Guest Blogger Jeff Andersen is the Artistic Director of Blackout Theatre Company.
I can, quite literally, pinpoint the time my life changed forever. I was a freshman in high school acting in my first play. If you knew me at the time, you might be surprised to find me in a play. I was generally quiet, reserved and certainly didn’t like people noticing me. But there I was on stage when the most horrifying thing that could happen happened: My mind went blank in front of hundreds of people. That moment taught three important lessons.
You see, when I was a freshman in high school I, like many of my peers, felt lost. I didn’t think I had agency in what happened in my life. I didn’t think anyone cared about who I was or what I had to say. I didn’t think anyone had my back or would pick me up when I fell down. I was desperate to find something I could have agency in but didn’t have the confidence to risk trying something new.
There need to be more opportunities for students to create, fail, explore and experience.
Luckily I signed up for a beginning theater class with George Cooper. Mr. Cooper was an amazing teacher. He encouraged me to audition for the play, and that’s when it happened: I got my first laugh on stage. It’s like a switch flipped in my brain. “Oh,” I thought, “people listened to me—and they liked what they heard!” Of course, being distracted, my mind went blank and I forgot my next line. Without thinking about the mistake, my fellow actor made up some lines to fill in the holes and we got back on track. The audience didn’t even notice. This taught me:
- People actually care about what I have to say.
- Mistakes are fine as long as you work to fix them.
- Other people have your back.
This experience changed my life. I started questioning my internal doubts. If people liked what I had to say, did that mean I had value? If I could make such a huge mistake and it still came out OK, did that mean I could take more risks? If one person had my back in a moment of desperation, did that mean others would too?
I continued doing theater throughout high school and college, eventually getting my degree in theater from UNM. Theater gave me many new skills: how to talk to people, how to write a story in a compelling way, how to be myself without fear and so much more. I have since gone on to start a business, two nonprofits, served on the Board of Directors for two others and I’m helping start a community organizing group. I can draw a straight line from all of that back to my education in theater.
As the Artistic Director of Blackout Theatre, I see my experience replicated all the time in our education program, Wrinkle Writing. We work with students in local classrooms for an entire year teaching them how to write and perform their own plays. Every word and story idea is their own. When they perform it, people are laughing, crying, and cheering because of their words and ideas. I see the students make the same connections I did. They realize that they can not only participate in the world around them but also, even better, help to shape it.
Theater education has positive effects in other subjects too. It helps with language development, literacy and problem-solving skills. But to me, these are happy side effects. The real value is to help students have a deeper understanding of who they are, why they matter and how their ideas can change the world.
It’s a dangerous thing to feel a lack of agency. I would argue that nearly every act of violence, suppression and intimidation is seeded in that feeling. What else are those acts but tools of control? If we truly want a more peaceful world then more people need to feel like they have control over their lives. We need to help our children understand that as well. Of course, theater education can’t solve these problems on its own. A large-scale change needs to happen. There need to be more opportunities for students to create, fail, explore and experience. Theater education is a vital a part of this. It can be the catalyst for a greater change in our world.