School Theatre: Needed now more than ever

Spencer Lau

OnStage New Jersey Columnist

I have been going back and forth about this column.  What I settled on was to open a discussion about how musical theatre can be inspiring on many different levels for different kids and how to discuss them with school administrators.  Hopefully, after reading this post, you can go on here and comment with a success story or two of yours and share it so that we may begin to amass a thread of success stories that performing arts administrators, teachers, and specialists can use as examples in defense of their programs across the country.  I believe at the end of a school year it is nice to hear some positive stories.

School theatre programs always come under fire around the end of the school year.   There are budget cuts, staff cuts, etc., and as we all know far too well, the fine and performing arts are usually the first programs to be cut.  This article will discuss what specific reasons you can make school theatre programs important, viable, and a necessity in schools today.

Vocational Opportunities:

Theatre offer wide range of vocational opportunities.  Most people who attend your standard middle or high school theatrical performance are not aware of all the opportunities for learning vocational skills.  If you watch any vlogs (video logs) or if you read the “Unusual Jobs in Theatre”, or even Hamilton’s “Ham4Ham” videos, they all spotlight the hard working people behind the scenes that shows need in order to function and you can integrate students into those roles. Kids become more invested in a show when they help build the set, or help design or sew the costumes.  

Perhaps your child would be interested in helping design the programs or cast shirt?  Student “gamers” might be interested in the light and sound design of a show.  Theatre is not just for acting and singing, there are so many more opportunities available for everyone.  We can reach the general population of a school just by putting out there what we need help in or are willing to teach.  So when the school curriculum coordinator comes to you and says you need to integrate more vocation into your curriculum or general music classes, here is a perfect way to integrate your students with various interests into the arts.

Cross Curricular:

Theatre programs reach out across math, science, history, physical education, English Language Arts, foreign languages, etc.  The math can be in the music, it can be in area of a stage, or in the set design.  Collaborate with your math teachers and find some ways to either integrate math in your program or consult them for ideas as to how they can integrate music into their class. For example area to paint on a backdrop, or distance between objects on stage, etc.  There is a lot of STEM careers that can be considered in sound, and lighting.  Since STEM is a big catch phrase now, how about starting a discussion about how the science of music, sound and technology contribute to a whole education.  In English and Language Arts there are opportunities for writing Playbill biographies, learning to write reviews on shows, or writing their own shows.  In Social Studies or Reading class you can connect how all shows are based upon some kind of event or story and relates to a particular time or historical period. I could continue to go on and on, but I think we all know to impress an administration/community questioning the need for a theatre program, you have to be able to relate it to the common core subjects and how your work is cross-curricular.  Luckily, if you order shows from MTI, R&H, Tams-Witmark and Samuel French, they all come with ways to make what you do and your specific show a cross-curricular event.  

Source of Community Pride/Public Relations:

How often can other extra-curricular programs pick up and demonstrate what they do and have learned?  Could a football team or basketball team do run a touchdown play in the middle of a Board Meeting?  Theatre is very portable and can be performed for anyone at any time.  For instance, students can perform the Star Spangled Banner at a multitude of community and regional events. They can perform for Seuss Day for elementary schools.  They are usually made up of the students who are part of a choir that perform at the Holidays and a Spring Musical.  A strong, supported theatre program can unify a community.  If you Google “Junior Theater Festival,” (JTF) you will find community and school theatre programs performing during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in Atlanta, Georgia.  

You can read about how proud their schools and communities are of the young people that are representing them.  Musical theatre groups can perform powerful, moving pieces at senior centers, and in a variety of settings and contexts. These opportunities to perform o overlap with a choral program from time to time, but many community groups will appreciate and call upon these programs to help contribute to community events.  Theatre programs, in turn, make the school district look great and well rounded.

Discipline/Self Confidence:

Do people forget how much the arts develop skills as individual students?  The fine and performing arts teach students that they have to budget their time, complete work, speak in public, and interact with people on multiple levels.  We live in a time period where communication does not have to be done through face-to-face interaction.  Theatre and the arts help to bridge that gap.  It assists students confidence in writing and public speaking skills.  It helps students to be more motivated to attend school, participate in school, and statistically do better on SATS.  But what you have to do as an advocate is bring up those statistics to your administrators (for example: AATE Facts).  

