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Stories Behind the Statistics

Cathlyn Melvin

“I was in a play once!”

I’m standing in line at a bookstore in my neighborhood, and the woman behind me is telling me her story. She recognized me from a show I did last spring, see, and her eyes light up as she tells me about her high school musical—how she almost didn’t audition, but in the end, it turned out to be the best eight weeks she had that year.

As an actor, I get that all the time. Not the being-recognized-on-the-street thing. That’s unusual. But when people find out I do theatre, so often I see their eyes brighten just like that lady’s, and they tell me about their third grade play, or an annual Christmas pageant, or being in the kids’ chorus of Joseph at their community theatre.

I love these stories.

I help run a children’s theatre called Compass Creative Dramatics, in Chicago, where I live, and we work with kids to create those kinds memories.

My co-founder, Cassandra Quinn, and I don’t focus on readying kids for careers in theatre, and we won’t “Make Your Child a Star.” We concentrate on stretching kids creativity and bravery muscles—so they can be bold enough to raise their hands in class, or imaginative enough to problem-solve in real life. And over the course of a week-long program, we see those skills develop, and we witness those memories taking shape, so that some day, they’ll want to tell someone “I was in a play once!”

Earlier this fall, our company decided to start a campaign to collect people’s memories about participation in theatre, and how it affected them. We posted on YouTube asking for video responses, and watched the stories begin to trickle in, both through responses to our YouTube channel and through essays submitted through our email:

As active leaders in school communities, arts educators witness the development of students through programs like the residency we offer at Compass Creative Dramatics.

We interact with other artists who share our opinions, our passions, and our stories. Existing in this cocoon, it’s easy to forget that there are others in the world for whom the importance of art in education is not a foregone conclusion. There are people who don’t see that there is inherent value in what we do—and so we evangelize.

We’re constantly striving to spread the word that the arts are vital to child development, and to the development of our society. We push statistics—because that’s the language of administrators and policymakers.

But even administrators and policymakers aren’t only convinced by hard facts—by numbers and graphs and formulas. Those figures may help a person wrap their head around why what we do is so important, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Rarely do we meet the faces behind the statistics—the doctor, the mom, the cab driver whose story has been enriched by participation in the arts. It’s those personal stories that help people connect to the work we’re doing. And it’s that connection that paves the way to comprehension.

Through our response project, the faceless statistics were given shape, names, and personalities:

  • Leona in Georgia described how doing theatre at school has taught her daughter that it’s cool to be who you are, and has helped develop her sense of self.
  • Marilyn in Arizona explained that high school theatre helped her cope with her mother’s death.
  • Robert in Illinois shared how a chance encounter with a theatre teacher guided him away from a relationship with a schoolmate who later ended up in prison for murder.
  • Shqipron in Wisconsin told us how being in a play shortly after he moved to the States helped him learn to speak English, and how to interact with other kids.

The dozens of stories we received over the course of our 30-day project (and continue to receive!) rang truer than any statistics could, and they reminded us of why we started this company in the first place: to lead by example, guiding kids’ toward healthy, happy adult lives.

Now we’re planning our summer programming: four summer camps across three states: Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. We’ll be teaching through an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea (our version is called Peas & Harmony). It’s a story about a girl who is arbitrarily picked on—and the lesson she learns about standing up for herself and showing respect.

Through these four weeks of camp, we can reach up to 300 participants, and a potential audience of 1500 children and their families who’ll watch the magic from the audience.

We’re looking forward to helping these kids create memories they’ll reflect on, standing in line at a bookstore, or sitting at a coffee shop, or with their families later in life. I hope that in the end, they’ll have many stories to tell.

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