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Adolescents in theatre: Subculture infiltration

Dagley, K. (1997, Spring). "Adolescents in theatre: Subculture infiltration." S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.


The curtain rises, the lights go up, and Craig makes his first entrance in his high school’s production of "The Sound of Music." His movements are stiff for the first few moments, until the audience laughs at one of his lines. He "holds" for the laughs as his confidence soars. Craig has been bitten by the "theatre bug." This strange phenomenon occurs when a person experiences the rush of a successful performance, whether backstage doing technical work or center stage under the lights. How does this "theatre bug" affect an adolescent? What will happen to Craig? What are the positive and negative effects of drama involvement? This discussion explores the adolescent development of teenagers who actively participate in theatre. This research focuses on high school educational theatre programs, rather than in community theatre groups.


Because of the drastic physical transformations during adolescence, teenagers are constantly trying to understand and accept their bodies. Theatre is a terrific avenue to help students do just that. Theatre requires control over oneself in dance, mime, and other choreographed performances. These productions provide students motivation to exercise and develop coordination.

What does this mean to a youth leader? How can one support the theatre student’s physical development? Encourage a student in any production he or she is working on. Highlight the positives: "I really admire how you were able to learn that dance in three days," or "I love how confident you were in that part." This will go a long way.


Theatre is a wonderful way to challenge a student’s cognitive development. Plenty of tasks challenge the cognitive development of the adolescent: memorization of lines; character development; improvisation; and problem solving set, make up, costume design, and construction issues.

Well-established school and community theatre programs keep students eager for the next show and season by providing, in advance, new materials for the next plays or musicals. A student delving into plays is catapulted into new realms of experience. For example, when participating in a production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a student need to explore the time period of the piece as well as the themes of racism and loss of innocence. A student actor lives vicariously through the experiences of a character and is enriched by the encounter.

This acquaints students with myriad new experiences. Yet, these experiences are not completely positive; unfortunately, there is a lot of inappropriate material readily available to adolescents. Student actors need to be encouraged to establish their own boundaries of appropriate portrayals on stage. Will they do a kissing scene? More than kissing? Are curse or foul words appropriate for them to speak? What activities are they performing in character? Is there a noble theme to the production? A youth worker can guide them through their own decisions on these subjects. A youth leader can help drama students tackle these problems with integrity and offer input as the students desire.


Socially, adolescents desparately seek a place to "fit in." Theatre becomes a logical place for some students—even if they are not extremely talented—because there they can find acceptance and significance. Acceptance evolves while developing a production; teamwork and amiable bonds are forged while preparing for the play. Students find significance as they learn that even the smallest parts and responsibilities are essential for a successful production. Most theatre students recognize each other’s value and respect each other’s contribution. Theatre is likened to a family; the director becomes a surrogate parent.

Theatre students cannot be categorized into a subculture like jocks, stoners, nerds, or cowboys. They are often comprised of a mix of representatives from several subcultures. Together on stage could be a junior varsity wrestler, treasurer of the science club, and the Thespian president, with cheerleader captain running lights from back stage. Their love for performing unites them.

With so many types of students participating in theatre, a wide variety of talents and gifts are available. There are a few general categories of theatre students. The first category of students, the Actors, are naturally talented in acting. The Actors are confident and professional because they love their craft; they continually seek to improve themselves and their performances. They are usually upperclassmen. The underclassmen are often intimidated by—but greatly admire—them, fantasizing to become like them when they are older.

Within the group of Actors, there are probably a few Primadonnas. These are the students who know they are good; they expect special treatment and respect. Primadonnas are fairly rare in high school theatre, because most students have not reached that level of acting maturity. Also there is so much other work to do in high school theatre that there are not enough energy and resources to accommodate their demands.

Another category of theatre students are the Techies. These students are especially adept at managing backstage activities. This is the perfect role for a student who loves the workings of the theatre but is too shy to be on stage. Techies may be classified as the "nerd" type, but this is not always the case. The role of a Techie is vital. Without them there would be no lights on stage, no sets or set changes, no costumes or costume changes. They will often absorb themselves dreaming designs for shows and looking for new and improved ways of doing things.

