Dallas — As summer programming begins around the Metroplex, students have a great amount of options just for the arts alone. You can learn how to become a great actor, musician, or visual artist in so many programs, but Cara Mía Theatre Company, in association with the Oak Cliff Cultural Center and Big Thought, offers a unique opportunity that teaches community leadership through the arts. I sat down with two of the co-directors of Cara Mía’s School of YES! program, Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso and Frida Espinosa-Müller, to discuss it.
School of YES! is a four-week, free program for youth that hopes to teach more than basic artistic skills, focusing on greater life lessons to build leaders invested in their community. Cara Mía has provided opportunities for youth several years now but this is only the second year for this more structured and process-oriented summer camp.
School of YES! offers an introduction to a wide variety of artistic platforms: dance, visual art, music, film and theatre. Students arrive at the camp at 8:30 a.m. and have a packed schedule of classes and collaborative events until 4:15. Performing and visual art classes are everywhere in DFW, many of them emphasizing these similar art forms, but School of YES! has a stronger intention to bridge artistic process with human development. As Espinosa-Müller says, “we teach children how to observe and share their ideas and realize that other people’s ideas are good.” One example of this is the documentary class, where students keep a record of the camp by conducting interviews with participants and taking photos and video. The process for creating a documentary extends beyond making a movie, the students are developing skills in communication, story development, and decision-making—all skills useful for their future, whatever that may be for each child. Espinosa-Müller also notes that even when students don’t enjoy one art form “they realize that there are things [you can learn from each one] that can help you in your life.”
The program has two levels, students (7-14 year olds) and student leaders (15-18 year olds). The high school students are given paid positions and lead the younger students through the camp alongside the teaching artists. I found this to be one of the most unique parts of the program. You can go to another program to receive instruction from a professional, but few offer this apprenticeship for teaching, let alone a paid one. Having real responsibilities and actively mentoring a younger peer group is a powerful experience for teens. They rarely get the chance to obtain coaching for leadership or practice it. Jasso notes “the youth leaders are able to lead discussions with the younger students and we want them to be able to say ‘yes’ to the future of their choosing.”
Espinosa-Müller also mentions that students learn leadership through observing how the teaching artists collaborate, “the children see the working relationship that we have with one another, and they learn from that just by our example.” The teaching artist staff boasts a great group of local talent with three directors overseeing the program. Jasso and Espinosa-Müller mentioned many meetings have taking place concerning the overall structure and integration of all the art forms. They aim for a fully engaged experience that avoids separating each art form, particularly with the culminating event. In many other arts groups I’ve worked with, the teachers do not really collaborate with one another. The final performance consists of “departments”, the dance students perform a piece, music students play a song, theatre students do a scene. It doesn’t work together as one full experience. Cara Mía’s final project aims to bring together all of the forms into one event, which is why the directors have been in constant collaboration before the camp even begins.
Cara Mía’s program has a strong emphasis on community, both within the program and outside of it. Each morning starts off with a ritual to place everyone in the same space and spirit. The teaching artists have also worked with precision to make sure that common goals and vocabulary are used throughout the program, no matter what discipline students may be working on that day. The community at large is also important to the mission of School of YES!, as students participate in service projects in Oak Cliff.
Part of this includes the overall theme of “Heartbeat of the Earth,” encouraging students to take care of nature. These ideas are not simply discussed but practices in the students’ own artwork as Espinosa-Müller states “we are taking materials from the street to create our pieces.” Recycling and repurposing materials sparks creativity, allowing students to see the world beyond the surface level.
Unlike other programs where the final performance stays within the confines of a theatre, the School of YES! performance starts on the streets of Oak Cliff in a procession to the theatre. Students play drums that they made, dancing and walking through Jefferson Street. Shop owners and locals are known to look and follow the trail of young people heading to the Texas Theatre for their performance on stage. Be on the lookout later in July for a procession of eager teens and kids leading you to the theatre.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns: