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Involvement in the performing arts from a young age offers many benefits beyond entertainment.

A love of the arts (in any of its forms) can offer a momentary escape from reality. The performing arts allows for healthy self-expression and helps children to understand underdeveloped parts of themselves. It also assists them with putting things into perspective.

“Dramatic play is a child’s way of symbolically expressing themselves and resolving internal conflict. It helps them to release pent-up feelings, and explore hopes, fears and wishes as well as discover new life roles. All of which is central to their development,” says Heather Schiff, clinical psychologist, drama therapist and director of the Bonfire Theatre Company.

The transcendence of theatre

Perhaps it is the stretching of our comfort zones that reveals the most obvious social benefits of theatre. Children are exposed to tales of other cultures, historical events and traditions. They learn to appreciate and respect another’s personality, experiences and talents. Theatre also create spaces for community dialogue, introducing young children to many points of view.

Schiff believes this is particularly relevant for South Africa and fostering connections between people. “Watching theatre or participating in the performing arts is an excellent means of creating empathy and facilitating understanding of others’ feelings. We are transported into the hearts, minds, bodies and stories of others in a way that transcends race, class, gender and age.”

Ignites imagination, develops skills

The performing arts develops the imagination and promotes creative thinking, a beneficial life skill. Children who can think creatively often become the entrepreneurs of the future and leaders in industry, because they can invent solutions and solve problems.

Neuroscientists say that both hemispheres of the brain must be activated for it to work efficiently. So, it is important to stimulate, develop and exercise the right brain (the creative and visual centre) as well as the left brain (where verbal, analytical and logical functions are located) in all children.

Providing a comprehensive education that includes the development of creativity helps to achieve optimum performance of the brain. Participation in the performing arts increases vocabulary, improves communication and listening skills, boosts memory, encourages self-discipline and concentration, and develops interpretation skills. One of the best things about the performing arts is that these  are all developed in an interesting, entertaining and fun environment, which doesn’t seem like learning at all.

Taking to the Stage

Once an interest in theatre is established, drama classes might very well be the next step for your little ones; and it’s definitely worth encouraging. “Drama classes are a fantastic means of developing confidence, self-esteem and essential communication skills,” says Duncan Rice of  The Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, which has centres in all the major cities around the country. “Releasing a child’s creative and expressive potential through drama is one of the keys to healthy educational development.”

“Drama is a fabulous tool to inspire creativity, teach empathy and develop two-way communication,” adds Gill Brunings, director of Durban Actors Studio. “Students are taught how to become another character, to try out different choices to those they would normally make and to explore repercussions. Drama is a safe environment. Everything you do is talked through in a caring and sharing environment,” she adds.

“Drama students are less likely to have difficulty speaking in public, will be more convincing in their written and oral communications, and will have greater positive self-image. And finally, the performing arts teaches a student that, when preparing to go on stage, they have to work. This is a huge learning curve, which has knock-on effects throughout a young performer’s academic career.”

So, while you may not want to encourage your children to emulate Hollywood’s many poor role models, taking part in a little dramatic expression might be just what they need to become more confident in themselves.

How to ensure good theatre etiquette

Here are some tips to help keep the drama on stage rather than in the audience.

Choose the right show

The best place to start is by taking your child to an age-appropriate production. While they will still need some self-discipline to get through a show, the theatre environment will embrace the unrestrained reactions of children rather than frown upon them. Furthermore, child-friendly productions will have bright costumes and jolly jokes to engage and entertain young minds.

Do your homework

Prepare your child in the days leading up to the show. Introduce them to the story and the characters. If there is a book about the play, read it together. Part of what makes these outings so special is the excitement and build up, so work it.

Be clear about expected behaviour

Explain to your children that for the actors to do their job, each audience member needs to remain still and quiet, unless they are called to join in.

Cover all bases

Make sure your child is well rested and has eaten before the show. The tired “niggles” have no place in a theatre. If you need to bring a snack, ensure it is a quiet one such as a fruit roll or a biltong stick.

Get your timing right

A long wait before curtain call can derail a smooth operation. If unassigned seating means you need to arrive earlier to get a good spot, bring something along to keep your little ones amused. Or, get somebody nearby to keep your seats and wander around the theatre complex or outside until the show starts.

Chat about the sets if possible

Point out the lighting grid. As your child gets older, it might just be these inner workings that hook their interest.

Be prepared to leave

If something in the show – such as a monstrously mean witch or a particularly treacherous troll – upsets your child, take them out into the lobby. Explain that the characters are only actors doing their jobs well. Don’t force them to return to the show.

Start a conversation

Intermission is a perfect opportunity to share thoughts about the show. Talking about the performance and story will inform you if your child is following.  If they don’t like the show, ask them to discuss what it is they don’t like and to articulate why.

Simone Gray

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