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The Chatroom Series: Women in Arts + Culture

Highlighting women in arts and culture during National History Month

Jessica Waber is a fearless Drama Teacher tackling the importance of arts education in the School District of Philadelphia. Read more to learn how Jessica got her start in the arts, how she led over 50 students in a modern interruption of Romeo and Juliet, and why she's gushing over Jen Childs and Sharon Pinkenson.

 

1.What was your first job in the arts? What kind of impact did that have on you

I guess you could say my first official job in the arts was in 6th grade. I was cast as a munchkin in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Wizard of Oz. I remember calling the casting office on my own to schedule my audition. The job had a wonderful impact on me in so many ways –  from lifelong friendships and meeting fascinating adult role models to teaching me responsibility and discipline while balancing school work, rehearsals, and performances. Up until that point, acting had been a love and passion and getting cast at the Walnut taught me at an early age that by taking initiative and being a bit brazen, it is possible to make a living doing what you love.

 

2. You started off as a stage actress, how did you transition into teaching?

When I graduated from college I was very unmotivated to audition for shows and wanted to experience other career options. I worked in the Education Department of a local theatre and got the opportunity to meet students and teachers from all over the city. I was inspired by the individuals that I met and realized maybe teaching was a calling, so I went back to school and got my Masters and figured I’d give teaching a shot. I teach English in addition to drama and have to stand in front of large groups of teenagers, which is often terrifying, so I use my acting training and the practices of being the moment, working toward a goal, feeding off your partner, trusting your gut, and reading your audience every day. My students always ask me, “Why do you always seem so happy? Don’t you ever get sad?” It’s my training in theatre that allows me to be in the moment and play to my audience despite what I may be feeling that day or whatever chaos is happening around me.

3. Why do you love the arts in Philadelphia?

I love Philadelphia period! The arts here are fabulous for so many reasons. There is always something to check out and the best part is that, for the most part, arts experiences in the city are affordable and accessible to the public. If I go to NYC, most times I have to choose one thing to do or see because prices are so expensive. In just a week in Philly, I could go to a Union Transfer concert, a Brian Saunders Junk dance show, Wednesday night pay-what-you-can at the PMA, Bingo Night with Patsy from 1812 Productions, walk by beautiful murals, see my boyfriend’s photography hanging in Fleischer Art School, and not break my bank account! There is amazing work happening all over the place and Philadelphia makes sure it is accessible to the greater community.

4. Who are some of the other women in arts and culture that you consider influential?

Jen Childs the artistic director of 1812 Productions is a huge role model of mine. She is smart, funny, multi-talented, brilliant, and humble. She has created an incredible company and has impacted so many young artists and directors throughout the community. I love how she emphasizes the importance of women in comedy and that she encourages women to be funny and audacious. I can’t say enough good things about her. I also admire Sharon Pinkenson from the Greater Philadelphia Film Alliance and how she has brought so much film work to Philadelphia.

5. During your time at West Philadelphia High School, you led over 50 students in a modern interruption of Romeo and Juliet, what was that like?

Yes! It was wonderful and exciting. It was the school’s first production in over 15 years. I will never forget that experience or group of students. We did the production in Elizabethan English, but set it in modern times. Students spray painted the set, memorized their lines, showed up after school for rehearsals, and took ownership of the entire production. We did two night performances for the public and the school held two full student matinees. The students were a respectful and receptive audience, a great feat for any school auditorium filled with high school students watching Shakespeare and they gave their peers a powerful standing ovation and the loudest applause that I have ever witnessed at a theatre performance. I barely had to do anything come opening night because the students were running the whole show and front of house. All I had to do was help move the scenery. I’ve never been prouder of any accomplishment in my life and I don’t know that I ever will be.

6. There has been a lot of controversy around Philadelphia schools, specifically the shortage of arts programming.  As an arts teacher what would you like people to know?  

Oh my goodness, where do I start? Kids need arts programming. Students are growing up in a time where so much emphasis is put on testing. More and more pressures are put onto students to perform at high levels in the classroom and on exams. These high expectations are creating test-taking, stressed-out, overwhelmed and low-spirited children, with no extra-curricular outlets for many of them. How much fun does that sound? Schools shouldn’t be these stark places where all students do is take tests. Many Philadelphia public school students are not going to get any arts education if it is not given in school and arts classes allow for students to engage in skills that are so fundamentally important to their development as young adults. In arts classes, students have the opportunity to connect and share personal experiences and studies have shown that when an individual is engaged in arts programming, all areas of the brain are stimulated. Arts are not throwaway unnecessary classes. On top of all of that, these classes and programs are sometimes the only moment of sunlight in some students’ very stressful day-to-day lives. I wish I could take anyone who says otherwise to see a live theatre performance with students. The students’ reactions to the live performances speak for themselves. Anyone who doubts the need of arts programming is welcome to come with us on our next field trip or hang out at poetry club after school one day. Then I dare you to say arts programming at public schools should be cut.

7. If could meet any artist dead or alive, who would it be? Why?                  

Julianne Moore. She’s my acting role model. I’ve always admired her and she seems like such a funny and down to earth person. She’d be fun to have dinner with. Also Salvador Dali, that’d be a trip.

8. What is your ideal arts experience? Do you prefer a piece that makes you cry, laugh, teaches you something or allows you to escape for a while?

I love all of those types of experiences! I guess if I had to choose, my favorite arts experiences are those that make me escape the stressors of everyday life for a few moments.

9. What advice would you give to girls looking to pursue a career in arts education?

Go for it! It’s such a rewarding career and allows you to still have a hand in the arts while helping young people in so many ways. Also, trust your gut and don’t compromise your beliefs and instincts about what is best for your students despite criticism, fear, rigidity in systems, or a lack of understanding from others. Be bold and take risks.