By Dave Maier, outreach coordinator
Earlier this week I was driving up to Santa Rosa for my first high-school outreach visit of the year. Excited to build on the previous year’s success, I was going over the three-hour playwriting curriculum in my head and how I might adapt it to fit the needs of this particular class. When suddenly: TRAFFIC! The 101 highway north was a parking lot due to construction. “Don’t panic,” the voice in my head began, “you have plenty of time and this back-up can’t last too long.” During the seemingly endless delay my frustration grew and that voice became more frantic and challenged me with the repeated question, “Why are you doing this?”
“Why are we doing this?” It seems a valuable question for any artist or arts institution to ask. Certainly not for fame and fortune. We fill a need. With the financial strain on school districts across the boards, arts programs are being cut at an alarming rate, along with athletics and other “extracurricular” subjects. The legacy of "No Child Left Behind" has teachers scrambling to find the time and resources to give their students the skills they need to perform well on the standardized tests. And who can blame them? Those test scores often determine the funding that the school receives and can be the benchmark by which the teacher’s performance is measured. Is that system working? The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities recently released a report entitled Reinvesting in Arts Education which states, “Persistently high dropout rates (reaching 50% or more in some areas) are evidence that many schools are no longer able to engage and motivate their students.”
Why are we doing this? We use theatre arts to engage and motivate students! We have the ability to come into the classroom and provide the students with the opportunity to express themselves, to have their voices be heard and valued. We use techniques that reach multiple learning styles, giving students more than one way into the material. We also give teachers a glimpse of how to use the arts in the classroom to teach any given subject. Study after study shows that this “play” is an essential element in effective learning.
I finally arrived at the school with just a few minutes to spare. The traffic crisis of just moments before was history, and I was greeted by an enthusiastic classroom teacher who gushed about his experiences as an audience member at Berkeley Rep. Seventeen young people trickled in, ranging in age from 14 to 17, each with their own experiences, culture, and given circumstances. After a brief introduction, we dove into a physical warm-up, designed to break them out of their regular routine and provide a fun transition from the norm. Some students were hesitant; others bravely embraced the challenges put before them. As we settled into the writing exercises, even the reluctant students seemed at ease; the silence in the room was a clear sign to me that everyone was engaged. The classroom teacher gave me a "thumbs up" as I prompted the students to include as much detail as possible in their “character profile.” By the end of the 90-minute class, 17 new monologues had been written or were in process, each in the unique voice of the character filtered through the playwright. Some were more articulate and elegant than others, some were in multiple languages, but every one was read, heard, and valued.
As I wrapped up the class we reflected on their experience -- some were quite satisfied, some frustrated with the short amount of time, others eager to continue with the new discoveries they had made. The range of experiences was as expansive as the individuals who participated. However, it was clear that every student had made an investment in their work.
As I prepared for the long drive back to Berkeley I had some answers to the aforementioned question.
Why are we doing this?
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