what would be good and not so good—and these group discussions helped them understand their own social and emotional understanding of the show and their individual roles in it. They also talked about Stanley’s world travels—Paris, Los Angeles, Hawaii—and why Stanley chose to come back home. Ultimately, the play allows its hero and the full cast to consider their larger place in the world through a vibrant “superfood” musical theatre experience.  

This final thought: Theatre education does count and matter in the larger education ecosystem for our children because it empowers students with knowledge, skills and self-awareness that can serve them across their academic learning and throughout the rest of their lives. It’s also fun and engenders joy and goodwill. And we all know that we need all we can get of both these days.

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