Okay, so it’s no secret to you all that I’m a teacher. I’ve spent large amounts of my time performing the part of “an adult.” I’m currently acting as a chaperone for my husband’s students as they plunge into the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild Festival, and I’ve been mentoring some of them as young playwrights with the hope of helping them submit their work this month. What’s funny is that these two roles feel so different. As I joked with the students on our way back from tech, one of them said, “It’s so hard for me to call you by your first name!” I was a chaperone–an adult–their teacher’s wife–it was weird. But I’m also the playwright who invited them to write and who’ll be responding as an artist to their pages.
My artist self–my actual self–is definitely “Laura.” I can’t imagine introducing myself to someone in the theatre world as “Ms. Neill.” But (most of) our education system is set up such that it’s viewed as incredibly important to have a boundary between adults and children, that even drama teachers are not called by their first names. And part of me understands this–as someone who started teaching when I was twenty-two and was repeatedly mistaken for a student, there’s worth in making a distinction between those who are legally liable for the others’ safety and education and those who can get suspended. But part of me rebels against it. Because some of the kids see me as “Ms. Neill,” it’s harder for us to connect through art.
So–how does this have repercussions in the “real theatre world”? Well–that’s kind of my point. That high school theatre, as under-funded and new and naive as it can be, is actually part of the “real theatre world.” It’s still art, still a group of people creating a thing that they believe in. And when we treat our theatre students to submit to adults and think of themselves as lesser creators within a system that requires them to submit to a higher authority, I wonder if we’re setting them up for a theatre world that makes them feel lesser, not-as-[ ]. I think the theatre world itself could learn a lot from accepting new artists on their own terms instead of categorizing them as “kids” or “adults” or “emerging” or “mid-career.” That’s not to say that people don’t change and evolve as artists, and grow from experience–of course they do, and everyone will always know that. But what I’m thinking is that if there could still be that basic openness–that (metaphorical or literal) calling of first names–we’d all be in a better place.