Acting before Algebra: The Case for Making Acting Classes Mandatory

Acting before Algebra: The Case for Making Acting Classes Mandatory

Anthony J. Piccione

  • New York Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

When I was still in school, I did fairly well in most classes. English. History. All of the arts, such as theatre, painting, music, etc. Even one or two science classes that I took, I remember. All these classes were easy, if not enjoyable, during most of my time as a student. There was, however, one glaring exception that I remember. It’s a subject that I do not miss whatsoever, and I still have a certain level of disdain for, even after having graduated from college: 

Math.

Even as someone who graduated from college within the past year, and who graduated from high school well before that, I still look back on my teen years with confusion, over the fact that I – along with many others – had been forced to take certain advanced math classes that we found incredibly difficult – in ways which can’t be said about other classes – yet contained little to no information that we would ever need to know for the rest of our lives.

Keep in mind that I am not talking about the basic essentials that everyone should know.  Whether it is the basics – such as adding, multiplication, etc. – or anything else that someone might need to know as an adult, when they are paying the bills, saving money or paying off debt, I will not dispute that these are necessary skills that everyone – regardless of what they want to do with their life – ought to know. 

What I am talking about are the more advanced forms of math, such as algebra, calculus, etc. For many students, these classes are requirements to obtain even a high school diploma, despite evidence that it is simply an unnecessary burden that is being put on them. If you are planning to go into a specific field, in terms of your future career, then perhaps these subjects might be necessary to learn about. However, not everyone is, and that is why I believe it is absolutely unnecessary to be making advanced mathematics a mandatory subject in schools.

On that same token, however, I also have come to realize – especially more recently, as I reflect on it more – that there are far more benefits than one might realize to learning more about the performing arts. Even for those who don’t plan on going into the arts as a career, many young students could benefit from a requirement that they take at least one or two acting classes during their childhood and adolescence.

Now depending on your point of view, you may or may not think I’m crazy for suggesting what some might call a radical change in the education system. (I personally don’t think it’s that radical, but I know some others who might.) All I ask is for you to keep reading, and see why I believe this to be true.

Some of these I’ve discussed before in other columns – as have other writers on this website, and elsewhere – but here are just a few skills that every student can easily gain or improve upon from taking even just one acting class. (If I’m leaving anything out, feel free to leave a comment and say so! I want everyone reading to know all the benefits!)

•    You learn to be an excellent communicator

For anyone who has ever worked in theatre, it goes without saying that being a successful stage actor requires excellent communication skills. As you are learning to be an actor, you can always expect to told to speak loudly and clearly, having certain facial expressions for certain characters, and to make direct eye contact with whoever your lines are meant to be addressed to, whether it be another character or even a certain audience member. (I know plenty of plays where that happens.) The vast majority of career options out there also require these sorts of skills, so if you’re someone who needs to work on being a better communicator, an acting class could be very helpful.

•    You grow more confident  

I’ve met many people who claim that their sole excuse for not wanting to act is their fear of getting up and performing in front of an audience. To some extent, I can understand this. Personally, I’ve always thought of it as going on as someone else, as opposed to being yourself. Still, all actors deserve credit for being bold enough to go out on stage, in front of several people, and be judged on their talents. If more people were willing to take that risk, and put themselves out there even in just one class, perhaps they could also gain more confidence, if not as professional actors, than in many other everyday situations where it is called for.

•    You expand your creativity and imagination  

When you become an actor, you aren’t just reading lines. You’re interpreting those lines, as you help to create a new character – or at the very least, a new interpretation of that character – that your audience may be seeing for the first time. For other roles, as well – whether you are a playwright, a director, a designer, or in some cases, even a technician – creative solutions that require a broad imagination are often called for, in order to be successful. We need more people in all industries to have big ideas, and who aren’t afraid to be bold and creative, if society is ever going to succeed in the future. I can think of few other classes that encourage students to become more creative than performing arts classes.

•    You are encouraged to work well as a team  

How many times have you ever heard the word “ensemble” used in the theatre world? I’m guessing many times, and it’s for good reason. While it can be used to refer to the smaller, mostly non-speaking roles in productions with a large cast, it also can be used to refer to the entire cast and crew involved. Whether it’s a small group of actors working on a class presentation, a full-scale Broadway production, or anything in between, we all collaborate together to help put together a great performance. In many cases, when one of us is gone, the rest of it can easily fall apart. With this in mind, I know many people who don’t necessarily do a good job at being a team player, and perhaps they could use a few acting classes to help them get better at that.

