Support People, Progress, and Empowerment

Posted by Shaila Seth, Sep 15, 2017 0 comments

In my role as chair of the Educational Theatre Association’s International Thespian Officers (ITO)—the leadership group of EdTA’s student organization, the International Thespian Society—among my responsibilities is to advocate on behalf of theatre and other arts education. Last month, while I stood near Capitol Hill, just a few yards away from where policies were being made and bills were being passed, I asked myself a simple question: why arts advocacy? Why was I, a high school senior, standing in my nation’s capital for the second time in the past year, pouring my passion, time, and hard work into this cause? My answer is one that may seem perplexing at first, but is easily echoed by every member of my Thespian community.

I’m there because, inherently, the term arts advocacy is a misnomer. Folks within the arts community love the work we do, whether it’s sitting in a booth calling a show or belting center stage. However, the core of what drives me to think larger than the confines of the classroom and the stage goes beyond the sheer passion and talent that Thespians radiate. I advocate for the arts because the work we do touches lives in more ways than people realize. In my ITO role, I have travelled the country and, whether I'm in Dallas, Texas or Durham, New Hampshire, one thing has remained clear to me: theatre saves, theatre unites, and it drives our nation’s students not only towards increased passion for their education, but to an increased drive for self-discovery.

For too long the arts have been either marginalized or viewed as a luxury afforded to only the most affluent. This stigma needs to come to an end. The arts are vital for all of us. The work we’re doing supersedes party lines, political ideologies, and any other dividing factor in this nation. When an advocate for the arts visits the office of their senator or congressperson to speak for our cause, she is speaking for the shy high school freshman who, perhaps through theatre experiences, will become the confident and eloquent senior. All of those who advocate on behalf of theatre education are speaking to protect the power of the play and the magic of the musical.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the ways my advocacy experiences have affected me. The two Arts Advocacy Days that I have participated in have not only been a platform for me, but have also been a tremendously empowering experience. In the classroom, I learn about the process behind real legislative progress, and when I’m on Capitol Hill I have the privilege to be an active member in that progress, and for a cause I am so deeply passionate about. How’s that for a meaningful educational supplement to School House Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes Law”? With each new visit to the Hill I feel more empowered than the last. I’m certain that, by next spring, when I walk down First Street on the way to my third trip to the Russell Senate Office Building, I will walk with the confidence that reflects the true power of every student advocate, knowing that I will be sharing their message and all students who love and need the arts, including my Thespian peers.

Theatre education serves as a place of learning and progress and a place of trial and error, when students need it most. Everyone from Ted Cruz, who starred in a Harvard Law production of The Crucible, to one of my own Virginia senators, Tim Kaine, who has expressed interest in visiting my high school theatre company, has shown me that even as a teenager, my voice in arts advocacy can serve as a unifying force. I believe that when I speak as an arts advocate, the voice I use is not just my own—it’s the voice of the millions of everyday American students who are looking forward to rehearsal after school today. Arts advocacy is a misnomer because it simply means support for the people, progress, and empowerment.

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