Performing arts play a key role in children’s education at school and as an extracurricular activity, but they also teach kids life skills and further enrich the arts scene within a community. Some local students have gone on to Broadway, and others have dreams of pursuing theater as a career.
We spoke with several experts in the theater world, who shared how drama and theater have positively impacted the lives of youth far beyond the classroom and local stage.
Arts Experiences Have a Positive, Lasting Impact
Kids can have positive life experiences by being involved in theater and drama. They can learn to be creative, build self-esteem and confidence, as well as discover how to communicate and deal with rejection, among other important skills.
Sarah Clare, associate director of theater education at Beck Center for the Arts, believes the benefits of theater run the gamut. Clare — who organizes the youth theater classes as part of the education program, as well as the four youth theater productions that are held each year and who also teaches early childhood for ages 2 to 7 — says the arts center gives students a place where they can be who they are and thrive. Students can comfortably get up in front of a room, introduce themselves, and present a piece to a crowd as part of a class or on their own.
For some students, theater is their lifeline and it’s a place they feel safe.
“Students don’t have to try to conform, or feel awkward in a school where they might not necessarily fit in with everybody,” Clare says. “This is a place where breaking out into song is completely acceptable.
“The one thing that we have — and maybe it’s not necessarily unique to theater, but I do think we see it a lot more in theater versus the other art forms — is to do what we do, you really have to allow yourself to step into somebody else’s shoes, to see the world from a completely different perspective,” she adds. “I think that’s what helps our students be more empathetic to other human beings, to other plights, to people who aren’t necessarily the same as themselves, and I think that’s probably the most important element.”
Building Confidence at School and Beyond
“Drama definitely builds self-confidence. I’ve seen students, who when they start out in drama are very reserved, but after they get more involved, they are able to show their best selves. They can build up the confidence to be on stage and to do their best,” says Lisa Richards, a teacher at Harding and Garfield middle schools in Lakewood. She also is the drama advisor at Garfield and the middle school choir teacher at both Harding and Garfield. Her students range in age from 11 to 14.
With confidence, Richards says students feel more empowered to speak up for themselves and others. Also, drama helps to teach students responsibility, because students that are involved with drama have to be present and learn lines or cues. Students have to learn how to rely on each other, so it teaches them how to work together, and build off of each other’s strengths to create something together. Additionally, students gain problem-solving skills, because they have to work out certain things throughout the theatrical process.
In one recent production of “Elf the Musical, Jr.,” she says students not only had fun with a story they were familiar with, but they were able to get into the characters and make them their own.
“That’s one of the things I love the most, to watch the way they work together, learn from each other, and rely on each other, and how important that is,” Richards says. “It also helps to spark creativity within them, and they can carry that into other parts of their lives, as well.”
Making a Career Out of It
Aside from being able to express one’s self through theater and drama, some students go on to make it a career, such as having a role on Broadway or competing on regional and national levels. For example, Playhouse Square is one performing arts center that helps to establish opportunities for those who hope to pursue theater as a career.
In addition to traditional performances in front of a live audience, some actors and actresses may go on to perform on television or in movies, commercials and videos. A wide range of different opportunities are available for those skilled in theater and the arts.
Modeled after the Tony Awards, to recognize outstanding musical theater productions and students, the Dazzle Awards are a celebration of excellence in high school musical theater that recognize the importance of musical theater and arts education within the Northeast Ohio community. This year, 30 public and private schools from a seven-county region participated in the program.
“This is literally a program that takes students from a high school auditorium to Broadway and beyond,” says Daniel Hahn, vice president of community engagement and education at Playhouse Square. It’s extraordinary, and we couldn’t be prouder of producing the Dazzle Awards each year.”
Participants receive Broadway-style training as well as red carpet treatment, and a chance to win awards. Winners in the “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” categories have a chance to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City. Both of last year’s winners went on to perform in Broadway shows.
“Playhouse Square is a place where, now, we’re actually putting our community on stage,” Hahn says. “We’re putting elementary school children in our Disney program on a professional stage. We’re putting high school students on our Broadway stage, so I feel like Playhouse Square belongs to the community.”
Developing Life Skills and Lasting Relationships
David Malinowski, director of performing arts at The Fine Arts Association, has worked at the Willoughby arts center and theater for 13 years. He says he started playing violin when he was 4 years old and got involved in theater in 1993. After college, he came back to teach theater at the Fine Arts Association. He has served in his current role for about four years. He oversees five major productions a year, in addition to concerts and other special performances.
“From another point of view, theater was my only outlet growing up; I had music and theater,” he says. “I wasn’t a sports player, so theater was my team. It allowed me to meet other people like me that weren’t interested in sports, but it also gave me a sense of what it’s like to be on a sports team. We were all working together to produce something magical for the audience, and those relationships that I built as a student, I have kept all of these years.
“Theater is such a wonderful way to bring people together and to create these lasting friendships, which I think is the most important part of having theater in our community,” he adds. “Theater really does bring the community together, whether you are an audience member or a participant.”