Over the next month, kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the Palo Alto Unified School District will be taking time to learn about a new subject: gender expression.
In partnership with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, administrators and teachers will be engaging students in discourse on gender expression and empathy through performances of "Oskar and the Countless Costume Changes," an interactive play that's being performed as part of a half-hour assembly throughout the month of March.
The play introduces the story of Oskar, an ambitious 10-year-old who has been given the opportunity to direct and write his school's play. Just when Oskar thinks he has sorted out the acting roles for his production, his classmate Frank expresses that he wants to be cast as the princess while his friend Beth announces that she wants to be the knight.
This conundrum forces Oskar to confront his preconceived ideas about gender in relation to character traits like bravery, courage and compassion, helping him realize that the roles in his play aren't always defined by gender. With the help of kid-appropriate humor, elaborate costume changes, a vibrant set design and interaction with the audience, "Oskar" challenges the complexities of gender expression in a way that children can relate to and have fun with.
Amy Cole-Farrell, TheatreWorks' education director and the director of "Oskar," said the intention of the play was to create a safe and positive environment for gender discussion, an otherwise sensitive and tricky topic for schools, or even parents, to discuss with kids.
Creating a play to explain gender to kids opened up the potential to explore related themes like self-acceptance and personal awareness in a fun and lighthearted manner.
"We recognized there are children who express themselves differently across the gender spectrum, anywhere from transgender children to a boy or girl doing an activity that's outside of the gender stereotype," she said. "We wanted to start a conversation. We wanted to (ask) questions and start dialogue about it."
With input from district leaders, teachers and parents of LGBTQ children, a storyline was developed that could both entertain children and challenge them to think about what it means to be a boy or a girl, Cole-Farrell said. She explained that Oskar, who initially believes that only boys can be knights and only girls can be princesses, comes to realize that his preconceived ideas about these gendered roles shouldn't define his friends' aspirations.
"The theme (of the play) is that sometimes the best boy for the job is a girl, and the best girl for the job is a boy," she said, adding that the takeaway lesson for kids is about accepting your friends regardless of the way they dress, act or talk.
TheatreWorks and the Palo Alto Unified School District looked to Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit organization that provides gender-identity and expression training for school districts and educators, to help them create an in-classroom study guide to accompany the play. With resources for teachers, students and their parents, the guide allows for further discussion and a deeper understanding of the topics brought up in the play.
"We're starting a conversation with the study guide," Cole-Farrell said, adding, "the aim is to (teach children to) let go of gender stereotypes, play with gender roles and adjectives and open up thinking about these roles."
"Oskar and the Countless Costume Changes" will be touring through elementary schools in Palo Alto and throughout the rest of the Bay Area until April 1, reaching students as far as San Rafael and Gilroy. With an average 25,000 students being served by TheatreWorks educational programming each year, Cole-Farrell feels hopeful about the impact "Oskar" will have on students' awareness as they move forward to middle school.
"In the play, we talk about heroes a lot, and in the end, the characters all come out as heroes," Cole-Farrell said. "My hope is that students have an expanded idea of what it means to experience being a boy or a girl. By seeing it performed in a story, they can watch and engage with it. It can be effective in broadening what they think a hero is."