Amid all the angst in American politics these days, playwright Dwayne Hartford is working hard to highlight the value of public service through a musical called “Rock the Presidents.” It’s being performed this fall by Childsplay, a nationally recognized Tempe theater company specializing in performances for youth and families.
Hartford recently became the artistic director for Childsplay, succeeding David Saar, who founded the company in 1977. Hartford wrote “Rock the Presidents” with Sarah Roberts several years ago, and Childsplay first performed it in 2012 — before newscasts became endless feedback loops for divisive political rhetoric and frequent acts of violence committed here and abroad.
For parents struggling with how to talk with their kids about tough issues facing our country, and the rest of the world, theater can be an important conversation starter.
“Theater is a mirror of society,” Hartford says. “It helps us understand and make sense of our world.”
He’s convinced the performing arts can play a central role in helping children and teens become active, engaged citizens with concrete skills for exploring tough issues and working with others for positive change.
Hartford grew up in Smithfield, Maine, a small town infused with what he calls “patriotism, social responsibility and activism.” It’s part of the reason he gravitated toward theater and continues to make theater today.
Hartford’s lines and lyrics written for “Rock the Presidents” are purposefully nonpartisan. And they send an important message to those who hear them: Getting involved is a good thing, and everyone has something to contribute.
Sarah Sullivan, co-founder of Rising Youth Theatre in Phoenix, agrees. Recently, Rising Youth Theatre worked with families in the Garfield neighborhood near downtown Phoenix, creating a play that reflects real-world challenges in their own lives — then doing free performances for other families in a Garfield neighborhood park. It’s a way of bringing people together for a shared experience and dialogue, she explains.
Sullivan’s early experiences with theater often inform her work. She started theater classes in Flint, Michigan, when she was just 9 years old.
“Looking back, I learned so much about what it means to be part of a group working together,” Sullivan says. “It’s where I established my core values.”
So as today’s parents search for ways to help their children understand and thrive in a complicated world, Sullivan holds out theater as one way to make that happen.
“Youth theater makes a space where young people can be heard by adults, and hear other young people,” Sullivan says.
People who participate come from all different parts of the city. Through theater, they learn to understand and advocate for one another.
“It creates a platform where different people’s stories are attended to,” Sullivan says.
Both she and Hartford tout theater’s potential for fostering diversity — and helping youth appreciate, rather than fear, people with different backgrounds and ideas. But theater can convey another important message: There’s no need to fear something simply because you don’t understand it.
Next year, Childsplay will present “The Yellow Boat,” which Saar wrote about his late son. David and Sonja Færøy Saar lost Benjamin in 1987 to AIDS-related complications following a blood transfusion given to treat his hemophilia. Just 8 years old at the time, Benjamin embraced art as a way of expressing himself and making sense of his world. First performed decades ago, the play is internationally renowned for showing the power of theater for youth in addressing tough topics.
Over the summer, Hartford joined a nationwide discussion among theater professionals about ways they can work together to address racism and other hot-button issues on the American landscape. Theater has a long tradition of doing just that — with works including Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” about misguided hysteria during the Salem witch trials, and August Wilson’s “Fences,” about the intersection of race, crime and poverty.
For Hartford, the very act of making theater is a celebration of diversity. Done well, it brings people from all races and places together. Creative people from different backgrounds work together not only in theater, but also in such performing arts as music, dance, puppetry and spit poetry. And audience members get the chance to sit alongside others they might never meet in their daily lives. Like other types of performing arts, theater builds bridges instead of walls.
“This is what theater was made for,” he says.
It’s especially effective in helping kids develop empathy.
“When you see someone onstage, you naturally feel empathy for them,” Hartford says. Kids who see characters behaving badly work to understand the reasons behind those characters’ actions, instead of assuming the character has no humanity. That’s more than a lot of adults can manage in a political environment in which some assume those with different views aren’t just wrong but basically worthless.
Several musicals and plays coming to Valley stages this season tackle tough issues, thus giving parents more tools for starting conversations about their own family’s values.
Although it’s best to follow age recommendations, Hartford says it’s a mistake to avoid shows just because of controversial content.
“Parents miss so many teachable moments in the name of protecting their own children,” he says.
And frankly, he adds, they’ve already seen a great many things through television and social media.
When theater helps kids see both sides of an issue, they get practice in weighing different perspectives and forming their own opinions. They get experience with problem solving and working with others toward a common goal. It’s all part of being an active, engaged citizen in the 21st century.
But there’s another benefit, Sullivan says. Theater kids spend time with other adults, from directors to parent volunteers, which means they’re surrounded by mentors who support their creativity and imagination. They see adults from diverse backgrounds collaborating. And in the best-case scenario, they witness adults exchanging ideas with respect and trust.
Theater kids get practice in listening skills, she says, and in expressing their own thoughts and opinions respectfully. Through theater, they develop concrete skills needed to participate in civil discourse about the future of American society.
For Lisa Chow, co-artistic director of Desert Dance Theatre in Tempe, the performing arts also serve as a powerful teaching tool. Through the years, she has created or performed dances reflecting a wide range of social and historical topics.
Chow says students too young to conceptually grasp slavery sometimes begin to understand it when they see slaves being mistreated in her dance work titled “Sister Moses: The Story of Harriet Tubman,” which tells the story of Tubman’s founding of the Underground Railroad.
“This is a good way to start opening up dialogue,” Chow says. “It brings history to life, and it enhances the curriculum.”
But there’s more to it.
“Performing arts wakes people up in a different way than reading a textbook,” she says. “It touches them on an emotional level.”
Parents sometimes worry that performances related to history or social issues will be dull or preachy. But “Rock the Presidents,” like the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton,” is far from it. During the course of about 90 minutes, three performers sing and dance their way through more than 40 U.S. presidents. It’s all about showing the ways different people made unique contributions, without regard to party affiliation.
“One of my first impulses in writing it was to celebrate the way these people stepped up to facing the challenges of their day,” Hartford says. “It’s about wanting to serve and be a part of civil discourse. I want to encourage young people to be involved and know that it’s a good thing to be engaged with your community and your nation.”
Hartford says he strived to take the presidents off Mount Rushmore, so audiences would see them as people but also as the “rock stars” of their day.
“These people all chose to do something to get involved,” he adds. “I want kids to ask themselves what they can do to make the world a better place. That’s what it’s all about.”
6 performances to inspire family conversations
These performances address themes related to society, history or politics. Some include mature content, so be sure to check with the presenting theaters’ age recommendations before attending. Make the most of each performance you attend by talking about them as a family before you go and after you get home.
“Rock the Presidents.” Musical exploration of the contributions made by 44 of the Americans who’ve held the highest office in our country. childsplayaz.org.
“In the Heights.” A musical look at the life of an immigrant family living in New York City. Written by the creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” phoenixtheatre.com.
“Les Misérables School Edition.” The musical examines personal choices made during political upheaval in France in the 1830s. theaterworks.org.
“The Sound of Music.” The musical looks at a stern father’s changing relationship with his children, and the role music played in their escape from Nazi Germany. Based on the true story of the von Trapp family. asugammage.com.
“Laramie Project.” The play investigates the impact of an anti-gay hate crime on a small Wyoming town and its citizens. Based on the true story of Matthew Shepard. greasepaint.org.
“Urinetown.” The musical explores individual, corporate and government responses to a water shortage caused by years of drought. mesaencoretheatre.com.