Why should children see theatre?


 – Talk given by Yvette Hardie, 2014

Children should see theatre, need to see theatre, deserve to see theatre, because – quite simply – they are human beings and theatre is the fullest expression of being human.

We have a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is 25 years old this year. It’s the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history, with only two countries (the USA and Somalia) not approving the convention. And yet, while many states may have signed the convention, how many of them truly take these rights seriously? And how many of them understand the implications of Article 31, the right to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts? How many of them enact these implications?

Charles Fowler says, “Quite simply, the arts are the ways we human beings “talk” to ourselves and to each other. They are the language of civilization through which we express our fears, our anxieties, our curiosities, our hungers, our discoveries, and our hopes. They are the universal ways by which we humans still play make-believe, conjuring up worlds that explain the ceremonies of our lives. The arts are not just important; they are a central force in human existence. Every child should have sufficient opportunity to acquire familiarity with these languages that so assist us in our fumbling, bumbling, and all-too-rarely brilliant navigation through this world. Because of this, the arts should be granted major status in every child’s schooling.”

Arts experiences are not just important for every human being, but they are specifically important for the growing child; they help to create connections between different types of intelligence and ways of experiencing, thus supporting the development of complex and integrated brain-functioning.

Learning is essentially the ability to form sets of connections; the biological process of connecting cells within the brain through developing and strengthening neural pathways is mirrored in our abilities to create connections between ideas in order to be able to perceive things in new ways.

Visiting the theatre regularly has been seen to bring results in learning more generally. A South Australian study called “Children’s Voices” documented the impact of exposure to live theatre on 140 State Government primary school students over three years (the focus group saw eight productions over that time), and demonstrated that the children involved in the study showed significant improvement in their oral and written language skills in comparison to their fellow students. They learnt to think critically about what they saw and to articulate their ideas and feelings, using a wider vocabulary.

They learnt to make connections, which is at the heart of the creative process. As Steve Jobs says: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something… That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people… The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

The arts, I believe, have the capacity to give us this broad understanding of human experience, better than anything else. This is not just an intellectual exercise, though. In the South Australia study, the improvements were not just intellectual. Children also demonstrated improved social skills, and a marked development in empathic communication. One of the most important things that theatre does for the child is provide living examples of people who are unlike her or himself, and yet with whom she or he can identify strongly… to live in someone else’s shoes and experience the world through their eyes.

But it’s also not just about empathy. Theatre also allows children to view the world critically, to engage with it in the hothouse experience of the play… One of the most exciting things about the arts is that they are not in themselves complete – they require the interaction and interpretation of the audience to complete the work. Theatre allows space for the audience to make connections that are not apparent to the characters, and this may be more powerful transformational tool than showing what we believe to be the correct view of the world. By creating space for the audience’s perceptions of a character or situation to be shifted, for them to have a discovery or ask a question, we start a dialogue, which in itself becomes an important part of the sustained value of the theatrical and educational experience.

 Of course the quality of the theatre will also make a difference to the quality of the experience and its potential impact. We need to ensure that our work is never condescending, slapdash or poor. Our young audiences must have access to the highest quality theatre: theatre which intrigues the mind, moves the heart and stimulates the imagination. Theatre that challenges perceptions and provides unforgettable experiences. Theatre FOR children and young people, as well as theatre BY children and young people. Then theatre can be a means of transforming our capacity to think, to debate, to create, to develop confidence, to broaden insights, to build empathy, to foster working relationships across any potential barriers and to develop greater joy and a passion for life itself.

I want to leave you with an extract from a letter by a parent who brought their child to theatre at one of our festivals. The letter speaks to the heart of why children should see theatre: “The greatest gift you have given me, an adult, is the real understanding that fantasy IS the direct route to the child’s heart. As a mother and as a psychologist, I have spent many years helping children to find their inner joy. You guys did it in just one minute – with your enthusiasm, love and talent, you took our children, with guided fantasy, to the place we all want them to be – happier. The plays have wonderful messages about making friends, overcoming loneliness, conservation, but more importantly, the plays reach deep inside the children’s hearts and just make them cheerful, positive and engaged. Thank you. Thank you.”