I once heard the late, great director Garland Wright talk about moments in the theatre that changed his life. There was his first exposure to the work of Giorgio Strehler and (if I remember correctly) an equally powerful encounter with a piece by Ariane Mnouchkine and even a related story about The Red Shoes. But perhaps the most powerful moment of all took place on a small stage in Texas where the six-year-old who would one day lead the Guthrie Theater sat mesmerized by an amateur troupe, performing a traditional fairy tale against a backdrop featuring a giant spider web that magically, improbably, impossibly disappeared at a pivotal point in the story. It was that spider web that sealed Garland’s destiny, he said—a moment that has parallels for many of us who make our living in the theatre today.
There are several things I love about that story, not the least of them being my own mental image of Garland at age six sitting cross-legged in some remote school cafetorium (remember those?). But the impulses central to much of his work could be traced to that story—the suspension of disbelief or, perhaps more appropriately, the awakening of the power to believe; the sense of magic and impossibility; the awareness that art changes lives, sometimes in subtle, unexpected ways, but irrevocably, powerfully, wonderfully.
There are times many of us lose sight of this power, or worse, deny it. I am fascinated by the way we often talk out of both sides of our mouths on this issue. Art makes a difference, we trumpet, at public funding hearings or at fundraisers or in newspaper columns. But the appearance of an excessively violent film or a sexually provocative exhibit or a misogynistic, homophobic rap song often sees us beating a hasty retreat. “But it’s only a work of art—people don’t behave based on what they see on television or hear on the radio!” we cry.
For my own part, I no longer want to have it both ways. Either art changes lives or it doesn’t. And I line up squarely not only with Garland but with Augusto Boal—and with the legions of artists and managers and technicians who devote their lives daily to theatre for young audiences. These are people who know the truth of the power of theatre to change lives, not only because their own lives are testaments to that transformative power but because they witness such transformations daily.
The field and media are rife with anecdotal reports—the young man who after 12 years of public school despondently faces the prospects of not graduating until the experience of acting teaches him the skills that finally enable him to pass a basic literacy test; the discipline problem who after working on a play becomes a model of cooperation; the breakthrough in communication skills for the student previously withdrawn and remote.
A recent report by the President’s Committee for Arts and Humanities entitled “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning” is filled with studies that move us beyond the anecdotal and quantify this life-changing power. James Catterall’s database of 25,000 students demonstrates that those with extensive arts experience outperform “arts-poor” students on virtually every measure. Shirley Brice Heath and her team at Stanford University note that arts programs are more effective in teaching at-risk students communication skills, collaborative techniques, self-discipline, self-expression, commitment and perseverance than athletic or academic-based after-school programs. A Harvard University study based on Shakespeare & Company of Massachusetts’s education program notes quantifiable results in reading comprehension, complexity of thinking, and growth in emotional, imaginative and intellectual skills. And, in what is one of the most powerful of all findings, Catterall’s UCLA study notes that 12th-grade students involved in theatre are more likely than all other 12th-graders to interact well with other racial groups and are far less likely to tolerate racist behavior.
Unfortunately, those who have given their lives to theatre for young audiences and to education programming are often dismissed by others in our field—viewed with condescension or tolerance, seen as doing work that is a sop to public perception or funding but somehow distinct from “real” work. What this stance ignores is that theatre for young audiences is among the most exciting, innovative, powerful, unapologetic artistic work in our field today. Two of my strongest memories from the last decade are Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Juniper Tree and the Cultural Industry’s Shockheaded Peter, and I rabidly follow the work of artists like Peter Brosius, David Saar, Suzan Zeder, Carol North, Jeff Church, Linda Hartzell and James Still—as well as the richness of literature transmitted by the theatres of Moses Goldberg and Robyn Flatt and, yes, of the ever-young Paper Bag Players, who remind us of how vibrant the realm of imagination can be. All artists, all social activists, all envelope-pushers.
Theatre for young audiences is a field as multifarious and complex as any, and is, at its best, among the best theatre in the world. The artists in this field know what we should all know: that theatre awakens belief; that delight is found when the impossible is made real; that audiences are collaborators to be treasured, not customers who deserve condescension; that true theatre involves rigor, diligence, unswerving energy; and, perhaps most importantly, that art (even art as ephemeral as a vanishing spider web) changes lives. And that, consequently, ours is a sacred trust, never to be taken lightly, but always to be embraced fervently.