BOSTON — On the southern side of Puerto Rico, also known as La Isla del Encanto or Island of Charm, is a town called Pueblo del Caf. It has a school theater project, El Mundo Creativo (Creative World), that aspires to strengthen students' self-esteem. Some youths lack the tools to effectively deal with their problems, whatever these may be. As a result, teen suicide rates in Puerto Rico have risen considerably in the last few years.
Through the creative outlet of theater, our students can develop multiple skills. They produce plays from Cervantes to Molire to Carmen Natalia, a writer from the Dominican Republic. Although we are a middle school, participants range in age from 10 to 25. One former student, in fact, just won a contest in which she and her daughter recited a poem she did for me years ago.
The stage is a podium where a whole spectrum of human interests is addressed. Theatrical expression allows students to express ideas, preoccupations, criticism, and emotions. They learn how to express feeling through gesture and movement, how to get into character by the use of makeup and costumes, and how to move on the stage to take full advantage of the lighting.
When all these elements are mastered, students are rewarded by the approval of the audience - an expression of acceptance that strengthens students' self-confidence.
Somebody said that theater is the most ephemeral of the arts. It dies every night when the curtains come down. Once this happens, the actors are stripped of their characters and must return to their own realities. The school theater allows the students to achieve academic recognition and therefore, to gain self-esteem. A student who gains a sense of belonging - who is acknowledged by peers, teachers, parents, and people in the community - gains a desire to learn more, to live a fuller life.
My experiences as a teacher and theater director have allowed me to use radio, TV, and newspapers to promote the work of the students, and therefore to help build their strength as individuals. After 31 years teaching theater in Puerto Rico's public school system, I have experienced how students gain a sense of assertiveness by learning to communicate emotions and ideas.
By being part of a group with the same goals and objectives, the student shares knowledge and emotions with peers. The group rehearses to achieve the recognition and reward of the audience. An approving audience makes the student happy. A happy person does things to make other people happy. A student who feels accepted will accept others in the community.
Despite its frequent perception as a frill in school curricula, school theater is an effective tool to improve the quality of our schools and communities.
For 24 years the stage of the Teatro Centro Escolar de Yauco in Puerto Rico has been filled with the voices, lights, movement, and color of the young Puerto Ricans who had the privilege of having this available to them. This opportunity has allowed them to grow intellectually and emotionally while doing something that was pleasurable.
Their achievements have been shared with their parents and friends. Theater is necessary to any school system that aspires to form students with a high sense of self-worth and achievement.
* Jos Antonio Giovannetti Roman teaches dramatic arts at the Centro Escolar de Yauco in Yauco, Puerto Rico.