Annie G. Levy
Annie G. Levy
Director, Artist, and Educator

Using Theatre to Think About Process vs. Product

Here, award-winning theatre director, artist, and educator Annie Levy explores the difference between a process-based and product-based approach to theatre training—and tells stories from the stage (and classroom) about what these approaches do for kids. To learn more about theatre training, read this article [link] by developmental psychologist (and professional actress and dancer), Thalia Goldstein.

At some point during my childhood, a copy of Margaret Webster’s 1972 autobiography Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage ended up on my bookshelf. Considering that my parents were both supportive of my desire to study theatre, I knew this wasn’t a subtle hint to find a different extra– curricular activity. But even though Ms. Webster, an actor, producer, and director with a life-long career, was being tongue and cheek with the title of her autobiography, I became aware that there was a stigma surrounding the study of theatre—in fact, its intrinsic value was somehow cheapened by where parents and others feared it would lead: Guess what, mom and dad? I want to be an actor!

There is a fear that theatre is more of a product-driven pursuit, in which success is marked by how often your daughter (or son) takes to the proverbial stage. The truth, however, is that the study of theatre is a process-driven pursuit, one in which, even if the end result gets the applause, the learning, training, and positive habit forming that happen along the way are reasons enough to make theatre a regular part of every student’s basic education.

As an educator who trains other educators, it’s amazing for me to see how often it’s the ones who’ve had some theatre training in their background who are more dynamic. These educators have greater success engaging their students, perhaps because they understand that there is always an audience, and one of the things we learn in the theatre is to engage our audience—always. Additionally, when I observed students in various graduate school training programs, the adult learners who had engaged in some formal theatre training were evident and identifiable. These students knew how to engage a group—and could make the listening audience both understand and believe in what he or she was saying.

The skills that are integral to studying theatre correspond strongly with a developing list of skills for any area of intelligence. Studying theatre trains us in so many things:

  • listening and responding (active listening is a huge part of acting)
  • public speaking (acting develops clarity in speaking through diction, enunciation, and self-presentation)
  • physical and emotional self-assessment
  • responding actively to both concrete and abstract prompts
  • making connections within a story (finding the unity)
  • self discipline
  • team work

My work involves both the formal teaching of theatre and the integration of theatre across other  parts of the curriculum. By integrating theatre, history becomes more tangible when it is shown rather than told. And math and science become active, physical study.

I find that using theatre as a physical, musical, or linguistic lens to investigate other topics allows for immediate “buy in” from my students. They are excited to learn through this more multi-disciplinary, active engagement.

While I advocate for a more process-oriented approach to theatre education, I also know that children who get to be part of a more product-oriented opportunity (cast in a play, for example) are informally learning what it means to switch back and forth between following directions and being creative, thinking on their feet through improvisation, and, most importantly, working toward a common goal with peers. These product-oriented processes stay with kids long after the show ends.

Kids get into theatre for all kinds of reasons, whether because they like the attention or as a natural progression from playing make-believe. But theatre is not just the study of characters. Students of theatre become actively aware of the other elements that make up a play (or even a theatre game), such as plot, theme, language, rhythm, and the sense of spectacle that makes it theatrical. They come to understand the order of operations so integral to storytelling—the beginning, middle, and end of a narrative. And they learn to recognize the use of interpretation, of figuring out whose story this even is, and why looking at a story from different viewpoints changes the story in fascinating ways.

All of this leads naturally to seeing the value in diverse range of stories (not just your favorite genre), and in finding ways to relate to stories that at first glance seem so foreign to their own experience. Essentially, studying theatre puts our kids, who are already incredible explorers, on the great hunt for universality.

Learn More

Valerie Strauss and Lisa Phillips, “Top 10 Skills Children Learn from the Arts,” The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Thalia R. Goldstein, “What, Cognitively, Does an Actor Actually Do?” Psychology Today

Dorthy Wu, “Entrepreneurship in Research: Ellen Winner on Why We Need the Arts,” Entrepreneurship Review

“Into the Unknown with Viola Spolin,” ImprovLegends (a video about Viola Spolin’s legendary theatre games for kids)

Lauren Gunderson, “How Theater for Young People Could Save the World,” The Huffington Post

The American Alliance for Theatre & Education