•    You are expected to act differently in different situations  

Whether people realize it or not – depending on where they are, and what they are doing – they all are expected to do some degree of acting in their everyday lives. For instance, most of us wouldn’t dare to go into a job interview, and say some of the things we may privately say to our best friends. (Not if we want to get hired, anyway.) Or if you are around young children, there is a certain expectation that you wouldn’t talk or behave in the way that you might behave around a group consisting of just adults. Most people understand that, anyway. Some people, however, don’t exactly understand the fact that in order to get ahead in life, you need to know how to act differently, depending on who you are with. Given the number of characters that you might end up playing just in one acting class, perhaps that can help those people improve at those skills, which they could definitely use.

•    You are expected to fully keep your commitments  

Any of us who have signed on to a performance of any kind, regardless of what role we have in it, know we are expected to keep our commitments once we make them, and that the people who are always late or absent from rehearsals – not to mention performances – are just the worst. While it may especially be the case in theatre, every industry should believe in the ideal that once you commit to something, you must do everything you can to keep your end of that commitment. Can we all really say that we’re doing everything we can to teach students this ideal, today?

•    You’ll never settle for anything less than perfection  

We might not always achieve it, but when you’re working in the arts, you always are passionate enough to do your very best to live up to what you think of as the perfect vision of your project. There is not enough of this in the world, in my honest opinion. People tend to believe, generally speaking, that it is good enough to settle for the bare minimum of what’s expected, regardless of the task you are given. Even if it’s something you said you would work hard at, initially. If it’s not something you ever really wanted to do in the first place (*cough*algebra*cough*), perhaps I could understand. Yet what’s the point of willingly getting involved in something, if you’re not going to try and be the absolute best that you can possibly be?

Regardless of whether they intend to study theatre in college or not, all students can benefit from learning all of these skills in an acting class, where these skills will be tested like never before. They are skills that everyone will need to know in their adult life – whether they go on to become a businessman, a teacher, a lawyer, etc. – in order to be successful and respected.

Can the same really be said about most advanced math classes? For some, maybe the answer is yes. As I said, for those choosing certain careers, perhaps it may be necessary. Yet most people I know seem to be doing just fine in life, without having been particularly good at algebra. Indeed, when people tell you much of what you learn in those classes will never be needed again in your life, they’re not wrong.

Also, keep in mind that just as I don’t believe that students should be forced to study advanced mathematics, I’m also not arguing that students should be forced to learn everything there is to know about the performing arts. I only suggest that they all learn the fundamentals of both subjects that every student can benefit from, as they move forward in life. That’s not what’s going on in most schools, right now. Every person is expected to do more acting than they might realize in their day to day lives. However, you don’t need to be good at algebra, in order to balance a checkbook. 

One of the main counterarguments that I often hear is that we should be encouraging children to aspire to be scientists and doctors, rather than artists or entertainers. All one needs to do is take a look at the disgusting Wells Fargo ad from earlier this year, which said exactly this. However, I’m certain that the same people who make such arguments – whether they have any appreciation for the performing arts or not – also rely on many of the same skills that I previously referred to, in order to move ahead in life. For example, the businessmen at Wells Fargo needed to be strong communicators nearly as much – if not just as much – as they needed to be good with money, in order to get to where they are today. The people who created their ads needed to have at least some degree of creativity to be successful in their industry, albeit perhaps not as much as those of us that they may be bashing. Then the people who are actually hired to appear in their ads and posters are…*drum roll*…actors!

My point in saying this is that people rely on the skills learned in both fields more than they realize. Yes, we need more doctors and scientists, accountants and technicians, and many other people who are highly skilled at math, in order for our society to function well. However, we also need people with all the skills mentioned in the above list…including, by the way, those of us who actually do work in the performing arts. Therefore, young students – as they are growing up – should be required to learn the basics of both subjects, so they obtain all the benefits that come with both. 

On that same token, as far as them learning the advanced material of either, we should let them decide for themselves which they are better suited for, as they get older. Yet forcing students to learn some of the most advanced aspects of one subject, while neglecting to teach them anything about the other, is something that could be potentially harmful to the development of these young students, whether people realize it or not.

What do you think? Should every student be required to take an acting class? Should algebra and other advanced math classes remain mandatory? Be sure to share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet, critic and essayist based in New York City. 

To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage) and on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione).

Photo: Briarcliff High School

An Actor's Perspective: When the Panic Sets In

An Actor's Perspective: When the Panic Sets In

Think Directors Are Biased? Well, They Might Be and Here’s How We Deal With it

Think Directors Are Biased? Well, They Might Be and Here’s How We Deal With it