The Unstated, The Expressed Intent, and The Driving Inspiration - 10 Questions with Writer Valarie Esguerra
Valarie Esguerra is an accomplished writer, educator, and creative consultant who is native to Jacksonville. She grew up writing, directing, and producing plays for her church, having felt that the available productions were not entirely reflective of her community. Esguerra continued to cultivate her talent for getting to the heart of the matter through her involvement with the local community theatre circuit. She participated in Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre's inaugural season 26 years ago and founder Carson Merry Baillie served as Esguerra's mentor.
Esguerra is one of four Jacksonville artists to participate in the pilot year of Lift Every Student, a collaborative arts integration program between Any Given Child Jacksonville, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, and Duval County Public Schools. Esguerra and musician Lucy Chen and visual artists Sarah Crooks Flaire and Erin Kendrick are working as teaching artists in residence in Duval County's newly appointed arts integration schools during the 2017-18 academic year. The program was funded with the support of PNC through their Arts Alive grant program and private donor and sculptor David Engdahl.
Esguerra applied for the opportunity and was selected as one of ten artists to go through a two-day training workshop facilitated by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As part of that workshop, Esguerra developed her residency plan, Lift Every Voice and Act, which relies on theatre arts to teach students language arts while specifically addressing Duval County's English Language Arts curriculum standards. After developing her initial residency plan, Esguerra received feedback from staff at The Kennedy Center and Natalie Hyder, Duval County's Arts Integration Specialist. All residency plans were reviewed by an panel and the Principals of participating schools.
Esguerra is working at Hyde Park Elementary School, located on Jacksonville's westside. Her work with students will culminate with a live performance for parents, teachers, and the community. The production, which Esguerra is writing with the students, focuses on Jacksonville's native son, James Weldon Johnson. It examines Johnson's developmental years as a child in Jacksonville and draws similarities between the students and the man who has served as inspiration for so many.
10 Questions with Valarie Esguerra
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
When I have a story to create for a client, whether for the stage or screen, I always begin by listening well. At the first meeting, the customer may have prepared notes to share or brought supporting materials for me to read; but so much is conveyed about the heart of project in the way it is expressed, sometimes even in what is not said. My job is to hear the stated and the unstated, the expressed intent, and the driving inspiration. When I truly understand what is being asked, I give way for those truths to settle around me for a day or so. I meditate on them. And then I write -- outlines, character sketches, rough drafts. This process leads to the real work of researching, editing, and re-writing required to deliver the finished product.
My projects for myself follow a similar structure, except the client is me. I constantly write ideas on random scraps of paper, in my phone, on grocery store receipts... I’ll listen to see which stories rise and take hold of me, demand to be told. Those are the stories I write.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I have been a child of the theatre for as long as I can remember, but I began writing when I grew tired of searching for published plays that fit the population of volunteers for my church’s dramatic productions. I owe the fact that I am a working creative to my artistic journey. I construct, and often direct, stories that resonate with people, give them hope and entertain them. Fredrick Buechner said it best: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This adventure has illuminated my place. I am grateful.
How do you define success in what you do?
Peace of mind that I have left it all on the page or stage; persevering through writing, directorial, production challenges, and consistently driving a project with excellence from inspiration to final curtain; over delivering; wowing my clients and myself -- that’s success.
As a native of Jacksonville, how has life in Northeast Florida influenced or shaped your writing?
I was raised in the neighborhood where the author, Black historian, and civil rights activist, Rodney Hurst, raised his children. My grandmother, Essie M. Jones, played a major role in integrating University Hospital (now Shands). The principal of my high-school was the honorable Jimmy Johnson.
Role models like these, along with my parents and extended family, instilled in my young psyche self-worth and self-love. I faced the world on equal footing, ready to be respected and to respect in return. I looked for the best in people and saw the best staring back at me.
The friendships formed during my years as a student in public schools, as well as an adult in the workforce made me a believer in the high caliber of people of all races residing in my city. I am grateful I was born here. We have a lot to overcome as a nation; and yes, even as a community, but I believe in the people who reside here. And that belief is not rooted in naiveté.
Hope has been cultivated in me all my life. My writing reflects that. I pray it always will.
A commonality amongst many artists native to Jacksonville is that their church served as an early venue where they could explore and develop their artistic talents. You grew up writing, directing, and producing plays for your church. Do you see the arts as a form of faith and worship?
