I hope that last week's Democratic National Convention here in our Mile High City has inspired you to take an active part in the coming election -- whether Democrat, Republican, or other.
I am narrowing in on my candidate choices both nationally and locally, but what is really important to me are the issues and where the candidates stand on them.
The issue of greatest importance to me right now is the support of the arts.
Now, in a perfect world, the arts would not require external support and would largely be able to support themselves. However, we know that things don't always work out quite that way.
Over the next couple of months, I will endeavour to raise awareness about support for arts programs and shine light on those candidates whose platforms recognize the importance of arts to communities and schools. (If any of you out there happen to be working for or supporting such a candidate, please drop me a line here, and we'll see if we can't find a little bandwidth here to hear them out.)
Today, I will start with a personal anecdote that I call upon whenever anyone asks me why I think the arts are important for kids.
A few years back, when I was the Artistic Director of the Ascot Theatre, I was directing a summer kids' musical. About midway into the first day, a woman walked into the rehearsal room and said, "Is it too late for my daughter to join you?"
I looked around puzzled, because, as far as I could tell, she was by herself. At that point a small blue eye emerged from behind her back, looked at me, then immediately disappeared again.
"She's a little shy. We're just in Denver for the summer visiting my mother. We don't really know anyone, and Jenny (we will call her) hasn't really made any friends yet. My mom is really sick, and I have to help her, so we aren't able to get out much. I thought that a theatre day camp might be fun for her, but she doesn't really have any experience. Is that okay?"
I smiled. "This is the experience."
Jenny and her mother negotiated for a few moments about whether Jenny would stay with us or leave with her mom, and came to the compromise that both would stay for an hour "just to see."
Now, the thing about theatre kids is that, once the performance bug has bit, there is a quality that overtakes them that can only be described as "magical," and, in this group of about a dozen pre-teen girls, I had a couple of downright "veterans." I waved one of them over, introduced Jenny and asked if they'd like to partner up for the morning. Of course, my veteran enthusiastically grabbed Jenny's hand, welcomed her, and together they re-joined the rest of the group.
Jenny was so mesmerized by the group's enthusiasm in greeting her that she barely threw a glance in her mother's direction for the rest of the hour as we all played theatre games and learned a song. In fact, Mom had to flag Jenny down like a passing airplane in order to ask her if she wanted to stay for the rest of the day. Jenny paused for a second, looked over her shoulder, and nodded an emphatic "Yes!"
Mom looked at me, smiled, a little baffled, and said, "I guess I'll go then."
I smiled back and said, "See you at four."
Over the course of the next two weeks, Jenny gradually came out of her shell. She sang, she danced, she squealed with all of the other girls, and I discovered that Jenny also had a gift for comic timing. By the end of day four, when Jenny's mom came to pick her up in the afternoon, she asked me, "Are you sure this is the kid that I dropped off?"
After the musical showcase at the end of camp, all of the parents gathered around me to talk about their little thespians, but Jenny's mom hung back a bit. After the crowd had cleared, she approached me and I could see that she had been crying.
I asked her if she was okay, and she took a deep breath.
"Jenny . . . talks. All the time. She sings, too. Ever since she was little, she's always been very quiet. We even thought for a while that there might be something wrong with her." She pointed across the room at Jenny, who was bounding across the lobby hand-in-hand with another girl, both of them singing and laughing. "Now I have a daughter who skips through the house and laughs. She laughs. I love her laugh! You gave my daughter a voice!"
I laughed. "No. She always had it. We just helped her find it is all."
Now, Jenny and her mom went home at the end of the summer, and I hope that they found more theatre for Jenny where they live, because she really seemed to have a knack for it.
However, even if Jenny never steps on the stage again, Jenny picked up some skills that will help her throughout her school years and even into her adult life.
Theatre teaches us how to use our voices, how to stand up tall, how to tell a story through our body language, or how to read someone else's. In theatre we learn to listen actively. We learn to work as part of an ensemble. Theatre teaches how and when to take center stage, and how and when to give the spotlight to someone else. In the more academic sense, theatre stimulates critical thinking, hones comprehensive reading skills, inspires historical research, and, in the case of musical theatre, can even liven up arithmetic.
I have seen Jenny's experience repeated time and time again in the smiles and twinkling eyes of kids and adults of all ages.
Every school should have programs in visual art, theatre, and music.
Every kid should have the opportunity to find a voice.
Americans for the Arts