Your son is more comfortable staring at the smartphone in his hand than making eye contact or verbally communicating with others. Your bright, intelligent daughter generates, at best, average grades in school and shows little passion or interest in anything.
While challenges like these are not unfamiliar to parents, what may be is how much theatre can help their kids address and overcome those same challenges. As in, theatre builds healthy kids by forcing them to reimagine themselves in the lives of others.
Self-Discovery by Playing Another
Yes, theatre is all about pretending to be another person. But the process through which your child becomes that person is actually an ideal path into learning about themselves as well.
“You go to acting school thinking you’re going to learn how to be other people,” says Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan-Mexican actress famed for her role in the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave. “But really it taught me how to be myself. Because it’s in understanding yourself deeply that you can lend yourself to another person’s circumstances and another person’s experience.”
Numerous experts echo the experience of Nyong’o, pointing out that kids who learn to walk in the shoes of another learn a ton about themselves and, just as important, how much they have in common with those even from different backgrounds.
Another benefit of acting, says Nyong’o: testing one’s limits. “That’s why I’m an actor. Because there’s nothing comfortable about being an actor. You’re always out on a ledge, you know?”
Public Speaking and Presentation
Speaking of discomfort, few activities agitate kids (or adults, for that matter) more than getting up in front of an audience to speak. Yet is there anything more theatre-like than that?
Theatre helps kids overcome this fear by enabling them to practice, and not just their lines. “Theatre allows students to practice their emotional range while experimenting with pitch, projection, cadence, and dramatics,” writes Jennifer Oleniczak, founder and artistic director of The Engaging Educator.
Theatre helps kids master the fine art – and make no mistake, it IS an art – of communicating in ways that will serve them well later in life. As an adult, for example, that one-time child actor can summon those same speaking skills to wow an audience, secure a job offer, win a promotion from the boss, or land a date with a potential mate.
The capacity to put oneself in the shoes of another and understand why they do what they do is not only instrumental to a happier life, it’s also a central requirement of acting.
“Theatre is an empathy gym.”
“Theatre is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion,” says San Francisco Playhouse’s Bill English. And empathy is a critical trait for children in a world increasingly divided along political, cultural, and ethnic lines.
Theatre as Therapy
By the time they reach their teens, most kids find themselves struggling with one or two issues that, due to inexperience and immature speech centers, they may not know how to articulate.
Turns out, theatre makes an excellent vehicle for therapy precisely because it enables kids to view themselves and their particular plight from an outside perspective.
Known formally as ‘psychodrama’ based on the work of psychiatrist Jacob Moreno in the early 1900s, this brand of role playing is an excellent instrument for letting people explore new solutions to their challenges by playing other people.
Communication Skills A’Plenty
We already touched on public speaking, but most of our lives is spent in simpler – yet equally important forms of communication: talking to a spouse or children or the clerk in the store.
“In a good conversation, the words we say are only one small part of the meaning that we convey.”
One of the most serious challenges facing today’s screen-addicted kids is communication. Lost amidst a sea of texts and social messages are the facial clues, body language, voice inflection, and other tools critical to effective communication.
“In a good conversation, the words we say are only one small part of the meaning that we convey,” says James Roberts, Professor of Marketing at Baylor University and author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone? “When we send a text or email, or we post or tweet, we lose all but what is being said and so there is a lot of misinformation, miscommunication, and hurt feelings.”
Theatre, of course, forces a child to develop all of these skills in ways that exceed anything they’ll pick up even in the classroom (or daily life, for that matter).
So if you, dear parent, are struggling with a child unable or unwilling to embrace the world around him, find a local theatre group and see if the stage doesn’t help him to “engage and start changing the world for the better.”