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Building empathy in children through theater

Published: Thursday, March 13 2014 4:30 p.m. MDT

Hale Center Theater Orem's production of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Pete Widtfeldt, CanIGetACopy.com

Editor's note: Part one of a three-part series on theater for young audiences.

It’s an organization that parents may not be aware of, but the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People is passionate about enriching the lives of children. Based in Zagreb, Croatia, with a U.S. affiliate in Chicago, the group sponsors World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People every March 20.

In recognition of this event and emphasis, we asked local theater representatives to offer insights on the benefits of theater for young audiences, or TYA, as it’s commonly known.

Children learn social skills through theater, and the experience gleaned through both performing and attending theater has been likened to a gym for empathy, because it’s a place where muscles of compassion can be strengthened. Children learn to understand and engage with people who are different from them.

The participants are Penelope Marantz Caywood, University of Utah Youth Theatre artistic director; Ryan Radebaugh, Hale Center Theater Orem theater school director; Kate Rufener, Grand Theatre youth coordinator; Teresa Dayley Love, Brigham Young University Theatre for Young Audiences director/writer/producer; and Clin Eaton, Hale Centre Theatre West Valley youth theater instructor.

What is the importance of theater for young audiences?

Penelope Marantz Caywood: Theater can create a space for people to come together and have a shared community experience. We need as many safe places for this to happen as possible nowadays. Also, theater animates the imagination. It gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it, too.

Ryan Radebaugh: As a school teacher, I see arts in education quickly taking a back seat to other subjects that the state deems more important. Students are not tested in theater, music or dance. This field is seen as something that might be "good" for kids but not important. Coming to a live show gives them a new experience.

Kate Rufener: Participating in theater, either as performer or audience, teaches young people empathy and compassion. There are recent studies that show that imagined struggles can be as impactful and growth-inducing as real struggles. Thus, kids who empathize with the characters they play or watch will learn and grow from those imagined struggles. And, unlike all other art forms, there is a unique and vital touch point between live performers and live audience. No television show or movie requires that audiences participate in the experience the way that live theater does.

Teresa Dayley Love: Theater happens right now; the people in the room — performers and audiences — make a real difference to what’s going on. It is a unique, one-moment-in-time experience.  Children can feel that creative energy and really be a part of it, sometimes very literally. They feel the power of creativity to solve problems.  Few “screen” experiences even come close.

Clin Eaton: In the theater, children — along with teenagers and adults — learn the importance of sitting down, paying attention (even when it's a complex or difficult story) and listening to stories of or about people who are very different from themselves.

How do children benefit personally from theater?

Love: Theater tills the fertile soil that children possess for developing empathy. TYA practitioners believe in children, and they are dedicated to the premise that offering children fine, challenging work — especially designed to serve them while they are young — will help children handle their futures with open minds and hearts, and willingness to work productively with others.

Rufener: Students of theater learn how they fit in the world, how their desires for social changes can be enacted, empathy and the importance of self-expression.

Caywood: Students learn to cultivate their imaginations and curiosity. Students deepen their creative self-expression. Making plays together draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way. Students learn the value of both teamwork and independent thinking.

Eaton: Theater is important for young audiences in two capacities: First, theater is a performance opportunity. Children are natural performers. Even shy kids enjoy playing make believe and acting out stories with toys or stuffed animals. It helps children work together in a group, learn collaboration and teaches communication skills that come in handy the rest of their lives. Second, theater is important for young audiences because it teaches compassion and empathy.

Radebaugh: Relationships with family and friends are strengthened as a result of being a part of a working cast of players. Students see from the first day that they are in a company of players that will assist and support them in the development of their skills. They find friends who share their same interests and the process of performing on stage together builds a greater sense of confidence. Performing in front of others requires them to walk and talk with a stronger understanding of themselves.

Next: Producing theater for young audiences that is educational.

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