#BraveSpace: Theatre and the Path to Self-Identity
By Elizabeth Harvey, Jeff Seabaugh, Meredith Smart, Michael Kevin Baldwin, Patrick McGee,
Robin Cannon Colwell
As educators, researchers, and artists, we noticed that today identity is being discussed in a variety of ways in the news, classrooms, and communities. Throughout their youth, all students face the giant task of understanding themselves and how they fit into the world around them. Different students face different challenges when it comes to identity. We noticed that one of the major challenges lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth face is developing a positive sexual identity due to social stigma and homophobia. Also, as teachers and administrators continue to create classrooms that are inclusive of all types of student profiles, it is important to find ways to encourage students with disabilities to participate in activities that will support their social and emotional growth. Finally, there is a current national discussion concerning the rights of those who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming. Often students who are are transgender/gender non-conforming face ridicule and find coming out to be a struggle. Even when friends and family claim to be open minded, making this shift is often difficult.
Inspired by these communities, we set out to discover ways in which youth theatre programs successfully empower students and allow them to explore who they are and further cultivate their identities. We examined and explored the impact that theatre has on youth identity for three populations of students. Through observations of youth participating in workshops and theatrical performances and interviews with teachers, administrators, adults, and students in the greater New York City area and Western Massachusetts, our research explored the impact that theatre has on the development of identity in connection to students with disabilities, LGB youth, and youth who question their assigned gender.
What we found through our interviews and observations was that theatre can impact the development of sexual identity by offering a safe space, a familial experience and exploration of body. Theatre proved to be a socially and culturally acceptable medium for young people to explore those aspects of their identity that society does not consider normal. Also, theatre was a place where youth could explore the spectral nature of their gender with safety, support, encouragement, and even reward. Theatre offered students with disabilities an inclusive setting to explore and cultivate life skills that assist in the development of their identity and social/emotional skills. Finally, while many people explained that theatre offered a safe space, we uncovered the fact that theatre offers participants a brave space where participants can take risks towards self exploration and identity.
It is our hope that this research will help teachers, administrators and parents understand the important role that theatre can play in the lives of their students. Our schools must strive to create inclusive communities that honor and respect all types of students. Going forward, it will be necessary to continue to educate and train teachers and administrators in various ways to understand how to best meet the needs of students who are questioning their gender identity, students who already identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and students who have been labeled as having a disability. We want all students to know that theatre really can provide them with a “Brave Space” where they can simply and fully be who they are, wherever they are in the path to discovering their identities.