Most theatre students tend to lean toward the artsy side. They will know names like Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Miller, have favorite showtunes, know plot lines of major Shakespearean plays, and even have monologues and scenes from them memorized. They will often see themselves as more mature than the normal high school student, because of their "experience." This self-assurance often leads them to "try out" other activities. They might be confident enough to audition for community or professional theatre outside the school, which is good. But they also might think they are mature enough for an "adult" relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend and for other "adult" activities.

Theatre students can create their own clique in any high school. Because they are busy with productions, and fund raisers they probably don’t have time to particpate in other school activities. Especially in a very busy theatre program, they can seem intimidating because of their dedication and confidence. They also seem to have their own language: they often call themselves "Thespians," talk about such things as "blocking" a scene, have trouble "finding their motivation," spend an evening "striking" a set, get a "gobo" for a lighting effect, or go to the "green room" when it is actually painted white.

Theatre students have different heroes than a normal teenager. They may follow a certain movie star through all of the actor’s work, analyzing his or her scenes and acting styles, rather than just liking them because of their looks.

Not all theatre students can be classified into a category. There are plenty which are just normal students who might particpate just because they think it is fun. They might happen to have a theatre class that semester or just want to belong to a club. Again, there are a wide variety of students that can be found in any theatre program.

How can youth leaders encourage theatre students in their social development? Remind them that they must live consistently in all areas of their lives—in the theatre, in romantic relationships, and in their families.


Adolescence is an emotional time, one that adults would rather forget because of their own awkward teen experiences. But young people need help controlling their raging emotions and hormones. Adults must be willing to guide teens through this stormy time.

Through performance, one explores his or her own emotions. Acting is a great way for students to work through their carousel of feelings. Acting often requires controlling emotions; this aids in one’s affective development. A theatre student who is angry or frustrated can take those emotions into a rehearsal or performance and constructively respond to those feelings, rather than hurt themselves or someone else. Improvisation is also a nice tool to help students use their emotions. In this activity, they can create a spur-of-the-moment scene. They may choose to use their current experience to find a solution in a safe setting. Can this same practice be used in your youth group setting?

Like any other interest, theatre is a great release for many students. Other students drive fast, listen to loud music, or tackle other football players. Theatre students may memorize a new monologue, rehearse, learn a new song, or design the next show’s lighting as their release. Emotions can be used positively in theatre.


Because culture can reflect society, theatre is a miniature laboratory of the world and its ills. High school productions often explore such themes as racism, violence, and AIDS. Students are able to explore these realities without experiencing the actual pain and consequences. Hopefully, this opportunity protects the students from actually encountering such activities, but it doesn’t always work.

As many know, the theatre world and entertainment industry are not always respectable. Many students are bitten by the "theatre bug" terminally and want to devote their lives to acting or technical support. What lifestyle are they forged into if they are encouraged to make a living in the business. There are many good, honest people in the entertainment industry, but there are also lots of immoral people with whom they will be working. It is a dangerous career choice, but should they be discouraged?

Instead of asking a young person to relinquish a dream of a life in theatre, youth leaders should encourage students to be morally and spiritually strong if the teen decides to pursue acting as their life’s work. They will need a strong foundation in their faith. They will face many obstacles and temptations, and they need to be equipped to face them. If they happen to become successful, they will be a role model to multitudes. Encourage a young person to consider what type of role model he or she would want to be.


Theatre students are an adolescent subculture with great diversity, potential, and energy. If their energy is harnessed, they add a wonderful dimension to any youth organization. More importantly, working with theatre students provides the youth worker and opportunity to help them develop and grow.


  1. What have been your experiences in working with theatre students? Are they similar to those described by the author? Explain.
  2. If a student asked you what boundaries should be established for his or her performance on or behind stage, what would you suggest? How would you help that student find his or her limits? On what values would the boundaries be based?
  3. What practical suggestions for maintaining and strengthening one’s morality would you offer a young person pursuing a career in theatre?


  1. There are so many subcultures in the high school population. The characteristics and talents that they focus on to set themselves apart from the mainstrem teen culture can be used positively.
  2. Use the subculture’s interests when working with them. Their distinctions offer the keys through which they may be effectively reached.

Kelly Dagley and Kathryn Q. Powers cCYS