Performing arts programs empower students

Judy+Shepard+converses+with+the+cast+of+The+Laramie+Project.+Shepard+believes+that+theater+gives+students+the+power+to+spark+social+change.

Photo submitted by Ami Berger

Judy Shepard converses with the cast of The Laramie Project. Shepard believes that theater gives students the power to spark social change.

We’ve all heard the controversy over whether the arts get enough funding but the question of arts funding is more important now than ever before. We’re on the cusp of a new era in education. Just over a month ago President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan effort at reform in our educational system. No Child Left Behind has been left behind, and good riddance. The No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001 by the Bush administration and placed heavy and unproductive emphasis on standardized testing. President Obama’s new bill decreases their role significantly. In this new era the place of the arts must be preserved and expanded.

Theater has the power to open the minds of an audience to new experiences and new ways of looking at the world, it encourages empathy in its consumers as well as its practitioners.”

Many claim that practice of the arts in school increases student test scores. The irony is not lost on me since we’re discussing an era in which standardized test scores are valued less highly. However, for those who refuse to move with the times I throw you your bone. Working in the arts does boost standardized test scores. However, to limit ourselves to that kind of argument misses a much more important and far reaching conversation about valuable skills in our society. Teaching the arts, theater in particular, in high school has two major benefits to society. It encourages development of valuable skills like public speaking, and it is an instrument for social change in the hands of teenagers.

Actor and educator Matt Buchanan argues, in a passionate open letter, that drama education develops public speaking and persuasiveness in children. Additionally, the only way to be persuasive as an actor, he points out, is with empathy. Acting is, perhaps more than anything else, an exercise in empathy and the world could certainly use as much of that as it can get its hands on. He also argues that theater is a way to effectively reach kinaesthetic learners. In a brilliant TEDInstitute presentation John Bolton highlights the broad ranging benefits of learning and performing Shakespeare’s plays. These benefits range from business leadership and creative solutions to problems to the urge to explore (a need I’ve written about before).

Most importantly, however, is the power for social change that theater puts in the hands of students. We’re young and the world has decided that we can’t make decisions for ourselves. We grapple with issues of life and death, with questions of the right and wrong in the world. Every week we hear minds shining with brilliance dazzle our upper school with speeches about how to make the world better or about an insight they wish to share. But for all the opportunities SPA provides us it can still feel as though we are powerless to make the world better. After all the rubble has settled in this week’s tragedy and we’ve watched it in full color on live television, what can we do? When we experience tragedy closer to home how can we simply go back to school and trudge our daily ruts and still hope? Because we are not powerless.

Theater allows students to make a difference, and if there’s one lesson we take away from high school, let it be that we can do that.”

A famous musical, one song from which we got to perform this year, once said “you change the world when you change your mind.” Theater has the power to open the minds of an audience to new experiences and new ways of looking at the world, it encourages empathy in its consumers as well as its practitioners. In medicine, a field where empathy is a necessary job skill, theater is being successfully used to build the appropriate skill set in physicians. Children too are increasingly being presented theater as a way to support the development of empathy and tolerance.

About seven weeks ago Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard and civil rights activist in her own right, visited SPA in a crazy concatenation of events. After a very emotional show in which actors and audience alike shed tears without shame, she hosted a brief talk with the audience. A parent asked her the same question many teenagers often ask, a question born of impotence, pain, and desire to do right, “What can these kids now go out and do?”

She answered, “They do this.” Theater allows students to make a difference, and if there’s one lesson we take away from high school, let it be that we can do that.