In the U.S., school arts programs at all levels of education are in serious danger. Sean Chambers, an outspoken advocate for better arts funding, understands the need for arts education even where it seems least likely. Chambers, an English and creative-writing instructor at Valley Forge Military College (VFMC), explains, “The government should fund arts programs because they're underfunded, but also because they validate the impulse of other private donors, community members, school principals, and college deans and presidents to allocate money to them, too.”
Meet the Soldiers Theatre
Chambers arrived at VFMC, a two-year institution in Wayne, Pennsylvania, that grants associate degrees, earlier this year. Like many private institutions in the United States, it receives government grants and other funding.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, where his classmates included Tina Fey and Save the Last Dance actor Sean Patrick Thomas, Chambers set out to create a student-run drama club at VFMC. But believing the title “drama club” might be a deterrent to students trained in the no-guts-no-glory ethos, he named it the Soldiers Theatre, a play on the phrase “theater of war.”
The Soldiers Theatre name has also been used in a series of theater programs that are singularly valuable for a whole other reason: assisting soldiers who have returned from combat.
“I think of it as a production company's name,” Chambers says. “Plus, I'm hearkening back to the British, the classic, with the ‘t-r-e,’ like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.”
Chambers wanted to encourage his cadets to appreciate theater and film, to give them alternatives to athletics and demonstrate that “you really can have a career in the arts.”
He’s certainly made a difference. The club’s seven core members come from many different backgrounds and artistic interests. For first-year cadet Jan Juliao, the first love is acting. Juliao, who grew up in Argentina, caught the acting bug in a high-school production of Mamma Mia! He played Harry Bright and was named his school’s best actor.
Brett Berger, from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, was also a high-school actor, but is interested in behind-the-scenes aspects of theater.
For West Philadelphia’s Edward Washington IV, the focus is on directing. Washington’s aspiration, he said, is to “win three Oscars.”
Christina Wiles, a Philly native and cadet in the program, wants to use the opportunity the club provides to “write about inequalities” and to get back “a little piece of myself that I lost.”
The club’s first-year focus isn’t so much on performing as appreciating film and drama. Last month, the club saw Lights Out, a play about Nat “King” Cole, at Malvern’s People’s Light and Theatre Company. The play co-starred West Wing actor Dulé Hill, who met with the students afterward. It was the first live play several of them had ever attended. After that meeting, to Washington’s delight, he and Hill struck up an Instagram correspondence.
Chambers hopes his class will eventually branch out into scene work, putting on full performances, and even getting into video production with a YouTube channel, taking advantage of the opportunity to film on the school’s sprawling, green campus.
The Question of Funding
The Soldiers Theatre program, Chambers says, has benefited from a generous buy-in by the college’s administration. The program is looking for additional support as it expands, possibly from the school’s alumni.
But not every school is lucky enough to have access to a student activities fund or donations from wealthy alumni.
Chambers already sees the benefit programs like Soldiers Theatre can provide, and it’s something decision makers in Washington, Harrisburg, and other capitals should heed.
“Programs like this build character, confidence, and emotional resilience,” Chambers says. “We have students who are homesick or feeling isolated, dealing with regular issues in late adolescence or early adulthood. Some are coming to terms with their identities or just trying to find words to describe the world and the culture as they see it. And indeed, some are thinking about war, patriotism, loyalty, and politics, plus life after the military-college experience. Acting and writing are ways to make friends, to hear oneself, and to collaborate with people different from you. Sure, these are job skills. They're also development skills that make a person more independent and self-reliant.”