Look for a program that has diverse offerings - you want a theatre community that is thinking not only about who your child is today, but who they can grow into tomorrow! As students grow, so should the programs available to them, including age-appropriate exploration that encourages growth at every stage of development. “Students that participate in multiple years or seasons at The Play Group Theatre gain a wide range of experiences working with peers of all ages, performing in both musicals and plays, participating both onstage and off, and being in large ensembles and small. They are constantly exposed to new adventures and environments,” says Hannah Stephens, a director and teaching artist in both the MainStage and Theatre Lab programs at PGT.
A theatre that is providing your child with room to grow is investing meaningfully in the creative process. Jill Abusch, PGT’s Artistic Director, says that you should look for programs that promote active exploration and experimentation, allowing time for one of the most crucial lessons of the performing arts: embracing failure as a step to success! And make sure that those programs are providing opportunities for creative and developmental growth. “I just love to watch our students grow from an early experience, like playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz through learning advanced text and character analysis and ultimately doing plays like The Crucible or The Tempest. Or seeing a student who had a blast in the cast of Shrek, develop a new interest in sound design, and move from the stage to the tech booth. We are constantly assessing our students’ growth and providing new challenges. And ultimately we get to look back at where they’ve come from, on a journey filled with a range of diverse experiences, and that is part of what makes them such an interesting artist!” says Abusch. Experience in an array of theatre disciplines allows students to appreciate the craft as a whole and gain a deep understanding of everyone’s role in the theatre. This leads to a greater respect for both the art form and their peers and mentors.
With great friends comes great theatre. Students can, and should, experience rigorous and professional training, without feeling the need to compete with their friends and peers for opportunities. The stronger the bonds between students are off stage, the more powerful and impactful the work will be on stage. With a strong, supportive network of teachers, friends, and audiences, students feel the freedom to perform and express themselves without feeling any judgement. “PGT friendships last a lifetime, in part, due to the fact that PGT students are always encouraged to support each other,” says Daniel Goldberg, PGT alumni and Camp PGT staff member. Because the theatre can be a competitive place, a sense of community and non-competitiveness has to be intentionally fostered by teachers and directors. One way this environment can be created is through the very structure of the program itself. If a theatre is offering a diverse array of performance opportunities, rather than double casting a single show, then they are more likely to ensure that each student has access to the roles that are right for them. Double casting, which involves casting multiple students in the same part, places the gratification of the casting process over the overall artistic and educational experience of the production. When multiple students have to share a role, the results are often product-oriented, with the emphasis naturally shifting to a more competitive environment. Instead, “The Play Group Theatre teaches students to approach every single role like a lead role and reminds every actor that they are all equally responsible for the success of the show,” says Goldberg, who has seen the benefits of this approach both as a student and a member of the staff. When every actor feels a sense of responsibility and pride in the process, the finished product is one of great depth, and becomes much more rewarding and victorious for everyone involved. By giving students the tools to make any role stand out and feel important, regardless of number of lines or the size of the part, teachers and directors send their students out into the world with a strong ability to adapt to any circumstance and creatively make the most of any situation.
While the joy of a great performance is exciting for everyone involved, what parents should search for in their arts program, in addition to quality productions, is emphasis on the creative process, which develops the life skills that children will carry with them into their adult lives. Outside of the arts, students are used to having access to all of the information in the world at their fingertips and are comfortable using google or their textbooks to find the “right” or “wrong” answer to every question. In the creative process, there are an unlimited number of “right” answers to any given question and students learn to explore and unlock many of them before settling on their own unique and specific choice. The arts is all about making strong choices, and it becomes an artist’s job to embrace the choices that are right for them and only them. Look for a program that allows time and space for exploring those choices, rather than a program that focuses on learning lines and staging, which is the least creative aspect of a rehearsal process. But the time and freedom to make choices isn’t where a good arts education ends. In addition to embracing the power of creative choices, students must also develop the skills to communicate those choices to an audience. Skills like vocal and movement training, acting technique, time management, text analysis, critical thinking, and more empower students to share their unique choices, taking them from the rehearsal room to the stage. Jill Abusch says, “At PGT, we find that when our students find success and comfort in ambiguity and learn to pair their creative ideas with technical ability, they develop crucial skills like creative thinking, problem solving, and confidence in themselves that transform their performances. More importantly it benefits them for the rest of their lives, no matter their chosen career path.”
4. Focus on Empathy and Emotional Development
One of the most important elements that students gain from a quality arts education is the ability to practice empathy and communicate their emotions. The presence of empathy is declining rapidly in our world, just when we seem to need it the most. However, studying theatre during childhood is one proven way to ensure that children grow up understanding what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes and how to look at any given situation from multiple points of view. “At PGT, we ask our students to be both physically and emotionally present in any given moment, taking the time and effort to truly see and connect with each other, their teachers, and the characters they are playing on stage,” says Hannah Stephens. By discussing what motivates each character and what lies behind the choices they make, students are developing empathic skills and using them to find truth in the given circumstances of the imaginary world. Look for theatre programs that strive to cast young actors in roles that are in contrast to their own experiences and personalities, challenging them to understand new feelings, perspectives, and ideas. Empathy is a skill that must be practiced, and it is one that, in the right theatre program, will be a primary focus as students learn to confidently share their feelings, understand their characters, and discover truth in a rich imaginary world. This prepares them to go out into the world as caring, confident, well-rounded artists and people.
Children benefit from a strong sense of belonging, freedom from judgement, and a safe place to express themselves. Find a theatre community that welcomes each and every student who walks through their doors, allowing them the space and safety to be silly, creative, and ultimately, themselves. Look for a wide range of classes, taught by instructors from all backgrounds, and a diverse and rich community where students learn to appreciate and embrace everyone’s unique experiences and talents. “In addition to building a community of students, staff and parents, PGT fosters a strong network of alumni and artists that expands beyond the walls of their building and out into the world. Students that join PGT benefit from being part of a community that possesses a strong set of values, traditions, and common goals that stay with its students for the rest of their lives,” says alum and Camp PGT staff member Marina Lebowich. More than just a place to learn and grow as young theatre artists, the theatre you find for your child today, should provide its students with a home that they can always return to, knowing that they will be loved, embraced, and accepted exactly as they are.