Building Character: the Practice of an Actor, the Work of a Child

This may be my longest post of my time as guest curator for Kids New West but felt it was best to do a short introduction. My field is performing arts education. I am an experienced performer with a passion for sharing the benefits of arts education with young people.

Why young people? Because they are in the stage of their lives where the most self growth and exploration is occurring. They are the most receptive and open to fearless self discovery without yet feeling the self consciousness that we all develop over time, for various reasons; and which ultimately becomes a hurdle on our path to life fulfillment.

The time that I’ve spent working with children in the arts, over 10 years at this point, has taught me a lot about what it means to be a human. What makes us who we are, what helps us grow into the people we will become. I’ve witnessed many of my students grow up before my eyes (and yet I stay the same age…not quite sure how that works) and have seen them develop wonderful habits as hard working adults.  I’ve seen them grow out of the “mine phase”, “no phase” and the “run around until I physically cannot take another step and collapse into an exhausted hysterical pile of giggles phase” (although who isn’t still prone to these once in awhile ;); leaving behind character traits that no longer serve them, or transforming some traits into helpful, effective, and useable skills in their everyday lives.  I get to watch character develop in front of me and the process is nothing short of miraculous.

I teach drama, because of it’s innate need for the study of character. The exploration of a human form, the study of one’s past (real or fictional), what it means in the present, and how who we were carries great weight, but also great hope for who we will be in the future is a fascinating subject.

In his book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” Paul Tough explores how our character is ultimately what decides not only our success in life, but also our happiness.  What are the character traits we need to succeed, and do we possess them? If we don’t possess them how do we build awareness and courage to change them?

Drama, theatre, dance, music and art study from an early age promotes an awareness of self. Further to the point it promotes “practice of self”. To be involved in an environment where you must answer for yourself how you would feel in this particular situation, how you would feel if your experience was that of this characters, is cause to self-reflect, an exercise that many of us are not able (or willing) to participate in even if we understand its benefits to our lives.  The best part of this being, that we are doing very productive, positive self work, while we pretend. We can explore outcomes, no matter how dire, without the fear of real world repercussions.

This practice:

  • builds confidence in our decision making skills
  • promotes in us well rounded thinking where we can see the matter from many sides
  • encourages a think before you act mentality
  • fosters self awareness of our own character and why we think the way we do.

The article included in this post is not directly related to the study of the arts, and are not overly “deep”, but it does outline how development of different character traits begins very early on, and how that development can greatly effect the way in which our future generation thinks about problem solving and learning.

The second article is a list of books that help promote character growth. Stories are an engaging way to open up discussions with your child about how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others and relating ones own experiences to another.

Stefanie Swinnard
The Stage New Westminster