I spent the semester volunteering with the All Stars Project in New York City. Their dedication to supporting underserved youth through theater and developmental opportunities inspired me to look into the role of theater in moral development. Having read their research and doing some of my own I decided to write a very personal piece of public writing. This was aimed at balancing out the pure academic side and highlighting the boundless personal influences that theater can evoke. My greatest learning from this project has been discovering how truly endless my own growth can be.
How do the performing arts contribute to moral development?
- Day, Laura. “‘Putting Yourself In Other People’s Shoes’: The Use Of Forum Theatre To Explore Refugee And Homeless Issues In Schools.” Journal Of Moral Education 31.1 (2002): 21-34. PsycINFO. Web. 28 May 2014.
Laura Day’s article is an exploration of a theater workshop undertaken in London secondary schools. The topic of the workshop was homeless and refugee experiences. It was presented as an opportunity to explore these moral dilemmas in a safe, non-threatening space and allowed students to practice their real-life responses. The conclusion of the research was that it was a successful and beneficial program. Day points out that there is room for improvement in the response and follow-up stages of such work. In this case study, teachers viewed the workshop as a drama activity and left the follow-up of the moral conversation to other domains.
What I found particularly encouraging and fascinating about this source was how it showcases theater used to develop empathy and civic engagement. This interactive and social justice oriented theater can provide not only the benefits of theater but of additional discussion, awareness and participation in social issues. I had experienced something similar to this with Portland Community College’s Illumination Project.
- “The Effects of Theater Education.” American Alliance for Theater & Education. n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.
The American Alliance for Theater and Education provides a great overview of the current conversation surrounding the performing arts. Here they stress the academic advantages of theater engagement including greater SAT scores and higher attendance. Two rather more intangible benefits are highlighted as well: that of greater communication skills and self-esteem. They also discuss the public opinion of the arts role in education and development.
This article attracted my attention because of the broad scope and additional resources it gave. It opened me up to the more political talking points and aspects of securing arts in education. I also found few other resources that mentioned a general opinion of theater.
- Sheri.“How Performing Arts Benefit Children.” Reflections in Sequins and Satin: Musing About Ballroom Dance, Ballet and Life. 13 March 2011. Blog. Web. 26 May 2014.
This blog posting addresses the academic advantages of arts involvement but focuses primarily on the social and personal skills that are gained. In my preliminary research I found many sources geared towards showing how the arts can supplement a traditional education. This blog posting stresses the other personal advantages gained by engaging in the arts. Sheri points out that great cultural exposure is possible through the arts- a stepping stone for gaining understanding and empathy for others.
Sheri’s blog posting struck me because of it’s candid and friendly tone. Sheri points out many of the small ways in which the performing arts can help development (one of her examples is good posture). I appreciated that she made note of some of the challenges dedication to dance can bring and how dance can be used to help athletes. All of these small points help illuminate how pervasive and influential the arts can be to anyone engaging in them.
- Winston, Joe. “Theorising Drama As Moral Education.” Journal Of Moral Education 28.4 (1999): 459-471. PsycINFO. Web. 28 May 2014.
This article begins by stating that drama’s role in moral development has long been assumed but little theory or analysis behind has been done about said assumption. Joe Winston explores the theoretical aspects surrounding drama’s application to moral development. The different influences theater may have on both moral instruction and moral induction is explored. Joe Winston divides the dramatic into five areas (enacting, drama for learning rules, public and communal function, dialogue, and interplay of emotion and reason with morals) and analyzes each in context to it’s role in moral development.
This may have been my favorite article I discovered. Joe Winston presents a lovely overview of this topic and leaves me with many more questions. It is a fabulous starting point from which to consider in how many ways and from how may different angles theater can impact moral development. He discusses how role-play is vital and expected in young children to practice engaging in the world. My experience with children is what inspired my research question to begin with.
Continuing My Moral Development
Theater caught my eye early on in life and I have yet to make it onto the stage. Even from the box office, wings and most importantly the audience theater has managed to transform me. What drew me in is what draws all children in. Theater is a place to practice. To practice walking, talking, conflict resolution or silly faces. In delving into the academics behind education, theater and moral development I found myself still best able to communicate my passion and dedication to the performing arts from my own experience.
