Theater arts teach communication, overcoming fears

Students perform in “Guys and Dolls” at Blaine High School in 2016.
Students perform in “Guys and Dolls” at Blaine High School in 2016. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

If all the world’s a stage, then theater arts class is more than an elective. It’s a job skill. At least that’s the way Shari Akers sees it. Akers teaches theater arts at Blaine High School and directs after-school plays and musicals throughout the district. She spoke to Bellingham Families about how theater helps students practice for life.

Question: How can performing arts benefit students?

Answer: Art transmits our culture, what is important to us as emotional and social beings. Whereas the sciences provide the how of solving human needs and problems, art explores the why of it: how we as humans relate to each other at our most inner core, what we value as humans and how we communicate those values.

There isn’t any student who can’t benefit, as theater is just a presentation of a condensed and controlled microcosm of the issues the world faces. We can safely explore choices and their consequences in order to generate discussion. Plays take human issues and problems and present characters facing them either heroically, tragically, or comedically.

Q. How do you engage with students who feel anxious about performing?

A: The balance of when to back off from a student with anxiety or shyness and when to challenge them to take that risk so that they have concrete experience of overcoming that fear is always a tricky one.

We have a thing called bouquets where students can say good things about another and their work for that day. When peers start giving out bouquets to each other on their own, then it lowers the fear in the whole group. I’ve gone complete teaching days where the class is so positive to one another that no one cares what I say anymore. That’s success in my book. When a student can take a risk, fail and shake it off, they’ve grown.

Q. Can you tell me about a moment where you really saw the impact of your classes on a student?

A: Years ago, one of my students was in the instrument closet having a panic attack right before she had to go on. Ironically, she was one of those “tough kids” who scared everyone else with her demeanor. No one had seen her vulnerable before, but locking eye contact on her and firmly telling her specifically how she had grown up to this point, somehow she trusted me enough to go on. She performed beautifully, and the others saw her differently from then on. She went on to be a remarkable nurse who was noted to be the most calm in crisis at the hospital. She tells me she credits that day to her breaking her fear.

Q. How do you respond to people’s misconceptions about performance arts?

A: Most people think art is “fluff” or isn’t valid. That theater is expendable or not necessary. But a theatrical performance can spark the dialogue to discuss bigger issues. We can mourn with those who have lost and rejoice in victories along with the characters we are watching. Performances can challenge our way of thinking while they entertain and engage us. If we can’t teach students how to engage others, how will they become great parents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, computer designers and thinkers?