My latest project is to, somehow, build diversity in our theater program. I truly believe that every student in America deserves access to the arts in their school. I believe theater can directly and positively impact a student’s academic performance and career preparedness. Yesterday a tech student sat down next to me, “I love theater,” he said. “Two years ago I hated school. Then I got involved in theater and now I love school. Theater helped me discover I love to work with my hands.” Yesterday several students came to “hang out” and get help for their other classes because they have found a “home” in the theater. I want every student to have the opportunity to to discover themselves. “Theatre is not a hobby for the privileged few.”
Julie Cohen Theobald said, “I think there’s a perception that the arts are secondary to core subjects like reading and math. But what the research would suggest is that by participating in theatre, students learn creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.”
Bringing the arts to schools is a critical piece of improving our struggling schools. I believe that access to the arts raises student achievement. With the arts, students learn creative thinking, become more engaged in school, learn empathy, and find productive passions and hobbies.
Our school is approximately 52% Hispanic, yet our theater program is about 98% “white.” We desperately want to have a spirit of diversity and inclusion. WE are offering classes to all, but we are not getting the diversity we would like to see in the offered classes. However, it is proving to be a bit of a battle.
Okay, I can imagine how odd it must feel to walk in fresh into an existing program. It must be intimidating and a bit alienating it must feel to look around the rehearsal or the classroom to see a vision that is “alarmingly white.” Gah! I want to change that!
I look at some of the incredible show that have recently seen such great success, “In the Heights,” “Hamilton,” and “On Your Feet.” Theater is all about telling stories… stories that are creative and impactful narratives; stories that are socially aware. These stories are important! The stories of my community are important! However, casting white actors in roles outlined for people of various ethnic backgrounds negates the importance of representation. These stories need to be told and diverse actors need to tell their own stories.
How do we inspire, encourage and support them in telling their stories?
Some of my thoughts:
- Find shared interests
- Find material and productions that reflect diverse cultures
- Bring in ‘Da kids! Invite the elem entry schools to performances that include students from many cultures. To “workshops” on the road to the elementary schools that inspire future students performers.
- Get dynamic students for diverse cultures involved. They make great spokesmen and help establish a relationship with the community.
Well… we are giving it a shot. I developed a World Theatre class and we are giving it a shot this year. During the class, students are exploring story telling from all parts of the world. We have discussed the difference between ritual and performance. We have discussed the importance of sharing our stories with others. We have practiced story telling through movement and dance in many cultures by learning dances from Africa, India, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. We have looked at chorus story telling with Greek theater. We practiced story telling with shadow puppets inspired by Indonesian shadow puppetry and creation stories from cultures around the world. We looked at story telling with makeup and costumes as we studied Peking Opera and Kabuki.
In class students have also explored the nature of what it means to be human, developing a sense of self as well as expanding their ability to empathize with others. They have learned to analyze serious issues and creating thought provoking story telling through theatre. Students are learning creative self-expression, self-discipline, and self-confidence.
The class is working. I am enjoying seeing so many of these kids thrive. However, there are so many more that could and should be involved. We struggle to break through the mind set that “the arts are not for me.” The arts are for everyone!
What do you do in your programs to encourage a diverse population to be part of your arts programs? Where do you find literature to celebrates all cultures? (I am having some trouble finding appropriate plays to perform as a class).
I hope to inspire students to dream and to focus, to have confidence and strength.