If you are reading this blog it is probably a safe assumption that you are a fan of musical theatre. And who could blame you? Musicals are fun, entertaining and thrilling experiences for both the participants and the audience. But with school budgets stretched to their breaking point, and fears that American students are falling behind in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), educators are often told that there just aren’t enough resources to support theatre in the schools.
Fortunately this marginalization of the arts has been met with strong resistance by those that understand that musical theatre (and arts in general) are not “just” fun, they also have very real, and measurable, educational benefits. Time and again, we see that students who participate in the arts have better results in their other classes as well. This observation has been a driving force for the movement to refocus on the arts in school, changing STEM to STEAM.
In this three-part series, Eleanore Speert takes a closer look at the educational benefits of musical theatre and the educators that are observing it firsthand. Eleanore Speert is the president of Speert Publishing, the Buyer for The Drama Book Shop and has been working exclusively in theater publishing for over thirty years.
Part 2: Musicals Build Community
My first experience with musical theater was as an audience member. The second was as a cast member. I’m guessing it was the same for many of us. A key element in these experiences: they were local. Local schools and community theaters produce musical theater to bring their community together on a project that introduces culture, enhances social skills, acquaints people in the neighborhood, and offers tons of fun – all in a safe, group environment.
One of the driving forces in musical theater is building community. This can mean building relationships and a support system in the immediate vicinity where neighbors are involved and benefit. It can also mean bringing in segments of society that may not have had the opportunity to see a show before. Once this new world opens up for anyone, the connections grow; they radiate like a web where points of interaction circle around and back again.
In an earlier blog I introduced you to Ann Steinhauser, of Amherst, Massachusetts. Ann tells me that some of the great benefits of a community theater musical production are the lessons learned working with people of different ages. Teachers like Ann know the students who spend little time around adults other than teachers and parents. Bringing these students into a multi-generational cast teaches them how to talk to, and work with, people who have experienced the world from a different time frame. Young people in a show may be working with authority figures to whom they must defer in the school atmosphere but who are now their peers on stage. Navigating how to treat these peers bolsters respect and patience as it builds confidence and skill in debate and discussion. With this, the art of listening is enhanced. Imagine doing BYE BYE, BIRDIE with young people who can ask questions about that time period that their older colleagues can personally answer! The inclusiveness of the experience builds a bigger theater community.
Another powerful advocate for using theatre to build community is Diane Orr, Founder and Producing Director of Sea Squirt Productions. Working mostly in New York, Diane has been a force in community inclusion, striving to bring people with disabilities to theater. Early in her career, as a doctoral candidate in the Program of Educational Theater at NYU, she helped build a program to enhance audience development. Diane knew she wanted to reach out to those with hearing impairment and bring them into the musical theater family. Before sign language became as accepted in theaters as it is today, the hearing impaired community was not readily solicited as audiences for musicals. Diane knew there are those impaired who could still hear, and others who could feel the music, so she contacted schools, colleges and groups for the hearing impaired and invited them to an NYU musical production. The groups that attended were more enthusiastic than anyone imagined and the experience opened up their world. “The inclusivity of the project was important. Many of the students had never been to the theater before. After the show, the kids were joyful! It was a packed, and they were full of joy!”
The hearing cast, audience, and producers also benefited because they discovered a new way of relating to a larger world. “…the program raised the consciousness of the professors in the department in terms of how they perceived the need to expand Audience. They realized there is a bigger community out there then they think about.” The idea of reaching out to a larger community was later included in the curriculum and into the work the theater students did later in their careers.
Working together on a musical requires a camaraderie that fosters community growth. People meet other people who are different, who they learn about or from, or to whom they can relate. Productions often illuminate worlds outside a comfort zone; learning about those worlds pushes those involved to recognize situations new to them, to discover new sources and use of language, to appreciate or question icons as they find out about them. These productions may offer characters and settings close to our home and heart – making us realize we are not alone in our feelings whether it be distress or wonderment. And with each generation, that web of community grows.