Can Drama Club Make You More Successful?
At this moment, I’m not sure where my keys are. Or my own kids, for that matter. What I had for dinner last week is anyone’s guess. But if you participated in any of the 75+ shows I directed over the past 20 years, I know what part you played and will be happy to tell you.
Often, this will happen at the most inopportune time: When you are enjoying that family dinner out, at a school function for a younger sibling, on a random vacation, when that was still a thing, on a first date… Never mind that. You were Lumiere in 2003. You played King Chula-longhorn in 2007. You played Eliza Doolittle in 2012. This remembrance of things past is sometimes met with an awkward acknowledgment, sometimes met with a reluctant nod, but mostly remembered with pride.
As it should be.
Dramatic arts, despite being celebrated on television with shows spanning “Fame,” to “Glee,” to the most recent “Rise,” are often given the short shrift. Drama does not have the macho coolness factor that is associated with sports. It does not have the academic connotations that accompany STEM clubs.
Yet, there is no question that drama is a team sport and is intellectually rigorous (try memorizing 165 lines, 12 songs, complex choreography, constant blocking and verbal cues) (or doing this all in the dark working backstage) (or working an intricate light/sound board under the cracking whip of a demanding director).
Therefore, it is both types of extracurricular activity rolled into one. It is that, and so much more…
Perhaps I am biased when I say that as the Artistic Director of SHTARKcontrast, and the Director of Dramatic Arts at HAFTR, as well as many other schools and organizations, drama students are among the finest students I’ve been blessed to encounter. They are dedicated, empathetic, creative, respectful, and brave. Often, they could care less about the societal stigma and peer pressure that less woke students exert on them because they themselves lack the confidence or discipline to participate in a demanding and unfamiliar activity. Students regularly reflect that joining drama forced them to leave their “comfort zones,” and the rewards were measured in personal growth, unexpected friendships, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
And it is simply so much fun. Note: Applause are everything.
I restate with bias that these students are exceptional. However, when looking over my hundreds of former student/actors I noticed something remarkable:
Students who participated in drama in high school went on, by and large, to stunning success.
Many of these students are Ivy Leaguers. Matthew Goldstein (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) graduated from Dartmouth and attends Columbia Law School. This “underachiever” has also written plays for stage and screen, including musicals. He credits participation in drama as a contributing factor to his “understand[ing] of the central features of musicals and storytelling — a skill that has translated directly to my personal writing.” And, he recalls, “it was fun.”
Justin Lish (Corpse Bride, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) attends the University of Pennsylvania and credits drama for “enable[ing] me to gain the skills necessary to effectively articulate in front of large crowds. Additionally, the ability to pitch ideas to other team members in projects I work on… these skills are not taught in class.” This co-curricular mastery is reiterated by Jack Winkler (Lighting Director and actor, The Butler Did It, Corpse Bride, How to Succeed), a sophomore at Columbia University, who credits drama for providing a creative outlet outside of class where he could “gain experience planning and managing real life situations and calamities, where split-second decision making is par for the course.”
The list goes on. My former Assistant Director Lauren Hoffman (Irena’s Vow, The Unusual Suspects) is a Princeton graduate. Just last month I reunited with sisters (Hodel, Fiddler on the Roof, and Maria, West Side Story) who are attending Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.
Sure, the Ivys are impressive, and I’ve no doubt the leader of science club can boast an Ivy-er alumni list, but drama grads span a phenomenal achievement spectrum, whether it be leading crisis prevention centers, self startup graphic design businesses, serving in the IDF, or are valedictorians at prestigious universities.
Briana Feirstein (Oliver! Corpse Bride, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Starry Night On Broadway, Beauty and the Beast – actor, choreographer, assistant director, and co-director) and recent graduate of University of Pennsylvania/Arcadia’s Master of Science in Genetic Counseling program, believes drama ”gave me the confidence to be a leader.” High school is, after all, formative. “So much of who I was in high school was who I was in drama club…I will be truly passionate about a few things in my lifetime; drama is one of them.”
Being part of a drama club means entering a brother/sisterhood of sorts, which in itself is affirming. Aryeh Lifshitz (Oliver,Corpse Bride) former Valedictorian at NYU Stern School of Business, notes, “High school drama helped me feel comfortable around people I didn’t know. As a transfer student I originally struggled acclimating into HAFTR, and through drama I build a tight-knit friend group and felt good being vulnerable around others.” The value of theater arts is stealthy and cogent. “High school drama programs instill a certain confidence in adolescents that is not taught otherwise,” says Aryeh, adding, “I took an acting class in NYU because I missed high school drama so much!”
