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Caitlin Berka: Expanding Horizons Through Drama

The posters in Caitlin Berka’s classroom tell a story. One wall is covered with images of Elizabethan England: William Shakespeare, the Globe Theatre, the queen herself. On the opposite wall, photos of the Rolling Stones and the Who hang above a shrine to David Bowie. It’s an appropriate combination for a teacher who values—and wants her students to value—the cultural products of the past as well as the present.

In her five years at Mid-Pen, Caitlin has brought many worlds to her students in freshman and sophomore English and elective drama. She might spend part of the school year on August Wilson’s Fences and another part on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. When choosing pieces for Mid-Pen’s Night of the Arts or twice-yearly stage productions, she shifts easily between 19th-century drawing-room comedies and edgy 21st-century social commentaries. She also teaches short stories, poetry, and graphic novels.

Caitlin comes by her understanding of theater firsthand, having performed both as a singer and an actress throughout school and college. With undergrad and graduate degrees in English, focusing on poetry, she hadn’t even planned to enter the profession that now brings her so much satisfaction. But toward the end of her undergrad work at Stanford, she spent a summer as a teaching assistant in an ESL program for international grad students. “Just being in the classroom, I found my passion,” she recalls. “Then when I got my first teaching job (in Virginia), they said, ‘We see that you’ve done a lot of theater. Our drama teacher needs an assistant. Is that something you’d be interested in doing?’ So I did that and absolutely fell in love with it.”

Caitlin began working at Mid-Pen just after the school had acquired a raft of new theater equipment and wanted to do something with it. Mid-Pen already had a drama class, but no afterschool program or full-scale productions. Caitlin decided to put on a musical, and now produces and directs a play every fall and a musical each spring. She enjoys the intimacy of the Mid-Pen environment when creating those projects. As Caitlin notes, “A lot of high schools have to find parts for 35 people, like doing The Sound of Music for the thirteenth time. Here, we get to do smaller, weirder, often more interesting shows. I love it.”

A perceptive teacher, Caitlin realizes that the benefits of performing are not reserved for students with a specific interest in acting. “I think that drama—even sometimes more than English—is such an important subject to be teaching to kids,” she says. “I’ve seen amazing transformations from it. So many students have come through my drama program who were really struggling with traditional academic subjects, who felt not good about school, and then found their voice on stage and blossomed. The way it instills confidence in them is magical.”

A couple of years ago, Caitlin exchanged emails with a former student during his first two years in college. He had taken both her English and drama classes, and enjoyed performing so much that he decided to join the university choir. He was also trying to decide between majoring in history or business.

The young man told her, “I realized in taking your classes that I love the humanities. I love thinking about how people behave.” That’s the kind of response that makes Caitlin’s day. She states with conviction, “We don’t teach drama because we think that every kid is going to become a professional actor, but because it teaches so many other skills, like being able to see the world in a different way.”

When she isn’t doing classwork or preparing students for a stage production, Caitlin keeps up on her singing. She recently joined a ’90s-inspired mostly female rock band. “It’s been interesting for me to get an education in an era of music I didn’t know a ton about before,” she explains, “using my voice differently from when I’m doing musical theater or opera.”

Other than the rock band and occasional recitals, Caitlin doesn’t do a lot of on-stage performing these days, preferring to put her creative energies into directing and teaching for now. Which makes perfect sense, given how rewarding it’s been for her to see the fruits of that work. “One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from teaching is that if you expect a lot from your students, they’ll give it to you.”