Teaching Drama in an Age of Screens

Drama can save our children! At least, that would be the title of my book, if I wrote a book on the salutary benefits of drama for children. You see, I’ve been thinking about drama and children and education quite a bit recently because it’s what I’ve been doing—in our summer program, in our new after-school program, and in our elementary school. When I stopped to think about it, I started to list all the different aspects that drama develops in children. Most of the things on the list were areas that don’t necessarily get developed in your standard paper-and-desk education. In fact, they are areas that get downright ignored in our culture today and therefore remain underdeveloped. And that’s when I got even more excited about doing what I was doing.

I don’t have to just ponder these things either; I’ve experienced them for myself. In 9th grade my self-confidence had reached a low. I had few friends, and I was too uncoordinated and overweight to play sports. Drama provided a venue where I could meet new people, learn to work with them, gain a confident voice, and learn to express myself more clearly. Learning how to act and putting on plays was pivotal for me.  Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to express what I was gaining from the experience. I was just doing something I found enjoyable and fun. And that’s the great thing about it. Children learn best through doing something they find very exciting.

To share my own excitement about teaching drama, I offer up a list of just some of the things drama helps develop. The list is a product of my own thoughts as well as thoughts about some books I’ve read on the subject (particularly, the work of Augusto Boal).

Expressiveness

Before getting on the stage, Benjamin Reese gives the kids the basic principles of acting, skills like projection and stage direction.

Our bodies and faces become “mechanized” (Boal’s term) pretty early on in our development. In other words, out of the infinite array of possible emotions, walks, ticks, and movements—we pick a few and basically keep with those. It’s a nice process because it greatly decreases the amount of time we have to spend thinking about our movement. The problem is that most children today are becoming mechanized in front of screens and phones—all of which really only requires one facial expression, the deadpan stare.

Acting is the process of de-mechanizing your body and face—training it to do other things, new expressions, different movements. Teaching children to think through their movements is a boon to their future social lives. Because here’s the truth: Expressive people are more fun to be around. I’m not talking about flamboyant craziness here; I’m talking about the basic ability to look interested, show sympathy, or put on a face of excitement. It’s not about being fake—it’s about making appropriate gestures that communicate what you actually want to communicate. Acting opens up a whole new level of creativity—the creativity of movement, the ability to communicate with our body rather than just always running on our default settings.

Genesis Garner performs on stage. Acting provides an opportunity for children to build their confidence.

Vocal Expressiveness

Voice could probably be lumped in with the section above, but it’s so important it deserves to be dealt with separately. The idea is basically the same: We tend to rely on our habits of speech, rather than having full control of our voice. “Project!” is one of the three basic principles I teach kids when I begin a workshop. Acting helps a person develop a strong and robust voice—a voice that can be heard. It also helps develop range, texture, and dynamics, all of the things that make someone interesting to listen to. I don’t think I have to harp on this point. We all know how valuable an interesting and easily heard voice is for people to develop. “The age of texting” hasn’t necessarily been a helpful to our ability to verbally communicate in engaging ways.  

Practicing facial expressions, two workshop participants trade serious stares.

Social Awareness and Teamwork

Acting is truly a team activity. Acting teaches roles and responsibility. If one person forgets his lines, the whole ship goes down. In this way, the stage teaches that every role—regardless of how many lines—plays a significant part in making the play happen. I often tell kids that if one person is not acting, then the whole audience will be watching that one person, not the play. Not only do actors work with each other, they also work with set-designers, sound crews, and other technical and musical folk. It takes a lot of different roles to make a play happen.

Memory

Again, here is where technology has left us a little out to sea. When’s the last time you had to memorize anything? It’s easier to just to jot it down on a digital note, or it’s easier to just think, “I can always look it up on Google.” I probably don’t need to remind you that ancient people were able to perform unbelievable feats of memory—like memorizing an entire epic or system of laws. They developed this capacity because they had to. We don’t. We store everything on our phone or computer. This, of course, tends to atrophy our our memory system. This is a problem since memory just so happens to be foundational for basic intelligence.

Diana tries to keep composed on stage, as Benjamin Reese offers some advice and direction. Along with all the skills drama develops, acting also provides a lot of hilarious moments.

Values

A play can put serious subject matter in a format that kids can understand and wrestle with. A kid will not listen to a lecture on the economics of sharing. But, if you write a play about a kid who wants to keep all the toys to himself, you can communicate this idea in a way that they can relate to. Listening to a story is one thing, but acting it out is different. It makes you sit with the problem in a different way. This was an area my own drama programs lacked. We never really gave much meaning to the plays we were doing. This is something I work hard to do with the kids I teach. I want them to do plays that dramatize the issues and difficulties they face in being ethical people. This usually requires me to write my own material, since a lot of what’s available isn’t all that instructive.  

Concluding

Imagine a child that is confident; able to communicate in expressive, interesting ways; a kid who works well with others; and a kid who can reason ethically. This is certainly an ideal kid. But, how do we get there? How do we help them to develop those skills? We could tell them what they need to learn, but its hard to teach voice, expressiveness, or social skills in a textbook or classroom. We need to look for a more integrative approach. I don’t think drama is the sole answer, but I think it is a tool worth considering, especially when we consider the many skills and abilities that comprise the holistic development of children.  

The power of drama to develop children morally, physically, and mentally does not come by accident. You need to approach creating a workshop with such goals in mind. I’m still learning how to do it best. But as I work out how to that, I keep this memory in my mind. The memory is of a crowded house, faces outlined in every window, and everyone looking in. And what were they looking at? A play. Our collective attention was bound together, Americans and Salvadorans alike, fixed on the concrete floor that doubled as a stage. The children were reading from a few photocopied scripts. They were giving us a gift from the only thing they had, themselves—their voices, their time and skills. Drama is as universal and human as you can find. It doesn’t require money or privilege. It just requires the resources that all of us carry with us as humans, but few people take the time to develop.