The Trouble Musical Theatre Faces in Our Schools : Part 1

Spencer Lau

Let’s face it, there are so many obstacles facing theatre education and the arts on a national scale. Over the past year, I interviewed fifty musical theater directors from four countries. The musical theater educators in the US represent elementary, middle, and high schools from all regions of the United States. We discussed what is working in their schools, districts, and community, but we also discussed pitfalls, misconceptions obstacles and future needs.

I wanted to share my findings because they are quite interesting in how far we have come but yet how musical theater in schools have to go. Please keep in mind, I will not be using names of the educators in order to protect their candid answers.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

There are things that are positive for programs across the country. There are all the statistics you can find online or through websites about how the arts improve test scores, attendance, student morale, behavior and discipline but the universal answer to what is working is that all these programs are safe spaces for their students. The children are free from testing, bullying, strains their home lives and are able to express themselves in multiple ways.

Generally, there is a lot of community support for the programs as they have all enhanced the school districts and the Boards are quite pleased with having the programs for the students. Parents and families are grateful for the programs because their child is not an athlete but can take part in a fun activity and learn multiple skills and it is a welcomed activity to keep children active. All of the programs actually have parents who help build sets, make costumes, and manage some type of need within the program. Educators (in many of the programs that I interviewed) maintained summer programs as well that are well attended.

They are essentially providing an all year education. In addition to that, about two-thirds of the educators I interviewed said their administration is either supportive or incredibly supportive of their programs. About thirty of the fifty mentioned that they had a large free and reduced lunch or transient population and many of their students represent that socioeconomic group. They have found some of their greatest joys with those students who, often times, were not necessarily leads but found the greatest love of theater, personal and spiritual growth.

Social media has greatly helped link the musical educators across the world. There are multiple groups that have hundreds of directors sharing ideas, solution, and even set up pipelines to help rent and or borrow costumes, props, set pieces, etc. Half of the educators reported that they had community sponsorship in some way through gift cards, ad sponsors, or reduced rates for services, materials and products for their productions. All of the educators did report that they had students continued performing after graduating from their programs and that those alumni actively seek the chance to help with other programs.

While musical theater has made tremendous strides in schools, unfortunately, there are still many ways it is still prolonged from having a much stronger impact.