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Why Theatre? Jenn Book Haselswerdt Testifies

Jenn Book Haselswerdt is the Education Coordinator at Imagination Stage. I had intended to interview her for our series about theater educators and what inspires them. Before I could get around to it she posted an amazing piece on her blog testifying to the power of arts education.

Why Theatre?
by Jenn Book Haselswerdt

A new play opened at work a couple of weeks ago, and it’s astounding. That really is the perfect word for it, I think. I’ve seen it three times already, and always come out humming the music (we’re a veritable chorus up in the admin offices). It’s challenging, thrilling, sophisticated, sad, and funny. The set is gorgeous. The performances are fantastic. And yet, we’re getting complaints from adults.

The complaints seem to stem from the “challenging” and “sad” aspects of the show. In my opinion, the play gives parents a great opportunity to talk to their children about serious subjects…if they ask or get upset. And when I spoke to the playwright, she made a statement I agree with to an incredible level: why pander to children, and talk down to them, instead of writing for them as if they were people (which they are!), and, in the process, also entertaining their parents? The script’s references to Marx and the proletariat (in a funny way, I promise) are some of my favorite moments in the play. I don’t believe in talking down to students, nor in presenting them with a world that is sunshine and rainbows at all times (although I do believe plays can certainly be light and airy!). Like our Artistic Director says, the only thing theatre for young audiences has to do that might be different from theatre for adults is always present a sense of hope. And this play has that in spades.

So, why theatre? Why the arts?

I believe in the power of the arts to change the world, to educate, to change the way people think. My life is theatre for young audiences and youth theatre, and I make my living by educating students–and their teachers–through the arts. Good theatre for young audiences is there to educate as well as entertain, to facilitate conversations between children and their parents and caregivers, to expand their view of the world in which they live. And so, I recognize the education can go beyond the classroom, and into the world.

This was also what I took away from the Human Rights Art Festival this weekend. I only went to a handful of events–certainly fewer than I had meant to–but they certainly got me thinking. My favorite event was the panel on the use of the arts for social transformation. I listened to a group of artists talk about their activism through theatre, the double meaning of the word “act” (to act politically and act on stage), the profitability of activist theatre, and whether this type of theatre ultimately means more to the artists or to the audiences. One of my favorite points was that the goal doesn’t necessarily have to be for an entire audience to rise from their seats and begin to protest or donate money or what-have-you. An artist has to realize that everyone in the audience is walking their own steps in their own individual processes, and all one can hope for is that every audience member winds up one step further. Brilliant. This is, indeed, what I want from the arts. I also appreciated the outlook that these plays are not about messages; they’re about stories. There is no message in a story.

I visited the visual arts installation next, and found myself particularly taken by the works of art railing against domestic violence. I’m not a visual artist in the least, myself, and it’s always fascinating for me to see what others can do with the media in front of them.

I do believe in the power of the arts to entertain, but I think artists have a responsibility to educate their audiences–adults as well as children–and to do it well. I hope I can contribute to that.

Click here to link to Jenn’s blog ThirtyFlirtyFab

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