When I was in high school my best friend’s dad was the drama teacher. Neither my friend nor I took drama (we both played in the band), but lots of our friends did, and his dad was one of the more popular teachers at the school. His classes put on plays each year, went to UIL drama contests, and every other year joined with the music program and staged a full musical. That there were classes dedicated to learning drama struck us as no more remarkable than band or choir, or, for that matter, chemistry or typing.
I also had the good fortune to have my friend live just down the street since the time we were in kindergarten, and consequently I spent a lot of time at his house and got to know his dad pretty well. He never was one to pontificate about the arts (and the status of the arts in schools was never really an issue in those days) but it was clear just by being around him that the arts were something very important. Beside my parents, he was the main adult that I knew who showed that the arts were worth taking seriously.
I learned quite a bit from him that I didn’t learn at home, specifically about drama as an art form. Just for starters, although I’d heard of it I never had a clear idea of exactly what “Broadway” meant, and I knew nothing of the Tony Awards (which is actually short for the “Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater”) until I learned about those things from him. I remember being amazed to learnthat there was a nationally televised show—just like the Oscars and Emmys, which I certainly knew about—in which awards were given out for plays in New York City. I found this intriguing, but also a clear indication that some people regarded plays just as highly as I regarded movies and television shows.
It was also from him that I first learned the titles of many of the canonical works of American theater. For several yearshe had in his living room framed programs from some of the plays he’d staged like Blithe Spirit, The Man Who Came to Dinner, You Can’t Take it with You, and Noises Off. It hit me that although I had never heard of them, these plays were something worth knowing about.
He’s also a big fan of musicals. I encountered West Side Story for the first time in my life at my friend’s house, for instance, and I still marvel at it. I listened to the original cast recording just today as I thought out how I was going to write this column. Through him I came to enjoy South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and many others.
I’ve heard numerous people in the military express concern that as fewer Americans have any direct experience with the armed forces, the level of understanding of and support for them will wane, both in public and even in Congress. The arts, it occurs to me, are similar. If a young person doesn’t know anyone interested in the arts, he will grow up not understanding how important and enriching they can be, and not knowing why he should care about them. All it really takes answer this is exposure. This makes the atrophy of art programs in schools—and in the daily lives of more people—all the more regrettable. My friend’s dad showed me the arts were important and worth knowing about. We all can be something similar to someone else.
Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, August 1, 2013