Cut Theatre From School Budgets? I’m Not Okay With That : A Response

Thomas Burns Scully

Our Editor-In-Chief Chris Peterson recently put out an article in which he outlined a situation where a school cut their drama program in favor of putting more money in to their maths and special education services. He said that he was be okay with this. I respectfully disagree. I have a problem with this, and various points he made in his article. I don’t think it’s ever okay to cut drama, and I’m now going to go in to non too unclear terms as to why.

Before I start I would like to point out that I am neither a teacher, nor an expert on pedagogy. I am the son of two parents who are teachers, however, and have been privy to many an in depth conversation on the subject with them and their co-workers. I would also like to point out that my educational situation was, most likely, different from a large section of you reading this blog. I grew up in the middle-east attending a private international school. A school that was, well, pretty well funded. Like most schools it wasn’t free of problems, but money was usually not one of them. Also, in the coming lines I use a little foul language, for which I apologize profusely to my grandmother if she is reading this. I am also (for the sake of time, this is going to be a long piece) assuming that you understand the intrinsic value and added benefits of theatre and drama in education. I’m pretty sure you can find an article about why it’s important on this very website. Now…

I know where Chris is coming from in principle in his article. School’s have a tough job, public schools in this country in particular. Many institutions are nauseatingly under-funded. And it is nauseating, because if you think about it for ten minutes you’ll realize that a school is a place where a future-adult is going to have major, life-defining, intellectual and emotional experiences. Why the hell wouldn’t you want to fund the crap out these places? They are effectively preventative medicine for the mind and soul. Anyway, as such, schools have to make the best use of their funding. And when they are put in a tough situation, they may well decide to cut their arts programs, and put the money in to hiring maths teachers, and special needs teachers. Chris put forward that he is okay with arts being cut, as long as the money is going back in to education. He also said he is never in favor of the arts being cut as a first resort, but that in difficult situations, difficult choices need to be made. As I said, I understand. The school was not cutting the arts out of spite or to fund some non-academic project, the money was staying in the system and being redistributed. I understand. But understanding does not get rid of the subtle taste of sick in my mouth, or the feeling that something is deeply wrong.

Now, I’m going to forget for a minute that any school in any economically developed country should be well funded enough by its government to support a drama program and hire enough maths and special-ed teachers. I’m also going to forget that classroom education as it currently stands in this country (and in many others) is based on a laughably outdated Prussian model that does not account for everything that we have learned about learning behavior and child psychology in the intervening century between its implementation and today. I am going to forget that, on the grand scale of things, teachers and schools are not at fault, that they have been failed by bureaucratic forces greater than they are. I am going to forget all this, because if the powers that be for one second had their priorities straight, then this issue would be a non-issue. But we’re dealing right now with a situation where a group of people had a choice to make, and when they made it they devalued something that I believe in. And I am not, nor will I ever be, okay with that.

“As much as I love high school theatre and what it does for students, let's be honest, high school theatre isn't going to lead to cures for cancer or lead to the next scientific breakthrough. So as long as the school places those funds toward improving their academic qualities, I can get behind that.” Chris Peterson

Yes, that is true. High School Theatre doesn’t cure cancer. Words I never thought I’d have to write. Of course it doesn’t, that’s like comparing apples to syphilis. These two ideas have no correlation. Equally, you can’t say that “The latest paper on breakthroughs in cellular biology didn’t make me laugh as much as Groucho in ‘Duck Soup’”. The two ideas have separate, incomparable, and, hence, equal values. And putting money in to one subject at the expense of the arts devalues the arts. Of course math is important, it’s the method by which mankind makes sense of the nuts and bolts of the universe. Art, however, is the way mankind makes emotional sense of ourselves. Given the US’s booming therapy market, and the fact that suicide rates in the US are at their highest in twenty-five years, this stuff might be important. Just look at the way people love performance. We build temples and call them theatres and cinemas and people pay money to go in them. When we do that as a society, why would you not instill similar values in a place which is meant to prepare you for society? As soon as you take money away from the theatrical arts to give to another subject, you are saying that it is not as important.

Also, as a side-bar, I have yet to have a day go by when I have someone over the age of forty tell me that my entire generation is emotionally retarded because of computers and smartphones. (I don’t agree with this idea, but that’s a story for another time) Now, which subjects do you think help push kids in to those worlds of technological isolation? Subjects that demand a child spend hours huddled over a computer or a graphics calculator processing cold data, or a subject that physically demands that you stand up and relate to the person standing opposite you?

