BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DOROTHEA HACKETT
Since my first venture onto the stage as a child, I have loved performing and all things theater. I even approach teaching as theater. I need to get into character to enhance the different personalities of each of the students in my classes.
Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to take over, develop, and teach Theater Arts I and II my high school. I welcomed the opportunity, of course. In developing the curriculum, I had to ask myself, “Who is my intended audience (students) of this elective?” I focused on the students who had an interest in theater and performing. I soon found out I was wrong.
As the class progressed through the years, I found the students who opted for the course to be those on the fringe - the students that had not found their niche, their community, or academic classroom success. In this class, students were hands-on - performing what they had prepared as “homework.” They learned to demonstrate both proper decorum as audience members and appropriate respectful methods to critique a performance not a performer. Students with all abilities - even those with a variety of special needs - were able to gain confidence and succeed in the class. One particular student took the next step to venture into the realm of our theatrical productions.
David [not his real name], a student on the spectrum learned to love the theater. He auditioned for all shows and earned roles in each. David was very fixed in his thinking and in his routine. If it were Wednesday, it was Burger King on the way home, his mother would tell me. Any diversion from this routine would cause stress and/or a complete meltdown. Rehearsals benefited him since he always knew what was going to happen and when. On stage, David had a scene in a café that required him to pull out a cellphone and tell his acting partner, “I’m just going to scroll through this screen looking at girls much hotter than you.” During each rehearsal and for the first night of the show, David came through comfortably. On show two, this changed. David entered the scene, sat at the café, reached into his pocket for his phone and discovered it was not there. Ordinarily, this unplanned occurrence, like missing Burger King on Wednesday, would initiate great stress and a meltdown. I held my breath. Without any break in character, David pushed back in his chair, crossed his arms, looked into the sky and said, “I’m just going to sit here and daydream about girls much hotter than you.” The scene continued without a hitch.
His mother and I were in tears at the rear of the auditorium. She explained to me how monumental that moment was for him to think on his feet and make an adjustment that worked. My tears were of joy and pride for his ability to adapt to the moment which was groundbreaking not only for his development as an actor but also for him as a person. Mom continues to believe that without theater, that would not have happened.
This is just one story of how theater can enhance students’ life experiences. Much empirical data exists to support the importance and benefits of theater instruction; however, nothing has a greater impact than a personal experience like David’s to advocate for inclusiveness and necessity of theater education. I would encourage all teachers in all content areas to find ways to incorporate theater skills into their lessons to reach all of our students and all stakeholders to keep theater education in the forefront of school curriculum and funding decisions.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee