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Good Drama

A study shows that high school theater and debate programs can have positive effects through adulthood

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When Tom Hanks collected his Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia, he said, "I would not be standing here if it weren't for ... Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher."

My old schoolmate Kathy Bates—we went to White Station High School in Memphis, Tenn.—has made it a point to offer gratitude publicly to our theater and speech coach, Eugene Crain.

Of course, these are two extreme examples of how high school drama activities can inspire students to big-time success and celebrity. But there are thousands of similar students, whose names are not as well-known, who have established successful theater and film careers as writers, designers, directors, theater managers and producers. Others have become theater and speech teachers themselves.

But what about the innumerable kids through the years who have participated in speech and theater activities in high school and who have chosen non-theater-related career paths—students who became lawyers, doctors, military personnel, engineers, politicians and workers in various trades? Did the time they spent in high school building sets and debating in tournaments have any lasting, positive effects on their lives?

That was the question posited by Laura McCammon, a University of Arizona associate professor of theater education, with Arizona State University professor Johnny Saldaña, in a study which recently won the 2011 Research Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

The study was titled "Lifelong Impact: Adults' Perceptions of Their High School Theatre and/or Speech Participation." Some 234 adults responded to their questionnaire; the respondents had graduated from high school between 1953 and 2009. Prior studies have focused on students who were still in high school, but this was an attempt to gauge the long-term effects, if there were any, that graduates could identify as beneficial—or even critical—years later.

The conclusion: You bet there are.

"There has always been conventional wisdom that participation in theater and speech activities has positive and lasting effects, but this study goes beyond the anecdotal," says McCammon.

McCammon continues: "Probably the most consistent response was that their experiences helped them build confidence, which has spilled over into other areas of their lives." Other benefits identified by the respondents included developing "a sense of belonging," "self-identity," "resilience" and "thinking and working skills."

Saldaña said the study identified three broad categories of outcomes from high school exposure to speech and theater activities. First, there was the development of "improvisational flexibility in ever-changing situations. This means being able to think quickly, to make executive decisions, to deal with crises."

Next, "there was the development of emotional and social intelligences." Playing various characters in emotional situations broadens one's ability to empathize and sympathize, Saldaña says: You begin to learn what it means to lead and to follow, how one must do things for the good of the cause, and how to work with people you don't like or get along with.

Finally, the study identified the benefit of developing "communicative dexterity of various presentational forms." Folks who study speech and theater in high school are able to transfer the communication skills they learn into their various occupational roles.

"They find it easier to speak confidently, to read people, to assess situations and to have a heightened presentation of self," Saldaña says.

This comes as no surprise to Art Almquist, a drama teacher at Tucson High Magnet School. The course of his own life was changed by his participation in speech and theater activities at Sabino High School here in Tucson.

"I was a really insecure little guy," he says. "But my instructor, Judy Corcoran, was right there to show me I was good at something."

Almquist, who has graduate degrees in performance theory and acting, says theater quickly became his life. Now in his 16th year at Tucson High, his experience has shown him that teaching theater nurtures unique student/teacher relationships and provides experiences that no other subject does.

"Participation in theater activities helps students access the deepest parts of themselves," Almquist says. "If you teach theater, you are teaching the whole person. Participating in theater provides tools for making real connections, within themselves and with others. What we teach becomes equipment for living."

He gives an example. "Teaching theater is the way we can connect the students to the real world in deeply personal ways. Whenever I do a play that deals with anything outside of the kids' experiences, I bring real people to come in and talk to the kids and answer their questions—basically, to put a human face on the subject. I believe that those kids have to get it right, and you can't do that without going to the real world."

Terry Erbe has been a theater teacher at Catalina Foothills High School since 2001. He is also a founding member of the Winding Road Theater Ensemble, and he directs and performs with other Tucson theater groups. Confidence is only one of many emerging qualities he sees in his students.

"It ignites the creative spark in them. They learn problem-solving skills. They really learn what commitment and collaboration are all about. They develop discipline, and as a teacher, I really love watching them making discoveries about themselves. You see them becoming more well-rounded and exercising a higher level of thinking. It leads them to a richer life."

So in these days of standardized testing and extensive budget cutbacks, might this study help impress upon the powers that be the importance of including speech and theater—and other arts—as a core part of a school's curriculum?

Says McCammon, "We'd certainly like to create advocacy out of this research. As they say, 'Without research, you're nothing but another person with an opinion.' Well, here's the research."

Almquist has no qualms about offering his opinion about the tendency to dismiss the arts as an integral part of education.

"I think we're committing national suicide," he says.

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