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BWW Blog: The Value of Theatre

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I have some thoughts regarding the ways theatre and the arts are important to humanity. 

If you're anything like me, I'm sure that you have heard at least one person question the value of the arts or a career in the arts. Lately, many arts workers have made social media posts about the "Be An Arts Hero" initiative. Artists in the industry are advocating for emergency relief funds for the arts by bringing awareness to arts and culture's contributions to the economy (around $877 billion and 5.1 million jobs). Other posts that have been circling around since the start of the pandemic point out that many people are eager to consume art while simultaneously undervaluing the work of being an artist. How do we convince people that our industry is important, that the people it employs are a part of something bigger than a hobby? I don't have all the answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts regarding the ways theatre and the arts are important to humanity.

1. Art and storytelling are deeply embedded in human existence.

We don't know much about early humans, but we do know they were artists and storytellers. The oldest cave painting is almost 44,000 years old. Hieroglyphics in ancient Egyptian pyramids depict the performance of a play, and ancient Greeks regularly held state-sponsored theatre festivals. This doesn't even cover oral storytelling traditions that might predate any physical record. From the ancient worlds to modern times, civilization after civilization have created art and stories. It's almost as if humans don't know how to exist without them. Maybe we don't. It is so deeply integrated into the human experience that it seems strange to deny its importance. It is a part of who we are as a species.

2. We learn through these stories.

Kids learn about the world through play, including playing pretend. They create a story and figure out how to act in certain circumstances, whether it be being a parent, a princess, or a superhero. Think of the fairy tales we tell little kids in order to teach basic lessons. Don't go into the woods alone. Don't judge by appearance. Be kind. Even our written collection of history is a story of once upon a time, this is what humans used to do. I don't remember much from sixth grade, but I do remember learning about ancient Greek mythology through putting on class plays. We performed a story, so it stayed in my mind.

3. The stories that artists tell have an impact on society.

Many people are quick to point out how violence in media is corrupting the next generation, and yet don't believe that the stories we see can have a positive impact too. Theatre was used to protest apartheid laws in South Africa. The Lysistrata Project, inspired by the ancient Greek comedy, was a movement that encouraged women to raise their voices and stand against war, and has since evolved into a collection of related educational resources. From A Raisin in the Sun to Angels in America, many plays aim to examine the issues of society and being human and to celebrate people who aren't traditionally celebrated. It can be the thing that makes someone feel seen and valued and tells them that they are not alone. Theatre lets audiences empathize with the characters, to spend a couple hours walking in somebody else's shoes. It can be a way to start difficult conversations and to examine new perspectives. While theatre by itself is not going to be the thing to change everything around, it can plant the seed. It can make people ask questions, and that is often where new things begin.

4. Even if at the end of the day theatre is just entertainment, entertainment is still valuable.

Not everyone will go to the theatre and come away inspired to change the world. They might not learn a new lesson or appreciate the humanity of such a longstanding practice. But even if all they experience is a couple hours to get away from their troubles and have fun, so what? That is important too. Life is about more than just work and hurrying from one moment to the next. We all need moments of rest, moments to just stop and enjoy our existence. Entertainment provides a way for us to do that, and furthermore, to do that with other people. We can share an experience with others, and ultimately, that's going to be the kind of thing we remember at the end of our lives. It makes our lives a little more joyful, a little more fulfilling, and I, for one, think that is incredibly valuable.

If we recognize how important theatre and the arts are to our society and our species, then it seems it would follow that we should acknowledge that the people who create the art are important too. It should be recognized that their jobs are real jobs and that they are the reason we get to have the art we all enjoy. However, as artists, we should also recognize how lucky we are to be a part of something so big. Because of this, we have a responsibility to examine if we are truly living up to all the possibilities of what theatre could be. Not all shows are going to be groundbreaking works that change the world in an immediately noticeable way. But they can all encourage us to be a little more human and have a little more empathy, and that in itself is invaluable, for artists and audiences alike.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Laura Johnson