02/14/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2014

For Regional Theatres, Social Justice is Core to the Mission

In my last blog entry, "Theaters Contribute to Social Justice and Meaningful Change in Communities," I explored the current funding focus on mission and measurable outcomes, which often puts the arts at a disadvantage. What we do is very hard to measure in quantitative terms. Our core mission of professional creativity can be measured in awards and audience numbers, but its social impact is either vast or nil, depending upon how you feel about theatre.

One story about vast impact that I tell is that of the "pink triangle." Until Martin Sherman's play, Bent, in the late 1970's, this symbol did not exist in the pop cultural landscape. But by drawing a parallel between Jews and gays in the Holocaust, the play contributed to the unfolding gay rights movement, especially during the ensuing AIDS crisis, when the pink triangle became a crucial message of hope and outrage.

Regional theatres continue to make social impact a core part of their mission. In San Francisco, American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) has expanded the company's longtime ACTsmart K-12 education programs by introducing semester-long intensive residencies with some of the city's most at-risk youth. ACTsmart residencies bring students into A.C.T.'s rehearsal studios for weekly theater classes in acting, improvisation, voice, and movement, and teachers report they see students engaging in class for the first time after these exercises.

The program was piloted in 2011 as a partnership with Downtown Continuation High School (DHS), a project-based learning school for students who have not succeeded in traditional school structures. Due to the success of the DHS residency, in 2012-13 A.C.T. was asked to establish a similar year-long residency at Ida B. Wells High School, another continuation school that serves low-income students.

"They lift their gaze off the desk and engage," teachers reported.

Additionally, students experience the theatre's main stage and conservatory productions while also writing and performing their own plays and monologues. The impact on the students has been so positive that by the time the first class of students had become seniors, they accounted for a significant share of school leadership. If this group of students is emerging as a leadership cohort in school, imagine their impact on their families and communities as they continue through life.

New leaders are also being cultivated at Dallas Center Theater. Last month, Project Discovery in Dallas was honored at the White House with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. It brings 930 students from Title 1 schools into the theatre along with Dallas Theater Center audiences for a full season of productions, as well as pre-show workshops and post-show discussions with artists. At its core, the program is about true, in-depth exposure to an array of classics, revivals, and contemporary plays and musicals.

What are the outcomes? Half of those participating will see a professional show for the first time. Project Discovery builds student confidence. Over the season, virtually all students report increased confidence in their own abilities, including theatrical skills and speaking for themselves. Every year, 99 percent of students report a desire to participate in Project Discovery again. Teachers give Project Discovery artistic workshops 4.75 stars out of 5.

In some ways, measuring impact and outcomes is a victim of our success. So many people grew up doing this in school as a matter of course, or having other arts education experiences, that the need to justify it can be obvious. Of course we need these programs! But stack arts education up against issues like clean water; natural disasters; under-funded, crisis ridden local governments; poor city services; or the huge technical skills gap we face, and the answer is not always so obvious. Yet, it should be more obvious -- the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities reported, 40 percent of underserved youth are at risk of losing arts education services.

I don't think it's an accident that the central national story of the Detroit bankruptcy is the fate of the Detroit Institute of Art. Truly, the arts are not peripheral to our problems; to sustain them is why we need to solve these seemingly competing problems. A safe, engaged, healthy child is a creative child, and that child will make for a safer, healthier, more brilliant world.