After decades of scraping by as an actor and musician, David Levine thought he’d found security and fulfillment as a Hollywood agent. But the thrill of meeting famous people, going to premieres and discovering young talent soon paled when he realized it was ultimately only about making the deal. “I got tired of lying,” he says. “Sometimes when I got home, I felt like I needed a soul shower.”
During the commercial actors’ strike of 1999, he decided to make a change. A friend had recently earned a teaching certificate; Levine, intrigued, decided to give it a go as well. Within a week he was in a classroom teaching theater and knew he’d found his professional home. But he hasn’t rested on his laurels. After nearly 10 years of teaching at a large inner city school in Los Angeles, where he had to fight to keep his theater program alive, he spearheaded the opening of a pilot school devoted to the arts and history. This fall the School of History and Dramatic Arts opened its doors to students.
What does the word responsibility mean to you?
Doing what you agree to do – as a teacher, a parent, a husband and a citizen. Let me just say, I haven’t always been able to do all those things all the time, but I try.
In the midst of this recession, with widespread cuts in education, what prompted you to start a new arts school?
The Los Angeles Unified School District is doing some wonderful things in education reform, and pilot schools are one of them. Pilot schools are like charter schools, but the reform comes from dedicated teachers who create a plan for a new school. The process weeds out those who aren’t serious. I think I put in a few thousand hours over the past year and half working on the plan with my colleagues. None of those hours were paid.
Through an arts education, what are you trying to instill in students?
Creativity, originality, work ethic, collaboration skills, reading and the ability to present yourself to other people in a positive and confident way. Don’t those sound like things employers look for? And there’s no better way to get a worldview. It’s the fastest way to truly understand another culture.
Your school is called The School of History and Dramatic Arts; how are the two curriculums entwined?
Drama – or storytelling, or ritual theater – is probably the oldest art form. The history of theater is the history of the world, and vice versa. Working in concert with the National Center for History in the Schools, at UCLA, we focus on historical works of theater to highlight a context for looking at our world. We explore theater from the Greeks to Shakespeare to the revolutionary theater of the1960s. Our teachers also work together to create interdisciplinary units that make connections between drama, history, science, math and English.
You also have many partnerships with various theater companies. How did those come about?
Partnerships are key for expanding kids’ horizons and offering them life-changing arts experiences. That’s where my old agenting skills come in handy. I’m really good at telling people what we’re up to and how they wouldn’t want to miss out being involved. The Cal Arts Cap program and the Center Theater Group’s education outreach in particular have done so much for the students of Los Angeles.
Are the kids learning directing, lighting, set design and other aspects of the theater arts?
Yes, we have a full-time theater tech teacher. We have a playwriting program where students write plays that are performed by college students. And of course we put on numerous productions. Every student has an opportunity to participate in some creative experience.
What surprises you about your students?
How resilient they are. I teach in an economically depressed area of Los Angeles, a major gang area, and I’ve seen really bad things happen to kids. I’m constantly surprised at their ability to be positive and hopeful. Put a kid who has continually failed in the right situation and they just seem to wake up filled with the desire to become successful.
Some of these kids have complicated lives. How do you balance your professional obligations with their personal needs?
It’s really hard. As an arts teacher you’re asking kids to examine who they are. Sometimes things come up that I have a legal responsibility to deal with. It’s your job to break a child’s trust if someone is hurting them or they are hurting themselves. Ultimately, hopefully, they realize you were helping them.
What are your students learning about themselves?
I think the most important thing they can learn is that they have power. They have the power to make decisions and work hard and sacrifice and do what they dream of doing. In education we often talk about “learned helplessness.” That’s where kids try and get help by pretending they can’t do it. My own daughter will try to work that angle with me with her schoolwork. To fight it, we have to teach them that they are the ones – with our help and guidance, and that’s the key point – that must ultimately make the decisions about their lives.
What are your ambitions for the school?
I want to graduate kids that, even if they aren’t going to be artists, at least have an artist’s spirit of exploration, curiosity and invention. Some schools specifically aim to create artists, which is totally worthwhile; but where I teach, it’s more important to create involved, educated citizens. Besides, there is art in everything done well.
What makes you most proud?
When I see students create an original work of art that affects others. The power of realizing that you have the ability to change others’ lives is the beginning of responsibility. Once you know you have that power, it’s hard to turn your back on it.
Bex Brian recently completed her second novel, Ten Block Radius, and writes a blog called Subduction at www.bexbrian.com