A recent, oft-cited study from the National Endowment from the Arts showed that there has been a steep decline in theatre attendance. I’m not certain where that ranks among issues such as global warming, a dysfunctional government, and the possibility of a rogue meteor making this a moot point, but it seems to me there’s more reason for concern than panic. Perhaps we should focus on one knuckle-whitening tragedy at a time.
There are many ways to foster engagement through the arts; one of these is to start with children, our future audience. In other words: hook ’em when they’re small and vulnerable! Perhaps it sounds better to say that kids are far more open to new thoughts and experiences than their crusty adult counterparts.
An alarming number of kids have had little or no exposure to the arts. American kids do need to improve their math and science skills, but precluding the arts is a massive mistake. The arts (particularly theatre) teach collaboration, creative thinking, and perspective. I’ve also found the arts to be excellent for a different set of problem-solving skills than one might use in math or science. (How often does one hear in math class, “Yes, but how does pi make you feel?”) Moreover, the power of pee-your-pants laughter while thinking with one’s peers cannot be underestimated.
As part of a federal Positive Youth Initiative grant, Montgomery County officials asked me to teach a theatre class to 6th and 7th graders. One of the kids’ first questions was: “Do you know Cameron Diaz?” Fortunately, my co-teacher, the inimitable Jon Watkins, had actually met her during a film shoot. This impressed them mightily.
If the arts were a path to Cameron Diaz, clearly it was a worthy pursuit. This was not exactly the level of insight we’d hoped to achieve, but it was a start.
I soon discovered that not only did they not know where Illinois was, but some did not know what Illinois was. Sadly, I’m not making that up. These were bright kids with all of the skills needed for learning but, clearly, many around them had shrugged away some disconcerting gaps in their knowledge. The school overall had a Lord of the Flies feel to it, but by the time we finished that course they had developed their own play, performed it for their peers, and all of them were completely hooked on theatre.
I’ve heard it argued that we, as artists, are not necessarily teachers, baby-sitters, or role models. I understand that perspective, but personally I find outright joy in teaching a group of 9 and 10 year olds to love performing Macbeth. Admittedly, I threw Spiderman into Lady Macbeth’s death scene but, hey, art is all about interpretation. I find no harm in performing both comedy and tragedy, as both harbor insight.
Yes, we all want to put butts in those theatre seats, but there is value for everyone in putting little butts in those seats first. We can complain all we want about the demise of the arts, but you might actually find a little joy in sharing the arts instead.
— Playwright John Becker has been awarded several Individual Artist grants, worked in film for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was a finalist for the Emerging Artists Theatre off-Broadway, and numerous other productions/readings/workshops. —