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Bruce E. Whitacre

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Theater Education Programs Are in Demand for Workforce Creativity

Posted: 01/22/2013 7:33 pm

Imagine a group comprised of accountants, tech executives, actors, corporate CEOs, playwrights and theater directors engaged in an urgent conversation. These rather divergent personalities are all discussing the state of theater education in America and its impact on our country's economy, culture and future. They all agree that our nation's future workforce can't afford a curtain call on creativity.

Recently, IBM surveyed global CEOs and found that they view creativity as the most important leadership competency for the future. But what are we doing as a country to secure this vital resource? A significant number of young people today, when they enter the workforce, will never have been exposed to the valuable skills that come with arts education and specifically the theater experience -- thinking on one's feet; effectively communicating; practicing and rehearsing; writing; and collaborating as a team. This is a missed opportunity. According to the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities, in its groundbreaking report "Reinvesting in Arts Education," arts education is a particularly powerful tool in reaching students who are otherwise turned off by standard school subjects.

Yet, some surveys on arts participation report that fewer than half of adults have participated in arts lessons or classes in schools - a decline from about 65 percent in the 1980s. In fact, government and arts education groups, as well as theaters themselves, have documented a nationwide decline in arts education of upwards of 40 percent. Most of the young people at risk of losing access to arts education come from disadvantaged communities.

The good news is that this meaningful conversation happening at the intersection of the corporate and arts community has yielded much more than just talk and good will. It has in fact led to a nationwide campaign called Impact Creativity, launched with a $250,000 grant from Ernst & Young and its CEO Jim Turley, to sustain and grow theater education programs serving more than half a million disadvantaged youth across the country. Ernst & Young employees have even recorded testimonials about theater education which can be viewed on the Impact Creativity website.

As a former accountant turned theater director and playwright turned non-profit executive, the synergy that feeds Impact Creativity and its otherwise disparate participants makes perfect sense to me. Over the course of the last 10 years, as executive director of the National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF), an association of 19 of the nation's leading regional theaters, I have been engaging a broad cross-section of individuals across the country with a passion for theater education to explain the challenging circumstances around ensuring that all young people receive meaningful and beneficial arts education.

A perfect storm of state and local budget crises, the lingering recovery in philanthropy, and policy challenges in schools such as a hyper-focus on testing, as well as a resistance by local schools to spend precious resources on field trips to theaters, are keeping thousands of kids from seeing live theater even at greatly reduced prices, or even for free in many cases.

It is clear that challenging times are bringing out new solutions. Through the umbrella of the Impact Creativity campaign and the 19 NCTF theaters, we are able to hold a truly national conversation among the theaters themselves, prospective donors, and advocates about how to strengthen education offerings and challenge the status quo. We are working to address the issue of fragmentation in arts education which can make the entire sector increasingly vulnerable. Programs can benefit from a sharing of best practices across various theaters, assessments of nationwide education trends and using new technological tools.

In traveling around the country to visit with NCTF theaters, I have the amazing privilege of seeing inventive programs that take theater and young people to surprising places. The Illinois Institute of Technology, for example, uses the Goodman Theatre's (Chicago) production of A Christmas Carol as part of its STEM curriculum to teach physics through stage mechanics and special effects in the show. In Rhode Island, Trinity Repertory Company has one of the country's most dynamic and robust acting programs for children on the autism spectrum which uses theater based techniques to develop children's voices and movements ultimately boosting their self-confidence, self-awareness and creativity. Hartford Stage, in partnership with Wells Fargo, has brought to life the bank's financial literary curriculum through performance-based theater exercises and improvisational activities for middle school students. And at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, young women from diverse backgrounds are participating in the Y-We Speak program to create an original theater piece based on their life experiences empowering them with leadership skills.

These programs have shown me that enriching the nation's youth through drama is inextricably linked to preparing a robust creative workforce of tomorrow. Strengthening this link, with partners in the arts and the corporate community, remains critical to the social, cultural and economic fabric of our communities. Impact Creativity will be at the nexus of these conversations in the year ahead. Join us.

 

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