I do not have a television in my house. Some guests comment in disbelief, “How can you live without a television?” Television is not bad; too much television was bad for me. It was hypnotic and encouraged me to waste a lot of time, so I got rid of the machine. I also got tired of the news and commercials telling me what to believe and what to purchase. Similarly, I hate visiting friends and their entire living room is arranged around a television, which remains on. Hello; let’s look at each other and talk. Can you imagine growing up today? The relationship our students have with technology is beyond description. My three-year-old niece operates her mom’s cell phone! How has technology effected our students and what is our role in teaching theatre which is about people, not gadgets?
I grew up in rural Texas; our closet neighbors were the Sellars family, 3 miles away. I grew up playing outdoors. Jan Sellars and I often rode our bikes for miles, but my favorite childhood game incorporated my chores and my imagination. It was my job to feed our livestock. I had to cut down some of the maize or milo from the nearby field and wheel barrow it to feed the calves and pigs. Instead of efficiently cutting down the green stalks from the nearest corner of the field, I sliced winding paths into the living greenness creating a meandering maze of trails and secret rooms and hidden passages. I knew the paths. I can still hear the wind gently vibrating the leaves sounding like a giant hand gliding across a rusted harp. And each day I fed the animals, the maze got deeper and more complicated and the High Plains’ wind was my soundtrack. When my city cousins came to visit, we would spend hours devising games and scenarios in the mysterious paths.
But today, many of our students only play indoors and they are attached to their devices, computers, and video games. Some of the games have great effects and soundtracks, but it’s all been designed and created for them. I grew up with friends, real friends; I still visit with Jan Sellars Bates. Our students have virtual friends. Today’s Millennial boosts his or her self-esteem by counting hundreds of Facebook friends. But the truth is that they have never seen most of them and they only know them superficially and add friends from the invitation of an intrusive app suggesting, “You might also know…”. A teen today sends an average of 3,000 texts a month. I use to get one snail mail letter every two months from my pen pal in Minnesota.
There is much negative criticism of Millennials. Many say they are tough to manage, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy, entitled. I’m not quite that harsh but, I admit, I sometimes describe my students as so, until I need help with my computer or, sound system, or downloading something, or hooking up to Wi-Fi. Then I’m reminded that they are actually efficient, genius and skilled! Millennials grew up in a Facebook and Instagram world. They grew up with filters that only show the good and happy world. Consequently, many are suffering from depression and low self-esteems. The trauma for young people to be unfriended is real. It’s no fault of this generation; this is the time they were dealt. They grew up with instant gratification and yet older people describe them as impatient and wanting everything now, now, now, with no understanding of having to work for it! If they want information, it’s at their fingertips. I had to plan for a week and drive 30 miles to see a movie. They don’t even have to worry about movie times; they just click and download. Food? Click, order, pay, delivered, and not just pizza. Same with shopping; Amazon order and it’s in your possession tomorrow. And dating? They did not have to go through the awkward humiliation of breaking the ice and stumbling out words that sounded more like soggy Jell-O than courting. They just swipe and bam, a hook-up. They swipe and crash, a break-up. They are failing at building meaningful relationships. They rarely practiced the skills.
But theatre teaches communication and relationships. We teach the essential social coping skills. We teach that the process matters more than the immediate outcome. Today’s kids do not have a realistic understanding of the journey. They care more about the short term gains than the life-long lessons. Through the rehearsal period, we model patience and teach that projects come to fruition with time, flexibility and persistence. Theatre rewards with the fulfillment of working hard and seeing a project brought to fruition. Theatre teaches that we care about people rather than corporate gains, or profits, or brands, or how many likes your posting gets.
It’s always been tough teaching actors character development and relationships; it’s even harder now because of how alienated they have been raised. It is even more difficult now to teach looking at one another in the eyes. It’s more difficult to teach touching. Remind yourself of when your students grew-up. Discuss the humanity necessary for theatre and all art.
There should be no cell phones while your company is creating art and while you are teaching communication and relationships. The presence of the phone invites distraction, and allows kids to surrender to the addiction of the cell phone, just like me and television. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out on a table when you are supposed to visit with family or friends. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out during a business meeting where you are supposed to be engaged and communicating.
Theatre directors teach art, but we also teach life-long skills. Thank God I did not have an I Phone in my childhood maize field; I would have laid down on the cool dirt and played a video maze game, like Portal 2, rather than cultivating my own imagination. Instead I built my own life size magical world of green corridors and giant hands playing the High Plains harp.