When I Grow Up

By Caleb Forlong

What Happens When We Allow Theater to Shape the Identity of our Youth

When I Grow Up


The acclaimed West End and Broadway musical Matilda, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, is currently home to some of Broadway’s youngest stars and tells the story of a girl who decides to change her story. It is an empowering tale of the value of the voice of youth in our community (even if they do get up to a bit of mischief!)

Tim Minchin’s famed lyric ‘When I Grow Up’ is an audience favorite in Matilda. It is the fool’s paradise of adulthood as seen through a child’s eyes, wherein by growing up (or more likely metaphysical enlightenment) suddenly, the world is free of struggle, you know all the answers, and most importantly you become ‘enough’. Unfortunately for all of us, it is nothing but a fantasy.

When life doesn’t get any easier it is important that our children are growing up with the right preparedness for the world ahead.


On any given night, one of four Matilda’s takes the stage on Broadway in front of more than a thousand audience members, for these girls they will know what is is to have a sense of confidence in who they are, and how they present themselves to the world. Not to mention a bedtime that makes the rest of the pre-teens at school jealous.

This experience, besides maybe the late nights, is no different for a child who experiences theater in a school or community environment. In fact, one of the most often observed benefits of performing in theater is that of a positive and stable personal identity. For our youth the theater is often the first opportunity to explore reality, and to resolve internal conflict, all the while being in a safe fantasy environment.

“Even if you’re little you can do a lot. You mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.” – Matilda

We get to know who we are at the same time as learning empathy for the lives of others. I mean, come on, playing an orphan singing about it being ‘a hard knock life’ has got to do something to you! And hopefully, you break the illusion that ‘one day’ everything will start to make more sense all the while learning that you are enough. Even though you’re probably still not tall enough to reach the branches of the trees you get to climb when you’re grown up. (I’m definitely going to go out and find one of these magnificent trees that are exclusively for adults after I finish writing this, I feel like I’m missing out on one of the high points of being an adult).


“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bare it.”

All children naturally want to act and perform. Self-consciousness is an adult concept. By the time you begin to think that your voice kinda sounds weird, and when you start to realize your body doesn’t look quite like the magazines you’ve been reading, statistically the skills you learn from performance will far outweigh any academic merits you may have when it comes to your confidence or your ability to express yourself in public as you navigate adolescence and on into your career.

Creating theatrical opportunities for youth in our communities is a direct investment in their long term happiness. It creates a path on which children are more empowered, and become more competent and motivated to strive towards long term goals.

“Just because I find myself in this story doesn’t mean that everything is written for me.”

If we take a lesson from the book of Matilda (and ignore the part where she had powers of telekinesis) we can see how remarkable children really are, and how quite often they can surprise us with their understanding of life. Matilda is right to do everything in her power to change the life that was written for her.

As a community we have a responsibility to enable and encourage in our children a freedom of expression and self identity, and hopefully that means a lot more community theater and youth productions. Just please go easy on productions of Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oh, and Fiddler on the Roof (we’ll leave that one to Danny Burstein and co.)

Dutton, S. (2008). Urban Youth Development–Broadway Style: Using Theatre And Group Work As Vehicles For Positive Youth Development. Social Work with Groups, 39-58.
Hughes, J., & Wilson, K. (2007). Playing A Part: The Impact Of Youth Theatre On Young People’s Personal And Social Development. Research in Drama Education, 57-72.
Larson, R., Walker, K., & Pearce, N. (2005). A Comparison Of Youth-driven And Adult- driven Youth Programs: Balancing Inputs From Youth And Adults. Journal of Community Psychology, 57-74.
Seldon, A. (2014, November 18). An education in the arts is limited to the economically privileged. It is an unjust waste of national talent. Create – a Journal of Perspectives on the Value of Arts and Culture.



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