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Why Kids Need Theatre

Mary Gray • February 2023Musical Theater • February 19, 2023

I’ve been directing children’s theatre for the past twenty-five years, and I have a stack of letters, notes, and printed out emails from parents and former students telling me all about the incredible benefits they or their kids received from participating in theatre. And I have myself seen how theatre can visibly affect the personality and the well-being of the kids in our group.

The most common comment is that the student went from being shy and withdrawn to being confident and well-spoken. One of our performers came to an audition at age 9. When his name was called, his mother came to me and said he was crying in the hall and wouldn’t come in. I told her he should come in when he felt ready, and I would hold a spot for him. He finally did come in and audition, and within a few years, he became our lead male player with a beautiful singing voice and a very charming stage personality.

Theatre doesn’t get rid of shyness, but it gives the students tools to cope with all kinds of situations, not just public speaking. For students who love to show off and are very vocal, the stage is a place where that behavior is rewarded. We see lots of kids with ADHD who take to theatre like they were born to be there.

Actors are encouraged to try out different characters, sometimes pretending to be a person they would never dare to be in their regular school life. The shy kid is now an arrogant king. The kid who is bullied for being small or weak is now a warrior, praised for his bravery. The student who the teacher is constantly telling to be quiet, is now the funniest actor on stage getting big laughs for his humorous lines.

Everyone needs a group to bond with, but sometimes kids have trouble finding a group where they feel at ease. This is especially true of students who are new to the school. Sports teams, bands, choirs, and orchestras are great at giving kids a chance to work in a group and get to know others who have similar interests. But there are always kids who are not interested in either sports or music. Students who work together on a play or musical inevitably bond even if they have very different personalities. The feeling is “we’re all oddballs and we’re proud of it.”

This is not to say students on sports teams or music groups also don’t enjoy theatre. Our theatre group did lots of musicals, and the chorus teacher always encouraged her students to audition. We got a lot of actors from the band and orchestra as well. It seems the artistic bent that draws kids to music also interests them in acting. 

Fortunately, the sports teams in our school met immediately after school and our rehearsals were in the evenings, because there were plenty of students who did both sports and theatre. Often there is a big social divide between the “jocks” and the “theatre geeks.” But if some of the athletes are in the show, their teammates will come to see it. And now they get to see those “geeks” are good at something – and their teammate is enjoying working with those kids. There was always at least one “popular” student who participated in our theatre group, and that went a long way to upping the social status of all the kids in the group. In the middle school years, feeling you are seen and respected is extremely important to developing a sense of self-worth.

One other benefit is not so much for the kids, but for their parents. We required all the parents to do volunteer work for the production. You could choose to do a lot, like work backstage during the show, or just a little, like sell tickets during one of the rehearsals. Some of the parents complained, said they didn’t have time, etc. But once they got involved, they formed their own social group, even if they only saw one another at rehearsals and shows. Almost all the parents grew to enjoy their participation. They had the opportunity to talk to one another about their kids, their problems as a parent, and what’s happening in the town. 

Some of the kids who were in our children’s theatre went on to major in theatre in college, and a few of them became professional actors or got jobs in theatrical production. Many of them joined adult community theatre groups and still enjoy acting even though it’s not their “day job”. Some became teachers, where I am told an acting background is very useful. 

Every former member of our group I have run into says the same thing – they treasure the years they spent in theatre and those with kids plan to encourage them to join a theatre group as soon as they’re old enough. 

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