“The only way, I believe, to raise [the dwindling Math scores in the USA as compared to other countries], is to put resources into the more academic coursework and hire the best and most teachers possible. I also think the school year should be extended and eliminate teacher tenure at the high school level, but that's an entire different column for another blog.” Chris Peterson

No. The only way to fix educational outcomes is to fix the educational system which was founded on an incorrect model (as I mentioned above). John Oliver did a fantastic piece about standardized testing a week or two ago ( which highlights some of the problems. And films like “Waiting for ‘Superman’” go a long way to explaining the rest. Extending the school year is a terrible idea. Education would benefit more from ideas like the gamification (, than it ever would from extending the school year. Kids are already under too much academic pressure and its been proven to be bad for them ( As for teacher tenure… well I’m undecided on that one, but as Chris said, another topic for another blog…

“I would even support decreasing an arts budget or eliminating them all together for improvements or additions in a schools athletic program. Here's where I can start to feel the metaphorical tomatoes, but hear me out on this. 

According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. […]

So putting resources into a school's athletic program should be a priority.” Chris Peterson

Here’s that metaphorical tomato… Of course physical health is important, but the way you talk about it implies that 1. Theatre makes you fat (it doesn’t, I’ve never been skinnier since I went to drama school) and 2. Phis-Ed is more important than drama (It’s not, they are of equal value). Obesity is a huge issue, not just in the US, all over the world. And I do believe that PE has a crucial part to play in a child’s education and upbringing. At school I quite clearly remember thinking at one point that theatre and PE were similar in a lot of ways, because they were subjects where you actually got up and did stuff. The problem of obesity, however, will not be solved by getting kids running laps more times a week. Okay, yes, that’s an oversimplification, and there’s a lot more to PE and sport than that, but the problem of obesity won’t just be solved in a school. 

Widespread clinical obesity is as much, if not more, a result of crappy diet than it is of lack of exercise. Yes, the two go hand in hand, but high-school gym class doesn’t stand a chance in the fight against the systematic, worldwide abuse of processed sugar, additives, fatty oils and all the other crap that goes in to food. Particularly food products targeted at low-income households. Something needs to be done on a national scale with food companies to attack obesity, and to take away from theatre education because of the failings of other areas of society isn’t just flat-out wrong, it’s stupid. If you cut theatre to fund phis-ed, you are (once again) saying that something else is more important than art, and maybe also implying that artists are slothenly and, somehow, partially to blame for obesity. And you only have to look at a movie screen to see that not only are most artists not anti-health, many of them are ridiculously pro-health. In the sense that working in the theatre and associated professions motivates you to work on yourself physically and healthily. I know it did that for me; more than being told over and over again that  “You should exercise, it’ll be good for you,” ever did.

“Now you might be asking, what will happen to students who want to learn about theatre? I would argue that even without an annual school play or musical, there are always opportunities to get involved or learn about theatre.

My first recommendation would be to get involved in community theatres. Here in CT, there are a plethora of community theatres that regularly cast teens and children in their productions. Many times, these productions will actually be a more educational experience that any school could provide with the few shows they perform annually.” Chris Peterson

I’m not going to decry community theatre, don’t worry. Community theatre is great, and I would make the same recommendation about getting involved with as much theatre work as possible to any young person. But not everyone has that option. I know I didn’t. In Oman, where I grew up, there was little to no theatre outside of school theatre. There was one small amateur dramatics group and they never really went out of their way to involve young people. Not out of any malice, they just worked to a different timetable. There was also no professional theatre at that time (that has changed somewhat since). So if I had had no school theatre, I would have had no theatre at all. And I would be a completely different person right now. I would weigh more, I would probably still have long hippie hair, I wouldn’t have made some of the best friends of my life, I wouldn’t be dating the beautiful girl I am now (yes, I’m showing off a little), and I definitely wouldn’t be writing this article. I know I grew up in the middle-east, and it’s a different ball game, but are you going to tell me that you can’t think of one town in the whole USA that has school drama, but no other local theatre? A town that would leave a child a theatrical orphan if the drama department at their school shut down?

It also, again, devalues the idea of theatre to kids. I can’t stress this enough. It makes theatre something extracurricular. That you can do if you have time after you’ve done your real work. That you will probably have to drop if you get too much schoolwork.

