Donzell Lewis is an accomplished actor and theater teaching artist in the Los Angeles Unified School District. We had an opportunity to sit down with Donzell and talk about his own artistic practice and how he is helping students find their voice.
I try to teach my students that since art is subjective, they should not create work with the intent to be the best artist. Instead, they should create work that has a strong point of view. They should use art to express what they have to say about this world and share it with others.
Tell us about your personal work and how it affects your teaching.
Teaching and acting are part of who I am. It is how I navigate through the world. I believe that we all fill archetypical roles in society. And these roles have existed since the beginning of humanity. I am lucky to have a job that honors my natural gifts because my archetype is both the teacher and the artist. I love doing both, and I don’t see either as “work,” I see them as part of my essence. So, when people ask me to describe how my personal work affects my teaching, I am challenged by that question.
Since I am both a teacher and as well as an artist, they are both my professional and personal work. My artistry impacts my teaching and my teaching impacts my artistry. So how does my personal work affect my teaching? Well, I think a stronger question is, how do my life experiences affect my teaching?
I get better at both crafts because of my growth from the varied experiences life throws at me. What I can also say is that I’ve become a better actor because of the inspiration my students give me. And I have become a better teacher the more I continue to act and gain a greater knowledge of my artform.
What are some consistent sources of inspiration for you/your artwork?
I am an actor so I am always studying other actors. I commit to watching as much live theatre as I can. Additionally, I study different genres of film, I study comedy, I go out and see performance art. I continue to take acting classes to sharpen my tool and to bring more tools into the class to share with my students. But that’s the easy answer for an actor.
Other than the expected responses, I try my best to draw inspiration from a multitude of sources! I can find inspiration while watching a Beyonce concert, a drag show, students organically playing a game on the yard, or a lively dinner conversation with friends. Art is all around us! I also draw inspiration from autobiographies. I love watching or reading the stories of my “artistic ancestors.” Their stories of triumph vs. failure and success vs. loss or their journeys of self-discovery are always inspirational.
Lastly, I read. In college, I had a mentor who told us that if you want to be a great actor then you must read as many books as possible. Why? Because books are a gateway to unlimited imagination. Authors create many different worlds, characters, languages, and super-powers when they write. When actors read, we allow ourselves to fall down that author’s rabbit hole allowing us to bring to life the characters in that book. Actors shouldn’t wait for a script to create characters. We should find them all around us: in books, coffee shops, bus rides, etc.
What I can also say is that I’ve become a better actor because of the inspiration my students give me. And I have become a better teacher the more I continue to act and gain a greater knowledge of my artform.
If your students have one main takeaway from your class, what would you like it to be?
I want all of my students to have a strong point of view. I try to teach my students that since art is subjective, they should not create work with the intent to be the best artist. Instead, they should create work that has a strong point of view. They should use art to express what they have to say about this world and share it with others. People follow artists because they connect to their voice. Oftentimes, the artist provides a voice to those who are either disempowered or voiceless. Having a strong point of view is essential for great work. And if my students can embrace this theory at the elementary level then I can only imagine how their art will change the world by the time they are a full adult.
Tell us about a memorable class/student/lesson.
I am blessed to have many memorable moments. The most recent is from a lesson on the poem “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes. In the poem, Hughes states the line: “…While night comes on gently, Dark like me—.“ One of my third-grade students understood that Hughes was finding a way to “see himself in the world around him and that he sees night as something beautiful and that he, Hughes, is proud of his darkness…not afraid of it.” This was noted by a third-grade student without any prompting from me!
At that moment, I released control of the lesson to her. I told her to continue to share her perspective because I didn’t need to over-explain or re-explain anything else about the poem. She continued to speak and the other students continued to listen. It was a magical moment because, as a teacher, I tell my students that information is an exchange, and I don’t want them to feel like I am the “gatekeeper” of all knowledge. We all have powerful lessons to share with each other and students are just as qualified to pass down knowledge as I am. On that day of class, that student summarized what she understood the meaning of Hughes poem to be to her entire class. The class listened with intent, and I’m sure they took away much more at that moment from one of their peers than if I was the only voice speaking. Because for them to see their classmate empowered with leading the exchange of knowledge of that moment was more captivating to them than if it were just me, an adult standing in front of them.
What famous person, either dead or alive, would you choose to take out for coffee?
There’s a ton! Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. But if I could go to coffee tomorrow and talk to anyone, it would be Oprah. I believe she is a gift to this world, and I’m so happy I’m alive during the time of her empire. She is truly a brilliant woman who has a wealth of advice in her brain, so I would ask her tons of questions about everything! I would ask her all kinds of questions about life, love, career, success, cooking tips, and so much more. I would then record the entire conversation so I could transcribe her advice into a book. That way, her wisdom would always be passed down.
Bonus! Donzell was nominated by his school for the Excellence in Theater Education Award presented by the Tony Awards. Here what his students and colleagues had to say:
Thank you, Donzell! 💜 Teaching artists like Donzell are a vital part of what makes P.S. ARTS programs succeed. Support our teaching artists here.