Lessons Learned While Teaching Youth Theatre

PA Youth Theatre, Lehigh Valley

PA Youth Theatre, Lehigh Valley

Anthony J. Piccione

For many summers I worked as a Teaching Assistant for New Britain Youth Theater in their summer school enrichment program. I would say these werepositive experiences for me, and as a college student studying Theatre (along with Writing and Film), I couldn’t ask for a better summer job for someone like me. But more importantly, I’ve seen that these programs tend to be positive experiences for the kids I’ve worked with.

If there is anything I’ve learned over those years as I’ve helped teach kids the art of theatre, it is just how much of an impact that we can have on the lives and early development of young children in our positions. I know that might seem like a cliché thing to say, but it’s the truth. It’s a truth that I feel needs to be repeated over and over again to the people who have the power to sustain – if not increase – funding for programs such as the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working in. If they could actually see for themselves the full results of our programs that I’ve seen with my own eyes, I think they’d better understand what I’m talking about. However, I’ll try my best to show them what I can through this column.

Let’s just use the current program I’m been working in at NBYT as an example, which involves working with kids in an elementary school system during the summer. Most of the young kids I see in this program have had virtually no exposure to live theatre in their lives, and in some cases, neither have their parents. The programs that they are enrolled in are the very first time that some of these kids might have learned of what theatre even is. So naturally, these kids and their families might not have much of an idea of what to expect at first. However, even if they aren’t always initially sold on the idea of participating in a theatre program in the summer, that’s not how it is by the end.

Once they are fully engaged in the program, the list of benefits that the kids receive from involvement in theatre is extremely long. In the past, I have written – as have other writers – about the educational and developmental benefits that children receive from arts education courses. Here’s a brief list of just a few of them right now:

  • Learning about participating in a community (or as we’re more likely to call it in theatre: an ensemble.)

  • Using performance to learn to express themselves with their emotions.

  • Overcoming fears of speaking or performing in front of crowds.

  • Learning to better use their imagination. (I should note that the ability to be creative has plenty of uses, even outside of the arts.)

  • Seeing how theatre relates to other art forms they engage with on a regular basis (i.e. film, music, etc.)

There are far more than just this, but this is just some of the good that these programs do. If you ask me, these things alone are huge benefits for the students in the program.

Another thing that I think is worth noting – and is something that I’ve especially noticed during this summer that shows how effective these programs can be – is how the more kids engage in the activities in our program, the more they realize just how much they actually like theatre. The more they spend time on warm-ups that focus on the three actors’ tools (body, voice and imagination), playing theatre games, creating tableaux, and ultimately working with their classmates to put together a performance of some kind for the last day of the program, the more they enjoy it. This summer alone, there have been quite a few kids who were very shy or reluctant to participate in the program they were enrolled in, but have since become some of the most eager participants in our class.

It sickens me whenever I hear that youth theatre programs in any part of the country are among the most likely to receive cuts in funding from state and local budgets, when that could hinder the progress that is made as a result of the work that they do. I find it equally disgusting whenever I hear someone say that they are “unnecessary” or “a waste of time”, especially when I know for myself that it is far from the case. I think I speak on behalf of not just my fellow teaching assistants – but also the head teaching artists – at various youth theatre programs across America and the rest of the world when I say this:

These programs are working. 

They are doing a great deal of good for the students who participate in them, and they are far more beneficial than nearly any other summer program that you could possibly enroll your kids in. Take it from someone who has seen the difference between the kids at the beginning of the program vs. the end of the program. If the goal of an educational summer program of any kind is for kids to have changed for the better in some way by the time it is over, then I think it is more than safe to say that theatre programs such as this one do an excellent job at meeting that goal. I hope more people realize this, and I sincerely hope that programs like the one at NBYT continue to live on, so that more kids can receive the same benefits from them for years to come…