“I would also hope dramatic texts would be included in English and Literature curriculums. It's common for high school English classes to include works from Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. This way students can still study theatre from an academic angle, if they aren't able to perform.” Chris Peterson 

Teaching dramatic texts in English is done in most schools, and is essential to the growth of any thirsty theatre artist. But you don’t have to think about it for long to realize that it’s not enough for someone really interested in theatre. You don’t become a doctor by reading every text book and studying every diagram, eventually you got to slice someone up. I can also categorically state that I didn’t get in to theatre in the way that I did just from reading Shakespeare and Miller. As good as my English teachers were (and I had some very good English teachers) they were not responsible for turning me on to drama in the way that theatre class was. You also don’t get exposed to the plethora of dramatic texts available in English class. Most English curriculums cover Shakespeare and one early-mid twentieth century playwright, like Miller or O’Neill. In my theatre class I read Shakespeare, Miller, O’Neill, Sarah Kane, Claire Dowie, Ariel Dorfman, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Heiner Müller, and was encouraged to read many others. I was also exposed to Dadaism, Brechtian drama, improv, circus, and other theatrical forms that you can’t cover adequately in a purely academic environment. Academic study of dramatic texts is not enough for someone with a real interest.

“Finally, with the number of great college theatre programs in existence, there are plenty of opportunities for students to pursue a study of theatre at both the 4 year and 2 year levels. I've already written about what a theatre degree can do for you, so I certainly hope to see more students pursue this.” Chris Peterson

From a technical standpoint this is true, but in reality I don’t buy that a student with little to no exposure to practical theatre making would want to risk there livelihood (and their parents’ money) on a degree in something that they have been told over and over again isn’t real work and isn’t as valuable as basically every other skill or profession you can imagine.

“Also, if students still want the chance to perform, there are ways to certainly do this on shoestring budgets. I've also seen school productions that were produced with donations from either the public or local companies. One production I was involved with, the set was built with lumber donations from the local Home Depot. So there are ways to perform without high cost on school budget lines.” Chris Peterson

Again, there’s truth to this, and self-mounting a production is valuable experience for anyone looking to go out in to the world of theatre. I’m also not familiar with the kind of money that gets spent on a school musical nowadays in the States. I can easily picture an overzealous drama teacher pushing a school in to financial ruin to put on his dream production of “Seussical”. Maybe pushing black-box drama is the way to go in the face of a school funding crisis, it certainly wouldn’t be the craziest idea in the world. But again, it’s playing in to this idea that theatre should something extra curricular. Something extra. Not necessary. A luxury. A triviality. A waste of your time.

“The ideal situation would be for a school system to have enough money to be able to fully fund everything at a healthy level. But if the choice comes down to strong math skills or next year's production of Bye Bye Birdie, I'm going to side with math every time.” Chris Peterson

I’m never going to stand-up and advocate for ignorance. I think everyone has a duty as a human being to work towards being as intelligent as they can be. The only part of my High School’s mission statement that has ever stuck with me in any meaningful way is the idea they espoused of being ‘Lifelong Learners’. The term was often used in a slightly prosaic way, but I think that idea is a powerful one. The idea that you never, ever stop learning or needing to learn, and that you should never, ever choose ignorance. Maths is important, and I’m not advocating theatre over maths. I’m advocating an equal footing, as is due to a subject as important as theatre. And if you fund Math, or any subject, at the expense of your entire Theatre program, then you are saying that theatre is not important. If I may be so bold, you are saying that Shakespeare, Noel Coward, JB Priestly, Steven Sondheim, Gary Oldman, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Nathan Lane, Colin Mochrie, Sophocles and all those other millions of people who have ever made you feel something in a space and called it theatre… you are saying that they were all wasting their time. And I refuse to believe that. I fucking refuse.

I know, I know. It’s a difficult situation. I understand that schools are in a very difficult place and are under huge amounts of pressure from all kinds of sources. And I know that choosing how to allocate budgets is a difficult decision. Hell, I wouldn’t want to have to make it. Especially if it involves allocating money to Special Needs Education. That shit’s important. “In an ideal world…” yes, yes, that ideal world that we are all so fond of. Where schools are properly funded, salad tastes like ice-cream, Jimi Hendrix is still alive and Justin Beiber has given up and gone home. But it’s not an ideal world, and these decisions have to be made. And schools may decide to drop their theatre programs. And I will understand why they did it. But I will never, ever, ever be okay with it. Never.

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