Student Blog: Reflecting on Junior High Theatre Education

What is the value of pursuing academic theatre before high school?

By: May. 06, 2024
Student Blog: Reflecting on Junior High Theatre Education
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The American school system has, at least in the post-WWII era, been known for its vibrant and vast array of extracurricular options for students. Many a foreign exchange student has been amazed by American high schools’ robotics, woodshop, automotive, choral, instrumental, and sports programs, to name a few that we seem to be known for. When compared to education systems in other parts of the world, where a school day is generally composed of solely academic and CTE (Career and Technical Education) classes, the emphasis of exploring one's passions in school can seem a bit exceptional. Yet, it is with utmost certainty and full confidence that I, an American high school junior, would claim that this is perhaps the keystone feature of the American school system.

The whole purpose of an education system is to teach children and adolescents how to function within their communities as well as preparing them for the workforce. Without elective classes, many students would not have the opportunity to find the careers that they wish to pursue, thus missing the chance to work toward excellence in them at an early age. While no elective program could objectively be considered more special or more relevant than another (despite what some athletes would have you think), the one that has touched my life the most is, of course, the theatre department. Within the three public schools in Arizona that I have studied theatre at, I have been able to hone my craft as well as enjoy a safe space with peers who possess similar dreams to mine.

The first year that I had drama open to me as an elective was in the eighth grade. My junior high school did not have a drama program when I first came, so I took choir and band instead. When the class was founded, I was eager to stop performing in the choir and join a drama class. It was open to both seventh and eighth graders, and was run by a teacher named Ms. Biederman, who taught in the mornings at my junior high school and in the afternoons at another high school in the district. Biederman, through dedication to the craft and a stereotypical “kooky theatre teacher” persona, had been tasked with teaching a bunch of awkward middle schoolers how to be confident and embrace artistry onstage. 

There was just one problem: a global pandemic.

I began my eighth-grade year in August of 2020, with no idea when (if ever) I would be going back to in-person school. Teaching a drama class to junior high students is a challenge in and of itself, but that challenge is multiplied when trying to teach over Cisco WebEx. So we spent the first few weeks of the year studying theatre history, as well as getting to know each other as best as we could through a computer screen. When we finally did go back to school, we were all wearing masks and sitting in chairs six feet apart from one another. This was, of course, what was considered to be the best way to manage the pandemic at the time, so we all obliged. For the most part, at least. Biederman spent the rest of the year educating us in some of the foundations of theatre: how to write a scene, how to read, analyze, and perform classical works, how to perform a monologue, how to detect subtext and objective, how to mark beats, and more. Given that I was the only one in a class of thirty thirteen-year-olds who had done any of this before, Biederman took me on as her protégé of sorts. Not that I had any qualifications to take on such a role, but that was how things were. I always took the assignments that she gave us as seriously as possible, making them more and more challenging for myself. This was my first exposure to legitimately emotionally draining characters. 

I remember one assignment where we were given an open scene: a scene with no character names and no given circumstances. We were all given the same scene as well as the creative liberty to do what we wanted with it as an exercise in establishing subtext and objective. Our goal was to get the audience to guess our relationship and the given circumstances of our scene through workshopping and channeling lengthy backstories. This was the scene in question:


B: Hello.

A: How’s everything?

B: Fine, I guess.

A: Do you know what time it is?

B: No. Not exactly.

A: Don’t you have a watch?

B: Not on me.

A: Well!

B: Well what?

A: What did you do last night?

B: What do you mean?

A: What did you do last night?

B: Nothing!

A: Nothing?

B: I said nothing.

A: Sorry I asked

B: That’s alright.

My partner, Zach Grgich, and I watched as all of the other partnerships of middle school actors conveyed mother/daughter arguments, hair salon sequences, and more. There was one common denominator: comedy. No one had the nerve to try to make the above lines into a dramatic piece. Even the arguments were played as sensationalized, although this could have been a mere product of inexperience on the actors’ part. Finally, it was Zach and I’s turn. 

We played a scene about suicide. Zach played my younger brother (B), and I (A) was trying to talk him out of jumping off of the fire escape of our apartment. We dragged out the scene over the course of a few minutes, and were both crying by the end. Our teacher and classmates were crying too. That was the first time I ever made an audience cry. I had finally broken my comedic relief typecast, and someone had seen my potential to tell dark and heavy stories. Stories that really meant something, or had something to say about the human condition. 

Later in the year, Zach and I worked together again on a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where we genderbent the roles of Helena and Hermia to experiment with inner monologue. That drama class was truly a playground of exploration and innovation, two phenomena that continue to shape my artistic philosophies even all these years later. At the end of the year, Biederman awarded me “Drama Student of the Year” at the junior high awards night. That made me happy. I went on to high school and did not see Zach or Biederman for a few years. However, I recently learned that Zach is a finalist in the same category as me for the ASU Gammage High School Musical Theatre Awards, my regional feeder ceremony for the Jimmy Awards. 

Another feature of my experience in junior high theatre was my foundation of a drama club. I wanted a large space for all of the students of various theatre classes to experience community and acceptance. So, I convinced Biederman to sponsor a drama club, of which I was elected president. I was extremely honored to lead a student organization, and it still exists there today.

I am eternally grateful for my experience in junior high theatre, and appreciate the foundation that it laid for my future pursuits of academic theatre. The value of theatre education from an early age cannot be overstated, and I encourage any tween who is considering giving drama a try to go for it: you never know what you may find.


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