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06 Feb, Monday
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Montreal Families

Acting classes offer dramatic benefits

In a spacious room of a church basement, a group of children begin to move about, looking intently at the ground as if searching for something. Soon they begin to pick up imaginary pieces of wood and bring them back to the centre of the room. The young people then pretend to build and light a fire, all without speaking a word.

Their teacher, who has been watching from the side, now begins to speak softly. She asks the children to become mountain climbers who must run from an oncoming avalanche. Silently, but with great concentration, the children help each other over imaginary rocks and crevasses and through a cave opening. When they all get through the slim passageway and are safe from the crashing snow, their delight is evident in their faces.

The children are part of a class given by The Children’s Theatre, one of several organizations in the city offering drama classes for young people ages 4 and up. For these kids, theatre is mainly about dressing up, learning lines and getting to be on stage.

What the children may not realize is that taking part in acting classes is also helping them develop confidence, build self-esteem and learn about cooperation.

Omri Habibi has been taking classes at The Children’s Theatre for three years. “It was a little bit hard to talk in front of a group before I started here,” confides the 9-year-old boy. “I was a little bit shy but now I am comfortable talking in front of my class.”

Omri’s sister, 7-year-old Yuval, also takes lessons and particularly loves the miming games. “We wave our bodies when we are palm trees and make noises like the wind. Then we all put our arms together and make a big snake,” she says, adding with an air of great wisdom, “it’s important to learn how to work together. It’s cool!”

Rami Habibi, the children’s dad, says he heard about the theatre classes through friends, who talked about the many social skills the children could learn. He has seen first hand the confidence his children have gained by working with the group and performing in front of an audience.

Danusia Lapinski, co-director of The Children’s Theatre, couldn’t agree more. She says theatre classes help children learn how to speak clearly and confidently, in all kinds of situations. “Parents tell us that after taking our classes, their kids raise their hands more often in class,” she notes. But children also learn the importance of respect. “We insist that the kids cannot put themselves or others down when in the class.”

Millie Tresierra, founder of Creative 8 Drama Works, offers theatre classes for kids ages 3 and up. Through drama, she says, young people learn to identify and talk about their feelings, thoughts and dreams. For example, in a class she might ask students to show what their bodies do when they feel sad, when they are excited or when they have a secret.

Children are encouraged to then share their feelings with the hope that they will continue to do so outside of class. “If a child can approach an adult and say, ‘what you did really hurt me’, then that child’s self-esteem will grow,” Tresierra says. “They will feel powerful whereas if they don’t say anything, they are more likely to feel unhappy because they didn’t express themselves.”

And whether a child decides to pursue an acting career or not (and most do not), the lessons learned can last a lifetime, says Diana Donnelly, an alumna of The Montreal Children’s Theatre and a professional actor. “It’s important to have a place where you can be creative, silly, and use your imagination, body and voice,” she says.

Unfortunately, schools rarely encourage students to recite poetry, for example, or learn how to give a rousing speech. Drama classes, she adds, are a place where kids can relish and play with language and vocabulary. “Children need to be able to interact with each other in a safe environment where they can be brave and playful.”

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