I have been teaching drama in China for 3 months and I’ve learned that Chinese people, namely the Chinese students in my drama classes, have a one-dimensional view of America: Money. China is on its way to becoming the most powerful country in the world and they’re demonstrating it with big buildings, blinking lights, and high heels that make the Chinese women as tall as the average American. Living and traveling around eastern China makes me think they are trying to turn every city into a little Las Vegas. I was recruited to help coordinate a new enrichment initiative by a Chinese company called, Dipont Education Management Group—a company that places foreign teachers in Chinese high schools. But upon arriving, I realized that what I really want to do is expand the Chinese impression of the American dream. I want to teach them that western culture is not only focused on prosperity but involves a freedom of expression, artistic experimentation, and a curiosity for new knowledge and discoveries. Perhaps if they better understand their culture and other cultures through drama, they will gain a deeper understanding for themselves, their society, and their world.
The Chinese education system prepares their top students for one thing: entrance into US Universities. They see drama class as providing them with the singular purpose of improving their English. I hope to convince the students and teachers that theater education can also help young people to think creatively and independently—something that is altogether lacking from the style and content of the Chinese curriculum. Students in China are taught to memorize and repeat. But sometimes with a new concept, I can’t even get them to do that. For example, I will define a term such as ‘voice projection.’ I’ll ask for a volunteer to repeat the definition back to me but I can’t get any one of my 35 students to speak up. They are completely unaccustomed to participating in class. They aren’t even comfortable with hearing their own individual voices. Like the western impression of the Chinese government, the Chinese classrooms are still dictatorial. The teacher is the emperor and the students are her pawns. In addition, the students are afraid to say something wrong. Embarrassment or “losing face” (the English translation of the common Chinese phrase) is very shameful in their culture.
I want to teach my students that theater education helps shape their personalities. It can excite their imagination, challenging them to think in new ways. It can heighten their confidence, allowing them to take social and creative risks. Learning drama can teach them how to communicate and collaborate. But can I convince the students and administrators that these are useful life skills? Not only that, but US colleges are looking for students with motivation, involvement, commitment, and a desire for personal growth. David Worth, Dean of Admissions at Yale University said, “The highly skilled artist, the student whose intellectual interests include motivation and the willingness to extend their reach through participation in the arts, all promise to enhance the quality of life at Yale.” These ideas are new to Chinese education. Is it possible to teach the value of them in a semester or two?
Elisé Lammers graduated from DePaul University Theater School with a degree in Acting in 2004. Since, she has been teaching, directing, producing and performing in theater and television in the US. She taught middle school drama at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois for four years. She is now teaching drama to high school students in and around Shanghai, China.