Often when I meet new people and they find out what I do, they either look at me like I'm crazy or they say, "Oh, how fun!"
In order to be polite, I usually just nod and agree. But I always want to tell them that participating in a play--while it can be fun--is much, much more.
I was in the doctor's office the other day. The nurse who took my blood pressure asked me what I did and I told her. She got a wistful look and started telling me about the fond memories she has of being in high school plays back in Michigan. It was clear that she had fun--but that there was a great deal more that she gained. Connection. A chance to be someone else. A way to be part of her community.
This interaction happened after I'd been here fairly late for a long dress rehearsal. First dress rehearsals are always very rough and difficult. It's the first time we've added all the elements--props, scenery, costumes, microphones, lights, and in this case, beards. There's no way not to make mistakes; it's the only way to grow in any context, including theatre. I always warn the cast that we have to learn how not to do the play before we can learn how to do it. Even with forewarning, however, it can be a long and exhausting night. We talk a lot about resilience and grit. The week of the play provides everyone involved with ample opportunities to use and develop both of those traits.
As I was sitting alone in the theatre, going over my notes, an email popped up. I scanned it, and found, to my great joy it was from a Harding alum. She realized it was tech week and took the occasion to express how much she had personally drawn from her experience in the plays. This student had never played a large role on-stage, but her experience had given her roots and a sense of home during some difficulties she encountered during the tumult of adolescence.
The next night, I got another email, from a different student at a different high school. And the next night another. These students are from different classes and attend different schools. They had different experiences during their theatre years at Harding, but all expressed similar themes. In their own way they each mentioned having experienced a place they felt they could grow, where they were seen and valued, where they were given a chance to be part of meaningful, challenging work.
What struck me beyond the graciousness of their words was what they said by way of introduction. They each said something to the effect of, "I know you're in dress rehearsals right now. I remember how stressful and crazy that was so I wanted you to know I was thinking of you."
I was genuinely happy to hear that they had good memories. But I was deeply touched by the fact that these students knew I would likely need a boost, realized they had the ability to give that boost, and then took the time out of busy lives to do it. That combination of empathy, connection, and action are wonderful markers for what students learn through the performing arts. So much of it is not easily quantifiable, not always easily articulated. But based on what I hear back, year after year, from the alums who have had experience in the arts, these outcomes are very real, and as the nurse taking my blood pressure reminded me, these outcomes go on for years--when the momentary fatigue or stress are long past.
Theatre and the other performing arts provide a wonderful place to grow. Having an audience means there's enough pressure that everyone tries hard and gives their best. It means we can't give up when we're tired and things are no longer fun. There are never any guarantees. Each show is taking a risk. Each casting choice is a risk. Each musical number and moment of choreography is a risk. We have to try and stretch or it certainly won't be good--but there's never any guarantee. That keeps everyone sharply focused on trying to give their best.
At the same time, the audiences at Harding are so supportive that making a mistake is not the end of the world. I remember one year, the lights came up after a set change, but a member of the stage crew was there alone and obviously struggling to move a piece of scenery. When he finally got the piece offstage, the audience applauded his efforts. It's a wonderful balance of challenge and nurture.
Inhabiting the role of another person in a vastly different time or place, singing about joys or sadnesses that are common to all humanity, working in cast or crew, being responsible to a community for a piece of choreography, bringing the right prop on, or moving a wagonful of scenery offstage--all of these combine to help open up a connection to others, helping students develop higher levels of connection, responsibility, and empathy--many of the components that comprise what we call Emotional Intelligence.
Pushing through the ups and downs of a challenging production, learning how to fix mistakes, learning to keep moving when you are tired and want to give up, getting the minor details right, working on a team, struggling to be a leader, figuring out how to manage details, how to be quiet backstage and project onstage, and being part of something that is much larger than yourself--all of these are some of the outcomes from participation in performing arts. It has the effect of both heightening individual identities while also helping to subsume egos into the greater whole.
Yes, on a good day it's fun. But there's so much more.