On a frigid, snowy evening in January, I had the pleasure of joining a group of students from Brooklyn’s School for Democracy and Leadership at a performance of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway. With tickets donated by a passionate theatre advocate, the school’s principal arranged for 14 students and two chaperones to take the subway in to Times Square for a pizza dinner and an evening at the theatre.
For these students, the opportunity to attend Cinderella was both relevant and full of firsts. They’d become deeply familiar with the classic story since they’d adapted and performed their own modern retelling of it, in which the heroine attended a neighborhood Passa passa contest. For most, it was their first visit to a Broadway theatre. One student, a recent immigrant, had never crossed the river to Manhattan. Even though a large percentage of the student body was deterred from school that day because of the snow, everyone scheduled for the theatre field trip made it in, illustrating something we know so often to be true: When theatre comes to class, the kids show up.
The primary way TCG tracks theatre education opportunities for young people is through our annual education survey. Data collection for the 2013 study is wrapping up this month, and we look forward to reporting on our findings. If you haven’t delved into the “Special Report on Education 2012: Arts Education at the Core” yet, it is worth a look and is still very current. It is based on information submitted by 101 TCG member theatres about their education programming, including answers to questions regarding curriculum, demographics, staffing, expenses and income. Some highlights from the research include:
- 92 percent of respondents report offering in-school workshops and classes, the most common form of theatre-education programming;
- 65 percent report offering access programs for economically disadvantaged students;
- 55 percent report offering professional development in arts education for classroom teachers;
- 32 percent report offering programs specifically to develop and strengthen literacy.
Reporting theatres employed an average of 3.3 full-time education staff, 3.1 part-time education staff and 23.5 artist educators.
The report also delves into some issues related to core arts standards that currently exist at the state level, examining how education directors and theatre staffs are aligning their education programming to support those standards.
In 2010, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released the Common Core State Standards, meant to ensure that students leave school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and in careers. This year, the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) is developing the 2014 National Core Arts Standards. These measuring rods—which were open for public comment in February and are being disseminated in June—have philosophical foundations and emphasize “big ideas.” They ask essential questions and suggest guidelines meant to help guide curriculum development and promote arts literacy for all students.
Last fall, TCG invited six education directors to describe their thinking regarding the Common Core State Standards and what their theatre’s education programs are doing to align with them. One of the most interesting observations came from the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta:
“The skills of a dramaturg could almost be a blueprint for Common Core Literacy—researching cultural and historical information, analyzing context and so on. Teaching students to think in this way is a powerful and efficient means of not only aligning with the Common Core but revealing a truth expressed by Alliance Theatre resident teaching artist Valetta Anderson—‘Theatre is the Common Core.’”
This truth was clearly evident when the curtain came down on Cinderella that January eve. Laura Osnes, the Tony-nominated star, came onstage to greet the students. She answered questions about her process and how she prepares for a role. She also talked about how she gets as much rest as possible, drinks lots of water and tea, and doesn’t party. Her job is to act, dance and sing, and she must take care of her instruments—body, voice, mind.
Some of the students were fascinated by the stage equipment, learning from a stagehand about the purpose of the ghost light and about the legends surrounding it, and how the cast could see the conductor via small monitors on the front of the balconies. They wondered how they might make their performance space, a cavernous high school auditorium, more like a real theatre.
I believe that night was as magical for some of these students as Cinderella’s night at the ball. It reminded me that theatre has a unique kind of power to cultivate hearts and minds. If this is so, then the absence of theatre in schools reflects an absence of commitment on all our parts to the imaginations of future generations.