Elizabeth Piliceri is only 11 but her confidence abounds as she practices on stage at Highland Oaks Middle School. Indeed, think Eve Harrington from All About Eve, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl — even Thelma and Louise.
“What I love about this class is that you get to express your inner feelings about your real talent and you don’t get to do that anywhere else,” Elizabeth says about her drama club and class, run by Highland Oaks’ language arts teacher Betty Marks.
“Miss Marks lets you do that. That’s the most amazing feeling you can get from a teacher. She’s a really big eye-opener. I love being confident. Believing in myself is the No. 1 thing. Never think doubtful, think positive. That’s how I finish my homework in five minutes. I get good grades. I love life. Live it to the fullest,” Elizabeth says.
The sixth-grade student is but one member of Marks’ growing drama club, an extracurricular program that meets Wednesdays at the school with professional teaching artists from Miami Shores’ Miami Theater Center to learn the acting craft.
Acting, however, is just the conduit. The 75 students here are learning about focus, confidence, empathy, listening, trust.
Fernando Diaz, the school’s assistant principal calls the program, “character building.”
The theater company’s Stephen Kaiser, the associate director of education and community engagement, says it’s about commitment, a pledge the arts group has made to offer free in-school partnership programs to Title 1 Miami-Dade Schools. The aim is to keep the arts alive in an era of dwindling funds and standardized test scores.
“We identified a need. We’re doing our part to expose theater to children,” he says. The center has visited a number of schools this year, including Oak Grove Elementary, Allapattah Middle School, Toussaint Louverture Elementary and Miami Edison Middle.
Marks, an actress who has appeared on Miami Vice and local stages like Actors’ Playhouse and the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre at the University of Miami, has much to teach her young charges. Her theatrical experience, after all, dates to 1962 when she was a child in Savannah, Ga., and she scored a stand-in part as Gregory Peck’s daughter in the original Cape Fear.
“It’s in my blood since I was 4. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and it runs through your veins and what I want to do is project it to them,” she said.
She can call out instruction on voice projection, body language, the proper reading of a line — and does so, often.
“You can be a better student, too,” she tells one of them. “Carry the joy into your classrooms.” To another, who fumbles over a prepared monolog and begs off another attempt, Marks offers a firm, “No!” and points at her watch. Soon it will be dark and she won’t have her students walking outside after evening falls. Acting is discipline. Practice. Over and over.
Marks knows these things from her own acting days, a role she would like to return to after 30 years of teaching. She plans to leave the school system in another two-and-a-half years. There are parts out there with her name on them. “Voiceovers. Crazy character parts for baby boomers. I put so much into the children I can’t count how many, including my own. It’s time for me, maybe, God willing.”
She also speaks about the compassion her middle school kids teach her during acting exercises.
“We’ve had honesty circles in which it’s phenomenal. The emotional impact on these childrens’ lives that comes out. With their peers, the empathy they show to one another, it’s straining. We went home crying several times. And I go home crying almost every single day. It’s a blessing,” Marks says.
“This little girl, you would never believe her story,” Marks adds as she points toward a youngster who is alone on stage, reading a monolog she had prepared. The pre-teen is learning how to project her voice to be heard in the back rows.
Marks’ own voice drops to a whisper. “They all have a story. They call me on their cellphone. They need me. What are you going to say? No? You can’t talk to me? They are walking hormones. Walking drama. I say, ‘Don’t save your drama for your mama. Give it to me.’’’
Giordan Diaz, an actor with Miami Theater Center and this session’s teaching artist, can relate as he pauses between the activities he has the students practicing.
“I learn something new from them every day,” says Diaz, 23. “I think they keep you humble. It’s an interesting experience to watch young artists and to see the growth that comes out of young kids from the moment you have them and seeing the way they become more open with their body and more willing to take a risk. They are not afraid of failing. These are all good qualities actors need.”
Not everyone here will become an actor. Kayla Castor, 12, might. “Drama club inspires me not to hold back. I’m dramatic. I love drama. When I grow up, I have a chance to become a good actor because of Miss Marks and Giordan,” she says.
Dylan Barron, 11, nods: “Instead of hiding yourself in, you can let yourself out.”
Some, like Annette Ng, 11, aren’t sure yet if acting later in life is for them. “I like it because it’s fun and you get to do a lot of interesting things,” she says. For now, that’s good enough.
But the drama kids are learning, nonetheless.
“The students gain awareness and how to perform or do public speaking or how to carry themselves in a public manner,” says Diaz, the assistant principal. “They have to be in front of people and that gets rid of that shyness. A lot of these skills are transferable when they go on job interviews or speak to their class for oral presentations.’’
Extracurricular drama classes are not common in middle schools, the Highland Oaks educator says. There is the funding issue, for one. Also, “you have to have a dedicated, motivated faculty member who wants to take it on. Unfortunately, sometimes electives get pushed aside because kids need to perform well for test scores but this is important as it builds the whole person. Certainly, what kind of world would we have without entertainment and arts and other sensibilities besides the basic material?”
So this is why a group of middle school-age children are writhing and wiggling on stage like cockroaches on a Wednesday afternoon long after math, reading and social studies have wrapped for the day.
“These theater games, none will make them the perfect actor but each will exercise a different muscle an actor might need on stage.’’ Kaiser explains. “Things like focus, concentration, physical awareness, critical thinking, how you are carrying yourself, what you are displaying. They can sculpt the kind of person they want to be.”
Elizabeth Piliceri, the sixth-grader, already has it figured out.
“I feel I could be a role model to people if I show what I got. Maybe they will realize what their aspirations should be. I’ve shown you should never give up on what you love. If they say, ‘You can’t do it,’ you can do it.”