Who Needs Educational Theatre?

If you were fortunate to have caught the recent production of Matilda at the Steamboat Springs Middle School, the musical based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, you got to see not only a great team of middle school-aged performing artists, but also a great piece of live theatre. In a COVID era production of (mostly) masked actors and fully masked audience, these kids found an opportunity to create extraordinary dramatic performances that none of them will ever forget. As is the case with all performing arts events, no two shows were ever the same and there’s no way to recreate the live experiences for the artists or the audience. They exist for a moment in time and space; then they’re gone.

And isn’t that exciting and rare? A bit like using an old telephone with a rotary dial and listening to the clicks every time the dial rewinds. In a YouTube world, almost every experience can be broken down into digital bits that are always identical. But live performance is totally ephemeral; it’s HERE in THIS MOMENT and then it’s gone. Video recordings are pale imitations. Theatre is always an event where you had to be there or you never really got the true experience.

But what’s the value of this experience for actors or audience members? Are any of these kids likely to be professional performers? About as likely as any of them growing up to be world champion ski or bike racers. We live in an outdoor recreation-based community: our local governments and corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on support for recreational activities. We’ve got world class skiing facilities, an Olympic sized skating rink, one of the few internationally rated ski jumping complexes in the country, and hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails. Then there are the rodeo grounds, the tennis bubble, the numerous athletic fields, the Old Town Hot Springs, and the golf course. We’re surrounded by National Forest and Wilderness areas. Still, this region has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and the local schools that cannot hire enough mental health counselors to meet the needs of young people.

Meanwhile, the public investment in the performing arts has been slim to none. Local property taxes paid for the high school auditorium. There were some public donations to the Strings music pavilion. The Perry-Mansfield Camp (the oldest performing arts camp in the country) gets a few thousand dollars a year in funding, perhaps. But the public dollars going to the arts has been an infinitesimal fraction of what our community has spent on recreation. Do you think maybe we’re a bit out of balance in this community?  I think it says something disturbing about our city that there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in recreational infrastructure but not one resident psychiatrist.

What would Steamboat and the Yampa Valley look and – more importantly – live like, if we balanced our investments in arts and recreation? Do you think our community would be healthier if creative amenities were funded on the same level as recreational amenities? Do you think developing the imaginations in our students is at least as valuable as developing their abilities to make carved turns or do wheelies on their mountain bikes? 

At this moment, there are no theatre education classes in any of the schools in the Steamboat school district that are taught by trained professionals. The production of Matilda was a happy coincidence of the Piknik Theatre Educational Outreach Director living in my sister and brother-in-law’s spare bedroom while having a few weeks to spend teaching at the Montessori school, the Yampa Valley High School, and directing middle school music teacher Jim Knapp’s wild vision. Is this any way to run an “airline”? The performing arts in Steamboat sing, dance, and act on the head of a pin while outdoor recreation has been given virtually unlimited access to every square mile in the Yampa Valley.

There’s something really wrong with this formula. Our little planet is facing unthinkable catastrophes from climate change to out-of-control pandemic. I don’t think even a world class ability to run gates, or ski powder, or set Strava personal records climbing Rabbit Ears Pass on a super lightweight bike are going to have much impact on the impending doom facing our children and grandchildren. It’s going to take imagination and creativity, in balance and harmony with physical well-being, to save humanity. So, if you want to know who needs facilities and education to support the performing arts, just look in the mirror: we all do.

Theatre education teaches compassion and empathy to develop convincing character portrayals. Performing in front of a live audience takes incredible courage and vulnerability. Theatre artists rehearse for hundreds of hours in collaboration with each other, listening and supporting each other’s performances. The imagination required to take words on a page and turn them into actions that evoke a full range of emotions in an audience is extraordinary. There is unbelievable creativity that goes into lighting, costuming, and designing productions. Even finding the funding to underwrite a production takes problem solving skills worthy of a corporate CEO. But at the end of the day, it’s the simple joy on the faces and in the hearts of the middle school students after accomplishing a story well told that makes it all worthwhile. For a brief few weeks, these kids were stars. The confidence and personal strength they created for themselves is unforgettable and worth a lifetime of gold medals.

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