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Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. ~Pablo Picasso

Thoughts for the Teaching Artist is devoted to an ongoing exploration of the role of the arts in education. I believe that the arts are an integral, essential part of every person's education. Arts education develops 21st Century Learning Skills, supports all core subjects, creates empathy & builds bridges, and helps develop voice & vision.

The views expressed in Thoughts for the Teaching Artist are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other persons or organization.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Power of Enactment

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. ~Oscar Wilde

What makes theatre such a powerful tool for teaching? To begin with, at the most fundamental human level, "acting it out" changes everything.  There's a reason that early man put on animal skins and danced around the fire to tell the story of a successful hunt.  Almost any story becomes more compelling to an audience when it has been brought to life by human beings who re-enact the tale as if it is happening in front of our eyes at this very moment-not a story that happened in the past, once upon a time.

Beyond the audience, the actors who are presenting the story experience it very differently.  One way of thinking about this is that "acting it out" provides an opportunity for differentiated instruction that can be very effective for certain students to learn any subject, depending on their particular learning style.

But the tremendous power of enactment goes far beyond the entertainment of the audience or the performers' learning of curricular material.  As humans, our emotional connection to the material being presented in live theatre becomes far deeper and more complex than simply reading words on a page.  Perhaps in part this emotional connection is based on our understanding that we are watching real, live people who exist in the same space with us and breathe the same air.  The tightrope-walk of live performance can connect both the audience and the actors to the story in ways they may not fully understand.

The possibility of this deep emotional connection must not be discounted, especially when working with children.  Educational theatre is not psychodrama. Certainly theatre is an excellent method for teaching and learning about any number of difficult issues. Creating and watching characters who are different from us builds empathy and understanding.  But as Teaching Artists, we must be sensitive to the particular capacity for self-identification that theatre holds. Sometimes a character's backstory may be uncomfortably close to the student-actor's personal history. When this backstory involves painful issues such as divorce or death of a parent, the theatre educator should be especially vigilent it choosing who will be playing such characters.

When a young actor begins work on a character, he begins to draw parallels and connections between himself and the characater.  Some questions the actor asks:  How am I like this character?  How am I different?  If I met this character, would we be friends?  How has this character's life so far been like mine?  How has his life been different?

As the student actor digs into the text, he brings to his performance character traits and behaviors observed in others, as well as drawn from within himself. In the best scenario, this self-identifcation can lead students to both a greater understanding of others, and deeper knowledge of themselves.


  1. teaching 4 and 5 year olds is also done more easily if you learn the story and act it out or tell it with visual aids instead of reading it off a written page and encourage the children to interact even if the comments sometimes don't seem to go along with the subject matter;
    it keeps their attention !

  2. Good explanation of the process of discovery that occurs through acting. I especially like how you differentiate between acting and "psycho-drama."