Entertainment as a Learning Experience

I am the proud parent of adopted children. My sons, Alex and Christopher, came to my home with no previous educational support or encouragement. As such, both boys had difficulty reading and Alex (at the age of 6) had difficulty speaking in full sentences (when we first played Lego, he picked up a figurine and said, “Who’s Him?”). Over our first summer together, my husband and I tried everything to try to encourage the boys to be interested in reading. Nothing worked. Then, as luck would have it, I stumbled on the app Scribblenauts. Scribblenauts is a humorous, animated game that forces you to complete missions by creating objects that you can spell. If your character is stuck at the bottom of a cliff and you spell “ladder,” a ladder magically appears, and your character can escape. The humor of the game generally comes from learning that you can spell anything and the game will create it: if, instead, you want to use a giant, rainbow turtle to help you climb to the top of that cliff, it will appear if you spell it correctly. My boys were hooked and, suddenly, they couldn’t learn enough words.

A few years later, Alex could hardly wait to see the new Frozen show at Disneyland. Since the movie came out, he was in love with Olaf and spent most mornings before school singing Olaf’s song. The summer the Frozen show opened, there was a lot of hubbub online about the color-blind casting. True to the hubbub, at the show Alex and I saw, Kristoff was played by an African-American actor.

Considering that Alex is usually a stickler for things appearing correctly (he once refused to ride the Haunted Mansion ride because Oogie Boogie--typically just a large, naked green monster--was depicted at the end wearing a Santa hat and beard), I was curious if he would notice or care about the multicultural casting. To my surprise, Alex didn’t blink an eye. The lady behind me whispered to her husband, “Why is Kristoff Black?” But my son loved the show.  He didn’t have anything critical to say except he thought the Olaf puppet was too small. Later that day, though, he asked me, “Do you think I can be Olaf some day?”

Both of these moments taught me something about entertainment and business: whether or not you realize it, you’re willing to learn (and sometimes grow as a person) if you are being entertained. This is what I wish to do with my theater company, Imaginary Theatricals. I wish to produce only color-blind, gender-blind, and sexual-orientation-blind theater. I firmly believe that what’s more important in theater is the story being told not whether or not Curly from Oklahoma is played by a white man. Rodgers and Hammerstein made us confront racism and domestic violence.

I think the same can be done to further the race and/or sexual orientation and/or gender conversation in this country through casting (and even better if you can find new works to produce that support this idea). I think you can make small adjustments (for example, as in Frozen, choosing an African-American actor to play a traditionally white character) that have huge impacts. For the most part, if the production itself is good enough, I don’t think many people will notice. However, if people do notice, I think it starts the right conversation. The lady sitting behind me at Frozen didn’t get up and leave. She asked her husband, “Why is Kristoff Black?” If I had been her husband, my response would have been, “because he’s a made up character from a place that doesn’t actually exist.”

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