The Importance of Theater in Turbulent Times

By Lindsey Buller Maliekel, New Victory Director of Education / Public Engagement

I have been thinking a lot about the role of theater for young people as we negotiate these turbulent times.

I’m very aware that the young people in our communities will be profoundly affected by the events surrounding COVID-19. Kids around the world are dealing with food insecurity, trauma, boredom and fear. Theaters are closed. The path to re-opening them is hard to see and we know from past experience that arts funding and field trips will often be cut in times of financial hardship. So why do I still feel so strongly that advocating for theater and the arts for kids is important?

Lindsey Buller Maliekel
Lindsey Buller Maliekel

Much of it is shown here—in a report on the early findings from the longitudinal research study we finished several years ago and presented at the “Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences,” made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA/USA) and Theatre Communications Group (TCG) last June, in Miami. It shows that young people who see theater regularly and work with exceptional teaching artists over several years are profoundly affected. They are better able to work with their peers, more likely to imagine a world different than the one that currently surrounds them, and they show increased hope for their own future.

These results resonate with my own experiences watching thousands of kids and families engage with the arts over my career. Even now, I watch my own kids (one of whom is sitting on my lap while I write this) navigate their anxiety and a yearning to participate in the larger world again. Like you, I am looking forward to a time when we can sit in an audience together and watch our kids experience performances that will help them make sense of what they are experiencing now.

Arts give us a way to make sense of the world, learn about ourselves and people different than us, and imagine something new. These skills will be absolutely key as we return from a global event that shut us inside our houses for weeks and months, and arts experiences will be vital in helping our young people create the future they want to live in.

So as we all begin the hard work of advocating for the maintenance or increase of performing arts in our kids’ lives (when it is safe to do so again), I hope this report helps all of us tell our story. A story of small budgets, reliance on fundraising, grants and government support. A story about the scope of work across the United States. A story about why it is important to ensure that our youth have access and invitation to the performing arts. Now, more than ever.

As we continue to move toward more published articles specifically for the Impact Research, we are thrilled that the NEA has released this comprehensive and compelling report, offering both a comprehensive recording of what was discussed and shared last June when American leaders in the TYA field came together in a first ever NEA sponsored symposium, as well as a compelling overview that will help all of us tell the story and the impact of TYA for kids in our communities.

We are proud that our Arts Impact Research is a cornerstone of this report and hope that the results will be useful to you in your own work. My peers at WolfBrown and I look forward to sharing more of our work over the next year through published articles, an enhanced website and more—but in the meantime, this report is a great place to use as a reference when advocating for our field.

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