Theater Kids Save the World

How Drama Class Gives Students the Confidence, Compassion and Creativity to Lead a Revolution

ROCK AND REVOLUTION: Lizzie Saunders (center) plays Sheila Franklin in the Santa Barbara High production of Hair.
Photo Credit: Isaac Hernandez
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Everyone who’s been to high school knows it: Jocks top the student hierarchy. They earn the yearbook’s Most Popular designations and dictate, by their mere arrival, where the coolest after-prom parties are.

But when a group of outspoken, articulate, enraged students galvanized the nation after last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it wasn’t a pack of athletes. It was a ragtag troupe of theater kids.

That’s right: drama nerds. Who typically hover hierarchically down around stoner, delinquent, brainiac, and band geek.

There’s Emma González with her shaved head and brave, tearful speech. There’s Cameron Kasky, who called Sen. Marco Rubio to the carpet at a town hall. They and the others who ignited the #NeverAgain movement and helped lead the National School Walkout and upcoming March for Our Lives all know each other from theater class!

Conspiracy theorists were so surprised to see such poised and camera-ready teens that they accused them of being paid actors or media plants — to which Kasky replied, “If you had seen me in our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that nobody would pay me to act for anything.”

Guess who’s not surprised to learn these kids are drama nerds: Other drama nerds. Like me. I spent hundreds of high school hours doing theater with other quirky, overloud misfits who ached for big feelings.

When our muscly peers sprinted to the track, baseball field, and tennis courts, we bounded for the theater — a cavernous black box that could be configured any which way (proscenium, thrust, in the round) and transformed into any which place and time (turn-o’-the-century Grover’s Corners; Salem witch trials; 1930s Edinburgh).

You learn different things in drama class than you do in other extracurriculars. Where student athletes are told to “shake it off,” student actors are asked to dig deep into their emotions and summon those suckers up to the surface for a howdy.

“It elevated my emotional thinking beyond what was just a typical teen suburban existence,” says my friend and former classmate David Cobb.

“I was a theater kid for the family, the community, the freedom, the drama, the empowerment, the discipline, the structure, the vision, the inside jokes, the mentorship, the dating scene, the literature, the history,” says our fellow drama clubber Arcadia Conrad. (But she lies; the dating was dire.)

“It helped me with some concrete skills that I use every day for my work life,” adds another of our gang, Bridget Kelley-Lossada: “Presentation and public speaking, knowing how to play to your audience, improvising in problem-solving, team work, and creative thinking.”

I stopped by a rehearsal last week for Dos Pueblos High School’s upcoming production of Newsies. Based on a true story, the Disney musical follows a group of 1900s newsboys and, in this version, girls who go on strike when Hearst and Pulitzer raise the price of papers. I asked the two dozen performers if the stereotypes about drama nerds remain the same today. Yep.

“They say we’re weird,” they told me, “we’re intense, we’re all gay.”

And how accurate are those? I asked. “Spot on,” someone shot back with precise comic timing.

They said the process of “making bold choices onstage” helps you find your voice and that the theater is a safe space where they feel accepted for who they are, where differences are celebrated — a place devoid of those invisible walls that make them feel unwelcome in parts of the real world. A boy named Wyatt said inhabiting characters has “taught me how to see the world through other people’s eyes.”

Is it any wonder, then, that the thespians of Stoneman Douglas High had the confidence, compassion, and creativity to lead a revolution? If politics is theater, well, much of theater is political, too. The cast of Newsies is navigating the script’s themes of gender equality, media control, and banding together to fight powerful forces.

“There’s a line in the play: ‘The game is changing,’” said a boy named Ben. “Here it’s talking about women’s rights — but it could be anything at any time in history.

“There’s always somebody to fight for.”

Read more at starshineroshell.com.

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