By Kara Martinez Bachman
There is a reason theatrical productions are referred to as “plays.” Surely, it is because in addition to being hard work, theater can also be a great form of play. Even one small moment in the limelight can serve to permanently fire the imagination and creative spirit of a child.
Although many kids prefer to spend their time in organized sports, there are many others who have never been able to grab onto sports as a pastime they can enjoy and excel at. If your child “doesn’t get into” sports, you may want to consider introducing him or her to another form of play: theater.
We all remember playing dress-up as children. We recall how much fun it was to pretend to be a princess, or a cowboy, or an alien from outer space. Participating in organized theater activities captures this playful element. What’s more, with every successive performance, our children are not only “playing,” but are perfecting a craft that may lead to a lifetime of enjoyment. Just as sports can teach kids how to follow directions, how to work as a “team” and how to perfect a skill set, so, too, can drama. Even more important, when a child receives the cheers and applause of an audience, it is every bit as satisfying as the cheers of spectators at a ballgame.
According to James Catterall, UCLA Professor, participation in drama aids in educational and social success. His book-with-a-very-long-title, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art: The Effects of Education in the Visual and Performing Arts on the Achievements and Values of Young Adults (2009), shares the results of studies that trace how involvement in performing and visual art influences children. He says in the book: “Our analyses found substantial and significant differences in achievement and in important attitudes and behaviors between youth highly involved in the arts and those with little or no arts engagement.” His study, which was a focal point of the book, showed that kids involved in theater, band, orchestra, chorus, dance, and other artistic pursuits had higher school achievement, lower rates of dropping out of school, and “better attitudes about school and community.” If this is true, then theater is definitely play with a purpose!
Theater is a year-round activity that can involve the entire family, from the oldest member to the very youngest. Many theaters and playhouses provide opportunities for youngsters to get involved. For those who are outgoing, taking a role onstage may be a possibility. When starting out, a child with little experience will need to begin with roles as an "extra" in the ensemble, or with small bit parts until he or she builds up enough maturity and acting chops to carry a more serious role. But with time, your child could develop dramatic skills that will delight audiences.
Perhaps you child is shy about being in the spotlight and would prefer to help behind-the-scenes by getting stage sets and props ready, helping with costumes, or assisting those who work in sound and lights. There really is an option for every personality and age. Community theater is a great activity for families, as it is something they can enjoy together for many, many years.
Many children begin their involvement in plays by enrolling in a summer or afterschool camp. Others choose to participate, beginning at the middle-school level, in drama classes or musical productions staged at school. By participating in school plays and theater camps, your child can become familiar with the rudiments of a stage show; this can help him/her transition more easily to involvement with community theater.
Pick up the phone and call a local theater and ask about how you can become involved. Just as “soccer moms” love to see their kids kick an impossible goal, you will enjoy seeing your “superstar” on a stage, delivering a line perfectly or posing as the perfect princess, clown, superhero, or dainty yellow flower.
Kara Martinez Bachman is a "theater mom" to a passionate 14-year-old who is obsessed with musical theater. She's an entertainment journalist, editor, and author of the humorous essay collection about the zanier sides of parenting and marriage, "Kissing the Crisis: Field Notes on Foul-Mouthed Babies, Disenchanted Women, and Careening into Middle Age." Find out more at KaraMartinezBachman.com.