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 person realized I had ADHD. When I was in high school, the condition was seen as something only the problem children 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 feelings, and I definitely didn’t is how to fit in with the hypermasculine athletics 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 build 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.”
For me, this builds 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 emotional rewards unlike anything else I’d experienced. While other teenage boys were bottling up feelings or stewing in their angst, I had detected an interdisciplinary outlet to channel my erratic temperament and hypomanic instincts. In short, theater “ve given 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 permits 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 govern 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 induced the connections that landed me a chore 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 fell out of high school by junior year. He determined 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 — chiefly 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.
Even after I find the right treatment for my ailment, 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 considered a lot of tragic young deaths in my 20 s. 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 impressions, their demises left me dealing with a different specter — in part, because our paths, and personal problems, had been so similar.
But it all came full circle in 2016 when I joined the casting of a play called “We’re Gonna Die” — a kind of stand-up comedy routine about demise and agony that also featured an indie stone band . Not merely did I get the chance to tour around several countries 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.
Theater has the power to bring people together like no other art sort. And at the right time in a person’s life, that they are able make all the difference.
Theater and the arts are about more than just expressing one’s ego; they’re about collaboration and seeing yourself by being a part of something bigger. The performers, 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 including identity, self-esteem, and merely discovering 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 tale 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 potential impacts 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 .
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