What I’ve learned from a decade of bringing theatre to Utah students
In 2008, Salt Lake Acting Company Co-founder Nancy Borgenicht came to me with the brilliant idea of opening our theatre in December, when it was normally sitting empty, to produce professional children’s theatre in an intimate (200 seat) setting.
While it seemed a risky move at the time, that idea has paid off for not only our theatre, but for nearly 41,000 Utahns of all ages who have attended over the past decade.
Reflecting on the past decade—thinking of the 20,000 Title-1 students we’ve hosted, the 150 artist contracts offered, and the 30 partnerships with local non-profit organizations that we’ve forged—here are some valuable lessons we’ve learned:
Theatre can be used as a vital tool for reading comprehension and literacy.
We select shows that are based on existing books originally written for K-2nd graders. Our productions can be integrated into course curriculum throughout local school districts. They’ll enhance each child’s perception of the power of storytelling, both as written word and live performance.
Theatre instills confidence.
Title-1 K-2nd grade students are typically the least funded in terms of arts education, and most underserved when it comes to field trips. As we all know from our own childhoods, field trips provide lifelong memories and introductions to professions and organizations that we may have never dreamed of otherwise. These experiences also teach us how to interact with people of all walks of life.
One of my absolute favorite things that occurs each year is, like clockwork, a line of children will file into Salt Lake Acting Company with their heads down, unsure of the space they’re in, the strangers they’re around, or the experience in which they are about to take part. What happens after the performance is nothing short of exhilarating—the students are excited to share their reviews, smiles and even some hugs. That’s the immediate, spirit-feeding, power of theatre.
Theatre bridges the achievement gap.
Theatre has the power to transcend socioeconomic status—but unless efforts are made to do so, some demographics are left out of the equation. Initiatives like ZAP’s Kids Summer Passport and our own Title -1 Arts Education Program can transform lives: According to DoSomething.org, students who have arts education in their lives are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and three times more likely to be recognized for school attendance.
We are nurturing the current and next generation of theatre goers.
I credit our children’s show director of the past nine years, Penelope Caywood, with providing the insight to our cast and staff at the first readthrough each year: We’re here to nurture a love of theatre in this moment, for this audience. Sure, instilling a love for the arts for the next generation is important, but remembering to be mindful of the here and now, of the children we’re lucky to host and hopefully impact, is a responsibility and privilege my staff and I will continue to treasure for many years to come.
We pride ourselves in approaching a children’s show—our next, for instance, Pinkalicious: The Musical—with the same care with which we’d produce a Pultizer Prize-winning work in our regular season. We give our audiences credit—no matter their age—and we listen to them. It’s humbling and I learn so much from this experience each year. For me, it’s the ultimate reminder of why I do this.
Cynthia Fleming is the executive artistic director of Salt Lake Acting Company. This year’s children’s production, Pinkalicious: The Musical, runs through December 30.