child artists
April 18, 2003 10:47 AM

Some people who teach art(s) to children don't seem to care much for either, despite their attitude of caring for both.

It's entirely too common for teachers of theatre, for instance, to assume that young people's theatre has to educate them or address Their Issues. If you've ever been a student in a "average" kid's theatre class, you know that anyone who wants you to talk about Your Issues has already defined them for you. And while any truly good theatre is educational in a certain sense (even bad theatre is education by experience), kids get enough didacticism in the classroom.

Part of this problem, of course, is the need to legitimize arts education. In Virginia, that means art courses that follow our SOL's (Standards of Learning, which most teachers rightly dislike) and occasionally, arts "enrichment" activities like musical comedies featuring the SOL's. No, I am not kidding.

But I'm more concerned with pure arts education that with the version of art taught in most public school settings - at the moment, at least. The root problem is this notion of art as culture, the idea that culture is beyond people and children can't handle the culture.

This idea leads arts teachers to teach down to their kids. I've seen some very talented, challenging artists completely fail to challenge kids in a learning environment, not because they lacked teaching skills, but because their curricula were based on the false assumption that kids need a children's version of art. Arts teachers who come from a background of teaching and dabble in an art tend to apply a similar philosophy, adding to this dumbed-down art a sense of curriculum; the art classes they teach are the same regardless of their changing audience from year to year.

Children can handle real art. Five year olds won't produce Monet or Broadway, but they can be challenged at an appropriate level to create work that is, on some level, better. And seventeen year olds do not need to be producing work that only speaks to Their Issues [the ones we tell them they have] about high school, cars and graduation; they're people, not simply high school students.

The level to which this art for you and your gerbil concept exists varies, of course, from teacher to teacher and program to program. It seems least common in voice teaching, most common in theatre for youth.

Last weekend I watched a presentation of work by kids ranging in age from 5 to 18. They danced. They sang. They made julienned fries. Actually, they did short scenes, but in most cases, the fries would have been more compelling. The singing was universally quite good, with a clear progression in quality from youngest to oldest students. The dance and theatre were problematic.

The dance progressed in complexity slightly from group to group. The littlest kids danced mostly by forming shapes and standing up/sitting down. It was the right level of work for them. Then we had the 7-8 year olds, who started to get more fluid and expressive and had, you know, actual dance moves [my partner taught them, so I may be biased]. And then you get to the kids at various levels, aged 9-18. They progressed through the program by age, so you'd expect the older, more trained, kids to be more expressive, more precise, more - something. Well, they smiled more. Their dance moves were a tad more complicated. But it remained kids' dance, even for the oldest.

The theatre was appalling. Not only because it's the art I know best. But because the nature of the scene work didn't change with increased age and training. Actually, in a way it downgraded. My partner's kids used a combination of poetry and experimental theatre text (remember, they're at most eight). The older kids did folktales. And something really embarassing about cars and younger siblings (remember, some of these kids are seventeen, as are some of you, readers). They did the exact same type [hokey] of work, with the exact same level of expression [also hokey], after years of training as they did at age nine.

This wasn't the kids' fault. They don't have much involvement in choosing the scenes they'll perform, or even how these will work. So I blame the program, and the teachers (who have a lot of say in what they teach). I presume they approach teaching all ages and types of kids with the same method. As far as theatre is concerned, this method appears to be reminding kids to "smile" and "project" and relying on their natural ebullience and personalities to do the rest. I presume the argument in favor of this is something like "we're training them to be better public speakers through acting" or "it's more fun for them; we know what's fun for kids". Maybe the kids are okay with that, but I submit that they accept this idea of theatre only because they haven't been exposed to something better.

I have another bias, of course, which is that I went to a high school populated by some highly talented people. So I feel like I know what seventeen year olds can do. And I'll tell you - it's amazing. I wasn't expecting amazing from these kids last weekend. They train a couple hours a week, not a couple hours a day. This is likely one of many things they do. What I did expect was for their teachers to gradually increase the challenge level over time and, given their teachers' collective experience, to expose these kids to real dance, real theatre. At least a little.

And I didn't see that.

Kids, like adults, benefit from arts training that gives them an opportunity to explore & then gives them more and more to explore as they progress. This doesn't seem that difficult to offer. I wonder why it's not obvious to more people who teach arts?

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