In Defense of Arts Education

By on 24 February, 2016 in Art, Sarah Thornton with 0 Comments

“If you take a child to the theater, not only will they practice empathy, they might also laugh uproariously, or come home singing about science, or want to know more about history, or tell you what happened at school today, or spend all dinner discussing music, or learn how to handle conflict, or start becoming future patrons of the arts.” – Playwright Lauren Gunderson

class pic (1)The Cloverdale Playhouse is beginning the Spring term of our Playhouse School next week, and I am feeling an interesting mixture of nostalgia and idealism. I am looking back, remembering with fondness my summers spent as a camper-turned-counselor-turned-teacher at Camp Shakespeare at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I am reminiscing about the friends I made and things I discovered at the Alabama Governor’s School for the Arts. I am reliving the lessons I learned in class and onstage at Baldwin and Booker T. Washington Magnet Schools.

And I am worried that many kids today won’t be able to relate. As children, we are naturally inclined to pretending. We have imaginary friends, we play at being explorers or circus performers, and we read Peter Pan and really wonder if a little sprinkle of fairy dust might carry us off to Neverland. As we age, it becomes harder and harder to stay in touch with that part of ourselves. We get bogged down in bills and responsibilities, we ground ourselves in “reality,” and we begin to consider dreams foolish.

Having been raised by artistic parents, I acknowledge that I had a unique childhood. Going to the theater was a normal, everyday activity. Learning how to develop photographs in Mom’s darkroom, listening to classical music at dinner, watching movies such as The Tempest performed with puppets: these were normal. As a little girl, I created the Alabama Library Theatre in a room in my parents’ house, enlisting other neighborhood kids to rehearse and perform plays for our families, complete with programs and costumes.

The benefits of an arts education for every child were not lost on me even then. Arts encourage kids to develop empathy, a practice that sometimes seems lacking in our world. Theater teaches children how to listen, how to engage. The late Harper Lee once wrote, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” That lesson is learned time and time again in the arts. We hear a story, see a play, read a book, look at a painting, listen to a song, and we feel connected. We care. We try to identify, to find common ground.

While the spiritual benefits of arts education are paramount, there is a practical side that many adults may not see in spite of all of our grown-up need to root ourselves in reality. The arts teach children listening and speaking skills, confidence, teamwork, dedication, not to mention all of the hands-on skills they can learn in the technical elements of the arts: lighting, carpentry, sewing, design, management, communication, and on and on the list goes.

I may be dwelling in a fantasy by thinking that all kids should be able to explore their potential in the same way that I did. I may be fooling myself into thinking they would even want to. But hey, I live and work in a wonderful world of make-believe, of adventure, of dreams and musings, where some scrap wood and paint can become a throne and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube can become a rapier, and I think it’s a pretty great way to make a living.

Sarah Walker Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse, who walks like a New Yorker and waves like an Alabama girl. She is a product of a Montgomery arts education, with several years of life in NYC thrown in for extra flavor.

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