Drama and Young People June 02 2021

The tradition of the annual “class play” in Waldorf education has been built up over decades but was not one of the original ideas in the first Waldorf school. Teachers have discovered over time how important and helpful the play is for youngsters; emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Watching a quiet child come into her own like never before through a role in a play, or feeling a class develop gratitude for a slightly marginalized classmate when that child is the prompter who saves everyone from losing lines, can transform the structure and dynamics of a class.

Though it isn’t prescribed to do a play each and every year, it feels compelling to do a play when so much can be accomplished through this activity. In the book Pedagogical Theater, the author Arthur Pittis describes well the glory of these possibilities in a school’s theater efforts! “The Play” for a class is not an easy process. Teachers must be willing to endure a certain amount of chaos as regular classes are disrupted, and they must endure the pressures from both youngsters and their parents to cast students according to individual wishes. Opinions about whose plays are better than another’s can also dampen the experience and miss the point of pedagogical drama. A child’s whole self-perception can be uplifted by the accomplishing of a part in a play, however small a part might be.

This year a sixth-grade class in a young school in the Hudson Valley wrote their own script and story, made all the scenery, found their own costumes, and performed their own Medieval drama, “The Secret in the Queen’s Castle.” The young students in this effort worked extraordinarily hard and the results were beguiling. The performance was done outdoors (with the pandemic protocols in mind!) which presents unusual challenges to the drama of putting on a play. The weather, the wind, the sun, the audience, the mood—all are elements that influence the outcome of an outdoor play. And, as we may all know, there are already numerous requirements: remembering of lines, the placement of props, the correct execution of set and costume changes, the holding of character no matter what happens, etc.—all of these add to the overall success of any play.

Drama and Youth

This particular sixth-grade commanded a fine performance against all these odds. Perfect? No, but perfectly delightful and full of so much heart and dedication and good delivery of each character that small malfunctions of scene backdrops, high winds that threatened to drown out the voices of the young, the heat of the day, became secondary to a strong performance with much mystery and mood. Some members of the audience were the parents and grandparents, but additionally there were younger students of the school who had already seen the play once, but wanted to see the play again. This points in the direction of what a well-done theatrical event can do. The audience, by way of catharsis, is intrigued and filled with admiration for the performing students. They wish to witness this again and again. Transformation just goes on and on!

Teachers might feel freer if the annual drama were not “mandatory” in the culture of a school’s life. Some excellent teachers are not predisposed to theatrical accomplishments. But each time a group of young people completes a play and gives it to an audience, many miracles occur. And this high artistic accomplishment changes everything. In David Sloan’s book, Stages of Imagination, the power of all that moves the young in performance arts is well articulated. Speech is enhanced as the actors learn their lines. Characters, often different from the child enacting them, come alive and delight the audience. Every participant—actors, director, costumers, prop masters, et al and audience—realize their important part in the production. Classes form a union toward a goal that dissolves differences and changes focus toward an artistic end. Perhaps, most importantly, selflessness is cultivated as actors give themselves over to a new character, and give their performance to an audience, forgetting themselves for the duration of the play and extending themselves to those in the audience who so want the actors to succeed, and so want to forget themselves, too, by witnessing the play. This just might be the most precious secret we experienced in watching “The Secret in the Queen’s Castle”: cultivating a culture of selflessness!  How’s that for making a better world through the hearts of the young?