The Transformative Power of Theatre on Students’ Sense of Self

Kelby Siddons \'06, Faculty, Episcopal School of Jacksonville, with Naiya Cheanvechai '20

When you think about a theatre class, what do you envision?

Most outside observers accustomed to the seated organization of a traditional classroom are initially rattled by the chatter of multiple small groups working in different areas of the space, the barbaric yawps of student actors playing frustrated characters, and the trial-and-error and hustle-and-bustle of work backstage.

Chaos, right?

But what may look like a disorganized process of awkward teenagers trying to throw a show together is so much more-it\'s an ensemble art form, where success relies not only on each individual but on the entire ensemble. It\'s a family. And much like any good family, it can help transform its members into stronger, more confident people. The art of theatre is often referred to as \'alchemy\'--the ancient pursuit of changing elements into gold -- but it also transforms students' lives.

Theater Transforms How You See Yourself

Episcopal School of Jacksonville theater student Bridget Coscia \'20 says, \"Theatre helps shape [students] and helps [them] find and develop their own character,\"-- and here, \'character\' means both stage role and sense of self.

Pretending to be someone you are not may seem like a strange way to help a person grow, but when you are given a role to play, your job is to embody the character. By playing these roles, students embody and observe the characters\' good and bad qualities. They are invited to leave their real lives behind for a time and take a walk in that character\'s shoes: build them from the ground up; trace their motivations; examine how they are different from you, similar to you. By becoming a character, we may learn who we are and who we do (or do not) want to be.

Characters are not just pieces of fiction that are added to a script in order to help move a show along. They are lessons for people -- actors, directors, designers, or audience members who experience the story -- that people study and explore, sometimes for generations, such as Shakespeare's Juliet or Hamlet. And even a backstage \'role\' a student takes on -- such as the leadership that it takes to stage manage, the diligence and discretion it takes to manage props backstage, the vision and creativity it takes to direct -- can make a student embody more than they knew themselves to be capable of before.

\"The theater department is a place where I do not have to worry about judgment from my peers. This department is a family. I have created friendships that will last a lifetime," says Anne-Charles Zimmer \'20. "I am forever grateful for the love and support I receive from everyone involved in these productions. Whether I\'m a lead or in the ensemble, everyone makes me feel like I am an important and valued part of the show.\"

Theater Transforms How Others See You

The fear of judgment from their peers and how the audience may perceive them is often enough to prevent students from acting out of the norm and in front of a crowd. Bridget has struggled for years with stage fright, but this year is playing the lead role in Radium Girls, (Episcopal\'s spring show)

\"There is so much vulnerability on stage. You are putting your art form out there for the world to judge,\" she says.

And unlike other art forms that produce a work on film or paper that exists separately from the artist, the live performer is always present and participating in their art at the moment, leading to an increased sense of vulnerability.

Yet at some point, the fear of vulnerability pales in comparison to the reasons students first started participating in theatre: a promise of improved confidence; the opportunity to practice imagination and self-expression; and the possibility of temporarily escaping \"the real world\"--including those fears of failure and looking silly. And as fear of public speaking and performance is the most commonly cited phobia in America, it stands to reason that most audience members can relate to and respect the difficulty of performing onstage. More often than not, students\' performances lead the actors themselves and then their audience to learn that the student is more talented, capable, and engaging than either party might have realized.

Much low-stakes practice and high-quality encouragement make this transformation possible, even if that encouragement comes merely from the vote of confidence that comes with being cast in a role in the first place. There are ripples of excitement when a student is cast in a role that surprises their teachers, their friends--even themselves. Recognition of growth and talent or a role that\'s an excellent fit for a student actor can really broaden horizons and change how a student is viewed. At that point in a young actor\'s life, they learn that the rewards of performance outweigh their fears and that they are more capable than they realize.

Theater Transforms How You See and Work with Others

Drama teaches many different life skills. It develops relational skills that are among the most essential abilities that a student can learn in school, and there are important factors behind the scenes that are needed for producing a great play. Working in this environment as a group develops and improves collaboration and communication skills. Yes, all of these factors are great for \"workforce preparation,\" but according to Psychology Today\'s Lois Holzman, those factors can also change how students engage in school activities or social events. Theatre builds character and transforms students into actors with drive and initiative, which then transfers into their everyday lives.

Moreover, communications to ensure actors have compatible backstories, stagehands understanding the timing of the first scene, and designers produce a cohesive vision for the director -- or to identify and solve problems productively if these things aren\'t occurring -- all cement executive and social skills necessary to forge partnerships, run meetings, and maintain successful collaborations.

Beneath the initial impression of a theatre class or rehearsal -- crazy, hectic, disorganized -- there is so much more. It is not only a welcoming environment that forms lasting friendships. The dramatic process that takes place in a class or in a rehearsal teaches lessons, hones skills, and develops confidence. It is a laboratory in which teenagers process the chaos of life with storytelling, reflect on who they are through character, and transform by acting into the people that they want to be.