I believe in the fundamental necessity of arts education. My high school drama teacher opened the door to a world where creativity was encouraged, memorization was fun, and deception was cool. I’ve been involved in the arts ever since.
As director of an arts summer camp, I sat in on orchestra rehearsals that began with the jarring sounds of tuning instruments and the scrape of metal chairs onto metal stands. But when the instructors settled in next to their students and the conductor brought down his baton, a lump formed in my throat. Tears ran down my cheeks. These early rehearsals are the performance for me.
When theatre students take on the life of a character, it’s more than a classroom assignment, it’s a history lesson. In 1996 I directed a high school production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun. The actor who played Walter Lee Younger, recently told me that his experience in the play was the turning point of his life. He was able to connect with the African American culture of the fifties and to gain a sense of history. He learned what it meant to struggle for a better future.
Midway through the rehearsal period, that actor connected with the physical, vocal, and emotional traits of his character. After rehearsal one evening, he was with his youth pastor and a few friends on a street corner. In a spiritual moment they decided to form a circle and pray. A teenager across the street, noticed the group in prayer, pulled out a gun, and fired shots into the circle.
The actor was hit in the arm and rushed to a hospital where the doctor said they needed to operate right away or he would lose his arm. The actor underwent two surgeries during four days in the hospital. The arm was saved and he performed in the production. But this young actor went through a very difficult period. “The experience of playing Walter Lee Younger and being shot formed the foundation of my life,” he said. “The play gave me something to build upon. I understood what it meant to have a setback. To be afraid of losing something and struggle to keep it.”
He formulated a goal for himself after that incident and accomplished it by becoming a youth counselor. He told me when he works with young people, some with emotional or physical pain, he can use his experience on that street corner to encourage them to overcome the obstacles and move forward with their lives.
Performing or visual arts classes are not necessarily about breaking into the business and certainly not about becoming “famous.” If one wants a career in the arts, class work in the arts is where to begin. However, if one wants to be a carpenter, a lawyer, a youth counselor, or any other occupation those same arts classes are just as important. Arts education is about communicating and communication is the most essential element of a healthy society.
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