American Canyon HS Drama Class

Students in the American Canyon High School drama class. 

Earlier this month, I found myself in Summer Heartt’s American Canyon High School drama class watching a performance of a student-written play.

The play was based on the Pixar movie, “Inside Out” where the aspects of the teenage brain are acted out by different characters. Student Juliana Pablo wrote the play. She called it “Mind Control.” There was Emotion, played by Samantha Becvar, whose face was glued to her cell phone, and Judgment, played by Isaas Brewer-Buckner, who was trying to get Emotion to get off her phone and pay attention. They were in the head of the fictional student, Lucas, played by Nile Garcia, a seemingly rather sad high school student who may have been overwhelmed by the voices in his head.

In the play, the teacher, Mrs. Perkins, played by Elizabeth King, came by and told Lukas to get off his phone, but Emotion overwhelmed him and he refused. He was then put in detention. That infuriated Judgment and she chastised Emotion for her lack of control, which lead to Soul interjecting—played by the seemingly demure, but tough as nails, playwright Juliana Pablo—to threaten to fire Emotion and Judgment if they don’t get their act together and get Lucas straightened out.

(Incidentally, during my entire time at American Canyon High School that day, I didn’t see one student on their phone.)

It was very impressive, not only Juliana’s creativity and drive to write the play, but that her peers would act out the scripts so convincingly. Their effortlessness, their seriousness and their maturity were inspiring.

After the play, there was the critique. Heartt, took the students through an exercise called “The Tuning Protocol” which asks the group to describe their “likes” and “wonders.” Likes are just that — things they liked about the performance. But wonders are different. Wonders are speculative, exploratory. Students asked, “I wonder what would happen if…”

For example, students would say, “I wonder what happens if Soul fires Emotion and Judgment,” or “I wonder how Lucas is dealing with such strong aspects of his personality,” or “I wonder if Soul has any compassion, or if she asserts her power like a wrathful and angry God.” This sort of non-threatening feedback gives Juliana plenty of material to continue the development of her play.

What struck me was the honesty and goodwill of the students. Never could I have imagined that 35 supposedly hormone-soaked, brash and unfocused teenagers would be as perceptive, thoughtful or supportive.

This simple, nonjudgmental line of questioning, lead me to two insights.

First is that the critique was so gentle, and so nonjudgmental, that it gave students the opportunity to be vulnerable — vulnerability being the first step in learning something new. Adolescents are known for their ruthlessness, and yet the teenage psyche is very fragile. A class where vulnerability is supported is invaluable because it gives students the opportunity to get comfortable with this oh-so-human state. The more they accept their vulnerability, the more opportunities they have to explore them, the more confident they will be. Indeed, the more vulnerable they are allowed to be, the less vulnerable they will be in the future.

Acting requires a safe space where actors can feel the vulnerability in themselves necessary to inhabit the psyche of a character other than who they are. Such experience with vulnerability, serves everyone, because vulnerability is part of life.

My second insight was that the critiquing session was not just for Juliana’s benefit. The process of “wondering” was as much an exercise in creative flexible thinking for the class as it was feedback for the playwright. The students genuinely explored new realms of thought, new ways of thinking about the components of a human person—Emotion, Judgment and the overbearing Soul—of which each hormone pumped adolescent is juggling for themselves. And it all came from the common occurrence of a teacher’s telling the student to get off their phone.

Homo sapiens is a story-telling species. Stories are the currency of our lives. The human ability to empathize and take part in a story, whether it be a novel, a play or movie, is a central part of our existence. The stories we tell, whether they be the ones we tell ourselves about our own lives, or the ones we learn from about other’s lives, are the very things that make up our collective psyche, our collective personality and our collective culture.

This is why drama education is so important. Drama education enhances a student’s very human propensity to appreciate and tell the stories intrinsic to our existence.

Governments, labor statisticians and economists have given primacy to STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Today they are considered to be the most important subjects in our education system. Apparently, it seems, because there are going to be more STEM jobs in the future. Therefore, these are the most important classes students should take. Resources should be channeled toward the STEM programs.

But the STEM subjects won’t teach students interpersonal skills; they won’t teach compassion; they won’t teach creativity or emotional problem solving the way drama class does.

We see the importance of STEM education only in hindsight. The past’s rise in technology, supposedly indicates that there will be lots of jobs for technicians in the future. But really, the future belongs to the creators. The shapeshifters, the innovators and the alchemists—these are the dramatists.

I can only imagine how these students’ chemistry and math teachers cultivate the overbearing tyranny of the “right” answer, when life, as it has ever been understood by anyone wise, has no “right” answers. There is only the human drama, and our response to it. Drama training gives students the flexibility of mind to respond to life’s events with wisdom.

When I emailed Ms. Heartt to thank her for letting me sit in on the class, she told me that I left too soon. I missed the Advanced Drama Class’ rehearsal for “She Kills Monsters,” the play they are currently working on. It’s a lesbian love story set in a Dungeons and Dragons universe. It opens on Nov. 16 at ACHS Theater. “They are working on listening and being aware of how they come across to others,” she said. “Lots of learning that has nothing to do with school, but everything to do with life!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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