Theater and the Introverted Child

Introversion is often described as getting energy from solitude.

Anyone who is an introvert or knows an introvert has probably seen some evidence of this, perhaps choosing to spend the evening curled up watching a movie, working on a solo project, or reading a book instead of visiting with friends or spending time with other people. You or your introverted friend may also prefer to process ideas and situations alone before sharing, whereas more extroverted people may prefer to process verbally with others.

However, introversion is a lot more complex than that. Introverts have been scientifically proven to have a more acute sensitivity to stimulation. It is suggested that this can cause them to become overwhelmed by sensory input more easily than extroverts. The sound from loud parties can be too much, and sharing ideas with others before they are fully formed can be distracting. It’s not hatred of people. It’s not anxiety, although our extroverted society can lead to anxiety for introverts. And it’s certainly not fear. It’s that we have a natural tendency to process more sounds, smells, words, and images, and that can be exhausting!

Introverts are not lacking. Instead, we have the superpower of heightened sensitivity to our surroundings!

How does this translate to children?

Navigating an extroverted world is not easy. In American culture, kids are expected to raise their hands, to speak up, to be quick-thinking, and to be assertive. Society has come to mark this behavior as a sign of cleverness. That can be a hard pill to swallow for a young introvert. I can’t tell you the number of times I cried at the embarrassing idea of speaking with a stranger on the phone as a child–this was before the option of text, mind you–and don’t get me started on how distressing it was to try to hold an impromptu conversation with another kid.

For a parent, even an introverted one, seeing this kind of behavior can be worrying. As an adult you know that the pressures keep building, and that navigating society just gets harder. How can you encourage an introverted child to be “well-adjusted” in a world that has, at times, oppressive expectations?

Well, there’s good news. I know, I know… ”Is she seriously going to say that theater is the answer?”

Well, yes. Yes I am.

First off, let me clarify that I am NOT encouraging anyone to quash their child’s introversion. There is great value in the desire to step aside, take a moment, and reflect. However, there are ways to encourage your introverted child to build skills that are complementary to their strengths.

Science shows we introverts feel just as good after positive social interaction as an extrovert; we’re just more choosy about where and when this happens. And we are just as strong of presenters. A lot of the fuss about introverts and stagefright is just that–fuss. Stagefright has little to do with introversion, and many extroverts also fear presenting. But, nevertheless, fuss has a nasty way of influencing the way people feel about themselves.

When my parents enrolled me in drama classes, I discovered that theater actually encouraged the introvert’s natural skillset. For instance, American society rewards one’s ability to speak for oneself, loudly and proudly as needed. Acting values this too, but equally values one’s ability to listen, reflect, and respond. I found that the change in focus gave me a supportive sounding-board for my inner creative life.

Not to say that drama classes only focus on acting. A good theater community avoids putting any one skillset on a pedestal, emphasizing the importance of everyone involved.  This includes designers, run crew, managers, directors, painters, builders, costumers, choreographers, musicians, board operators, playwrights, educators, and producers. Without any one of these, a show could not run. This village approach is uncommon in our broader society, where one–often seemingly extroverted–person gets accolades for the work of many. But the best theaters don’t fall prey to that unfair system, and some of my favorite theater classes, both as a student and a teacher, have explored all of the facets of theater.

The structure of theater, however, is one of the most influential parts of classes for introverted youth. Personally, I experience my greatest stress when I’m faced with the unknown. Walking into a new situation and suddenly being expected to socialize, present, or organize has always given me anxiety. Theater helped me learn to manage my anxiety in two ways:

  1. In every class and production I was provided with a very clear goal, and clear steps of how to get there. Good theater is built on good rehearsal, which removes much of the unknown from the performance. But perhaps more importantly, theater also teaches participants that flukes happen, and practice helps build a positive, creative response to any challenges that may arise. Theater softens one’s discomfort with the unknown, replacing it with growing confidence.
  2. In theater, children are encouraged to take risks. Not dangerous ones, of course, but risks that involve trusting yourself and those around you. For instance, young actors are often asked to do silly things, like pretend to be a fish or walk as if the room is full of jello. In the world outside theater, this may be an embarrassing experience for an introverted child. However, the supportive structure of theater classes gently introduces children to the idea of taking good risks and making bold choices. And whether the bold choice was a success or not–we all know some peoples’ fish impressions are better than others–the students receive positive feedback simply for trying. As introverts grow up, this experience can make trying new things easier, even outside of the theater.

A secondary benefit of this structure is that young introvert actors often find some of their closest friendships through theater. I met most of my friends through either a theater production or class, and they’ve seen me in some of my most intense moments of happiness, idiocy, frustration, and glory. Because of that, and in some cases in spite of thousands of miles of separation, they are still some of my greatest supporters.

Nowadays when people meet me, they may be surprised when I say I am an introvert, especially when I start telling them about my career in theater education. I assure them that I do, in fact, “get my energy from solitude.” However, energy is not happiness. Happiness to me is connectedness, and theater has given me connectedness a hundred times over.

If you know a child in grades K-8 who would be interested in trying their hand at theater, check out Little Theater Workshop’s Fall 2019 class offerings. Classes start September 9!

A lot of our research for this blog post came from one amazing study-based article: 5 Myths About Introverts and Extroverts. It even includes links to the actual studies! Or, for a more in-depth read, check out Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

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