A version of this article was published in the Spring, 2018 print edition of The International Educator.
Why Theatre Should Be Core Education
By Kassi Cowles
More than ever I feel that arts, and theatre in particular, should be part of the core curriculum for high school students. Even in the more holistic programs, like the International Baccalaureate, the arts are one of the only areas that students may opt out of. Language and literature, maths, sciences are mandatory—no escape–and I suppose the assumption is that these areas develop critical thinking and responsible citizenship more directly, or in a more predictable way. The IBDP mandates creativity through extracurricular pursuits which can have a lasting impact on students who already love the arts; but allowing students to opt out of studies in the arts as an essential subject sends the same tired message: the arts will always be on the periphery of language and logic, the subjects that comprise the core of how we prepare young people to contribute to and understand society.
To relegate arts to the extracurricular fringes is to do a great disservice to students, and to discount the impact that theatre in particular can have is an even greater oversight. Theatre encompasses all forms of art and anyone with experience in theatre, especially in high school, knows that it’s ideal for examining all aspects of the human experience—there’s nothing theatre doesn’t touch. It provides the richest opportunity for self examination, for developing community, for understanding the physical and metaphysical infrastructure that hold communities together so they can create, which is what we were born to do. The very lessons and experiences that season us, that cultivate the virtues that will lead to a more peaceful world, they are all found in theatre.
I’ll start by suggesting that if students can’t study theatre as a year-long course, then they should at some point be part of a theatre production. Creating theatre means creating a society where everyone has a job and responsibility. Not everyone can be a performer and not everyone wants to be. Theatre needs mathematicians and architects, designers, technicians, musicians, managers, dancers, builders and movers, writers, philosophers, anthropologists, critics, and of course an audience to collaborate with. Students can access the experience of theatre from an entry point that most interests them, and realize what it feels like to be a part of a community with a common goal.
Through this process they will redefine what it means to be in a physical space. They will respect space. They will experience how something physical, the theatre, becomes something conceptual, cultural, spiritual: Theatre. The impact of this alchemy on young people cannot be underestimated; like house to home, it is the process by which community and belonging are embodied, where they become cultural and creative imperatives. Students who have been touched deeply by theatre will understand the synergy of creative communities and will seek the resonant feeling of synergy in whatever future communities they create.
This is because theatre increases awareness. Although it can be studied academically, theatre provides opportunities to move the educational experience into a space beyond the mind, which many students in rigorous academic programs desperately need. It is a physical art, and it asks, of performers especially, for an awareness of the sensory experience that can only lead to a better understanding of the performers themselves. As Rebecca Solnit says, “empathy is first of all an act of imagination.”
Empathy is also the practice of awareness. And this is where the most reluctant participants have the most to gain. They feel terror, doubt, embarrassment, alienation, to which I say, yes, good, feel it! Feel it deeply in this moment where you are safe. Perhaps the honest and palpable fear that theatre provokes in a student will help him to empathize with those whose fear and terror are not for play, and whose alienation is systemic. At the very least, theatre will teach students how to listen (for their cue, for their chance!), to examine the effect of their choices, and to broaden their field of perception. If this alone is the only gift studying theatre provides, then it is immeasurable, as the general dullness of our sensory awareness is what leads us to misunderstand ourselves and others.
Finally, theatre teaches service. It has a higher purpose. The more committed students are to collaboration the more they will fight to find points of resonance with the material, even if they hate it, and with each other, even if there’s tension. They will be vulnerable and they will extend themselves, creatively, physically, emotionally, philosophically, into unfamiliar realms so that they can reach each other and the audience, finding moments of temporary alignment even in the most diverse crowds. I tell this to my theatre students often when they have doubt or conflict as performers: in the end, this isn’t about you. In the end, theatre is about communing with an art form that cannot exist without the community that keeps it alive.
And in the end, what’s left when the show is done is so much love. High school students fall in love with theatre precisely because their hearts and minds are primed for such intense experiences to leave a permanent impression. They cry and grieve when it’s finished because it can never be duplicated. In the process of creating theatre, students will have learned about community and collaboration, empathy, compassion, awareness for themselves, the material, each other; they will have pushed through barriers of doubt, frustration and fatigue, they will have touched on the subtle fluctuations of the human experience that they may not yet understand, and yet somehow in their bodies, in a way without words, they do understand.
For young people, theatre has the capacity to shape their perception about what it means to belong and to create belonging. And there is nothing more at the core of being human than this.