Mass Education or Mass Inclusion? Issues of Quantity and Quality in Children’s Theatre Programs

As an early career arts educator, one thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a divide in the types of youth programming available for elementary and middle school-aged children. In many programs, mass inclusion is the norm, and results in small stages in gymnasiums, cafeterias, and community centers crammed with forty-plus children. It’s easy to understand the thought process here.; so many students don’t have access to the arts, and exposure to the arts is incredibly beneficial. The greater the number of students involved, the greater the ticket revenue which can be directed back to arts programming. This philosophy is admirable; however, such thinking can lead to an emphasis on numbers rather than arts education itself. In such programs, arts educators can become ringleaders of a circus instead of facilitators of quality drama instruction, or directors of impressive children’s productions.

I believe that it is important that students of all ages and from all backgrounds get to experience the magic of theatre, but I sometimes worry about that magic clouding realistic expectations for what a theatre program can do for a child. What sort of personal growth and individualized attention does a student in a fifteen-child production get that a cast member in a fifty-child production doesn’t? Some of the most popular performances produced by youth theatre programs are The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Peter Pan. Yes, in a fifty-student production of any of these shows, it is possible to have thirty-five munchkins, villagers, Oompa Loompas, or pirates. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that there is only one Dorothy, one Belle, one Charlie, and one Peter.

How does an arts educator balance storytelling and artistry, when they are mandated to use every child who signs up for the program? I can’t help but feel that the watered down “Jr.” versions of popular family-friendly musicals are akin to glorified musical revues than actual productions. And I think that an emphasis on numbers is a major factor, since finding a way to get more kids involved and on stage becomes more and more important the higher enrollment is. Is it better for a student to have no individual lines and play a stalk of celery, or not participate at all?

To complicate matters, parents can add inadvertent pressure by insisting that their daughter or son have a larger role, or the same amount of lines as every other student. In the parents’ eyes, the bigger and better the part, the bigger and better their child’s experience will be. I wish that more parents and children took me seriously when I explained that every role is integral to telling a story; the ensemble in a production (especially a youth production) can make or break the overall performance. Every child’s contributions are worthwhile no matter the size of their role. Even though these are all things I truly believe, I also understand that in a forty-student production, more stage time means more individualized attention.

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Involving more students means that more students are learning about theatre, storytelling, and art in a hands-on way that builds valuable social, behavioral, and critical thinking skills. A greater number of students in a theatre program can also mean a greater number of logistical headaches.

Mass inclusion, while idealistic, can often breed mass competition. While a fifteen-student production affords the director or teacher a great deal of time to spend with each student, the facilitator of a larger production may struggle to get the entire piece blocked in the twelve, hour-long rehearsals they are given before the show performs for three days. How does one balance artistry and high standards necessary to instill pride and growth in students in a process where simply blocking the production is a test of even the most talented director’s mental fortitude?

I believe that there are a couple ways this issue can begin to be solved. For starters, limiting student enrollment is one option, but for some programs this act is simply not feasible. Another option is to insist that production schedules are aligned with each program’s goals. Many people seem to have unrealistic expectations about what is humanly possible to accomplish when it comes to theatre. This isn’t to say that programs shouldn’t have high standards and push their students to step outside of their comfort zones. Rather, it is acknowledging how stressful it is for educators and students to create an audience-ready performance in six weeks when the class only meets once a week for an hour. While this sort of process may work with fewer or more experienced students, at least one session needs to address basic theatre and acting skills, which severely cuts into actual rehearsal time. Factor in bathroom breaks for younger students, or a program without additional classroom management, and this can be a recipe for a stressful and unproductive process. Some parents, principals, or program coordinators just don’t understand the tall order they are creating when they begin advertising performances of a production before hiring a director. These types of schedules work for swimming lessons and chess clubs; why shouldn’t they work for theatre, too?

For independent contractors and freelancers, this may mean being realistic with yourself about your own expectations and standards. If you’re unwilling to compromise your standards of artistic excellence (which I encourage you to honor), clearly communicate your need for more time to meet the program’s goals, or refocus the program coordinator’s expectations. Is the purpose of a production to showcase student work or create a production which will create revenue for future arts programming? In the former scenario, a “performance” of acting games, exercises, and short scenes or improvisation may suffice in a short process with many students. In the latter scenario, the contractor may need to help their employer examine the plausibility of their proposed extracurricular, and walk them through more attainable models, or schedules to achieve such an end.

A greater number of students in a theatre program can be a great thing. Involving more students means that more students are learning about theatre, storytelling, and art in a hands-on way that builds valuable social, behavioral, and critical thinking skills. A greater number of students in a theatre program can also mean a greater number of logistical headaches. With the prevalence of teaching artists filling holes in schools’ arts programming, it is important that goals and expectations are clearly communicated to students, parents, and program directors. A healthy emphasis on reality during the planning process can ultimately lead to more magic on the night of the first performance.

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