Last week, my sons participated in their schoolâ€™s first school playâ€”a charming production of â€œThe Sound of Music.â€ While my fifth-grader worked the spotlight from the mezzanine, my 8-year old played one of the Von Trapp boys, appearing in the scene in which Maria dresses her charges in dungarees she fashioned out of floral curtains. (Yes, it was adorable!)
But letâ€™s get right to the gender point here: Out of 150 kids who voluntarily signed up for the cast, only 20% were boysâ€”and most of them were in the younger grades. While dozens of older girls donned nunâ€™s costumes, only a handful of pre-teen boys participated. The fifth-grader who played the Captain enjoyed a hearty applause after hitting all the right notes in â€œEdelweiss,â€ but his male peers were in the audience, not onstage with him. When I asked other folks why this was the case, I heard that most boys were too busy with sports to commit to two weeks of rehearsals. Or, they just didnâ€™t think being in the play was cool.
According to two professional directors who teach acting classes and orchestrate childrenâ€™s productions in our community, the percentage of boys in our school play was actually rather high. At one local theater program, only 10 to 15% of six-to-eight-year old kids are boys. At another, a recent casting call for â€œPeter Panâ€ attracted over forty young thespians, but only three or four boys. Ultimately, the Lost Boys were played by girls.
Whatâ€™s up with this? â€œItâ€™s a societal thing,â€ says Dan Ferrante of the Westchester Sandbox Theater in Mamaroneck, New York. Traci Timmons, of the Bendheim Childrenâ€™s Theater in nearby Scarsdale, surmises that when parents guide their sonsâ€™ extra-curricular activities, they usually prioritize sports over the arts, even if their boys show interest in creative activities. As boys get older, some dads fear a stigma of effeminacy or homosexuality often connected to men in theater. One positive sign is that sibling involvement can attract cross-gender interest. When brothers come to see their sisters perform, they want to be part of the excitement the next time around.
Parents are always hearing about the character-building benefits of team sports for kids of both sexes: they promote cooperation, persistence, self-confidence, healthy body awareness, the list goes on. True enough, but canâ€™t the same be said for performing arts? Ms. Timmons argues that acting can enhance kidsâ€™ self-confidence, reduce feelings of social apprehensiveness, build literacy skills, and foster emotional sensitivity. For decades, feminists (and parents in general) have rightly fought to ensure gender parity in athleticsâ€”but what can we do to increase boysâ€™ involvement in the arts? Even the popularity of Disneyâ€™s â€œHigh School Musicalâ€â€”in which Zac Efron plays a jock who eventually learns to love the limelight on stage as well as on the basketball courtâ€”doesnâ€™t seem to have made much difference.
Kidsâ€™ free time is limited, and they canâ€™t do it all. But itâ€™s a shame that boys who would otherwise enjoyâ€”and benefit fromâ€”theatrical pursuits avoid them because theyâ€™re worried that their friends will think itâ€™s uncool or â€œgirly.â€
Next fall, Benji will move on to middle schoolâ€”but Eli will be in fourth grade, and heâ€™s already planning to be in the school play again. Rumor has it that next yearâ€™s musical might be â€œThe Wizard of Oz.â€ I hope they wonâ€™t have to cast a girl as the Tin Man.