The art form I’ve spent the majority of my career working in is theatre (Yes I spell it “re” because I am from South Africa and live in Canada). I taught Musical Theatre for 11 years and I ran Arts Summer Camps for 10 years that had a large performing arts component. It has always been something that has been very near and dear to me. There is something magical that happens when a group of young people come together to put together a production. They grow. They explore. They realize new possibilities for themselves and for their future.
I had the great opportunity to connect with Autumn Kersey, The Executive Director & Founder of Treasure Valley Children’s Theater, to explore how her school in Idaho is developing 21st Century Success Skills through experiences on the stage. Read about the great work Autumn and her team are doing…
Lisa’s Question: What inspired you to get into theater?
Autumn’s Answer: I grew up in a small town in southern Idaho. I did not come from a privileged background. My mother was very young when she had me and she raised me, for the most part, as a single parent. There was not a lot of room in our life for extras like new clothes, eating out or theater tickets.
I was in 4th or 5th grade the year my mom won tickets to see a local production of “Snoopy the Musical”. The production was staged in a small church and performed entirely by local youth. The show was produced by a small team of volunteers who founded Junior Musical Playhouse, JuMP Co., just a year earlier.
I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the hard church pew yearning to join the cast, not because I wanted to be a star, but because I wanted to belong. Everyone on stage looked so happy to be there! They were working together to create something magical. I wanted to be part of that magic.
Not long after, I auditioned for a school play and got the lead. I also started participating in programs with JuMP Co. Of course, I developed aspirations of stardom, but more importantly I found a home. I was accepted by other kids who, despite our socio-economic and religious differences, were a lot like me. I was encouraged by adults who were not family members. I was challenged to try new things and supported even when I failed. As a confused teenager, the theater was my vehicle to explore emotion, to face challenging situations in a safe space, and to build confidence.
I believe my youth theater experiences saved me from poverty, unplanned pregnancy, drug addiction and suicide. Research suggests that children from single-parent families are more likely to experience less healthy lives, are more likely to drop out of school, experience an unplanned pregnancy, have trouble keeping jobs, and suffer other psychological and social consequences.
During the time I was discovering theater, my mom briefly married an abusive, alcoholic man. While the relationship was short-lived, the impact had lasting consequences. I truly believe, if it were not for the theater experiences and the theater family that embraced me – the rides to and from rehearsal, the anonymous donors who paid my participation fees when my mother couldn’t, the directors and teachers who spent extra time with me, and the countless friends. . . I would have fallen victim to the statistics without these interventions.
Lisa’s Question: If you had to pick one or two benefits that young people gain from participating in theater what would you say they are?
Autumn’s Answer: Only one or two? At Treasure Valley Children’s Theater, we like to say that we are changing the world one theater kid at a time. We know – and the research proves – that a theater arts education exposes youth to a variety of important life and leadership skills that will help them be successful in the future. However, it is the opportunity to learn compassion that we embrace as our secret weapon to change the world.
The stories we tell as theater artists, and the people we work with to tell those stories, are incredibly diverse. A student who may come from a privileged background is suddenly faced with telling the story of a character who has lost everything. Or a young, vibrant student may need to research and study the process of aging to portray the role of someone many years their senior. These are just two examples of how theater teaches empathy. To stand in the shoes of diverse characters and to work with and build trust among diverse actors is to open your heart and mind to the differences that make the world an incredibly complicated place to navigate.
We tell our students that the compassion and empathy skills they are gaining as actors will aid them in becoming incredible, powerful leaders in their community.
Lisa’s Question: Do you get feedback from parents about changes they see in their children? If yes, what do they say?