Staging Change

Three ways theater can build community and create a platform for social justice

June 1, 2017
Photo illustration of a microphone on stage

With its emphasis on perspective-taking, public speaking, and exploring difficult themes, theater is a valuable medium for teaching kids about social justice. After working with students for more than a decade on pieces related to bullying and human rights, performing arts teacher Ruthie Pincus founded the New York–based nonprofit Stage the Change in 2012 to empower students and schools to take a stand against discrimination. We spoke with Pincus about how theater programs can transform school communities.

  • Theater can “break students out of their bubbles.” When students write a monologue from someone else’s perspective and then perform it, they literally practice empathy, says Pincus, because they have “the opportunity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel her concerns.” And when students enact a part written by someone else, she says, they’re forced to really consider diverse perspectives they may never have encountered or conceived of before. More broadly, theater can provide a gateway for discussing controversial issues that kids might otherwise feel uncomfortable or unsure talking about. Pincus has asked her students to enact skits on immigration and racism for peers in their largely white, middle-class school. The performances, she says, have opened up a space for students and teachers to discuss these issues more productively in other classes.
     
  • Theater can help students raises their voices on issues they care about. Beyond just opening up the space for diverse perspectives, “most theater programs allow kids to really grow into themselves and figure out where they stand,” says Pincus. Performing requires public speaking, which can be a valuable confidence booster. And theater assignments can provoke students into questioning or reaffirming their own beliefs. Pincus often asks students to bring in a newspaper article that has touched them, and then to write a monologue about that feeling. The process of writing and then performing that script, she says, can “give kids the confidence to believe that what they’re thinking is powerful and important,” spurring them to want to share those beliefs with others.
     
  • Theater can make schools more caring. When students perform skits for classmates about bullying and discrimination, their peers may then feel safe to talk about their own experiences with exclusion, says Pincus. An entire student body may be inspired to be kinder or to take a stand for social justice after watching a performance highlighting inequities. A skit demonstrating the effects of a careless comment can “change the culture of the school, or the school district” into one where students are more mindful of their words and actions. These positive feelings can spread throughout a community and a city. In Pincus’s district, for instance, high-schoolers perform at elementary and middle schools, teaching younger students that their town values respect and kindness.

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