I saw my high school’s production West Side Story last night and was very impressed. As a former Drama Director, I know very well how difficult it is to put together any musical, much less West Side Story. In a way, just the fact of actually getting the show from auditions to opening curtain and having it look, sound, and feel like a show is a huge accomplishment. Now, if it’s entertaining or moving at all, and this one was, then it’s a small miracle. Theatre is an incredibly complex activity, mentally and physically. You have to move in certain ways, at certain times and for certain reasons. You have to understand different human emotions and motivations. You have to incorporate those emotions into your movements and speech. And, when you bring it all together, something amazing happens.
I have seen students do things that made my jaw drop in awe. The shy, stutterer transforms into a confident man, the shy, meek girl becomes a coy object of beauty. And these are just them pretending, acting. But, most amazing is when these kids realize they are capable of great things. It’s really priceless when you consider that many of the kids drawn to Theatre are the ones that don’t fit in, that feel out of place and they don’t know why. Theatre draws in misfits, geeks, nerds, and outcasts and gives them a place to belong and to be loved, really.
I remember my drama students facetiously chanting “We are not a cult. We are not a cult.” Of course, they seemed like a cult because they had a billion inside jokes and were so closely-knit. Theatre made them happy and, for some of them, was the main reason, and occasionally only, reason they showed up to school. I mean, let’s face it, when they reminisce about their high school memories, I bet there are more drama stories than math class stories (sorry, math teachers, but I had some very bad experiences in math classes).
The truly stunning thing is that the kids only think they’re having fun. But, in reality they are learning to analyze character and understand the psychology of another person. They are learning about other cultures. They are using math to sing and dance or measure and cut lumber for sets. They use chemistry when using adhesives and paints, while incorporating physics to mix colors in light properly. Also, geometry and physics also come into play when building platforms and set pieces. They are reading and writing and ‘rithmaticing. They are developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. They are learning social skills to relate to their fellow cast and crew members. They learn the rules of the theater and find out that society has these rules so we all function efficiently. They learn professional responsibilities and job skills.
Theatre Arts is one of those places where science, language, art, and math come together, an alchemy of disciplines that yields magic. And then the school board cuts it.
Our school board has elected to cut live theatrical performances for next school year, except for one play per year (non-musical). And, given the very small, comparatively, numbers we’re talking about, it’s doubly sad. If you’re trying to close a $25 million budget gap, does $50 thousand really matter? That’s my estimate for what the combined drama programs cost the district for musicals. That’s what they cut, basically, the stipends the teachers receive. The musical gets about four stipends to use and there’s five high schools. In the big picture this feels like turning off fluorescent lightbulbs in the evening while the kids are doing homework to save money so they don’t foreclose on your house because you got laid off last month. Yes, every little bit adds up, but you can’t read in the dark.
And it got me thinking again about the overall picture in Education. We are cutting so much now that it has to have a detrimental impact on the quality of the education the kids are receiving. There’s no question. We are narrowing the curriculum, cutting out extra- and co-curricular activities that yield meaningful and educational experiences for students. We continue high stakes standardized testing. I’ve been teaching just long enough to remember when the standardized tests were just something we did near the end of the year. But, now they are the focus of the year. And, to me, this is a huge problem. Those tests are the reason we are educating. Higher test scores are the desired educational outcome, first, last and only. And, if you don’t think so, look at the budget cuts. You can tell what is important to an organization by looking at the way they spend money.
Teachers all over the country are crying out that this is ruining education and that we will pay for these cuts for years to come. They say that we may save money but we will experience unintended consequences like higher crime, people with inadequate educations, lower reading levels, inability to think critically, lower salaries, a less-skilled workforce. And the politicians and public don’t seem to be interested in changing anything. It’s almost as if they want it this way.
And then it got me thinking. I put tinfoil on my head for this, because these are deep conspiratorial thoughts. I suggest you wear some as you read this.
What if these aren’t unintended consequences at all? What if they are very much intended? Not by the school board. No, all of us at this level, we are just pawns. But, follow my thought for moment. There are two groups who would benefit from a less-educated, less critical, less-skilled population: politicians and corporations. Both want to sell you things you might not want to buy. Both are trying to convince you of things you shouldn’t believe. People that think less are easier to govern. What if this consequences are exactly what is intended? Is it possible that corporations would like to have more unskilled labor so they don’t have to go to other countries for production? Who is behind the push for privatizing education? Who is leading the charge for education “reform”. Corporations and politicians. Food for thought.