I have been a theater teacher at Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School for twelve years now--which, when you consider how long most teachers remain in the field, does not seem like a lot of time. However, the rapidly moving world of technology makes twelve years feel like a lifetime. When I first began, many of my freshmen did not have cellphones. Facebook had only existed for approximately two years. Social Media had not infiltrated my students’ lives.
When I compare my current group of freshmen to the first class of freshmen I have ever taught, there are stark differences in their attitudes towards theater. My freshmen class of 2006 was eager and willing to play by taking part in a wide variety of theater games. My freshmen class of 2018 is reserved and holds back. They appear to be scared to participate or find theater games “boring”. Theater games are an integral part of learning the art. Through games and exercises students learn to loosen up and trust their instincts--to make acting choices without thinking. I believe these qualities are what help to develop believable, authentic characters for the stage. So, what has happened? Why do my current students refuse to participate in my theater classes?
While it is quite difficult to isolate one cause to this problem, there is one glaring difference between my classes in 2006 versus the classes I have today: the Smartphone. In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey on social media and technology, they found that 95% of teens aged 13-17 reported that they had access to a Smartphone.4
The phone is simply the instrument; how teenagers engage with the instrument is most concerning. 45% of teenagers reported being online constantly and 44% of teenagers reported being online several times a day. The three most popular online platforms are YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. The survey also asked teenagers to consider the effect that social media has on them. 45% of teenagers surveyed reported that interaction with social media sites had neither a positive or negative impact. They conclude that there is not a clear consensus on the effect of these sites. Contrary to these findings, a study conducted with 268 college-aged individuals looked at the inclination of negatively comparing oneself to others.5 The results of this study found that chronic Facebook users are more likely to experience depressive symptoms as a result of these negative comparisons.
Jean M. Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, conducted an analysis of generational research in order to shed a light on the generation of kids who have grown up with a Smartphone in their hands. She posits that if you want to lead a happier life, you should put down the screen and step away from social media.6 While I agree with her, I think this is easier said than done. The students in my class do not know a life without a cell phone. Almost all their social lives are conducted online. Before they can be convinced to put the phones down, they need the space to explore their dual lives. I believe the theatre classroom is an optimal space to conduct this exploration.
Theatre and Social Media are both avenues for storytelling. Both spaces have an audience to receive the story and a process for developing the story that you want to tell, and both ask the creator to use their voice to tell the story. However, the iGen use their voices in very different ways than previous generations and this may make it easier for them to tell their stories on social media. In cyberspace, they can carefully craft their stories and display their pictures. They can type, backspace, edit, delete, filter, and repost. They don’t have to stand in front of their critics. Their phones mediate the call and response. While theatre is rehearsed, revised, and planned, it is also spontaneous. It asks its practitioners to think on their feet, work in deeply personal ways with others, and respond to a different live audience every performance.
The stark difference between these two spaces is that the Smartphone replaces person to person interactions. When we are conversing in person, we do not have the luxury of carefully crafted edits; we use our voices instinctively to convey our meanings. I can only assume that this is terrifying for young people. What if they say the wrong thing or can’t find the right words? For my students, is texting a natural voice?
Through this unit, I want my students to develop an awareness of their relationship with social media and the possible impacts it has on their ability to participate in class. By shedding light on this subject, perhaps my students will then be able to break down the walls that they have built that keep them from participating in games and exercises. I want to show them where their two worlds, Cyberspace and the theatre space, come together and split apart, in order to discover how their constant interactions with the digital world impact their natural voice. How are they spending their time online and how much time is spent engaging with social media? Who are they following on social media and how do these people make them feel about themselves? How do they choose to present themselves on social media? And, finally, could all of this impact their willingness to play and step outside of their comfort zone in the world of art?