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  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

The Play's the Thing

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, there were class plays, holiday plays and occasional musical presentations in elementary school. There was also a weekly assembly where, at the very least, we sang America the Beautiful. In middle and high school the weekly assemblies were supplanted by a Drama Club, a fall drama play, a spring musical and various choral and orchestral concerts. Though sometimes meagre, these productions were generally acknowledged to be a valuable aspect of childrens’ education. Funds were regularly allotted for faculty, staff and materials.

The changing economy, decreasing state financial contributions and tax caps have forced school boards and school administrators to make many difficult budgetary decisions. While school boards consider all aspects of curricular and extracurricular activities, it is often the arts and especially the performing arts that are the first to go when funding is limited. This is a no-brainer if schools are only viewed as a means to teach the Three Rs and to meet Common Core and other mandated test standards. It is less so when schools are also viewed as a means to provide students with tools for creative and analytical thinking and problem-solving. The performing arts provide these skills and by the best possible means: they teach without seeming to teach. Participation in the performing arts teaches not only academic and social skills, it also fosters community; an aspect of society notably in decline over recent decades.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, 2000, published by Touchstone explores community in America over the past century. Its basic premise is that significant social interaction has decreased over the past century; most noticeably in the past forty years and that this is not a good thing for American society.  Identified as social capital, what one could call the grease that oils the machine of community, its lack fragments families and communities and thereby isolates individuals from each other.

The author cites many civic and social activities that have declined including: theater attendance, bowling leagues, PTA membership, membership in fraternal organizations, entertaining at home, blood donation, voting and volunteerism in general. Among the reasons he offers for the recent decline in social capital, all without judgment, are: television, the internet, racial tensions, generational tensions and the stress caused by both parents having to work to support their families. I would suggest that budgetary decisions made by school districts are an underlying cause and one that can be improved by greater inclusion and support for the performing arts in K-12 curriculum.

Still, the budgetary scales remain weighted toward the “basics” and the question that looms large is why. Some view the arts as a non-essential element and others see great value, but likely the majority have a neutral opinion, and this, I believe, is due to a lack of understanding of the nature and history of the performing arts in human culture.

Since the creation of spoken language, human beings have had a need and desire to communicate - to tell a story. Today, one only has to look at people; from all walks of life; performing all of life’s tasks with a cell phone at their ear or with fingers dancing a text across their smartphones. Earlier in our history story telling was a much simpler affair. We can imagine our ancestors, gathered around a fire, listening to tales of the day’s hunt. Over time, story-telling became more than an account of daily activities; it became a forum to explore the world. Soon special places were dedicated to telling stories and stage drama was born.

From Greek amphitheaters and Roman coliseums to the use of perspective during the Italian Renaissance; to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, to the Drottningholm Theater, Wagner’s Bayreuth, Appia and Craig, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus School, Broadway; Josef Svoboda, Peter Brook, The Living Theater, of the 1960’s - - all have sought to re-define drama and the places where it is performed.

Over time, theaters (by which I mean all the many different types of performing arts facilities) have been built by many agencies and for many reasons (of which the presentation of a theatrical event has often been the least!) The size, cost and sheer magnitude of the undertaking have limited the building of theaters to individuals and groups with a great deal of money and political power. In the historic past this group was small and included only monarchs and municipalities (i.e. various European city-states.) Today, the group includes: federal, state and municipal governments, K-12; colleges and universities, corporations and philanthropists, well established performing arts groups - -well, you get the picture. These groups build theaters with a capital “T”. The intent is to create large scale venues seating large numbers of people.

The past fifty years or so have seen theaters created in many different kinds of spaces by individuals and small groups with limited budgets. They can be found in church basements, shopping malls, office buildings, parking garages, barns, tents and outdoor spaces. These theaters, with a lower case “t,” are less interested in where their performances take place or how large the audience might be. This is not to say one is better or more desirable than the other. Both small and large theaters have their virtues and drawbacks and I will not pass any judgment.  I will say that there can be as many kinds of theater buildings as there are people who wish to use them and this is a good thing. The proliferation of smaller, ad hoc theaters has, in a sense, returned us to the camp fire where drama becomes an activity for everyone to participate in.

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