Barrett Edwards, a junior in Thespian Troupe 4274 at Grinnell High School in Iowa, is the second runner-up of the 2020 Democracyworks competition.

This year’s essay prompt, “How does theatre help bring diverse communities together?,” was inspired by 2019 Educational Theatre Association National Conference keynote speaker Jane Chu, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, who spoke about how theatre promotes a culture of belonging that honors different perspectives while bringing people together.

WHEN THE CURTAIN OPENS on an empty stage, nothing is more important than the present moment. Lines have been memorized, cues rehearsed, costumes tailored, and sets built. It is not the time for reflection on experiences that have brought you to this point nor the time to ponder an uncertain future. At this moment, your hard work is exposed, and there is no hiding. You must leave the past behind, show your vulnerability, and display your creativity. The key to creativity is diversity. Theatre brings diverse people together in a creative space where their thoughts and experiences merge to produce art and tell a story.

We are impressionable in the face of a story. Stories shape who we are and how we think. Whether they make us laugh, cry, or something in between, they help reinforce our humanity. Theatre allows us to tell our stories, listen to others, and learn from one another. Whether we inhabit a character as an actor or facilitate storytelling in a technical role, we can develop a deep appreciation and understanding of someone else’s circumstances.

Barrett Edwards

Barrett Edwards

In many communities around the world, theatre offers students opportunities to grow personally, emotionally, socially, and intellectually. When a school produces a theatrical performance, students are exposed to an environment of constant communication. We develop good communication and listening skills, giving us the confidence to express our deeper selves and explore the complexities of identity. In adolescence, our society often categorizes people into social groups or cliques at a time when people are still figuring out who they are. Theatre allows us to express different parts of our personalities and not conform to a one-dimensional view of identity.

Theatre at my school has helped me conceptualize my own identity and see beyond my bubble of possibility. For example, our directors often stray from traditional casting by exploring the confluence of gender and character. Seeing women embody the roles of Pugsley Addams (The Addams Family), King Triton (The Little Mermaid), and the Founding Fathers (1776) challenges my preconceived gender norms.

In a chaotic sociopolitical climate filled with discord and isolation, theatre and the arts play a crucial role in fostering unity. For example, in my rural college town, it often feels as if there is a stark divide in our community. Generally speaking, our community is separated into two definitive groups: those affiliated with the college and those who are rural businesspeople or farmers. This dynamic permeates many of the social relationships and activities within our community. However, there is a clear exception. Theatre acts as a unifying force.

Our local arts center invites actors, directors, technicians, and audience members from the entire community. Involvement in theatre supersedes the artificial boundaries that divide us. Through my own participation, I have met and collaborated with people of all ages, identities, and roles. Working with people who otherwise would be unknown to me has had a great impact on me. By putting on all different kinds of theatrical performances, we pitch a big tent in terms of our audiences, allowing space for everyone to appreciate the arts in different ways. I’ve performed in shows ranging from Seussical and The Music Man to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Lord of the Flies. Community theatre has opened my eyes to the ways in which theatre and art can bring people together.

The arts have always mirrored what is happening in society. Now, more than ever, theatre is needed to provide opportunities for the disenfranchised and to shine a light on their stories. The only way to be successful in theatre is to bring communities together, promote diversity, and welcome all into the process, as this boosts creativity. The Greatest Showman songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul put it best: “Come one! Come all! Come in! Come on! To anyone who’s bursting with a dream … to anyone who’s searching for a way to break free.”

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