Theater gives military youth a voice

As America enters its ninth year of war in Afghanistan, it’s estimated that nearly two million children have had a parent deployed. These children are oftentimes negatively impacted when a loved one is sent far away to a dangerous area, and voicing their feelings about the separation isn’t always easy. Operation: Military Kids, which supports military children impacted by deployment, is giving these youth a voice with its program: Speak Out for Military Kids (SOMK). SOMK creates safe places and positive ways for kids to share their emotions and experiences about deployment.

One example of an SOMK project is interactive theater, developed by Kansas State University’s School of Family Studies and Human Services in Manhattan, Kan. By collaborating with the school’s department of communication, department of theater and dance and community members, K-State was able to create an interactive theater workshop where local military youth had the opportunity to address their feelings about deployment.

“We discovered interactive theater as a way for military youth to build speaking skills, but more importantly, as a way to get the children’s stories told so the community itself can support the youth,” said Elaine Johannes, Ph.D., a K-State assistant professor of family studies and human services and an extension specialist in youth development.

The first SOMK interactive theater took place in 2008 at a local community center involving 12 middle-school kids. Community members and K-State staff helped the children write their stories by discussing the cycle of deployment (pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment) and the emotions and issues the children encountered during these difficult times. From there, staff compiled the stories into different scenes to create a 45-minute play titled, “Serving at Home,” for the children to perform.

“Because the play was a composition of the group, the kids started feeling, ‘I’m part of a group, I’m not alone, I do have a voice here’,” Johannes said. “And theater not only engaged the youth, it engaged the audience. We have stories of families who did not know their children were going through deployment issues until they saw the play.”

The effectiveness of the project was examined and results revealed that the 12 children improved public speaking skills and found the theater setting to be a comfortable environment for them to share their experiences and feelings toward military deployment. And not only did the theater give the youth a chance to create their own script to share with the audience, “it also created awareness in the community that military families and kids reside here and they need our support, our help,” Johannes said.

K-State created a passport as a resource guide for other communities to use when learning how to create an SOMK interactive theater workshop. Click here to download a copy of the passport. Legion posts are encouraged to use the passport as a reference tool and work with their local community theater, 4-H or Boys and Girls Club to sponsor an SOMK interactive theater to give youth a voice about their military experience. The workshop can be an after school program or a summer camp event.