Applause Welcome: Creating A Successful Theater Program in an All-Boys School
At Avon Old Farms, the arts are for everyone. Three times a year, every student in our community goes to the Adams Theater to see a play starring their peers. In addition, every year our students have the opportunity to audition for—and to go see—the three productions that happen at our sister school, Miss Porter’s. Here at Avon, we produce all kinds of theater, including comedies, dramas, and musicals: our offerings run the gamut from plays that tackle serious issues to lighter fare that leaves our students crying tears of laughter.
This past season, more of our students auditioned for the play than ever have before in my time at Avon, prompting us to produce a one-act play to accompany our main production, Rope. Without question, our theater program is thriving. But what makes theater so important in the context of an all-boys education? Four main factors come to mind.
Being part of a theatrical performance is much like being a part of an athletic team. It requires working closely with one another, an intense level of trust and cooperation, and (of course) long hours of practice in order to get things just right. In order for the team to succeed, everyone on stage and behind the scenes needs to actively support one another. Everyone needs to be fully invested and fully committed to the success of the production, not only on “game days” (performances), but during rehearsals as well.
And just like a sports team, sometimes the least glamorous roles are the most important. Where would our drama program be without dedicated technicians willing to work behind the scenes? Set building, painting, lights, sound, costumes, and props are all necessary for a show to be successful. And if the tech team is doing their job properly, they will typically be out of sight and out of mind.
Unlike athletics, however, theater is not a zero-sum game. Friendly competition is valuable, but it’s also important for boys to have opportunities to work together without competition. In theater, the goal isn’t to defeat the opponent, but to succeed as a team by making each other look good. There are no enemies or adversaries, only teammates.
It might go without saying that acting builds confidence. After all, performing requires students to conquer any fears of public speaking, as every actor at Avon performs in front of the entire student body. As far as I know, this doesn’t come easy to anyone. A student once told me that he didn’t think he could be in the play because he was afraid to speak in front of his peers. I told him that nearly all actors get nervous, but they learn how to perform in spite of that nervousness. In fact, it can be a problem for an actor to feel too comfortable. I often tell my performers that dropped lines or forgotten props happen because actors are feeling too relaxed during performances.
Through theater, students become comfortable with their voices and their bodies. Other types of artists might work with paper, clay, trombones, the drums, charcoal, or marble. Actors have only two tools at their disposal: the voice and the body. And conditioning those two tools invariably leads to confidence in other aspects of life. Standing confidently in front of a dozen students in history class during a presentation is much less intimidating prospect once you’ve performed a two-hour play to hundreds of your peers.
Bill English, founder of the San Francisco Playhouse, wrote that “[t]heater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves.” While participating in theater—by embodying a character on stage—may be the surest way to develop empathy, theater confers this advantage to its audiences as well as to its actors.
It seems obvious that it requires training to become stronger and faster on the court or on the field, and it’s no different for emotional development. It isn’t always easy for teenage boys (or anyone, for that matter) to see things from a different point of view. But empathy and perspective-taking are crucial skills our boys need to be successful in the family, workplace, and the world generally, and attending plays helps our boys develop into the strong and compassionate men that we know they can be.
Theater allows us to experiment with different roles, different ways of being in the world. It allows us, temporarily and in a safe and supportive environment, to embody the role the king as well as the pauper. The lover and the fighter. The jester and the sage. As adolescents, our boys are still experimenting with their identities. With their sense of self in flux, the performing arts allow them the opportunity to investigate and explore all aspects of what it means to be human. As the Roman playwright Terence once wrote, “Nothing human is strange to me.”
Furthermore, theater trains our boys to have the flexibility necessary to play many roles throughout their lives. One of our dedicated actors, Andrew Liptrot ‘18, has played over a dozen parts in his time at Avon. And in our last production, Zack Lemieux ‘19 played two completely different characters in the same evening. Similarly, we all need to learn how to play different roles from day to day and, frequently, throughout the same day. To be a friend, an employee, a father, a husband, a son: all of these roles require something different, and the experienced actor will be well equipped to move dexterously between them, as so many of us are expected to do.
As I mentioned earlier, the arts are for everyone at Avon, the private New England high school for boys. When our boys fill the seats of the Adams Theater on opening night, it’s a powerful moment. Whether our students are laughing together at A Cut Above the Rest or humming along to their favorite tune from Into the Woods, they are joining together to share a communal experience.
Many boys enter our school never imagining themselves enjoying a play, let alone participating in one. But those students who accept the challenge of trying new things graduate with a rich catalog of experiences. Time and time again, I hear our audience members saying things like, “Wow, that was actually really good! I never thought I would like seeing a play.” I especially love to hear our performers say, as one young man did after our final performance of the fall play last week, “At my old school, I never would have considered doing this. But I’m so glad that I did.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
English Teacher, Director of Theater