Administrations and communities want to see statistics and this is where I believe many of you find your success, but you have to bring national statistics and track your own students statistically.  Another benefit to theatre education is that it provides many students with incentives to attend school on a regular basis as well as help kids to become motivated.  Here is where you can make a tremendous impact on a child’s life.  You just have to find out what makes that child excited and work out a plan with their teachers or the Child Study Team, and the results are some of the best you can get.  When you find the switch to turn that child’s mind on, and you are more able to effectively motivate them so that, their self-confidence builds and they believe they can do more than just what they do in theatre.

Inclusive Safe Zone for ALL Students:

Where else can you have all students, regardless of skill level or background, participate in an activity together?  Let’s look at the revival of Spring Awakenings and how their casting opened new doors for wonderful actors like Ali Stroker, Daniel Durant (2016 Theatre World Award Winner) and Austin P McKenzie (2016 Theatre World Award Winner). Right now, theatre is expanding in so many ways and giving actors with different abilities an ability to show the world the amazing talents and abilities they have to move us with powerful performances.  Theatre gives everyone a voice, and through TV shows like Glee and Smash, really made musical theatre mainstream. These shows made it cool to be able to sing, dance and act for everyone. The one skill that you need to possess is desire and with that you can do anything in theatre.  In my humble opinion, theatre is a valuable safe zone for kids to express themselves, who they are, and what they want.  

Theatre helps contribute to emotional health and sanity by allowing performers to express themselves rather than feeling they are isolated and have to keep their emotions bottled up.  There are amazing programs being done in New York City public schools that include theatre for special needs students that will bring you to tears because these students have a forum to express themselves.  If you’d like to see an example of these programs, check out the documentary: Spectrum of Hope. The joy this movie will cause you to ask yourselves, “How can I change a life like that?” and I hope you find some way to support a program like that in your school district or community.  There are still negative aspects though.  We do live in a world of bullies who insult everything the arts and theatre stand for.  We have politicians who demonize minorities, villainize religions, create laws against genders.  

Are we shocked when these things seep into our schools and our communities?  Are we truly surprised when a parent or small group of people rail a community theatre or school theatre program that is inclusive of all people and provides them an opportunity to express themselves?  Kids need to know that they are important, beloved individuals who should and can express themselves and how they are feeling.  Theatre is perhaps one of the most effective and fun arenas in which students can openly express themselves.

I said I wanted to have examples of success stories, so would like to lead off with one of my own.  I have this former student of mine, Desmond, who is one of the biggest examples of theatre changes lives. He’s a 10th Grader now but when I was asked to mentor him in 5th Grade, he was a disciplinary problem.  He spent more time in the principal’s office than in school, terrible grades, and used his dyslexia as an excuse rather than working on it.  He was going downhill in a fast way.  I remember thinking to myself: What can I do with this kid?  How do I motivate him?  It turns out I didn’t have to do anything.  I asked him to come to a rehearsal and maybe he would be interested in stage crew for a show.  Little did I know that the rehearsal would change both of our lives.  Des was sitting there watching, and from the opening rehearsal number, he was hooked.  

After seeing the various parts of a show and how helpful he could be after one rehearsal, Des turns to me and says this is what he wants to do.  Fast forward a couple years, and Des was nominated for the Sharidan Giles Technical Scholarship Award at the 2014 Junior Theatre Festival and was one of three winners.  Since then, he has racked up an impressive list of accolades and is a theatrical connoisseur.  He has seen a dozen musicals and now does work with Telemundo, stage manages shows for multiple schools, and has a passion to teach the fundamentals of stagecraft to young kids to inspire them as he was inspired.  

Now we are discussing college and where he can go for stagecraft (God I feel old).  It has by no means been an easy change for him, and he still calls or comes to school to talk about problems but theatre changed him.  He realized his calling very quickly and nothing stands in the way of that.  I could keep going on about the type of person he has become, I don’t credit his success to myself but to theatre.  It was the family he found (rather than a gang); it was the self confidence he found in working with his hands; it was the sense of pride he found in himself and the community found in him; but most of all, he found a home to be himself and not worry about testing or his dyslexia being an issue.

So now it is your turn!  Tell us about one of your success stories.  What did I miss?  Hang in there and have a great end of the school year. 

Photo: Wilsonville High School