Drama and Theatre Educators Are Ready for the Next Act

picture of aate past presidents AATE past presidents reflected on 25 years of efforts to strengthen the role of drama and theatre in schools and the lives of children and youth in a special conference session. Pictured (front row, left to right) are Judith Kase-Cooper, Orlin Corey, Janet Rubin, Joe Juliano and (back row, left to right) Harold Oaks, Coleman Jennings, Joan Lazarus, Betsy Quinn, Kim Alan Wheetley. AATE Past President Rives Collins, not pictured, moderated the discussion. (photo courtesy of the Child Drama Collection, Arizona State University, Tempe, Az.) The theme of this year’s American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) conference was “Looking Back and Charging Ahead.” On the one hand, the nearly 400 conference attendees recently gathered in Lexington, Ky., to celebrate the 25 years AATE has served its membership of teachers and teaching artists, postsecondary educators and researchers, youth theatre companies, playwrights, and advocates. The “looking back” portion included a special session at which a number of the association’s past presidents and other leaders shared stories of the quarter-century-long effort to keep the light shining on the importance of drama and theatre for children and youth. 

By the time I arrived on the second day of the conference, the emphasis had shifted to the present and future. My task was to share the recent findings of a nationwide survey of the conditions of arts education, one that also offered comparisons of those conditions of arts teaching and learning with data from 1999-2000—prior to the No Child Left Behind Act. My presentation would unfortunately remind attendees that between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of elementary schools offering instruction in drama and theatre had plummeted from 20 percent to four percent. At the secondary level, the drop was less dramatic but sobering just the same—less than half of secondary schools nationwide offered students the opportunity to study theatre. It’s hard to shine a light on what’s not on the stage.

As I went from session to session, I saw and learned about the people and programs in the elementary and secondary schools where drama and theatre programs remain a priority. These programs are giving students not only knowledge of plays and skills in acting, directing, or stagecraft, but are also providing students with 21st century skills and habits of mind—creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, communications, and collaboration—they need to lead fulfilling lives and succeed in the workplace of tomorrow. It brought to mind Secretary Duncan’s remarks at the release of the statistical report: “Our nation’s students need a well-rounded education to succeed in the 21st century,” he said, “and that should include engagement with the theatre arts.” 

Beyond the discussions of why and how to use drama and theater for these ends, there were sessions  focused on the Common Core, particularly in English/language arts. Workshops addressed the advantages of infusing dramatic reading and other processes, as well as character development, improvisation, and tableau into reading and literacy learning, capitalizing on the body of research concerning the positive effects of arts integration on engagement and academic achievement. Arts Impact, an arts education service provider in Washington State, demonstrated how arts-infused professional development strategies, developed with the help of OII’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination and Professional Development for Arts Educators grants, empower teachers to engage all students in reading and writing. 

australian educator John O'Toole Australian educator John O’Toole shared anti-bullying action-research efforts he and colleagues have developed and implemented over the past 10 years. (AATE photo) Drama and theater can also play a significant role in helping schools to achieve the safe environment in which to explore differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class that is critical to reducing bullying in schools. To be prepared to do their part in addressing this growing problem, attendees of a special AATE pre-conference, “Dramatic Change: An Anti-Bullying Initiative,” learned about two international research-action projects, Acting Against Bullying  and Cooling Conflicts, from John O’Toole, co-founder of the programs and Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne and Griffith University in Australia. Several U.S. efforts were also featured, including the Educational Theatre divisions of national health provider Kaiser Permanente in the Mid-Atlantic region and Colorado that are providing schools with anti-bullying plays and workshops to give teachers and students insights and skills to develop empathy and appreciation of differences. 

Following my presentation, we discussed what the future might hold for drama and theatre, noting that a number of Promise Neighborhoods and i3 grantees are exploring the roles and impact of arts education and arts integration, providing more evidence and developing potential models of best practice. And, in keeping with the conference’s “charging ahead” theme, the attendees were challenged to be actively involved in the plans underway in their states and communities that, because of efforts like Race to the Top and ESEA Flexibility, can change circumstances that led to undervaluing of the arts as both a core subject and a catalyst for achieving high expectations for our schools, students, and teachers.  

I, and I hope the AATE conference attendees, left Lexington with renewed hope that members of the drama and theatre education community possess the vision, passion, and conviction to achieve success—not just for themselves but for students in the thousands of schools who are currently without an opportunity to learn and grow in and through drama and theatre education.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and works on issues of national arts education policy and practice.