The Love of Theatre: Theatre for Theatre’s Sake in Arts Education
It has become de rigueur for those in the world of arts education (and theatre as a whole) to default to excuses as to why theatre (and the arts as a whole) is beneficial beyond the experience of art in order to justify its existence. It is understandable that, in a world where Common Core defines content, test scores define value, and grant applications for theatre projects demand making these connections, those who love and teach the arts will use whatever means necessary to make a case for their project. This is really a sad commentary on where we, as a society, place the arts in terms of importance.
It is true that exposure to the arts (theatre included) is beneficial to kids outside the realm of “mere” creativity and self-expression. Yes, arts exposure helps increase standardized test scores, something we as a nation have become a slave to. True, also, that exposure to the arts increases literacy, reading comprehension and has been proven to elevate math scores. The arts are being tied with every form of study, from science to math, to history and foreign language as tools for youngsters to better understand material. This will most likely lead to those almighty higher test scores that we have been taught to pray to like the Golden Cow of educational religion.
I do not knock the value of the arts in teaching and learning. They are, in fact, a very useful tool when applied correctly. I must admit myself that, if a teacher had found a way to make math more exciting through the arts, I would not have grunted and groaned each time I labored through an algebraic proof or some exhausting theorem. What is being lost in this educational approach, however, is the intrinsic value of the arts and how the best of what they offer cannot be defined with test scores, numbers or measurable outcomes. We are losing out on the opportunity to make the arts a journey of individual growth, self-esteem building, and offering youth the opportunities to express from within. Any artist will attest to the fact that what they achieve through their art is personal and to try to plot their takeaways on a graph or chart is an insult to their individuality and belittles their journey.
Why, as an intelligent society, can’t we see that people who create are doing something wonderful and exciting unto itself? Why aren’t we giving credence to the individual, creative evolution of our kids and putting the focus on fostering that? We are too bound to cookie cutter educational practices and forgetting to emphasize what the arts are really about: self-discovery, imagination-building, and using your talents to make the world a better place. These are the things that the arts do best, and the quality of life they offer to those who partake should not be dismissed in lieu of test scores and securing financial support. We have to work extra hard to teach society that these intrinsic values are the essence of the art experience instead of pandering to a society that refuses to accept anything that cannot be quantified as valuable.
Having taught youth theatre for twenty years now, I have to make the argument for upholding theatre for theatre’s sake. I have seen multitudes of shy kids come out of their shell while exploring theatre, some morphing into terrific young actors for having taken the risk. Others found a community through performing, leaving a world of isolation and loneliness for a community that was far more accepting than anything else they had ever experienced. I’ve witnessed kids burst with the joy of recognizing something within themselves that they never knew was possible, or knew was there but didn’t know how to extract it from within. I would trade test scores and grant funding for these personal discoveries every time. It is theatre for theatre’s sake, the value of theatre as the individual experience, and that is what we should be heralding from the rooftops.