Theater Curriculum & Teaching Humanity On Stage and Off
By Tarra Martin, Rubicon International
I didn’t know what I would find when I started reading the NYC Department of Education’s sample theater curriculum maps. My experience taking theater classes is something I struggle to put into words even now – how to capture the transformation, the discovery, the risk and the joy? How to map something like that?
Diving into the introductory theater units for elementary students, I first found them unexpectedly funny, as they almost read like a guide to teaching tiny alien beings how to fit into human society. “Students will be able to use the body and voice expressively,” the standards say. “Students will be able to imitate and create basic emotions.”
But as I laughed, it started to dawn on me: teaching humanity, even at the most basic level, is what theater is for. Studying theater is an encounter with an entire history of human expression, and participating in it can help you understand your own place in this ever-growing story. Along the way, you learn to how to collaborate with others, how to express yourself, how to listen and create and connect. You learn how to be a person.
The NYCDOE’s Theater department did a great job modeling how a drama teacher might go about mapping the vital life lessons woven into their subject. Here are a few areas that really stood out to me:
Listening, taking direction, working on a team—theater’s focus on ensemble-building speaks to all of these skills. In the younger grades, the sample maps show how simple theater games can address regional NYC standards that deal with responding to and incorporating instructions. As students begin building short tableau or story-theater pieces, these activities cover sustained concentration and the process of working with a group toward a shared goal. By middle and high school, the increase in student-led original ensemble performances provides ample evidence of progressively more sophisticated communication skills, emphasizing respect and collaboration with a range of personalities and working styles. Over all grade levels, the message is clear: making theater makes good team members.
I think that self-awareness is closely tied with empathy. The process of examining how you present to the world involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes, after all! And theater is naturally aces at teaching this. Getting more skilled at acting involves a lot of self-analysis, often through receiving feedback from directors. Many of the units drawn out by the NYCDOE involve having students review tapes of their performances as well, which can be used to determine how they need to adjust their behavior to better match what they are trying to convey.
And empathy is present through it all—both in the empathy required to embody another character, as well as empathy towards fellow actors going through the same process.In the NYC standards, this most comes through in “Demonstrate sensitivity to the emotional and physical safety of self and others”—something absolutely essential to good theater.
Language & Expression
Many of the elements of a theater curriculum map resemble those of an English literature map, as both involve the work of analyzing texts for meaning, developing interpretations, and using language to express ideas. By high school, theater students are learning how to use all the writing tools at their disposal in crafting their own scripts, addressing requirements in deploying diverse narrative techniques. But it all begins with learning how to adapt speech to the situation and goal at hand, which are lessons that theater can begin to teach in the earliest grades.
Point of View
And last but certainly not least, we have something I might even call the most defining element in who I am as a person today: developing my own point of view. As Kurt Vonnegut once phrased it, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”
So, praise theater for being so concerned with preventing that fate! Something that really struck me in the NYCDOE maps was how I could see this idea beginning at the youngest ages, through teaching students to recognize central ideas and themes in a text. It continues through response-based assignments, where students draw connections between plays and other works they’ve experienced, across a variety of mediums. Later, burgeoning directors can really dig into this lesson through developing a personal vision for a work, integrating their own experiences, perspectives, and interests into their concept for a performance.
The theater classes I took in school have stayed with me all my life, even shaping it. The work that theater teachers do in crafting their courses has incredible impact, and seeing that work laid out in curriculum maps has deepened what was already a profound appreciation I have for that learning experience.