Theater and I first seriously met when I was eight. My grandmother took me to the opera. This transformative event allowed my shy and self-conscious self to converse without to much shyness of self-consciousness getting in the way. Because for one of the first times there was no wrong answer to this “adult” conversation. My experience of the opera was just that – mine. My grandmother shared hers, I shared mine and we conversed. Theater took my grandmother and I to an intellectually level platform (quite the feat for an eight year old faced with an imposing trilingual grandmother). We had shared a magical evening and that was ours.
This first meeting also made history far more exciting. I got to see the time period, hear the music, live out their lives. I learnt how complicated composers lives could be and how when they lived informed the opera as much as the time period it was set in. It launched me into a visual world of imagination and characterization.
Our (theater and I’s) second serious encounter was when I reached middle school. As part of a cultural exchange my eighth grade class was to present a short piece of theater. We chose The Wizard of Oz. And let me just say, I don’t think a finer eight minute version has ever been done. I’m kidding, it was a wonderful mash-up of nerves, body odor, hobbled costumes and pride. I started a tradition of forgoing the stage in favor of introducing the play and helping the production. What I learnt here was self-efficacy, pride and esteem. The eight grade class made this sketch primarily by ourselves. It was remarkably rewarding putting together this skit, rehearsing, and performing. I also was not frustrated by the communal process—something I had not yet experienced from group projects.
The third pivotal meeting occurred in high school. Somewhere into an Introduction to Theater the incredible layered nature of theater hit me. The playwright communicates his/her vision. This is interpreted by the director. Their vision of the story is interpreted by a team of designers. The actors interpret their version of the text along with the director’s version. Finally, the audience gets to interpret an already multi-interpreted piece of art. The amount of communication that can happen from a simple stage instruction of they fought still blows me away.
In college I came across interactive and social justice theater. Theater designed to directly engage ordinary people in conflict resolution and education. These programs are powerful. Simply watching their impact is powerful. But it wasn’t until I was presented with an interactive bit of theater about homophobia that I realized how amazing the process can be. In my mind I had a complete rhetoric and understanding of the problem but it wasn’t until I was invited to interrupt the scene and change it that I truly conceptualized what it would mean to speak up against homophobic language. It was a moment to practice a real moment.
In my work with children I have used pieces of theater performance to assist in fostering communication, empathy, and for facing anxieties and fears. I use it for fun. I use it for imagination and fancy. Young children role play to learn how things work. When someone plays school they are learning the rules for that social interaction. For some we may be conquering anxiety about going to school. When we play baby, we are learning about caring for another person. When we play dolls with our friends we are learning to communicate and collaborate a vision. These are all small, subtle ways in which theater builds us up.
My most recent encounters with theater have been as a volunteer at the All Stars Project in New York City. Here I have met a truly varied group of individuals all brought together by a common interest in supporting the arts and development. I am blown away by how diverse and dedicated these volunteers are and I have learnt far more from their example than I can ever hope to teach or inspire. The house managers open their meeting with the house staff with the acknowledgment that the performance onstage cannot take place without the performance offstage. Here, I have learnt how much of life can be a performance. And why not memorize lines, practice blocking, research costumes, and collaborate for a performance that follows me everywhere? Why don’t I keep practicing what I will do when I overhear derogatory comments, am faced with social injustice or moral dilemmas?
What marks a great difference from my early experiences with theater and now is that now I seek them out. As a young child I lacked that freedom. Theater experiences came my way primarily through school as theater requires space and people. Space that encourages jumping, questions, spinning, crying, failing and exploring. Ideally, theater experiences come with a guide to help introduce and navigate one through a complex world. Theater encouraged my self-confidence, my self-esteem, my interest in history and drive for understanding other people. This could not have happened independently of the people who exposed me to and collaborated with me in the various elements of performance. In my opinion, there are few greater tools than theater for promoting such cross-disciplined development. And I have experienced no other educational tool that allows for such accepting and safe exploration of moral dilemmas.