When I was 6, my goal in life was to play Annie on Broadway. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter that I was a round brown girl who didn’t quite fit any respectable casting director’s vision of this role. As a kid, it wasn’t about “getting the job.” I wanted to be involved in something important that made people happy. I wanted to use my imagination and have fun with other kids. I wanted to be part of the show.
It wasn’t until I completed my studies in theater at Northwestern University and began my career that I began to realize the real benefits of my involvement in theater. After almost 20 years of teaching theater to children and youth of all ages, cultures, backgrounds, interests, and learning styles, I have discovered the key benefits of being involved in theater for every kind of kid. I have learned that your kid doesn’t have to be the show-off or the drama geek or the drama queen or the tortured genius types to benefit from being involved in theater. Sure, I was one of those types (all of those types, actually) and I knew from a very young age that my life’s work was theater-related. However, I have worked with shy kids and jock kids and animal lovers and math nerds and bullies and princesses and over-achievers and kids with special needs and…the list goes on and on. And I know that theater has the power to go beyond the stereotypes we are given to reach people at an authentic human level and help us ask ourselves, “How can I become a better person?”
Kids who are involved in theater are going through the process of answering this question for themselves. In my programs at Glitter & Razz Productions in Oakland, CA, our goal is to make this process conscious through our methodology of teaching and reinforcing social/emotional skills through the collaborative creation and performance of original plays. Not all theater and drama programs focus on this goal as consciously as we do and that’s okay, too. Your kid may be cast as Annie (lucky!) in the local community theater production. The goal of that organization is most likely to present the best possible play and sell as many tickets as they can. But, I guarantee you. Your little Annie is still becoming a better person. In fact, your kid who wanted to play Annie but is playing Orphan #8 instead is also becoming a better person. Your kid who had no desire to be on stage but is helping paint the sets and run props during the show is becoming a better person. Even your kid who wasn’t ready to audition for the play this year but is taking the theater’s “Acting 101” class after school is becoming a better person.
No matter who your kid is or what their interests are, there are 5 key reasons why being involved with theater makes your kid a better person.
1. She is Discovering her Real Talents
Theater is a multidisciplinary art form. Successful theater productions at every level from Broadway to after school drama club to your backyard are dependent on a group of diverse people with diverse talents coming together towards one common goal. Theater needs performers and directors and writers and designers and musicians. Theater needs people who are strong leaders and marketers and managers and financial decision makers. There is a place for everyone in the theater and being involved can help your kid discover just where she fits into the big picture.
2. He is learning Collaborative Problem Solving
When you have all of these diverse folks coming together towards one common goal, there will inevitably be hundreds, even thousands of “good ideas.” And all of these ideas have to somehow create 1 play that the audience will understand and enjoy. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, there are 5 core areas of competency in social/emotional learning; self-awareness; self management; social awareness; relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Theater offers the ideal playground for children and youth to practice and strengthen these competencies. Being involved in a theatrical production means:
• Constantly negotiating how and when to contribute or not contribute your ideas to the group
• Bouncing back when you don’t get the part you want or your idea does not make it into the play
• Handling your emotions when you have received some tough feedback or you are tired and frustrated during a long rehearsal or you are nervous about opening night or one of your parents can’t make it to the play
• Handling disagreements when someone thinks the play should go in one direction and you think it should go in another direction
• Overcoming the inevitable mistakes that are made — lines are forgotten, cues are missed, sets fall down, costume pieces don’t hold up — deciding they are not the end of the world and figuring out how to learn from these mistakes
3. She is learning to Respect Differences
Theater can bring you all around the world and back again. In my years of theater, I have personally visited every continent, gone back and forth in time, and landed on planets yet to be discovered by NASA. Stories can take us anywhere we want to go without ever leaving the stage. On a theatrical expedition, we are required to enact and embody characters, ideas, and situations that are outside of our own experiences, our own comfort zones. When your kid takes on the stories and ideas of others, she is in the process of understanding life outside of themselves, their families, their towns. In learning how to appreciate and respect people who are different from them, kids are preparing to better navigate all areas of their life, work and play.
4. He is learning to Succeed Academically
A wide range of research has shown that involvement in theater strengthens students reading and writing skills. According to Americans for the Arts [http://www.americansforthearts.org], who has compiled a summary of some of the key findings, “Learning and participation in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts are vital to the development of our children and our communities.” Through dramatic play, very young children are learning the building blocks of language development necessary to make them stronger oral and written communicators. School age children engaged in theater are learning to comprehend, recall, and restate what they are reading; how to ask critical questions for clarification and deeper comprehension; memorization and problem solving skills; elements of story for creative and non-fiction writing; and speaking in front of others. One study even shows that, as high school students read and analyze difficult dramatic texts such as Shakespeare, they are improving their ability to analyze all types of difficult materials including math and science texts. Through their involvement in theater, not only are your kids learning interesting facts, they are really learning how to learn.
5. She is Making Great Friends
The friends your child will make in the theater are some of the best friends they will ever have. We all know that the folks who are closest to us are the ones who have seen us at our best and our worst and have stuck by us after it’s all said and done. Being involved with theater will give your kids a chance to “go through it” with a group of people; tackling a difficult project and coming out the other side so proud of what they have achieved together. It is similar to winning the championship game or traveling in a foreign land. The work is challenging but so rewarding. It teaches you more about yourself and the other people who are on the journey with you. It teaches you how to support each other on and off the stage.
I may have never had the chance to play Annie but I have and continue to become a better person everyday through my involvement in theater. Find a class near you or check for audition notices at your community theater. And don’t worry if you think she might not “make it” as an actor. Give her the chance to be part of the show. I promise you, you will see your kid becoming more confident in his abilities, stronger in his social, emotional, and academic skills, and just an overall better friend.