The appointment of Hampshire College’s first professor of children’s theatre has expanded educational and creative opportunities not only to the Hampshire campus, but also for area youngsters.
Natalie Sowell, who has a rich background in performance and administration with children’s theatre groups as well as educational training in the theory and techniques of theatre for young audiences, is eager to reach out to local schools and organizations. She is committed to the idea that theatre can promote social change by exposing children to new ideas and different ways of experiencing the world, and she explains that the college students in her classes will benefit from the collaboration, also.
“Going into classrooms and community centers and conducting workshops is a necessary means of gaining experience,” she said. “College students interested in theatre for young audiences and creative dramatics need to take their work out into the community.”
Children’s theatre is a rapidly growing field, which takes three major forms, Sowell said: (1) Creative drama is concerned with the educational process, with a leader teaching a group of youngsters through drama. It can be integrated into the classroom, bring life to subjects like math or science, or used to teach children to express themselves. (2) Youth theatre is about the production, with children performing and learning about the art of theatre. (3) Theatre for young audiences involves professionals performing for children. Not surprisingly, Sowell—who took her first drama class at age five—is interested “in all of it.”
She recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatre for youth from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has directed numerous children’s and youth theatre productions, and served as artistic director of Ujima Youtheatre in Nebraska, named for the Swahili term for “collective work and responsibility.”
“The multicultural aspects of theatre provide an amazing way to introduce children to how different people live, mutual respect, honoring different people’s experiences,” Sowell said. One of the difficulties facing those who work in theatre for young audiences is the lack of inclusivity. Traditionally, stories have not been told from many perspectives, and she is particularly concerned with finding and creating materials that are more inclusive.
Children’s theatre is not entirely new to Hampshire—co-director of the theatre program Wayne Kramer is a staunch advocate for the study and performance of children’s theatre and an alumnus, Peter Brosius, is artistic director of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which was the first theatre for young people to win the Regional Theatre Tony Award—but Sowell’s arrival pulls together existing campus and Five College resources that will expand that focus. She is excited about the opportunities that Hampshire’s open academic approach offers for collaboration. For example, she will team-teach a course in playwriting for children next spring and she has already begun conversations with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art about collaborative opportunities.