A Class Act: Drama at ASF

A night at the theater in the Fine Arts Center is always a delightful treat. The theatre program at ASF is steeped in tradition and evolution. As early as grade 4, students are taking to the stage with the class musicals. However, the formalized Drama development begins in Middle School and continues into Upper School. Under the guidance of seasoned professionals and the foundation of a growing curricula that connects and expands opportunity and promotes student agency, Drama and the theatre at ASF is strong.

In Middle School, Rosana Cesarman heads up the Drama program. Cesarman studied and earned her BFA at the UNAM. She quickly entered the professional arena before finding her way to ASF. As an actress, she performed in several award-winning plays and starred in Mexican soap operas and movies. With this experience, Cesarman joined ASF 16 years ago. Making the transition was easier than she expected, “I thought I would miss acting, but here I get to do everything. I get to direct and produce. I thought I would be here for one year, but I have been here for 16 and I am not planning on leaving any time soon.”

Rosana Cesarman with Upper School students who played in Les Misérables (2014)

Cesarman worked in the Upper School for 11 years, developing the theatre program and then saw an opportunity to vertically strengthen the program by pioneering the Middle Years’ Program in Drama. For the past four years, she has worked to implement and grow the program at the Middle School. She explains, “I work closely with the Upper School Drama program. What I do in the Middle School directly connects to the IB program in the Upper School. It makes it stronger.”

At the Upper School, Austin Farwell took the helm of the theatre program this year. Farwell too is a seasoned actor who studied at the University of New Mexico, where he earned his Bachelor's of Fine Arts and then his Master’s degree from Louisiana State University. Before coming to ASF, Farwell, a high school graduate from the International School of Manila, blazed a professional path from Washington, to Florida, to New York. Acting on stage, writing and producing his own off-Broadway play, to starring in national commercials, his professional experience like Cesarman, is another true asset to the ASF faculty and the theatre program.

Both Cesarman and Farwell drive a very rigorous IB Theatre curricula that demands student agency. Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers. Farwell expands this, “My job is to facilitate. My job is not to be the sage on the stage. It is really about pointing them in the right direction then letting them discover and explore the concepts in groups and on their own.”  

The MYP Arts program, which encompasses Drama, is an exploratory program that exposes students to the arts. According to the IB, “Students develop through creating, performing and presenting arts in ways that engage and convey feelings, experiences and ideas.” At the Middle School, Drama is introduced in grade 6 as a nine-week course. This course is exploratory. Grade 7 expands that to a semester and digs deeper into acting and producing. In grade 8, students can enroll in the Musical Theatre course. This course combines the advanced theatre students of Cesarman with the advanced choir students of Pearce Littler, Middle School Music Teacher. The two teachers are co-teachers of the course. Littler also collaborates with Cesarman on producing the musicals. In the past, performances of Grease and Fiddler on the Roof were both productions of this course. The current production of Peter Pan premiers on February 22 and 23.

Middle School students playing Fiddler on the Roof (2018)

At the DP level in the Upper School, much like the Middle School, courses are designed to progress in depth and demand. Drama I and Drama II are beginning and intermediate courses developing well-rounded skills in all aspects of acting and play production. The Drama Production course focuses specifically on the development of a play to include staging, set design, lighting, and sound. These three courses are semester-long courses that lead to, if chosen, to the two year-long course of IB Theatre.

The theatre course gives students the opportunity to become creators, designers, directors and performers. It emphasizes the importance of working both individually and collaboratively as part of an ensemble. It offers the opportunity to engage actively in the creative process, transforming ideas into action as inquisitive and productive artists. Farwell expands this, “The course, over two years, has students looking at theatre through three lenses: theatre in context, theatre processes, and presenting theatre. What is nice about this is the ambiguity of the IB program. It allows for more student choice and agency.” Students keep a theatre journal throughout the two-year theatre course which charts their development and their experiences of theatre as creators, designers, directors, performers and spectators.

Beyond the courses, the class acts are truly the students who join the casts and crew of the yearly productions of musicals and plays that open on the FAC stage. Romina Treviño, grade 8 student, explains her drive to perform, “I love it because of the community and how much it teaches you about performing arts and theatre.” She played the role of Hodel in last year’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. She describes the moment when the curtains first opens, “It is literally the scariest moment in the world. You are about to perform the thing you have been practicing for so long and it's scary. You feel like you have forgotten all of your lines, but the second I speak the first line I get this feeling of pure happiness. There really is nothing like it and it makes all of the rehearsals and stress worth it.”  

Upper School students playing Rock of Ages (2017)

Sofía Funes, a grade 8 student who performed in The Sound of Music, Grease, Matilda, and Fiddler on the Roof explains her passion for the theatre, “I love the ability to express your thoughts and point of view through acting and singing. I like being a part of something bigger than what you think you could accomplish.” Likewise, Fernanda Pizzaro, another grade 8 student with experiences on the ASF stage about becoming a character, “I really like that you get to personalize a character that already has a backstory, but you can put small details from your personality that makes it special and different from all the other versions.”

Sebastian Baca is a senior. He explains the magic of performing, “What draws me to the stage is the chance to tell a story. For me that is magical because it takes you and the audience out of your reality and takes you to a completely different place. It is an incredible gift for me to be able to do this.” Baca has played Dr. Von Sochocky in Radium Girls, Marcus Beckerman in Why Me?, Denis Dupree in Rock of Ages, and most recently Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest. He found Jack Worthing’s layered character to be the most challenging. He explains, “During the process (rehearsal), I was hitting a wall because of the nature of the piece. Most of the roles I played were dramatic. This one is meant to be farcical, so I had to get out of myself a little and explore Jack’s character.” Baca plans to major in theatre in college and has entrance auditions scheduled in February for New York University, Boston University, and Purchase College.

Not everyone in the theatre program feels the draw of the stage so strongly as Treviño, Funes, and Baca. Julia de la Fontaine, senior, found her passion working behind the scenes. She worked as a stagehand early on but found that nerve wracking, “You have to move fast to clear the stage between scenes, and if you move to slow then you can get stuck on stage with the lights on.” She quickly found her passion in the Tech Club, which works with both Upper and Middle School productions with lighting and sound. Fontaine plans to study film making in college.

Upper School students playing The Importance of Being Earnest (2018)

Treviño, Funes, Baca, and Fontaine all participated in last years’ productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, Rock of Ages, and Rabbit Hole which drew sold out shows and rave reviews from audiences. They continue their work this year in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde which was a big success, Peter Pan premiering on February 22 and 23, and Rent with scheduled performances on April 5, 6, 7, and 8.  

This year, with Cesarman’s deep experience working at the US and now at the MS and Farwell’s new enthusiasm and fresh perspective, the two are committed to collaborate, provide stability, and seek to expand the program here at ASF. Farwell reflects on the role of the theater, “The theater world is the most successful and most impactful when it speaks to its community. Theatre is progressive and inclusive. People love going to the theatre and seeing themselves reflected on the stage.” To pursue this inclusivity, Farwell plans to produce Luchadora! by Álvaro Saar Ríos next year and participate in ASOMEX conferences and competitions. Both are considering expanding the number of shows produced and theatrical opportunities for the students.

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