It’s a running joke that church audiences are the best audience anywhere. Even if the same people would join the crowd booing you off the stage at a taping of Showtime at The Apollo, at church, these folks will always appreciate your effort and clap heartedly. The church mother, while perhaps not commenting directly on your talent, will say something akin to, “Praise God for you, baby!” It’s a wonderful atmosphere to grow your abilities. And yes, the arts are definitely a form of worship for me. It’s this worship that drives my work ethic, focus, passion and commitment to excellence.
You previously worked in the school system as an English teacher. You are again working in the school system, but this time as a teaching artist through the Lift Every Student arts integration program. How do you compare and contrast the two roles?
To be charged with directly impacting the future is sobering, challenging, and rewarding. Even with all of the obstacles children face, you find when the tally is complete; they give you more than they receive – energy, resilience, new perspectives.
But what is so completely refreshing this time is I am teaching a subject matter I have an undying passion for. The children mirror my excitement. I witness them make connections between theatre and language arts. I listen to them read with greater fluency, stamina and proficiency. They are having fun and growing in self- confidence. Hopefully, I am igniting a fire for the arts that will last long after my time with them is done.
As part of your residency plan, you are working with students at Hyde Park to develop a stage play that reinforces language arts and teaches theatre skills while also imparting major life lessons as taught by Jacksonville's native son, James Weldon Johnson. What have you learned about JWJ that has surprised you and what does it mean to you to use your artistic gifts to benefit Jacksonville's youth?
The children and I recite a refrain multiple times during class time. “My body is great; I can train it to do great things. My mind is great; I can train it to do great things. My voice is great; I can train it to do great things.” I can think of no greater example of this principle than James Weldon Johnson.
To say I am utterly impressed by him would be an understatement. He was so much more than the writer of Lift Every Voice and Sing. He was a lawyer, Broadway lyricist, book author, newspaper editor and publisher, diplomat – and the list continues, each job more impressive than the last. He grew the membership of the NAACP by leaps and bounds before becoming the organization’s leader.
James Weldon Johnson was not superhuman. He was a man of excellence. But first, he was a boy, just like many of the children I am teaching – inquisitive, smart, rambunctious at times, a lover of stories and people. He hated public speaking. He was great at baseball. This is the James Weldon Johnson I am sharing with these children. They are learning he was born in Jacksonville – just like them. He went to public school here – just like them. He walked the same streets with his brother, played with his friends here – just like them.
They are internalizing the fact if James Weldon Johnson can grow up to achieve incredible success with all the challenges he faced at the time – they can too! Using theatre arts to convey this powerful truth makes me feel ten feet tall. My cup runneth over!
You experienced a tremendous loss in 2003. How did your artistic and creative practices serve you as you transcended through the stages of grief?
There are some things in life you don’t know how you will survive. You know you must. Your faith tells you, you will. But you don’t know how. The passing of our daughter to SIDS brought me home from my job at the University of North Florida to care for her twin and my other two children. Through grief I wrote, unwittingly solidifying purpose and passion. I not only survived, I was reborn.
How do you describe theatre in Jacksonville and what do you think are some of the biggest challenges that theatre professionals living and working in this region face?
One of my greatest artistic mentors was Cason Merry Baillie, founder of Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET). I performed a one-woman show in the inaugural season of ABET and continued working with Carson for many years. At the time, ABET infused new energy into Jacksonville’s theatre community.
Today, we have the brave-heart diversity of Lee Hamby at The Five & Dime, A Theatre Company; the avant-garde excellence of Jamario Stills at Phase Eight Theater Company. We also have a handful of independent directors who are consistently producing strong, solid work. As long as we have new theatres and artist finding a home beside the more established theatres, Jacksonville will have a thriving theatre community. Not so long ago, ABET was the new startup. Unfortunately, the biggest challenge we face in the region is the lack of remuneration for professionals, both on the stage and off.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
Faith-based movies are currently thriving. The Gift, A Musical, a collaboration with some of Jacksonville’s finest musicians and actors, was a play I wrote and directed at the old Arlington Theater in December 2016. It was bent towards the faith-based audience, and it enjoyed a highly successful run. More energy directed to this group would be a great way to grow the arts in Jacksonville. An added plus, church audiences are the best audiences.