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Olivia Espinosa, Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project

May 20, 2011


Olivia Espinosa

Olivia Espinosa has been a Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project since 2006.  She is also a local actress, and was last seen in Switch, as part of Playwrights Project’s New Play Festival performed at the Lyceum Theatre this past April. 

This year Olivia has taught our playwriting residency at some at-risk school sites, including a Juvenile Hall.  We’ve asked Olivia for some feedback on her work as a Teaching Artist–there are some great insights!



You are also a professional actress; does this have an effect on the students you teach in our playwriting residencies?

In some cases the students I have taught have seen me as an actor first.  This is actually an ideal situation because the students seem to trust me a lot quicker, since they have seen me perform and have connected to me in that way before I begin teaching.  They know that I can relate to their work not just as a teacher but as an actor who will perform their work. 


Are there any interesting success stories about particular students who benefited from the program?

I recently taught a playwriting residency as part of the educational program for young people detained in Juvenile Hall.  There are about 300 students enrolled daily in the  facility and the unit I taught contained anywhere from 12-19 girls at a time.  On the first day, I brought in 3 professional actors to perform short scripts for the girls so that they could get an idea of what the program had in store for them.  This gave the students a better understanding of theater, live performance and sense of trust, since at the end of the program their scripts would be read by these same actors.  We entered the facility with just our car keys in our pockets.  Personal items like wallets, sunglasses, pens, and even water bottles had to be left behind.  The scripts could not be stapled together and no paperclips were allowed.  The fear in the facility is that something on you might drop and can be used as a potential weapon.  Because of all the fear and preparations needed upon entering the facility I was unsure of what to expect.  What I found were some of the most motivated students I have ever taught.  I think they all benefited in some way from this program that values their ideas and story in an environment that can easily stifle and harden their belief in themselves.


Are there any specific challenges in the classroom?

There were quite a few challenges in this residency but not the normal ones that I was used to dealing with.  Normally, classroom discipline is a problem and takes up a lot of my time in the classroom.  However, this was not the case at Juvenile Hall.  There were always 2-3 probation officers watching and monitoring the classroom and the girls knew the consequences if they stepped out of line.  To use a bad pun… they were the most “captive” audience I have ever had.  On the other hand the officers also made teaching difficult at times.  As the principal of the school said, “We who are a part of the school are guests of the probation department.”  Although the Juvenile Hall school provides more resources than other youth facilities in the county, my lessons and class time were always in the power of the officers at hand.  For example, if there was a fight in the unit, the girls would not be allowed out of their cell for school that day.  The most disheartening situation came when a girl, who was always the first to volunteer for activities, had knee surgery.  Despite her constant enthusiasm, in my last days teaching, she was not allowed out of her cell because her knee brace was considered a potential weapon.  Unfortunately, because of this, she also had to miss the final performance with the actors.


Have you come across any surprising scripts?

I am always surprised when students trust me and the process enough to write about a time in their life that might be difficult to share and express with others.  The writing process prompts them to relive difficult moments in their lives that may not be easy to deal with.  One student wrote about a girl who wanted to run away from a group home because she was mistreated by the staff in the home.  This character also spoke of the abuse that she got from the officers when she was in a detention center.  I was stunned that she had the courage to speak up and write about the experiences she had in front of the very people who might have behaved that way toward her.


How are the playwriting residencies successful?

All the girls were eager to finish and submit their plays for performance and the annual California Young Playwrights Contest.  Although we were not able to perform all of the girls’ work on the final day, due to the fact that all scripts had to be approved by probation, I know that the students got more out of the program than we will ever know.  After the performance, we had a chance to talk with the girls.  It was a wonderful opportunity to see their enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge about theater and the acting process.  Many of them were looking forward to being involved with Playwrights Project and other theater programs after their release.


Do you learn anything new after teaching a residency?

It was interesting to learn about the dynamics in a detention facility.  I have always wanted to teach in one and was so glad that I finally got the opportunity.  I didn’t know what to expect and how I would be treated, but what I found was a huge sense of hope from the students in the unit.  Unlike other schools, the girls at the Juvenile Hall school have a lighter more optimistic energy.  Although the students are “stuck” in a system beyond their control, the students there have a stronger sense of hope for their future.  Perhaps because they know exactly when they will get out and that it is up to them whether or not they return to the facility.

Thanks, Olivia, for your excellent work as a Teaching Artist!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Amanda CD permalink
    May 20, 2011 3:30 PM

    Way to go, Miss Olivia! Lucky students. 🙂

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