A drama teacher defends her craft
By C.M. Bateman and Kaitlyn Tran
Estrella Esparza-Johnson teaches an advanced course in Modern Acting and an Introduction to Dramatic Arts course for the Expeditions team at Summit Public Schools.
- How long have you been a teacher of the arts?
“I was working with kids … And I also had to co-direct a full stage show, about a hundred kids,” Ms. Esparza-Johnson said. “I found out that you could not only have a production of kids, but teach them the basics of drama.”
- What inspired you to pursue the arts?
“I was born into it. It was always something that was, I saw every day, and I saw it as a legitimate profession, something that people do with their lives. I can’t honestly tell you whether it was nature or nurture. This is how I enjoyed expressing myself. I feel the most at home, most expressed, most comfortable in this realm.”
- What inspired you to become a teacher of the arts?
“Our kids really need it … I started to see that drama and the skills that it develops are good for intrapersonal communication, development of language and vocabulary, confidence, public speaking, media literacy, critical analysis, critical thinking, and just, a place for kids to be creative, that, at that time, this was back in, I wanna say, 2000 like 4 or 5 and 6, there was the No Child Left Behind thing so kids were just being taught to test, test, test, test, and having very few experiences where they got to explore more parts of being human.
I saw my ability to come in as a teaching artist with drama to help them enhance their skills, especially students who were immigrant students, learning English – the drama was a way to bridge their home understanding and where they were coming from and give them a means to express themselves and make a level playing field to students who adapted the language, where they could contribute.
What I seek to do in my work is to help develop human beings through drama, through the dramatic arts, and in turn helping them be whatever they’re meant to be. I firmly believe that their lives are enhanced by drama and not to mention that they become more sophisticated viewers of my profession.”
- What do you think is the importance of art programs in schools?
“There’s been this artificial wall built between science and math and then the arts. Science and math have been seen as incredibly important, which they are, and you know, I encourage people to explore those fields of human study. But you have whole generations of people who have been brought up to believe that the arts are less, not as important than science and math, when the reality is, if you study science and math at the college level and the arts, what you find is that they’re so much the same. We’re all adept at exploring the unknown. We’re comfortable in not knowing, in experimentation, observation, theorizing, critically analyzing things, innovating, challenging boundaries, looking at things from alternate perspectives.
So I think that all human beings need to be exposed to those modes of behaving and thinking and practicing, because in a scientific laboratory, you know, you follow the scientific method. You theorize, you observe, you experiment, you reflect, you go back, and eventually you come up with empirical evidence. You do the same, or a very similar process when it comes to improvisation, or playwriting, or developing a scene, or developing a monologue, learning how to develop the voice.
There are elements of when I’m teaching voice – I’m talking about aspects of the anatomy, of physiology, neuroscience – helps to make better actors. But my students have to understand both realms in order for that to work, so it’s just, I think, important for all humans to learn, or be exposed in a general way, to all fields of human endeavor in a balanced way, because it doesn’t matter how people get intelligence, knowledge, or wisdom, it just matters that they do. Whatever means that you can use, whatever avenue helps people to get it- that’s why arts are important, because they’ve been excluded.”
- In your experience, what do students take from these programs?
“When you study something, say economics, part of economics study is the study of game theory, which is, you know, setting up games. Here’s a set of circumstances, here’s an objective, work within it to accomplish the objective. That’s exactly what we do in drama.
You learn those skills of problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, experimentation, creativity, and creativity I could define as the ability to respond creatively to any given set of circumstances. Response ability in the sense that you develop the ability to respond vs react to a set of circumstances, to identify what certain circumstances are; so, in other words, to work backwards. For instance, in drama, what I’ve noticed a lot in terms of academic scholastic skill is that many people will come into my classes who are identified as limited or poor readers, you know, not very adept at reading or comprehension, or even at limited English skills, and what I find is that because dramatic literature is so accessible because it’s about the human experience, that somehow, that transcends any difficulty students are having with language, or they just stretch themselves, or it gives them more means to understand because it gives them more emotion and human experience are involved. Therefore, then, by the end of my class, people are usually reading at a more sophisticated level, their vocabularies have increased and their comprehension and their expression, therefore their ability to use language, their mechanics have improved their grammar has improved, their reading level is higher. So if I were to give them like a Lexile level for what they were reading when they started my class to what they were reading at the end, it’s anecdotal, but I think that if I were access it, there would be a dramatic difference.”
- What value do you see in art programs in an education system?
“I had a theater professor, a drama professor who cited the neurological reality that if the brain, when asleep, and it is regenerating, if it does not have rapid eye movement, dream sleep, the brain loses its ability for cognition, its ability to be sane and to function. Therefore, this professor, Michael Fields, extrapolated that we as artists are the dreamers of society. If we stop dreaming, thinking the thoughts and doing the expressions that we do, then society itself will lose itself. It will not be whole, it will not be healthy, it will not be sane. And so, the importance of art programs is that your society is only as good as all of your people. And, we need cutting edge, brilliant scientists, engineers, mathematicians, doctors, accountants, lawyers, whatever, but we brilliant artists- visual artists, musicians, dramatists, dancers- we need people to be able to push the limits of what it means to be human and what it means to be expressive of the human condition.
It’s not like the arts are frivolous. Some of the greatest thinkers in the world have also, not just dabbled, but deeply explored the arts. Albert Einstein was a virtuoso on the streets. I don’t think physics suffered because he was a musician. I don’t think musicians have suffered because he was a scientist. I think it enhanced his brain and his cognitive ability and his influence and his life experience.
I would argue every subject in a school is important. It’s only that when you try and say one is more important than the other that I will be the first one to stand up and say ‘Uh, excuse me, the arts are extremely important.’ So as long as it’s a fair playing field, everything is good, but they are just as important as math and science and engineering and history and language and anthropology and I could name many, many, many more.”