Even before the COVID pandemic, arts education was being cut in school districts throughout the country. This was extremely shortsighted then, even worse now.
Our children are suffering. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, 71% of parents said the pandemic has taken a toll on their children. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ teens and over 25% of girls have recently contemplated suicide. Many feel hopeless. Anxiety levels are skyrocketing.
According to MedicalNewsToday, 75% of youth feel the future is frightening. Although the American Rescue Plan passed by the Biden Administration was a great first step, providing $170 Billion for mental health services for school children, more is needed.
And it’s not just the pandemic, not just children missing in-person instruction. It’s our response to the pandemic in the past and the lack of a coherent cultural response now to the environmental emergency, to mass shootings, to injustice and the threat of hate, autocracy and what DJT represents. It’s the GOP attacks on education itself.
For many children, the arts could provide motivation to get to school and a doorway into learning itself. It can make school something more than mere work, but a place where they can come alive and see their concerns reflected in the curriculum. They can feel a sense of meaning when so much of the reality around them seems hopeless.
According to a study called Champions of Change, arts education can level the playing field, and improve student performance in all areas of learning. This was particularly true with students from low-income backgrounds.
The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about the experience of others than any other discipline. As such, they provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum and to empower young people to take action in all areas of life. This won’t cure society but might heal a student.
In 1969, I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and got a chance to witness a ceremony of spirit beings emerging from the jungle to dance a story about the responsibilities of adulthood. The spirits were villagers wearing carved wood masks and raffia from their neck to their feet. After the dance, spirits walked amongst us and then returned to the jungle. I didn’t realize then that I was seeing an early form of theatre.
In Ancient Greece, the poet Thespis was supposedly the first to have an actor step on a stage and turn choral recitation into drama. Their culture was amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal, and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by gods. This was not like movies and tv today, not something to view isolated on a home computer, but shared, in a group, with each spectator knowing the lines so they could join in the recitation.
Being so social, and living in a violent time, they needed a way to purge violent emotions (and not go to war). So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharsis’ meaning purification or cleansing.
The first dramas were communally enacted myths. Actors, just like the spirit dancers, expressed the power of a myth or spiritual story. Thespis also introduced masks so actors could play different roles and genders. This was not just putting on a costume. It was putting on an identity, often one much different or larger than their own.
When students today take on a role, they’re taking on a similar function. To do the job well, the actor must let go of their ego border enough so they can feel the feelings of the person they play. The student standing in the shining lights of a theatre illuminates the question of identity which all of us, certainly teenagers, face. Who is it standing in those lights? And who are you when the show is over?
The actor makes themselves vulnerable, open to the community’s judgment. It is almost sacrificial. If the actor forgets a word, loses connection to the dramatic reality, they can feel devastated. In this way, an actor is heroic. To be seen in stage lights is to be seen in a heightened light, in a way you can’t be seen in ordinary life.
Just imagine how acting can affect a student. A shy student, or one unsure of their identity, alienated, or hurting can, with drama, become a hero. They can test out different ways to live. The intensity, creativity and sheer amount of work that goes into a production can also bring students close together, help them feel cared for, part of a group, part of something larger than themselves.
I was a high school drama teacher for many years. In the spring, we did a full-length play or musical. In the fall, we did a series of one acts, which had the advantage of providing good roles for almost all students. Sometimes, the students would write their own play.
To the degree that the actors would feel the part, the audience would live the story with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many were familiar with the cast. I remember one night; one actor was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke. Yet here they were, striding boldly across the stage, a smile on their face. With every step, the audience felt their breaking free of psychological inhibitions. They cheered them on, taking joy in this achievement.
But this power can work on us in many ways. The actor, feeling the vulnerability on stage, can either carry that openness over to daily life or build walls around it to be opened only in the lights. They can mistake the mythical power of the group on stage as solely their own; they can think their special status onstage is their due offstage. Our culture worships stars and this worship can either fuel or distort the creative process—and one’s own sense of oneself.
Students benefit from learning the historical background out of which theatre emerges, out of which they and the character they play emerge. Many GOP today are trying to distort and censor the teaching of history, especially of racism, anti-Semitism⎼ of all non-white male gender, racial, religious, and ethic identities. But history is essential to understanding who we are and all we share. Without it, how can we connect to people of other times or places? We become groundless. Isolated.
Students also benefit from learning the power of the stage arises not just from themselves but many interdependent factors. It depends on one’s engagement with the role and the play as a whole. It’s dependent on the entire cast, the tech crew, the director, and the process of rehearsal. It’s dependent on the audience.
The actor must learn that their role is not formed once and forever, but moment by moment. We don’t do something wild, like play Romeo or Juliet, and for all time we’re a romantic hero. For one glorious moment we enact the role. Then, a new moment arises, a new situation. What role will we play then?
It’s important for a teacher to choose plays or musicals with students, ones that have several good parts, so everyone can get a chance to play a character they want to explore. It’s important that, after the show is over, to have a check-in, to discuss people’s feelings, reflect on how the show went, put audience feedback in perspective, and say farewell to what was hopefully a great experience. Students need to learn not only how to take on a role but to let it go.
I did not always succeed in getting across these lessons. The pressures that develop during a production, the cultural and personal expectations, can be enormous. The sheer effort required by a performance made drama the most difficult class I ever taught. It also provided the most amazing highlights.
**To help support art education, write to Congress to support the Guarantee Access to Arts and Music Education Act of 2023 (GAAME Act, S.364/H.R. 969), introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Rep. Nydia Velazquez.
Previously Published in two parts on irarabois.com and is republished on Medium.
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