Why theater is important

Upper School English teacher Matt Dougherty wrote this blog post about how participation in the theatrical arts, whether as an actor or behind the scenes, helps Landon boys learn the valuable skills of teamwork, perseverance and empathy. Dougherty is Landon's Thomas W. Dixon Endowed Chair in English and the advisor to the Director's Workshop, an annual collaborative venture with sister school Holton-Arms that sees students stage their own short productions each winter. He is also a professional actor who this fall earned raves for his performance in The Cripple of Inishmaan (pictured above) at the ATLAS Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C.

During my years at Landon as an English teacher, I have also been an actor — an experience that has informed my teaching and helped me with the Director's Workshop theatrical productions I oversee every winter. The common denominator these three endeavors share, and what makes them so important, is storytelling — because what we've been doing as beings for thousands of years is imagining a world we live in, through words and song and dance.

At some point in the course of a young man's tenure here at Landon, he undertakes studies in Humanities and is asked in a number of ways to examine why is he here and what is he going to do about it. Although as an adolescent I was never asked those questions outright, I heard them in much of what I read and heard and saw: My response, then (and now), was to try to continue and perhaps contribute to the conversation I overheard poets, philosophers, playwrights, novelists, musicians and filmmakers having about those two questions. How to do that, though, was the problem.

I began to write — poetry, mostly, and short stories. And plays.

At one point, I auditioned for a play — for a role that needed an Irish accent, which I could do. I was cast in a small but key part and discovered that ancient but sometimes not honorable tradition of serving the story for an audience: showing and telling us the truth about ourselves.

Since then, with a hiatus to help raise my children, I've been acting professionally, which, unless you are fortunate as well as talented, pays little. With a family to help take care of, I started teaching English, coaching basketball and lacrosse, and directing plays at Delbarton, a school in New Jersey much like Landon, where I arrived in 1989. Here, as there, I get to initiate, continue and contribute to that cultural conversation. But the play's the thing...

There's a long history between then and now, maybe an interesting story or two, but let's focus on just one thing: why theater is important beyond the classroom in which Antigone or Hamlet or Arcadia is read and discussed. I am sure I could choose more than three aspects of theater (as I could have chosen more than three plays above, or three different plays), but I'll go with these as the vital skills our Landon boys (and anyone else) learn through participation in the theatrical arts: collaboration, perseverance, empathy.

A play: You have to come together with persons you may not know and in six to eight weeks produce something to be seen and judged in public. This process requires dedicated collaboration, mental agility (memorization, sure, if you're on stage, but building sets and lighting scenes also require time and effort) and physical exertion (see above crew comments. Rehearsals can be long; movement must be precise and purposeful. And dancing? There's no such thing as effortless dancing!). All this work is done as a group in order to reach out to another group — the audience. To share the story you have been learning how best to tell, by taking yourself out of yourself to become a part of a whole, though you're still there — a kind of aesthetic dissociation. All in the service of connecting the story to that audience.

Sounds rather artsy, I know. Besides, in the classroom after all I may not have the kind of impact a Peter Dinklage might have, or a Michael B. Jordan, or a Lupita Nyong'o — but to be in something that connects a human condition to another human is another way of saying that we're all in this together, and no one gets out alive, so...

That ellipsis is where I find theater, and poetry, and art. And I hope I can find you there as well.