Educating Young Theatre Artists

Anyone who has gone to a public high school knows that you have core classes that everyone is required to take and then you also can choose from a myriad of elective courses to round out your class schedule. Some students choose auto shop, JROTC, or robotics. Others do mass communications, wood shop, or fine arts. Then there are those who perform in choir, orchestra, band, or theatre. Over the years there has been much talk (and some execution) of cutting funding to arts education because “it doesn’t matter.” Over 15 years ago James Catterall, education professor at UCLA, stated, “Notions that the arts are frivolous add-ons to a serious curriculum couldn’t be further from the truth. While education in the arts is no magic bullet for what ails many schools, the arts warrant a place in the curriculum because of their intimate ties to most everything we want for our children and schools.” Studies have shown that students who participate in arts electives or arts extracurriculars during their formative years do better in STEM areas than those students who do not participate in an area of the arts at all.

This is information that many or all of us in the arts already know, but even those who do choose to participate in the arts during high school don’t get the rounded out arts education they may be searching for. Across the nation, students are getting widely different opportunities and doors opened for them, all in public school. For the purpose of this article we are going to focus on theatre education in particular and public schools only (understanding that private schools and charter schools provide a vastly different education). I am a part of a Facebook group under the name of, “Theatre Nerds Backstage.” From my experience in the group, those who are active in the group are mostly young theatre artists in high school or early college. Over the course of 24 hours I conducted a small survey/poll to find out what areas of theatre young artists are being trained in today. For the purposes of my poll I defined “trained” as taught about, learned how to, and carried out in practice. Surveyed persons were allowed to check as many answers as applied to them, and the survey was carried out anonymously in a way that I don’t know how many choices an individual respondee did or didn’t select. The results of my survey are shown in the graph below.

Understanding that this survey was conducted on a social media site and results may be flawed, one thing is for certain, in every high school in which there is a theatre department/program students are disproportionately trained in acting over any technical, design, or creative collaborator area of the production team. Why is that? Why does this field, that absolutely needs every member of the team in order to succeed, favor one area over others? And not even just that, but the area that is much harder to succeed in over the areas that are frequently hiring and lacking in available artists? I will admit that there is one area that I failed to add to the survey and that is technical operations, without them shows really wouldn’t be possible. If you are reading this and you are a light board operator, sound board operator, dresser, fly crew member, or running crew member, thank you for what you do. You are valued. Something else that stood out to me when taking this poll were some of the comments provided by the surveyed to elaborate on their responses (or lack of responses to the poll). For privacy purposes their names have been withheld, but I would like to share a few of their responses with you.

“In high school? Literally nothing. There were no theatre classes even offered at my school until my senior year.”

“What high school theatre?”

“I didn’t learn anything in high school about theatre. My school didn’t fund any of the arts.”

“We didn’t have a theatre department.”

“My high school barely taught theatre at all. We had big budget productions but no classes.”

Why? These responses made me so sad to read. Why are so many districts dropping the arts? The arts are so important to the rounding out of children and teenagers as not only students but members of society who contribute to the humanity of the world. In my district we had the annual Arts and Sciences Festival. The arts and sciences go together, hand in hand, not one better than the other. When your kids or your friends’ kids get to middle school or high school and are choosing their electives, look for the arts. If they aren’t there, question the administration and question the district. The A in STEAM is just as important as every other letter: Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Mathematics. I’d love to hear what you think about theatre education (and arts education). Comment below!

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