Drama Can Make Us Smarter and Happier

By @AbbeyCompton, March 18, 2019

When I was starting 9th grade, I wanted to apply to our county’s magnet high school for finance. That would look great on a college application, thought my younger self. I was sure Wall Street and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous were to be found along that gilded brick road.
I pitched the change-of-venue plan to my mom complete with timing of the morning and afternoon commutes. Her answer: a hard no—a stifling no—a because-I-said-so no with which there is no negotiating. Somehow, she did not share my champagne wishes and caviar dreams. My feelings were hurt, but despite the frustration I knew better than to get my dad involved and start something that might land my bitterly divorced parents back in court.
Disappointed and grumbling, off I went to my district high school and into the only classes where my adolescent angst could be useful. I probably needed to get into therapy, but I got into theater instead.

High School Drama

My freshman drama class overflowed with 14-year-olds confident this elective would yield an easy A, but I didn’t sign-up for the A. What I wanted was a script. I wanted lines. I wanted to try on someone else’s skin and see the world through their eyes. What I really wanted was to be somebody else.
Again, I was disappointed. Not only was I stuck being me, but that first year focused mostly on cultivating the skills of pantomime and improvisation (or “improv” as we theater types called it). To me pantomime and improv were the push-ups and squats of theater education. I was willing to do the exercises, but I derived no joy from them.
I stayed with theater though, and as I got into my Junior year, the lines and characters did come. I also started to read, which I almost never did before. I had no interest in V.C. Andrews novels, but as I got comfortable reading scripts, I found myself wanting to read plays by Oscar Wilde or novels adapted from Broadway shows. Soon enough, I was reading poems and short fiction by Langston Hughes, fantasy novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley.

Learning to Improvise and Improvising to Learn

Performing arts seem to play an important role for many people working toward academic, career, and personal goals, and the benefits appear to be more impactful when the arts are thoughtfully integrated with other courses of study.
Young Kids Test Better when their classroom lessons are infused with performing and visual arts. Neuroscience is just beginning to explain the ways the arts help the brain learn, but early findings suggest the brain prioritizes content with emotion attached to it. Even without brain scans educators have observed that incorporating the arts into learning increases both their students’ engagement level and time spent focusing on the content.
Leaders Emerge through Improv both on the job and in instructor-led leadership development programs. Improv involves letting go of the script, accepting what is, making adjustments, and finding a resolution that works for everyone. Leaders improvise and keep the group working together even when no one knows what might happen next.
We Overcome Our Fears and Traumas when we set aside blame and shame to become our own storytellers and support others in sharing their stories. While it’s no replacement for comprehensive mental healthcare, improv is having a healing effect around the world; helping young professionals in L.A. overcome social and professional anxiety and helping survivors of violence in South Sudan find a way to peace.

All the World’s a Stage

I was reminded of this in January when I attended the BYM Women’s Retreat and a performance by District Community Playback, a theater company that uses improv to help people “move from strangers to neighbors.” The troupe of four actors, one director, and a violinist listened to women who volunteered their fears, frustrations, joys, and triumphs. After each woman shared, the director offered a few instructions to the actors, then they took their places and created a live “playback” of what she shared. Some stories were played for comedy while others were tearful or heart-warming.
By the end, I was reminded of what a gift my mom had given me by directing me to my district high school and encouraging me to pursue theater. Perhaps what I perceived as a “no” to my ambition of studying finance was more of a “Yes, and…”
It’s a circuitous route spanning two decades, but I eventually found myself in financial services marketing after studying Communications in college. I even managed to use those pantomime and improv skills to land a few corporate gigs while I was still a student. Dressed as a mime or Greek statue, I entertained crowds at Christmas parties and picnics, and I played the daughter of a patient in a hospital promotional video. Maybe it wasn’t real acting, but I got paid real money for it, which is what finance is all about.
When I entered my first drama class as a high school freshman, I was really entering a life skills workshop, and such skills are always transferrable.

Abbey Compton, Chita Rivera, Christopher Jackson and Darren Benjamin
Broadway groupie moments with Chita Rivera (West Side Story, Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Christopher Jackson (Hamilton, The Lion King).