But does drama help “inspire” those sacred high school transcripts? As college guidance counselors will tell you, resoundingly, YES. Of course, the commitment must be authentic. As Barnard graduate Aliza Lifshitz (How to Succeed, High School Musical, Chicago) says, “In one of my essays for Barnard, I had to write about a time when I went out of my comfort zone and ‘majored in unafraid.’ I chose to write about my decision to join the play despite not wanting to pursue theatre professionally or academically, and the joy I found pursuing a passion for fun.”
Interpersonal skills are only some of the life tools drama provides, particularly for those behind the curtain. The practical skills involved in putting on a feature performance, with set changes, lighting and sound cues, props, special effects, are astonishing. There is a famous quote that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. That is sort of what happens backstage: backwards but in the dark.
Another superstar, William Silber (High School Musical, The Butler Did It), held every backstage/house manager title that exists, and invented a few of his own. His determination to problem solve, whether it be supporting a fragile 20-foot castle with repurposed books, or creating a rolling metalwork gate… well, I can’t speak for him to tell you what he gained from drama, but I know what I gained. He remains an inspiration to me, particularly on days when I’m ready to give up.
It is the precious experiences in drama that teach the whole student, and not in the way of subject-centric, traditional, frontal classroom instruction. It goes beyond “pair share” and “student centricity,” the buzzwords in progressive education. It is the original “growth mindset” and the “four c’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity).”
Alexander Mehl (And Then There Were None, The Unusual Suspects, Mousetrap, Irena’s Vow) is now a professional magician/real estate broker and his support for drama and the next generation of thespians is unprecedented. After graduating high school he returned to help each year’s production and speak to the cast about the significant role drama played in his success in high school and in life. Sammy Gilbert, University of Albany (How to Succeed, High School Musical, The Butler Did It) is typically included in cast chats, and regularly checks in to motivate the cast.
Hannah Rose Chaikin (Corpse Bride, How to Succeed, The Butler Did It, High School Musical, Check Please, Sure Thing, 12 Incompetent Jurors), of Macaulay Honors College, and an aspiring novelist, has actually returned to help direct and star in plays after she graduated. She is now a member of the SHTARKcontrast ensemble.
Dr. Matthew Goldfinger, a pediatric resident at Texas Tech University Health Science Center, (The Princess Bride, And Then There Were None, 12 Incompetent Jurors), was instrumental in the founding of SHTARKcontrast. In fact, he came up with our name! As Covid-19 handicapped live theater, it provided an opportunity for far-flung members to unite for a Zoom performance. Matt, whose high school graduation is far, far back in the rearview mirror, reunited with former cast-mates that he hadn’t performed with in over a decade for our recent virtual production of 12 Incompetent Jurors.
That is the power of drama club. What other high school experience has these enduring and empirical rewards? Perhaps this is expressed by two people to whose genius I defer. The first is philanthropist David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. “The world,” he said, “is a complicated place, and there’s a lot of division between people. The performing arts tend to unify people in a way nothing else does.”
Educational studies show that future leaders must be unifiers, creative collaborators, problem solvers — all skills one acquires in drama. While the aforementioned drama success correlations are anecdotal, they nonetheless show a convincing correlation.
The second prodigy I quote is Ben Kaye (The Princess Bride, And Then There Were None, The Unusual Suspects), an original HAFTR Player, who is currently a theater professional: “High school theatre education is essential in supporting and guiding self-expression for young people. By not only performing work, but also being given ownership of the work they create, (devising their own work, using theatre workshops to inform the production they’re putting up), young people are being given the means with which they can create and make quick decisions on the fly. At the end of the day, theatre education makes students better people, to themselves and to each other.”
As we look to the uncertain future of drama, my hope is that schools continue to support drama kids/thespian societies via online collaboration or through other creative means. Now, more than ever, we need to foster the arts, as they foster us, as people. Yes, the future is uncertain but one thing is for sure. If you were every in one of MY plays, when I see you sometime in distant future, I will remind you who you played, and how truly unforgettable you are.