For many of us, the arts are our first language. Think how many children have sung their ABCs to the "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" melody or learned numbers through rhyme and finger play.
Theater literacy naturally exhibited by young children reaches its peak around four years of age, according to the Theatre Literacy Project of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). That seems far too early. The development of the dramatic imagination serves us throughout life as we encounter unfamiliar or new situations. We develop confidence and freedom as we try out roles from superhero to superstar, from first date to first job interview, all in the safety of our own bedrooms.
To my surprise, my son understood what "pretend" meant when he was nine months old. As he grew, he and his pre-school chums created great epics through dramatic play, and learned math through creating and measuring miniature forts made from Legos.
My son and his friends entered school around the supposed peak of their natural theater literacy. They were then asked to learn the new languages of ABC and 1-2-3 separate from their first languages of music, dance, theater, and the visual arts.
Pretending has now been relegated to the playground, to moments of being "off-task" during regular instruction, or to building Pod Racers in the garage and piloting them around the universe as Jedi knights on weekends. These children quickly learned that school is not a safe place for individual exploration of powerful feelings and actions stimulated by one's own imagination.
In a recent essay in Stage of the Art, a quarterly publication of the AATE, Holly Giffin suggests that events like the shootings at Columbine High School reveal the need for all students to develop their dramatic imaginations so that they can separate fantasy from truth. Improvisational theater work, whether in theater, history, or language classrooms, provides opportunities to imagine and play out the implications of actions away from real-life consequences - and, just as important, allows all involved to acknowledge that they are indeed "playing."
It is time to move theater in our schools beyond the senior-class play and annual musical. Schools from Bowling Green, Ohio, to Pullayup, Wash., are already engaging diverse populations of students in exploration of life and culture through provocative theater instruction and performances.
At the University of Texas at Austin this past summer, some young probationers worked with Prof. Sharon Grady to explore the life experiences that led to their arrests. Through this theater project, the girls discovered not only the larger implications of illegal behavior, but something of their individual worth - and the ability of theater to give them a voice that can be heard without gunshots and heartache.
If we are to provide safety for our children in our schools and communities, those schools and communities must allow children safe exploration of their deepest concerns and the consequences of actions they may feel impelled to take.
Contemporary theater education that utilizes improvisation, reflection, and discussion can provide a powerful vehicle for exploring complex social and personal issues - and can lead to healthier schools.
*Joan Lazarus is an associate professor of theater at the University of Texas in Austin.
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