The tradition continues today, but in a different environment than existed decades ago. Ours is a world of myriad distractions and amusements, and we carry them around on our person willingly in the form of cell phones, tablets and whatever i-gadget you care to mention. In the 1930s, the theatre fretted about its future when people began to flock to the cinema; in the 1950s, it worried all over again about the effect of television.
Neither of those entertainment advances killed the theatre, and neither will video games and iPhones and texting. But they do present new–and newly constant–challenges, as recent phone-related fracases in Broadway theatres have illustrated. When adults don’t know how to behave in a theatre—when they text during a performance or try to charge their phones in a fake outlet in the stage scenery–what hope can there be for teenagers, who look to adults for guidance and behavioral models?
The answer, of course, lies in the schools that foster the field trips themselves: teachers. Teacher’s teach, and not just through the relaying of dry information. They teach behavior and appreciation. They teach by their own enthusiasm and respect and example.
Stephen Rahe, a drama teacher at Western Middle School for the Arts in downtown Louisville, KY, thinks the first step to exposing students to the theatre is for the teacher to know his or her options. In other words, if you don’t know what’s playing, you may not take your class to a play.
"I think it’s a smart idea to focus on such topics," said Rahe. "Even though a lot of theatre spend a lot of money extending tickets to young people, a lot of teachers aren’t aware of what’s happening in their own community." Once educators reach out and take advantage of these opportunities, they are by no means alone. Rahe took his students to two productions last school year, including And in This Corner...Cassius Clay, an original play at Stage One about the future Muhammad Ali’s upbringing in Louisville. The company provided Rahe with teaching materials the students could examine before the actual performance–illustrating that theatre companies know what they’re up against these days and are up for the battle.
"The theatres offered really great resources and we took advantage of the resources," explained Rahe, "such as study guides that have the vocabulary of the theatre; articles about the team of the show; giving you ideas of how to talk about the world of the play. Those are really helpful."
Theatre etiquette–the critical falling-down area in today’s society–was addressed, too, in a series of bullet points. Rahe paid special attention to that. "No teacher wants to be embarrassed by students who are acting up at a show," he said. "Most teachers make it a priority to remind their students of what the expectations are."
In one way of thinking, going to the theatre today parallels the responsibilities of the theatre professionals themselves. Rehearsals must, of course, be held before the show goes on. In the past, young audience members needed no prompting on how to act in a theatre because going to a show was such a common occurance for families. Like going to church or temple, it was something everyone had done at least a few times, and knew the ground rules. But the young audiences of today must be as rehearsed as the actors by their adult guardians, including teachers. Every cast loves a good audience. But a good audience doesn’t just happen anymore. It must be taught.
Kids need to be shown not only that they should be quiet when live actors (who can hear them) are working, but why such silent attentiveness benefits them as well as others.
They need to experience and see for themselves that it’s all worth it. Once the kids leave that initial production, they go out enriched. Not just by the play and the performances, though certainly those will leave their marks. (No one every forgets their first play.) But they also leave informed as to other sorts of public experience.
There is nothing more civilized in the world than a large group of strangers gathered in one place all silently agreeing to be on their best behavior, showing respect for their fellow theatregoers, as well as the performers, all for the sake of a shared cultural encounter. It’s a sense memory that young people will take with them and apply to countless experiences in their adult life, from a dinner party to a wedding to a wake. Sitting still, paying attention, thinking about what they've seen and heard–these are all valuable skills that will serve them throughout life
And every additional visit to the theatre is all the more civilizing–making it vitally important that schools make a trip to the theatre not just a one-time occurance, but at least a once-a-year event. That may sound like more work for the teachers. But it only gets easier.
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