Theatrical Productions for Preteens
From stories acted out in front of a fire to the Greek tragedies that have survived for centuries, drama enriches and impacts our lives. Though many decry the low-quality movies that come out of Hollywood, other motion pictures touch our hearts and bring new understanding of our world and each other. Who can forget Life Is Beautiful with Roberto Benigni, Casablanca with Bogart and Bergman and even Titanic with DiCaprio and Winslet?
Yet drama is more than the stage or the silver screen, and it's important that we introduce our children to a wide range of theatrical experiences. Puppetry, traditional storytelling, mime, movies and theater all work together to enrich our preteens' lives and possibly give them a new means to express themselves.
An Important Introduction
When it comes to introducing preteens to drama, avoid a lot of fanfare beforehand, especially if you will be attending a live theatrical production. Some children will have preconceived notions of what to expect, and those ideas may not be positive. Yet consider this: Puppetry done by a professional is enchanting, and cultural storytelling is usually a raucous, audience-friendly affair. By simply scheduling the "date" and taking your child to a top-notch theatrical production, you can change their idea of entertainment forever. These experiences will expand your child's outlook beyond favorite television shows.
Beyond expanding personal taste, drama can be important to a preteen's personal growth, especially when used in education. Dan Murphy, founding general manager of the Broadway Rose Theater Company in Tigard, Ore., believes that drama can be an essential outlet for preteens. "I personally think drama is important at the middle school level, because it is a period in which the child has so many questions and feelings that are kept under wraps, and drama can be an outlet for emotions with the disguise of being someone else," he says. "What better way to push the envelope than in an acting class or camp that is safe and nonjudgmental?"
But acting is more than an outlet for emotions, says Murphy. Performing can teach presentation skills – skills that are useful no matter what kind of career your preteen ends up in. "I can't tell you how many dinners, auctions, chamber and rotary events I have attended where clearly the message of any given speaker could be better presented had they taken an acting class or two," says Murphy. "So much of acting is really being focused in the moment and intense listening, all skills that will pay off in the future."
Drama in Education
Pat Collins is a professor of education at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. He teaches classes for the purpose of helping students understand how theater and drama may be used to foster educational development in children. He believes that drama in education is imperative and works to create after-school programs that will involve students of all ages in the dramatic arts.
"Theater and drama are essential aspects of education at any level," says Collins. "One of the basic aims of education is to provide students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to more fully understand themselves and the world in which they live. Drama – like math, science, language, the social sciences and the arts at large – is a way of knowing. It is a lens through which we gain a deeper understanding of the world. Therefore, dramatic literacy should be one of the goals of education. The goal is not to train little actors and actresses, but to ensure that all students are able to use drama, both expressively and receptively, as a tool for thought."
Collins believes that drama is an especially significant means of learning for the middle school child since drama is primarily about exploring different identities, roles and social relationships, all of which are central aspects of adolescent development. While Collins notes that the specific skills gained from exposure to theater and drama depend upon the nature of the dramatic experience in question, he also believes that evidence suggests drama can foster development in the use of oral and written language, reading comprehension, perspective taking, critical thinking and problem solving, hypothetical reasoning, listening skills, self-image and self-confidence, empathy and use of imagination.
Drama in Your Preteen's Life
How can you cultivate a passion for the dramatic arts in your preteen? Collins says that parents need to encourage involvement in drama without pressuring children to become involved. "The first thing parents need to do is take children to high-quality, live theater on a regular basis, and then engage children in talking and thinking about those experiences," he says. "Secondly, parents need to encourage children to become involved in high-quality youth theater or drama programs in whatever way the child feels comfortable participating. I have had many children who initially don't want to be onstage, but who want to work backstage. After a year or two, these children often end up performing on stage as well. Even if they don't, they develop a good understanding of theater and drama working behind the scenes."
Collins says that putting pressure on children to perform when they are not comfortable with it usually backfires, but if your child falls in love with the theater, the sky is the limit! Ask Lynn Heidebrecht, a homeschooling mom from Portland, Ore. Heidebrecht's 12-year-old daughter, Colleen, holds an impressive professional resume. "When my daughter was still very tiny (still crawling), she was what I would describe as a ham," says Heidebrecht. "I used to catch her practicing facial expressions, including the efficacy of her cry, in front of the full-length mirror in her room!" Now, her daughter studies dance, acting and voice and has been involved with some of the most prestigious theaters in the Portland area.
Heidebrecht says the benefits of theater include giving her daughter the opportunity to meet wonderfully creative people of all ages and a sense of belonging to a community. "Would my daughter be as happy, confident and well-rounded a person if she were not involved in theater?" Heidebrecht says. "I would like to think so, but I really don't know."
Giving your preteen experience in the dramatic arts may not create a performer, but it may just give an abiding appreciation of the many art forms drama has to offer, an appreciation that can only enrich and enhance their lives.