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From Footlights to Flashlights
Collection of Plays Aims to Teach Morals and Key Life Lessons to Teenagers
The idea of "cutting the arts" to save money for other programs in public schools has led to hotly contested debates for many years. While some districts have held strong on their commitment to the artistic development of their students, others have allowed choir, band, theater, and other right-brain oriented programs to fall by the wayside due to lack of funding. Personally, I was lucky enough to grow up in a school district that is and always has been incredibly devoted to the arts, and I flourished in that environment. In fact, I would argue I learned so much more from my experiences in choir and theater than I did in any of my other courses—at least, I learned more that I continue to apply to my everyday life. My devotion to vocal music taught me about myself, but the musicals I performed and the plays I studied taught me important lessons about the world at large. From the racial undertones of productions like South Pacific and West Side Story, to the way Shakespeare's King Lear illuminated the evils of greed, theatrical themes and morals always tended to strike a chord with me that the themes and morals of poetry or prose rarely did.
This month's groundbreaking book, an anthology of plays called From Footlights to Flashlights, also struck a chord with me, because it showcases how theater can be used to teach as well as to entertain. Gwyn English Nielson, a New Jersey-based secondary school teacher, wrote all 10 of the plays featured here, both of which—the subtitle of the book tells us—are meant to "reach and teach teens." The subject matter of these productions, then, is more or less what you would expect to be geared toward an adolescent audience: morality, identity, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, love and relationships, sexism, racism, and dealing with grief, to name a few.
The young target audience for these plays also means that Nielson's writing is sometimes heavy-handed in how it seeks to impart wisdom. For instance, "To Be—Or Not to Be—One of Us," the collection's peer pressure play, features both stereotypical high-school stock characters and a dream sequence that is a bit too cheesy in trying to deliver the piece's primary lesson of being yourself. Usually, though, Nielson writes clever one-acts that teach familiar lessons in unique ways. For example, the anthology's Christian-friendly morality play, "Allegorical Chairs," personifies Love, Hate, Good, Evil, and other polar opposite moral pairings in a structure that is equal parts debate heat and game of musical chairs. Incorporating audience participation and improvisation, "Allegorical Chairs" doesn't just teach the obvious lessons of morality as ascribed by the Bible, but also shows how different people out in the crowd might have different viewpoints on what qualifies as "right" or "wrong."
At her best, Nielson's plays are meant not just to teach lessons, but also to inspire conversations about important topics that don't always get brought up in the classroom. Most of the plays leave room at the end for audience questions and discussions. Nielson also repeatedly mentions, in her introductory comments about each play, that most of her work here is ideal for performance in school assemblies or events. One particularly great discussion could be ignited by the collection's most incisive work, Baseball: America's Pastime, which explores the inherent sexism that exists in sports—from the youth leagues to the big leagues. Specifically, the play explores how boys and girls often player little league baseball alongside one another, only to have the two genders segmented off into two different sports (baseball for the boys, softball for the girls) after puberty. The question of why society has kept baseball as such a male-dominated sport—and what that says about our society, when baseball is referred to as "America's Pastime"—gives Nielson a unique way of exploring a familiar problem.
From Footlights to Flashlights is obviously not meant for everyone. Many older and more mature readers won't find much, either in terms of topic or approach, that they haven't read before. But as someone who learned so much from theater during my school days, it's cool to see a teacher using her own theater background as a means of imparting important life lessons. For English teachers, youth theater directors, and school assembly directors, the 10 plays featured in From Footlights to Flashlights are all worth a look—especially because Nielson has graciously allowed performances of each play to be put on by anyone, royalty-free. Maybe, with quality material like this on display, politicians and school officials will think twice before making a big, big mistake and cutting even more arts programs.
Interested in learning more about From Footlights to Flashlights or Gwyn English Nielson? You can purchase the book in paperback or hardcover from Amazon.com.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.