Here’s the science that explains why so many students finally feel at home when they find their art.
When I started doing theater in high school, I wasn't exactly looking for an outlet for my then-undiagnosed mental disorder.
I was 20 years old before someone realized I had ADHD. When I was in high school, the condition was seen as something only the problem kids had, and I was in the top of my class, so that couldn’t be me — right?
But I also acted out in those honors classes — especially when I wasn’t feeling engaged by the material. I didn’t know how to organize my homework, or my emotions, and I definitely didn’t understand how to fit in with the hypermasculine sports crowd-types.
Looking back, it’s no wonder I was drawn to the arts.
“Art has the potential to hold very powerful, even ugly feelings, in a way that can make them manageable, even beautiful, and relatable,” explains Nadia Jenefsky, co-founder and clinical director of New York Creative Arts Therapists, a private creative arts therapy group practice in New York. “It improves mental health by restoring people's dignity, their free will. You can be working on difficult problems but still experiencing some pleasure while doing it, and working with the healthy part of you that has agency and can make decisions.”
An art therapist who works with veterans. Photo by Mark Barnes/Department of Defense.
For me, this makes sense: Theater engaged every part of my hyperactive brain and helped me learn to work alongside others toward a common goal.
It was empowering and provided emotional rewards unlike anything else I'd experienced. While other teenage boys were bottling up emotions or stewing in their angst, I had found an interdisciplinary outlet to channel my erratic temperament and hypomanic instincts. In short, theater gave me that dopamine fix that my body was naturally missing — which I didn’t realize I was missing at the time.
“Young people … haven't always developed the language and cognitive skills needed to express complicated emotions,” says Jenefsky. “Art allows space for complexity and ambivalence, which is often the hard stuff of life that is difficult to deal with.”
The drama club did more than help me regulate my mania — it also helped push me through to graduation and beyond.
Theater education in high school is known to improve both verbal and math SAT scores — so on a basic level, it helped me get into Emerson College, a top school for performing and media arts, which was where I made the connections that landed me a job with an award-winning theater company.
Studies have shown that theater education improves attendance and can reduce dropout rates by giving students a reason to go to school; something bigger than themselves to work toward, where other people are relying on them.
One of my good friends who wasn’t involved in theater had already dropped out of high school by junior year. He found his sense of purpose playing drums in a punk band. Shortly after he left school, he even got to travel around the country playing on Warped Tour. When they needed a new bass player, I was given the chance to drop out myself to join them in pursuit of ultimate rock-stardom. But I turned it down — mainly because I had responsibilities to the theater club.
Statistics show that students with arts access are three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and, well, in my experience, I can understand why.
Possibly me if I'd dropped out of high school. Trust me, it's not as glamorous as you think. Photo by Peter Dzubay/Wikimedia Commons.
Even after I found the right treatment for my disorder, theater still offered an outlet for the other emotional events I could never have predicted.
From suicide to substance abuse to cancer and beyond, I saw a lot of tragic young deaths in my 20s. Many of the friends I lost also benefitted from the healing power of performing arts in high school, but adulthood turned out to be a whole different struggle for them. And as much as I’d learned to regulate my own feelings, their deaths left me dealing with a different specter — in part, because our paths, and personal problems, had been so similar.
I keep the cards from each of their funerals above my music workstation. Photo by Thom Dunn.
But it all came full circle in 2016 when I joined the cast of a play called “We’re Gonna Die” — a kind of stand-up comedy routine about death and suffering that also featured an indie rock band. Not only did I get the chance to tour around several states as a bassist — like the opportunity I passed on to stay in school — but I also got to connect, grapple with, and ultimately celebrate life and death with a different audience every night.
Once again, the skills I'd gained in high school theater helped save my life.
That's me on the left, with the cast of "We're Gonna Die." Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva/Company One.
Theater has the power to bring people together like no other art form. And at the right time in a person’s life, that can make all the difference.
Theater and the arts are about more than just expressing one’s self; they're about collaboration and finding yourself by being a part of something bigger. The actors, designers, writers, and audience all share an experience that is both communal and intensely personal.
“We can help people make sense of what they are experiencing, and that can be very empowering to someone who is in a situation where they may feel confused, helpless or alone,” says Jenefsky. “It can help young people with very personal issues like identity, self-esteem, and just finding their place in the world.”
It might not seem like much in high school, but that’s the kind of power people carry with them throughout their lives.
This story was written by Thom Dunn.
Based on a true story, NBC’s new drama "Rise" has inspired us to look for other real stories about the impact of theater on high schoolers' lives. "Rise" premieres on March 13 after "This Is Us." Click here to see the trailer for this new show.