At my public high school everything around me attempted to dissuade me from becoming the quintessential “theatre kid.” My school left our arts programs severely underfunded and, as collateral, underespected. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to transfer some of the athletic funds to the drama club, but I often stood in the athletic director’s office pleading for help. Would money remedy the problematic treatment of theatre kids? No. Would it help foster the respect needed from the administration to make theatre kids feel worthy of our choice to participate in drama club? Yes.
High school students who participate in arts programs are sometimes considered inferior by peers, and it isn’t so easy to rise above the stereotype when the school system itself doesn’t want to aid in promoting success for choir, drama club, band and other arts groups. Football players are rendered god-like and have their successes announced on the loudspeaker in the morning, inflating their ever-growing egos. They take rides in plush buses to travel to games comfortably and have fully-packed stadiums of fans. The school drama club fights for enough money for a single bus to attend competitions. Our mothers held bake sales because they felt as though it was our only choice to cover the cost of new microphones. Overall high school drama clubs feel a consistent lack of support from school activity coordinators and the larger community.
In the social ladder of high schools, the theatre kids are often on the bottom, just above the chess players or the band geeks. At the top rest the lacrosse players, below the “popular for no good reason” girls who are just beat out by the football players. It never made much sense to me why, in the world of high school, my desire to participate in the musical over the soccer team automatically made me a loser –– someone who shouldn’t be invited to cool parties and didn’t attend football games or have as worthy a presence as someone who played a sport. Just because I’d opted for rehearsal and showtunes over pasta parties and practice, I was an outsider.
Given that I was involved in both cross country and theatre, I saw the immense benefits of both institutions. Ever since I was young, despite my desire to be athletic, I’d always been more drawn to the arts. I loved my cross country team in high school. I craved the sweat and the competition, the sense of unwavering teamwork and ultimate thrill we felt upon winning. But often times I felt like I didn’t belong. Sports teams at my school were cliquey and always looked toward the win, not the journey it had taken to get to that final game or match. Something about athletics seemed too serious and grave when to me it wasn’t that deep. A loss was a loss, a win was a win. In theatre, I didn’t have to deal with the crippling anxiety that we wouldn’t win or that we had to. We were just making art, we were coming together to stretch our minds and ourselves. And it was beautiful.
As someone who split her time between artistic and athletic pursuits, I can’t quite understand how in American high schools the latter automatically makes you hot and the former makes you lame. Sports games will always be sports games. They will always be American pastimes, they will always add entertainment to our lives. I will always enjoy football and basketball. But will these events and groups provide culture? Will they provide wider understanding and open the door to communicating on the basis of art? Will they provoke people to change their minds, to think? Will they inspire?
Upon graduating from high school I attended a Big 10 university in the midwest to study theatre and was hit with a massive realization: the theatre kids aren’t losers. The artists aren’t unworthy. The musicians aren’t geeks. Here at The University of Michigan there is talent pouring from the walls of our drama building, our music building, our dance building, and the high level of creative excellence produced by student artists is simply unmatched. The community respects theatre kids, acknowledges their hard work, applauds them. The vapid high school notion that my choice of extracurricular made me ultimately less likeable, less “cool,” less worthy of friendship had subsided. I was now among a cohort of people who, for doing the arts, were cool, trendy, fascinating and unique. Constantly, though, I wonder how many students from my high school (and ones like it) decided not to pursue drama club because of the downtrodden social status that comes along with it. I wonder how many students give up on their artistic dreams because high school is a time when, for the most part, we hope to blend in and not make ourselves known.
The theatre kids will stick together, always. We will be a united front, we will push past the 16-year-old bullies of our high school hallways and continue to create. We will continue to wonder, to inspire, to write and direct and perform. Because in the deep of the night, it has nothing to do with who will fund us, who will support us, who won’t laugh at us –– it has to do with the impact we make when we make art, something that is and always will be a win.