In my five-plus years here at St. Anne’s, I have been incredibly fortunate to have the support of both our parents and the administration to forgo traditional shows in favor of the students creating original works of theater for our end-of-trimester productions. Although putting the content of the show in the hands of the students does help develop student buy-in and enthusiasm, it comes with certain risks as well. After all, every show we put on is a world premiere!
This trimester began like all others, with me asking the 8th-grade students for ideas. “We should do a show about stereotypes!” shouted a student. It’s an idea I had heard before during our pitch meetings, but it had always been met with resistance from other students. But this trimester was different. This group’s collective enthusiasm was immediate, as was their candor and maturity around the subjects of gender, age, class, and race. We agreed to pursue the topic while making the slight adjustment of broadening our theme. “Defying expectations” became our guiding inspiration, and so we set about creating our show. Empathy is a difficult thing to teach. How do you get middle school kids, who are just beginning to grapple with their own identities and worldviews, to consider the experiences of others? First, empathy requires a tremendous amount of creativity. After all, the crux of empathy is “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” and what could demand more creativity than imagining someone else’s thoughts? Creativity of this caliber requires a profound level of freedom. Freedom to experiment and make mistakes. Freedom to say the wrong thing without consequences. So empathy needs creativity and creativity needs freedom, and freedom requires safety. Safety from judgment and ridicule. Safety from the fear of failure or pursuit of perfection.
As the fall cast ventured into the murky waters of assumptions and stereotypes, it was inspiring to see how safe they felt around each other. Safe enough to explore everything from gut-busting comedy to gut-wrenching tragedy. Safe enough to portray characters far different from their own personalities. And safe enough to experience empathy, real empathy, for the characters they brought to life the night of the production.
And so I wish to ring the bell for theater. For its capacity to make an audience laugh and think, for its capacity to teach teamwork without the specter of wins and losses, but most of all for its capacity to offer young people the transformative experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I can not think of a more important aptitude.
The Fall Production set the bar high. We cannot wait to match it, and best it, this winter.