Educating Young Theatre Artists
Anyone who has gone to a public high school knows that you have core classes and then elective courses to round out your 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 participate in the arts during high school don’t get a rounded out arts education. Across the nation, students have widely different opportunities and doors opened for them, all in public school. I want to focus on theatre education, public schools only (understanding that private 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 24 hours I conducted a small survey to find out what areas of theatre young artists are being trained in. 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. The survey was anonymous, I don’t know how many choices an individual responder did or didn’t select. The results of my survey are below.
Understanding that this survey was conducted on social media and results may be flawed, one thing is for certain. In every high school with a theatre department, students are disproportionately trained in acting over any technical, design, or other creative collaborator area. Why is that? Why does this field, that needs every member of the team in order to succeed, favor one area over others? Not even just that, but the area that is harder to succeed in over the areas that are lacking in available artists?
There is one area that I failed to add to the survey: technical operations. Without them shows really wouldn’t be possible. If you are reading this and you are a light/sound board operator, dresser, fly crew, or running crew, thank you. You are valued. Something else that stood out to me was some of the comments elaborating on their responses (or lack of responses to the poll). For privacy purposes their names have been withheld, but here are a few of their responses.
“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!