A blogger who recently learned that I work in theater asked me to write a post answering the question “Why is it important to introduce children to theater?” I thought that was pretty topical since kids recently returned to school. It’s also topical since I recently started working with a children’s theater company. Here’s the answer in a nutshell.
Someone once wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” He didn’t write “All the world’s a science lab” or “All the world’s a math club.” Nope, all the world is definitely a stage. There’s your answer right there. Theater is important.
Okay, so the guy who wrote that was Shakespeare. He may have been a little biased toward the stage. In fact, I think I once read that Shakespeare never even studied science or math in school. What he wrote is true though. Each of us, in everything we do, is living a story. In our actions. In our communications. In our emotions. In our just being. And the world is the stage on which this story plays out.
Like Shakespeare, I’m a guy who values the arts. I got involved in theater in high school, and got more involved in college where I also took several theater classes. After college, I completed a graduate program in Theater Management and Production at Columbia University School of the Arts. My training and experience includes both non-profit and commercial venues on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional and community theaters in New York and Connecticut, and in theater service and advocacy organizations. Since high school, I’ve produced, stage managed, acted, directed and designed for theater.
When my daughter was just two years old, she began coming with me occasionally to a theater where I was then working full-time. She would have a ball there, and most everyone on staff and involved in productions knew her and loved seeing her around. When I’d bring her to production meetings or rehearsals, she loved looking at the lights, sets and costumes for each production. By the age of three, she was sitting through full productions and concerts. By the age of four, she had even made her stage debut in the children’s chorus of a production of Seussical. Since then, she’s seen shows in community theaters, regional theaters, and on Broadway. And she’s still only six. (Or six and three-quarters if you ask her.) So, for anyone wondering how and when to introduce their kids to the arts, my answer is start ‘em young. Not everyone works at a theater obviously and can bring their kids to see a stage and watch rehearsals, but most larger cities have some kind of theater for kids. Even a good story time at libraries can be an introduction. Start ‘em young and they’ll want more.
But what about the parents who aren’t so sure that theater is important at all? To them, I say, “Maybe you’re right.” Maybe your kids won’t like theater. Maybe they won’t be interested in art or music. But, maybe they will. And maybe they won’t be interested in math, science or sports. Kids should have the opportunity to explore as many subjects and activities as are available to them. On their own, they may discover—like I did—that the arts are pretty important to them.
In this age of “no child left behind” and teaching for testing, arts programs have been reduced or dropped altogether at many schools. In response, researchers have conducted studies to attempt to show the importance of the arts. Students who study the arts perform better in other subjects. Students who study the arts learn discipline, collaboration, participation, and empathy. Students who study the arts develop more self-esteem. But, by their very subjective nature, it’s pretty difficult to “prove” that the arts do anything. In my experience, the proof isn’t in any numbers or statistics, but in the children themselves.
My last full-time position in theater involved producing a few children’s performances during the school year. Five or six times a year, over 1500 students would come to the theater by bus. For some of them, it was their first time in a theater that didn’t face a movie screen. Seeing the eyes of just a few of them light up—knowing that they might be thinking, “Maybe I could be a part of this someday”—makes theater worth it. For a few of them, theater probably will be important in their lives. Most of them probably won’t grow up to be actors, directors or producers any more than they’ll grow up to be princesses, ballerinas, cowboys or astronauts. But theater may be important to them nonetheless.
In the long term though, theater and the arts aren’t important only to a few of us. A professor—and not a theater or arts professor—once asked a class I was in whether we thought the sciences or the arts and humanities were more important. There were arguments on both sides, but I’ll always remember one the most. The sciences heal us, feed us, shelter us, and keep us alive. But it’s the arts and humanities that we stay alive for. Across centuries, across borders, across all times and places, the arts endure and connect us as humans. The arts—and the ability to think and create—are what make us human and humane. And maybe, just maybe, the kids that you take to see Peter Rabbit or bring to story hour at the library will discover that too. At the very least, those kids will discover that all the world’s their stage. They’ll discover that they can be anyone and do anything. Is there anything more important than that?