Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Educational" Theatre: A Pet Peeve

In the schools, I've performed numerous assembly programs, taught theatre and directed productions. Sometimes it's been through arts-in-education organizations, and other times it's been through my theatre company. What flabbergasts me is the question of "and what will be the educational value for the children?"

Apparently, art--visual or performing--is not educational in and of itself. It's only educational if you attach a historically significant date on it or some kind of geographical information. For instance, I've worked with one group of kids to create an Oregon Trail series of puppet plays; another group performed a play about different habitats. But we couldn't announce to the schools that we had a theatre experience for the kids; it had to be of "educational" value.

Theatre (and the other arts) is valuable without having to attach social studies or social awareness (e.g. bullying) to it. Sure, theater can teach about those things but look at what it does without all that:
  • Reading. If the kids are memorizing a script, there's a LOT of reading going on before the script is put away. In fact, it's usually referred to constantly by the actor, even when scripts are no longer allowed on stage.
  • More Reading. When a play is based on a classic story (Little Red Riding Hood, Tortoise and the Hare, etc.), children are apt to pick up the book when they see it on the shelf. We did a dress rehearsal of Princess and the Pea for my husband's third grade class long ago. The next morning, two girls rushed over to him with their reader open. "Teacher," they said, showing him the title of the story. "May we read this?!" It was Princess and the Pea. (He told them they could.)
  • Posture. It sounds like such a trivial thing, but posture--learning how to stand up straight and such--is a confidence booster.
  • Presence. On stage, there is no hiding. There's no sitting in the back of the room, slumped in a desk. Presence is that quality of being noticed and not shrinking away from the attention.
  • Confidence (along with Posture & Presence). It takes at least a spark of confidence for any child to be willing to try something new and then to carry out the project to see it to a successful end. Isn't trying new things a constant part of school? a constant part of life?
  • Teamwork. Just like sports, a winning production depends on all participants doing their best. It's a great feeling to hear applause at the end of a production for every actor involved, no matter the part! At the end of a production I had directed, a father approached me. I was nervous because his son had a small part--was I about to be questioned on that decision? No! The father was all smiles, proud of his son's accomplishment. And isn't true teamwork the opposite of bullying?
  • Success. The feeling of success is powerful, so the person involved wants to feel it again. And again. Someone who has had to work for the applause learns not to fear work in the pursuit of success in other areas of life, such as school. 
  • A Different Success. Quite frankly, are there not children in school who just don't cut it academically? How devastating to be in the "low group" year after year. We can certainly pretend that those children are never called "stupid" but it happens, even if it's the students themselves. For those kids, it's a relief to discover a talent, something they CAN do. It changes everything! When I was teaching a mime residency at an elementary school, I was supposed to have only 30 students. They gave me 60 on day one, and I was told I could decide which 30 to have in there for the rest of the sessions. I drew up my list at the end of that class and handed it to the principal. Her reaction was unexpected: "I'm so glad you picked him. He's not doing well in school." He did well for me; he was actually the best mime I had.
  • Creativity. I can't top what Albert Einstein said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Theatre's value goes beyond school and academics; the skills children learn are useful and essential even when the kids become--and especially as--adults.

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