Most of us who teach theatre are intimately familiar with people’s responses when you tell them you teach theatre. My personal favourite, “Oh cute! Kids must love that! What a great break for them in a day full of academics!” (Anyone else basically feel like people think you’re teaching recess?)
If you’re anything like me, these comments are frustrating, but more than that, they point to how little people truly understand the importance of the arts. Is it “cute” that the sense of community in my classroom extends far beyond my four walls and has literally saved student’s lives when they’re deep in depression? Or “cute” that research has shown that students who engage in the performing arts are less likely to drop out of high school, are more likely to feel a sense of connection to the school at large, are more employable in their future careers, and that thriving theatre in communities supports improved rates of mental health, support social justice movements, incite critical conversations, and help create a stable economy?
For all those people who tell you that theatre is expendable, or somehow less meaningful or important than academic subjects (especially right now!), here's everything you need to know to set the record straight!
Theatre builds connection and community in schools
Having worked with disadvantaged youth in a number of capacities, I can tell you the rate of school drop-out is higher than most folks realize. There are numerous barriers to completing a high school diploma already, and even more barriers to our BIPOC youth, Queer youth, English Language Learners, and our youth from lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods (which, in many cases, students share many of these intersections). Add this to the fact that many of these youth have gaps in their learning due to systemic racism, homophobia and trans-phobia, lack of understanding around mental health, and classism, and you have youth who refuse to attend their academic classes in high school.
Who can blame them?! They are often the students labelled “troublemaker” and on more than one occasion I’ve heard teachers say “well if they won’t show up, then it’s their fault they fail.”
I understand it can feel as though there is little we can do to engage a youth if we never even have the chance to meet them; however, what if we offer programs that take some of this academic pressure off students so that they can find a sense of community at school again? They can feel heard and represented, and being a frequent non-attender won’t completely cripple their ability to find success in the course?
This is where theatre comes in! Theatre has been proven to decrease the risk of drop-out in schools and increase student performance in other subject areas overall! Additionally, students who reflect on their past participation in theatre felt that was the contributing factor in their overall feeling of connectedness to their school (Grensemen, 2014). For instance, when interviewed 10 years post-high school, folks attributed much of their personal, social, and cognitive development and overall life success to their experiences during the 4 years in high school theatre (Zdirluk, 2010). This significance should not be overlooked, as it is a testament to the importance of the arts to long-term development, not only as academic learners, but as whole people..
With that said, if we know that students are more likely to find success when theatre is an option for them, and they are more likely to remain connected to the school, we can assert that schools that provide theatre have a more rounded and supportive community overall. Because we know as teachers that every student who “fails” at school, is really a reflection of our own failure; not theirs. Especially when we know we have not done everything we can to ensure their connection.
Theatre allows space for students to process the difficulties of the times
And what time is more difficult than right now? We are in the midst of a pandemic, and we are searching for ways to dismantle the patriarchy and white-supremacy in schools - at last! This is no easy feat, and our students are seeing all of this and deserve opportunities to process these complicated experiences with adults they trust.
As Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, stated “We must all do theatre, to find out who we are, and to discover who we could become.” Performance, in any context, gives students opportunities to “try on” a variety of behaviours and responses without risk of “being wrong.” It gives space to allow students to explore the difficulties they are experiencing while validating these difficulties, but above all, it provides these youth with concrete tools to use in the real world with more confidence.
Isn’t that what we want? Young people who feel confident going out into the world challenging white-supremacy and the patriarchy?! Young people who feel they can stand up to racism right when they see it because they’ve had safe spaces to practice these confrontations numerous times before? Remember that “... performance serves as a mode of analysis, engagement, and critique ((Cahnmann-Taylor, M., Souto-Manning, M.), and that’s the purpose behind education! To analyze, engage, and critique!
Theatre has a history of being censored
Historically, when people in power have not liked what they’ve seen in the theatre, it has been shut down, often because theatre provides a voice for the oppressed. In fact, Augusto Boal was EXILED from Brazil for giving voice to the poor, marginalized communities he sought to empower!
Theatre in Education is a form of Applied Theatre, or “...a theatre which is taken out into non-theatrical settings … for the purposes of helping the audience, or the participants, to grapple with an issue, event or question which is of immediate public and personal concern” (Phillip, 2003). By undervaluing theatre, we run the risk of silencing those who need their voices heard the most. Defunding the arts is a form of censorship, and we must approach this territory carefully and with a very critical eye! As educators, particularly theatre educators, we have a platform - a literal stage! - and with this comes an obligation to provide voice to marginalized populations, and ensure that we are drawing attention to the injustices of the world!
We also have to ask ourselves if defunding theatre, or in some cases, doing away with it altogether, is perpetuating colonialist values. For instance, “Community theatre in Africa has roots in the anti-colonial struggle (Pickering, 1957), and, today, has become intricately intertwined with drama in schools and theatre in public awareness campaigns …” (Van Erven, E. 2001, p.10). Furthermore, we know that many Indigenous cultures are story-telling cultures, and performance is a story-telling art form. As a white woman living on Indigenous land in Canada, I have an obligation to ensure that my Indigenous students have a platform for their stories to be told.
