It is a desire to teach young people how to be more decent that unites the educators in the City College of New York educational theatre graduate program. “Decency”, or what we also call “non-cognitive skills” or “social skills” or “character” (the field of education is still struggling to place a label on this important concept), is essential for young people to grow up to be productive, kind, happy and engaged citizens. This is the goal of all caregivers and educators, but educational theatre is uniquely positioned to help young people develop a moral compass and identify the role they play in their community. Through roleplaying, young people are given opportunities to recognize the choices they have and, on stage, experience the consequences of those choices. It’s not that theatre education teaches young people to be heroes. It simply gives them the skills like patience, curiosity, gratitude and focus that allow decent people to work hard, communicate and engage with their families, communities and careers. When faced with adversity, people with these skills make better choices than those who don’t.
On October 9th, my classmates and I were lucky enough to participate in a dialogue with Stephen Belber, one of the core ensemble members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, which created the profoundly moving and significant play The Laramie Project. The Laramie Project tells thestory of the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard and the reaction it caused in the community of Laramie, Wyoming and the national media. During the lecture, Belber went into depth about the philosophy that informed Tectonic Theatre Project’s process of the creation of this piece.
In The Laramie Project, a docu-drama created from the verbatim transcripts of interviews conducted by the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, we are introduced to residents of Laramie, Wyoming. Many of the real people depicted in the play people struggled to save Matthew Shepard’s life, helped their community to heal and forced their community to take a hard look at itself and the consequences of its homophobia. These individuals come from different walks of life and through the journey of the play we watch them grow and evolve. Through the play, we see how the tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s death lead them to discover compassion and bravery they did not know they had. Belber reported on a process that helped a town become an observer of itself for the first time.
Can the lives of future Matthew Shepards be saved if people become observers when they are young? I am not sure if a robust theatre education program in Laramie’s grade schools could have prevented this tragedy, but I do know that part of the solution to preventing this kind of hate lies in the lesson plans like the ones found in Sharon Grady’s Drama and Diversity. Grady lays out a series of lesson plans that help young people understand and combat racism, sexism classism, abelism and homophobia.
Theatre education and plays like The Laramie Project can wake people up, give them a chance to observe the world and their lives more closely, which will help them make compassionate and brave choices that will transforms the world into a more decent place. Stephen Belber gave our class guidance as artists and educators as we try to make a world more self aware, one classroom at a time.