#TheatreInOurSchools Month — Always At Home on My School’s Stage
by Alyssa Sileo
There is very little that is more important to me than the act of enabling others to be creative, speak their minds, and live their truths. My strong arts education has charged me to advocate for theatre in schools. March is #TheatreInOurSchools Month, so I’m using it to celebrate the strides of Arts Ed organizations.
I’ve been performing since I was 3 in dance recitals and little school plays, and I started theatre classes when I was 7. A more involved arts education experience began in middle school, though, when I attended theatre classes, workshops, and intensives at local arts spaces like The Walnut Street Theatre. I’ve been training vocally since sixth grade and spent three years as a member of the Harmony Show Choir at Mainstage Center of the Arts in NJ, traveling the tri-state area to perform.
The height of my theatre ed life came along when I began attending a vocational-technical high school as a student of their drama program. I have had a theatre class every day for the past four years and it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I am graded on my participation and performance in shows and am given chances to create additional projects for the year’s theatrical season as well as play a mentor role to the younger drama students. Very often I am rummaging through my teacher’s play cabinet to take home what will be my Friday night entertainment. And my college experience is going to mirror this, since I’ll be a Theatre Arts major. Then the rest of my life is going to mirror this, as an performer, arts advocate, playwright, dramaturg, and professional theatre geek.
The generosity of theatre leaders shines in my daily life. My drama teachers have exhibited what it means to give your heart and soul to a group of people, all in the name of this groups’ betterment. Since I’m also a member of International Thespian Society (ITS), I’ve had an expanded experience of working with mentor figures. The representatives of the Educational Theatre Association (the sponsors of ITS) work to highlight student artists’ accomplishments and raise their voices. I’ve met a number of these champions at Thespian events like International Thespian Festival and the Broadway Back to School show at 54 Below in NY. I will never forget their willingness to guide me along my path, as they respect and listen to us students. The EdTA has even provided me connections that have aided me in my Laramie Project Project journey and have shared LPP information on their social media.
If someone asked me why I am so fervent about advocating for arts education, I don’t give them a straight answer. I am a theatre kid, so I tell stories. I get choked up talking about the remarkable teachers I’ve met at Thespian events, and how their students tell me that there’s no money on the table for directing school musicals or instructing theatre classesーbut arts teachers do it so their kids have a place to smile. I share the goofiest moments that have happened at the latest hours of tech rehearsal, when any other professional would probably call it quits and go home and sleepーbut arts teachers don’t rest until their kids are in good shape. I rattle off lists of truths about myself I know only because of reading this one play in class or doing this one acting exerciseーall of the epiphanies that have became a mountain of joy and wisdom.
Thanks to Thespian, I have friends wherever I turn. I’m climbing closer to my goal of having a buddy in every state. Sometimes I go on my Laramie Project Project or my troupe’s Instagram, follow some other troupes from across the country, and strike up conversations with their Thespian on the account. (Usually the conversation segues to LPP at some point, but that’s after we’ve geeked out over our school’s show season.) All of us theatre kids have this chronically friendly spark inside us, but it was an arts leader that first told us we had permission to use it.
As a queer person, theatre has been essential to my identity formation. I was born into a safe space and welcoming region, but the fears of coming out and being out reverberate in every situation. But the virtues of a theatre artist are 1) responding to your surroundings and 2) ingenuity. A basic saying that has been echoing in my mind recently (I think I found it from an ad for the movie Inside Out, to be entirely honest) is that “every day is full of emotions.” Thanks to theatre, I see these emotions arriving in my heart, and I can have some fun with them. I have a healthy outlet to articulate or visualize or serialize them.
Pride is something that plays through the soundtrack of my high school yearsーa sensation that theatre artists are taught to strive for. And a quality that comes along with the realization that our uniqueness is what makes great, meaningful, life-changing work.
My activism, theatre, writing, and coming out journeys didn’t even follow parallel paths, but rather were a single track that led me to the discovering my synonymous identity of artist advocateーin which I pull from my woman, queer, theatre, student, Jersey girl, and every other experience to do the work that needs to be done. It’s what keeps the earth below my feet, and what American Director (and my queen) Anne Bogart calls a heritage to pull from and make good art from. I honor my ancestors on the stage, and my worldview constantly grows. It is what allows me to reveal my soul, accept my fears, and do it all in the name of others’ betterments.
I hope everyone can become a bit more like a theatre teacher. These angels make us good people. They are the embodiment of my favorite, personally-discovered association: when you love someone, you see their potential.
There are so many ways to be an arts educator. I don’t think I will be a high school drama teacher even though I would love to be a visiting teaching artist. I do suspect my life path may take me to teaching theatre at a university, though. (I mean, what else am I going to do with that Theatre Studies PhD I want so badly…) But I feel even a young person can be an arts educator. I fulfill this role within my school as a self-proclaimed Drama Mama to my beloved drama department, and by sticking the theatre into literally every conversationーbecause let’s be real, what is a conversation without the arts?
So I’ll keep fighting so that every kid can have access to this essential aspect of their education!
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. She’s the proud Drama Mama of every student at her performing arts high school, Public Relations Officer of Thespian Troupe 5480, and self-proclaimed Spotify-playlist-queen. She is the leader of the international theatre advocacy and education initiative The Laramie Project Project,which unites and catalyzes productions and staged readings of the acclaimed play in honor of current hate crime victims. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation and Arts Ed Now. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the cannon.