As we enter our second year at Fairview South School with Northlight on Campus (NOC), we have heavily considered the issue of connecting young boys with theatre. We have a wealth of female participation, however boys remain a struggle to engage. Last year, we started NOC with four boys, but over the course of the school year, lost all of them to other activities or a sense of pressure in being the only boys. This year, we have four boys again to begin the program and already we have seen some apprehension. On the first day of NOC, one of our 6th grade boys stood in the hallway looking in as we began working. As we coaxed him in, he nervously asked if there were other boys, when we told him ‘yes,’ he made the choice to come in and join the group.
The hesitation of boys to participate in theatre is a pervasive pattern that we notice in many of our theatre education programs. Curious about why male involvement in theatre (especially in the junior high grades) seems taboo, even in 2011, we asked some men in the theatre for their thoughts.
Northlight’s Artistic Director, BJ Jones, recalled a story about a nun at his Catholic elementary school, who humiliated him, at the age of ten, in front of his peers when she found him carrying a play in his pocket. “She waited for the whole class to get seated, and then announced to everyone ‘Mr. Jones is a thespian.’ I didn’t know what the word even meant, but I knew it was demeaning. Any boy who thought he might ask me about what I did on the weekends and after school in theatre classes was never going to ask me now.” Northlight Teaching Artist Michael Leon had a similar experience growing up in a Cuban family. “My opinion is that boys and men are raised and expected to be unexpressive and non-emotional. The way they present themselves to others should be strong and contained. This may be an old fashioned way of looking at things but I feel that a lot of parents still raise their kids like this.”
Philip Dawkins- a Chicago playwright, currently writing an original work, Rodeo, for NOC at Fairview- talks about gender expectations by comparing young adult literature for males and females. “Look at YA reader romance geared toward girls. Lots of story. Lots of relationships. Drama. Look at the YA reader romances geared toward boys… There are none… While young girls are reading Sweet Valley High, young boys (even young soon-to-be-gay boys) are searching under their fathers' beds for back issues of Playboy…A group of people who get together and act out long-winded scenarios about relationships and wants and desires? Sounds more geared toward people whose fantasies were fueled by Sweet Valley High. The hustle and bustle of the basketball court, competition, physical contact, rage, immediate gratification or disappointment: Playboy.”
In our quest to engage boys in theatre, we have seen amazing support from the male teachers at Fairview. One 8th grade teacher, told an assembled audience of 7th-8th graders a story about being a male in high school theatre. Even though he was an athlete, one of the best experiences he had in high school was acting in a school play. He auditioned in order to impress a girl, but once he got cast, and she didn’t, he decided to stick with it and said it was one of his greatest memories of high school.
BJ Jones recognizes what participating in theatre meant to him as a young boy: “There is a stereotype, but it saved my life. I would have never left Cleveland, would probably be sitting at a neighborhood bar next to my uncles. Instead, theatre got me out.”