Theatre is Good for Teen Spirits

Over the holidays, I was smacked in the face with memories based around my high school theatre experiences. My family visited the Cole Porter Room at the Indiana Historical Society, and I started having flashbacks to my days as a sophomore on the set of Anything Goes. I started listening to the soundtrack of Wicked, in anticipation of see the show on New Year’s Eve, and learned that it was written by Stephen Schwartz, the man behind Godspell, which was the musical my junior year of high school. I decided it was time for my own children to experience the Wizard of Oz, and I discovered that I still know all of the words from the moment Dorothy touches down in Munchkinland until she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road. The Wizard of Oz was my very first high school production, way back in 1987.

Then I saw Wicked. And I was stunned, amazed and inspired. On the ride home with friends, we started randomly talking about shows we had been in in high school, and it got me to thinking — what if I hadn’t gone to school with a theatre program? What if my town’s economy had tanked and the drama program had been eliminated? Would our parents have rallied around us like they did last spring in Hull, Mass.? My entire high school experience would have been altered for sure, and I don’t know if if would have been such a positive one if it hadn’t been for my involvement in my school’s drama program.

I wondered, though, does everyone who is involved in theatre in high school remember as a such a  formative experience? Does everyone make their best friends there? Does it inspire people to learn more about a period in time or a group of people they wouldn’t have normally explored? I wasn’t sure, so I asked Facebook.

[blockquote]Ok friends, writing a post later this week for Perseph that will tout the reasons why Fine Arts in the schools is good. Specifically, why theatre is good for adolescent soul. What did it teach you? How has it benefited you in your adult life?[/blockquote]

The comments that followed were great. In a sweeping generalization, my friends stated that being involved in theatre productions built confidence, taught teamwork and gave them a safe place to express themselves.  Don’t I have great friends?

I felt I needed more to verify this overwhelming sense that theatre is very, very important in adolescence. This summary on Science Daily describes how working on a theatre production can actually build emotional intelligence. What was discovered is that while working on a musical production, teens encountered situations that helped them develop communication skills and work through emotions.

I also spoke with two educators on the topic. Marcie Pickelsimer, a former 7-12 drama teacher, told me that it was the acting class she taught was where she could see her students develop into individuals. She stated, “My acting class, so I like to think, was not just about acting but about getting to know themselves and each other. My belief is that children learn in different capacities. ie; all children have different learning styles. If teaching a child writing skills via acting works then do it. If teaching a child sentence structure/grammar by letting them act then do it. If letting them get up on a table in the middle of class and scream (true story) helps them focus for science then do it. In fact, my principal walked in one day while I was standing on a table directing my students as they walked around the room doing breathing and moving exercises. He just looked at me and laughed…he later sent me an email telling me it was one of the most refreshing teaching moments he had ever seen. All I was doing was teaching them how to prepare for a scene. Acting is all about teaching individuals to be, not teaching content. The content is just extra.”

Bill Simmons, professional actor and adjunct faculty, Butler University pointed out the fact that there are careers in theatre, and the skills needed for these careers need to be taught. “Just as schools focus on preparing many students for careers in math, accounting, science, medicine, journalism, teaching and music, schools also should be preparing some of their students for careers in writing, directing, producing, sound and light designing, theatre, radio, television and film.”

Angela Steele, a friend of mine who has continued to act as an adult, brought up some additional points on how theatre has benefited her, as well as how it’s beginning to benefit her own children: “Theatre gave me a home in high school full of open and diverse friends that has encouraged me to continue to fill my life with such people. It allowed me to express myself in new and creative ways that the traditional classroom didn’t allow without threat of ridicule. With today’s environment of bullying and fear, adolescents will need this safe haven more than ever. My background in theatre has benefited me in every job I’ve ever had, and I believe the skill set learned in theatre is the defining factor in landing these jobs. I continue to perform in theatre and film, and encourage my children to do so as well. The people they have met in these venues are by far the greatest, humane, and open-minded individuals influencing their young lives.”

What did theatre as a teenager do for you?

4 replies on “Theatre is Good for Teen Spirits”

I was the stage-manager for my high school play last year. What it taught me:
– How much work it is to be involved in plays, from blocking to costumes to lines to make-up.
– It’s an intense bonding experience. We were a strange mix of people that would never talk to each other at school, but we became like family during the play, doing sing-a-longs and going out for supper before the performances

Ah….I was stage manager back in the day myself. LOVED IT. I think it helped to develop my knack to prioritize and multi-task. As for the bonding, teenfeminist, the friend’s I made freshman and sophomore year in high school in drama club/working on shows….twenty years later, they are still my most favorite people ON THE PLANET. True story. It’s good to know it’s still happening in high school theatres around the country!

I was involved in theater programs from 2nd grade (as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, I promptly forgot the words to “If I Only Had a Heart” when confronted by an audience, clutched my funnel hat, and eventually tremored, “If I only had a brain?” Somehow I did not develop a fear of public speaking after the entire auditorium howled with laughter) until I graduated high school. As someone for whom making friends was difficult and self consciousness was rampant, having a safe space to give myself over to emotions without fear of mockery was invaluable. My high school drama classes brought me into contact with people whom I might not otherwise have met, from different social circles, and we started every class with a “Check In,” talking about our own experiences and what might be affecting our emotions that day. So I heartily second the comments that theater teaches students about themselves and allows them safe haven from the living hell that adolescence can be.

Theater culture also gave me a way to define myself in a large high school, a place to eat lunch every day, an outlet for my talents so I didn’t feel like a nobody…I honestly have missed acting since those years, and have been quietly rediscovering my love of showtunes (I used to listen to them on the radio every Saturday and hide my CD collection so my friends wouldn’t judge me, but hell, those songs are catchy!).

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