A few years ago, the Tony Awards began to choose one theater teacher to recognize for their work with students. This year, the drama teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Melody Herzfeld, received that very special award. In addition to protecting students during the terrifying shooting, Ms. Herzfeld helped the students cope and heal with her regular work in the classroom and a poignant production of the musical Spring Awakening.
I’ve thought about Ms. Herzfeld quite a bit since I heard the news of her award. I’ve thought about my own work as a theater teacher and the work of two very dear mentors of mine who are retiring this year from their esteemed work in the classroom. Few people outside the realm of a proper drama class can comprehend the role a theater teacher can play in the lives of their students. The closest comparison that many can relate to is a sports team, but usually theater classrooms provide so much more.
In general, the athletically inclined students feel at home on campus because, most often, the school and school day are built for them. Elements as fundamental to our experience of school such as its absurdly early start time are accommodations to support athletic practice and games.
Imagine if you aren’t an athlete in that context. School becomes the social equivalent of attempting to cut paper with left-handed scissors. It’s clumsy, fraught, and wearisome.
In the middle of this minefield, students find the theater classroom and in it, sanctuary. They find other people like them and they find a teacher who remembers what it was like to be them. I stumbled into Randy Bowden’s Rainbow Playhouse at Wilson High School during a summer parks and recreation course. I had found my way to plenty of theater classrooms previously, but Mr. Bowden’s was something special because he made it special.
Almost every person you see on stage or screen owes their success to a teacher. Even the so-called naturally talented actors need the guidance of a mentor.
Despite the perception perpetuated by shows like Glee, theater class is quite a challenge. Students are asked to delve into and explore the depths of human emotion and, let’s face it, most on-stage behavior would not be tolerated in the real world. In high school and college, when students are starting to really dig into this work, it is also the time at which they are most self-conscious and care the most about what other people think of them, creating a challenging tension where the tasks at hand literally go against every fiber of their being.
Of course, what these students are really learning is empathy. It is an empathy based in tremendous amounts of historical research and personal exploration. We must understand a characters shoes, so to speak, and then find a way to make our feet fit in them. That is what I admired most about David Eppel, one of my professors at college. He is full of empathy, having helped to found The Market Theater in South Africa. It was the first theater to oppose Apartheid and use art to make a statement about the injustices in the world. That is why David always pushed us to do the impossible as students, because he had done the impossible and made it possible.
Needless to say, arts education is so vital to the continued health, well-being, and growth of our society. When you see theater, think not only about each of the performers acting, singing, and dancing their way across stage, but remember their teachers and marvel at the village that makes this work possible.