Why drama classes? So many reasons!

What do you do with a painfully shy child?

Students engaging in drama games at YPT Drama School; photo courtesy of YPT
Students engaging in drama games at YPT Drama School; photo by Jenna Muirhead-Gould

Years ago, my daughter was so shy that she found it difficult to make eye contact, let alone converse. When she went to people’s houses, she found it so difficult that she would sit backwards. It was quite the sight: a pretty little girl dolled up for a dinner party, sitting with her back to the other guests, all of them trying their hardest to draw her out . . . and instead making her turn more firmly inward. Her behaviour prompted no end of gratuitous advice: “give her time”, “let her mature”, and the best, “tell her she has to be social. Otherwise, she makes you look bad.”

Ultimately, what helped her was neither time nor rebukes . . . but an immersion in the performing arts — music and dance classes in general and drama classes, in particular. She’s learned to compensate for her shyness through playing drama games, producing ideas for scene and dialogue spontaneously, acting using only the body, participating in collaborative group work, and engaging in opportunities to become someone else. Through drama, she has found her voice. Though still shy, she has learned ways to form relationships, navigate complicated interactions and appreciate the nuances of inter-personal communications. She now sits facing forward. And she’s also become an arts enthusiast—a welcome bonus after years of arts-class chauffeuring.

YPT Drama School Students
YPT Drama School Students; photo by Jenna Muirhead-Gould

That drama school isn’t just for would-be thespians has been something of a revelation. As my daughter can attest, the benefits of any child attending drama classes can be lifelong, life-changing and manifold. My daughter and I wanted to delve deeper into what makes a good drama program and gives it its value for all children, shy or not. To get these answers and to spread the word, we approached one of most renowned drama institutions for children in the country, the Drama School at the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. Here is the first part of our conversation with YPT Drama School Director Liz Pounsett and instructor Payge Mildebrath.

  1. What are some of the benefits of attending drama classes, beyond acquiring dramatic skills and techniques?

Typically, the biggest area of improvement for students in a period of a few months is an increase in self-confidence and self-expression. Participating in drama is empowering because students are encouraged to draw from their knowledge and personal experiences. There is no “proper” way to understand or feel. There are no wrong answers.

In our drama classes, students will be asked to work together, to take risks, to communicate their ideas, to explore ideas from multiple perspectives, to share, and to express themselves physically and vocally. Many of these constitute essential life skills.

YPT Drama School Director Liz Pounsett
YPT Drama School Director Liz Pounsett; photo by Pierre Gautreau

Furthermore, the feeling of accomplishment when a child steps on stage and shares something they have played a key role in creating stays with them forever. It involves a tremendous amount of courage to perform in front of their closest friends and family. This is not an easy task, even for professional performers. We also nurture a sense of curiosity in our students to explore what life might be like for someone other than themselves – another character. All of the critical skills of an actor are also important skills for young people learning to be active and engaged global citizens.

  1. What makes a great drama instructor? How does YPT find theirs?

A great drama instructor is someone who is able to engage students on exactly the level they require to be inspired to take risks and express themselves with joy and confidence. This requires astute listening skills, patience, and endless creativity. We are so proud of our teachers. They bring a wealth of experience and artistry, not to mention professional teaching credentials. Some have their Bachelors of Education and Masters of Education; others have performed across the country. We take great care to get to know prospective teachers before they come to work with us, as they carry a huge responsibility working with our students.  Our instructors are the backbone and spirit of the school.

  1. YPT Drama School Instructor Payge Mildebrath
    YPT Drama School Instructor Payge Mildebrath; photo by Lauren Vandenbrook

    What makes a great drama student?

A great drama student is someone who is willing to take a chance and do their very best. Because theatre is an ensemble experience, there are several student attributes that help with the process, including a willingness to maintain an open mind, the ability to work collaboratively, and respect for others, the space we work in, and themselves.  Theatre is an ensemble experience and the more diverse a drama class is in talents, perspectives, expertise, and abilities, the richer the experience is for everyone involved.

  1. Why is it important for children to have an exposure to drama and the performing arts, both in and out of school?

There are many skills that young people and adults need in order to succeed in the 21st century. More than ever before, schools, businesses, and organizations are looking for people who can problem-solve creatively, who can communicate and collaborate with others, and who can exercise sound reasoning and critical thinking. These skills are rooted in the work we do through drama and the performing arts.

Through the use of stories, theatre allows us to explore different perspectives, encourage sharing and open communication, and identify options for change or action for an individual or a group of people. Theatre provides opportunities for personal transformation, in addition to the important artistic and aesthetic purposes it serves in our society. Drama education recognizes and engages the whole person — emotionally, intellectually, physically and socially. Thus, arts education is essential in the healthy development of young learners as they construct their personal identity, and their place in their community and world — not to mention their repertoire and understanding of arts and culture.

©2014 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.