Theatre promotes a healthy economy
It comes as no surprise to artists that theatre is fundamental for our economy, but objective research supports this too! For our numbers folks out there, according to Thought Economics,
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that 3.2 percent
of US GDP (around US$ 504 billion) is attributable to arts and
culture (compared with the entire US travel and tourism industry,
which accounts for 2.8 percent of GDP).
Furthermore, “Americans for the Arts also showed that the arts and cultural industries support over 5.4 million jobs in the US alone” (Theatre, Performance and Society, 2016).
Cutting these programs decreases opportunities to expose our young people to the performing arts, and therefore doesn’t allow them to develop their love of the arts at a young age! If we don’t foster this love, how are we supporting an arts and culture rich community (which we now know has been proven to support local economies)??
Theatre promotes healthy communities and minds!
Culturally diverse and aware classrooms and mental health aware classrooms are really, one in the same (I’ll talk more about this in a future post and podcast!) A community that calls out patriarchy and white-supremacy fosters a community that experiences fewer mental health concerns.
Naming injustices creates space for all people to feel safe in their communities and in their schools, and when people feel safe, guess what? They don’t experience the same rates of anxiety, depression, and other diagnosed mental health concerns!
What does this have to do with theatre? Well, theatre is a FORUM to call out injustice and call people to action! Theatre in Education (as a form of applied theatre), “... is committed to the power of the aesthetic form for raising awareness of how we are situated in this world and what we as individuals and as communities might do to make our world a better place” (Phillip, 2003, p.7).
Another organization coined the term “EduACTION” as a means of addressing the importance of education being more than just instruction, but a calling to take action and “make the world a better place for the communities in which we co-exist” (Cahnmann-Taylor, Souto-Manning, 2010, p.xiii).
Furthermore, Cahnmann-Taylor and Souto-Manning (2010) promote the importance of using theatre to practice these challenging conversations with students and colleagues alike! These conversations in the safety of a classroom allows one to make mistakes and learn how to be more culturally responsive and communicate through conflict, and break down barriers to social change (Cahnmann-Taylor, Souto-Manning, 2010, p.4).
My fear in decreasing funding or getting rid of performing arts programming in schools is that we effectively communicate to our students that their need for safety is less important than academics, in spite of the ongoing importance of having conversations around privilege and diversity. We risk falling back into the trend of positioning our BIPOC or Queer students as the class “experts” who have to answer on behalf of everyone because our white students don’t have the tools or confidence to step into this role. We should be teaching all of our students how to manage these conversations, so that our marginalized voices aren't left with the daunting task of educating us white folks.
Finally, “The applied theatre is powered by a need to change: a community is hurting and theatre can enable them [to] process their hurt; or, there are too many unnecessary acts of disease, of hate, of substance abuse in our midst, and theatre might be one way for a community to consider the alternatives. Applied theatre opens up new perspectives, poses options, and anticipates change.” (Phillip, 2010, p.8). Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do in schools?!
Cutting back on arts funding, even if it’s only a year during Covid, can significantly decrease momentum on a program that has a connected group of students. We run the risk of decreasing opportunities for cultural awareness, while perpetuating colonial ideas of learning. This is problematic for so many reason! As theatre educators, we have all the tools at our disposal to create meaningful opportunities to empower our students to engage in the community in a healthy and socially conscious way!
So the next time someone says to you “yeah, but this is a time we need to focus on the important subjects,” ask them, what’s more important than the health of our youth, our communities, and our economy at a time like this?
Arreola, Joseph James. The Perception of Theatre Arts Programs Connecting Students with their Schools. Azusa Pacific University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2019. 13814628.
Cahnmann-Taylor, M. and Souto-Manning, M., 2010, Teachers Act Up: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities Through Theatre. Teacher’s College Press.
Grenseman, Gladys Annie Licona. (2014) Advocating the Strengthening of Public High School Theatre Arts Education: With a focus on our english learners and at-risk students. The University of Nebraska - Lincoln, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 3667416
Laura A. McCammon, Johnny Saldaña, Angela Hines & Matt Omasta (2012) Lifelong Impact: Adult Perceptions of Their High School Speech and/or Theatre Participation, Youth Theatre Journal, 26:1, 2-25, DOI: 10.1080/08929092.2012.678223 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08929092.2012.678223?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Martin, G. (2018) Community Building Through Theatre Practice. Retrieved from: https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/handle/123456789/34918
Phillip, Taylor (2003), The Applied Theatre. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED479871.pdf
Van Erven, E. 2001. Community Theatre: Global Perspectives. Routledge Publishing. Retrieved from: https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=GaqGAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=how+theatre+creates+community&ots=DOSSBsGyt1&sig=o9P0fVhNRtCDHa0QXb2_J3Fwo3s&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Zdriluk, Helen (2010). Ten Years After: A qualitative study of students’ experiences in a high school theatre company. http://hdl.handle.net/10464/3089