The importance of exposing kids to the arts

By June Saavedra

"Dragonfly" in CST's A Midsummer Night's Dream

In the mid ‘90s I worked with Redmoon Theatre in Chicago.  I was assistant director of the Redmoon Children’s Company, a name we officially gave to a group of children who were benefiting from our community outreach program.  These impoverished inner-city kids regularly attended our free Saturday morning art class and regularly performed in the All Hallow’s Eve parade and spectacle and the Winter Pageant.  We decided to call them a company and create extra gigs exclusively for them.

When one of our core families consisting of the siblings Edwin, Osvaldo, and Veva moved to a new neighborhood, I would have to pick them up and drive them to the workshop or rehearsals or to other theaters to see other types of performance or to museums.  One time, I arrived to pick them up and their mom told me that they were being punished for something (and I assure you it was not anything schoolwork related, just saying) and so they weren’t allowed to go.  I was disappointed to say the least.  When I arrived at rehearsal kid-less, my colleagues were equally disappointed.  One was outraged enough to claim, “That’s like telling your kids they can’t go to school!”  “I know, right,” and then we all sighed in unison.

Maybe their mom just didn’t get it.  Maybe she just didn’t get how important, no, how essential, it is to expose children to art.  Better yet, if the kids are up to it, allow them to create art.  And best of all, share their art with their community.  It’s an intrinsic part of being a child – creativity.  Being creative drives their play and thus their learning.  Children have an impulse to make something new out of interesting materials and show it to another.  Children also have a predisposition to be creative with their bodies and voices.  Children want to create something and then show it.  Everyone – the children and the community – benefits from such endeavors.

This mom gets it.

My daughter will shout at me 87 times, “Mama, look what I can do!” while in the pool.  She goes underwater.  That’s the amazing thing she figured out she could do with her body and she wants me to see it.  Be her audience.  Knowing what we were in for this summer (all three kids and I performed in Chicago Street Theatre’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I would think to myself, “Oh darling, you think going underwater is something amazing you can do?  Just wait.  You are going to do something so amazing.  You are going to be on a stage…”

I began telling the kids a story of a girl and a boy who were in love but weren’t allowed to get married.  Another boy also loved this girl but she didn’t love him, another girl did.  They all decided to run away to the forest where magical fairies lived and played tricks on people.

They begged for more.

I told the kids that a fairy king and queen were arguing.  The king had a sidekick named Puck and he was mischievous.  A group of actors (who, um, weren’t very good and so that is very funny) show up in the woods and Puck turns one of them into a donkey.  When the kids’ laughter subsided, I added, and then because of a magic spell the fairy queen falls in love with him. 

Squeals of laughter.  Oh, and speaking of falling in love, Puck plays more tricks on those boys and girls in the forest and makes both boys fall in love with the wrong girl.

Do you know who wrote this amazing story?  William Shakespeare.

When my children showed up at rehearsal for the first time, I’m not sure what everyone thought.  Typically the rule is no animals or children.  Some may have been delighted by the idea of cute little children in the play.  Some may have thought the children would be distracting, naughty, destructive, demanding, a nuisance or trouble-makers.  Well, perhaps, if I had given them the chance.  Instead I was pretty sure that even though 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds are young children and have a bundle of energy, the theater has some pretty awesome energy itself.  And my kids could feel it. 

Wolfie was familiar with the Chicago Street Theater building because he had taken a class in the upstairs studio.  The girls had been there too to see Wolfie’s play.  But when they first stepped onto the main stage, I saw the awe in their face.  I saw the excitement.  They trembled a little bit.  They could feel the energy.  They knew that they were going to be part of something very, very creative and they would get to show it to people.  A LOT of people as it turns out.

We have one more weekend of performances.  “Do we have rehearsal today?”  “Do we have a show today?”  I catch my kids reenacting scenes from the play.  Mostly, perhaps to my neighbor’s horror if they are not familiar with The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe, my children poke their bellies with a snorkel while shrieking, “Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!” while laughing hysterically.  They are combining scenes from the play with other games of make believe.  We have been entertaining an awful lot of fairy mischief lately.

I am so pleased with the experience my children have had with Chicago Street Theatre and the cast and crew.  Mostly, I am so pleased with how well respected the children are.  I suppose that’s because everyone in the cast and crew get it, too.  We all know how important, no, essential, it is to make art and share it with the community.  My children are meeting interesting people.  My children are listening to Shakespeare and dissecting the plot.  My children are performing and learning about improvising as well as rule-following.  My children are experiencing the joy and electricity that comes from performing on a stage in front of a live audience.  My children are learning that their bodies, voices and creative talents are cherished things and they can use them in awe-inspiring ways.

Best of all, for the rest of their lives, my children get to tell everyone that when they were 3, 5 and 7 they got to perform in a Shakespeare play in front of an audience of over 1,000 people.  Thank you, Chicago Street Theatre.

Tulip asked me when our next show is and I told her it would be three days from now.  “Oh good.  I bet Jordan will be so happy to see us again.  He said he missed us last time.”  I guess some people are delighted to have children join them in this play.