Ms Roberts' #teachereffect at St Mary's

Ms Roberts' #teachereffect at St Mary's

We want to spend this year celebrating some of our teaching staff who help make St Mary’s School, Cambridge such an inspiring place for girls to learn and flourish. We call it the #teachereffect.

Sadly, we can’t cover all our teaching staff; however, we will be showcasing several over this year in many diverse areas and from across the school, from our Junior School to our Sixth Form. We continue our series with Ms Esther Roberts, Head of Drama.

When did you start at St Mary’s? 

I started at St Mary’s in 2012. I remember sitting in the Cortile waiting for my interview and just thinking ‘I like the feel of this place’ - I haven’t looked back!

What did you do before you joined? 

I’m actually in my 16th year of teaching, which I can’t quite believe. I began my career in a mixed comprehensive school in Brighton. My Head of Department was brilliant and just got me putting on loads of productions, which is really where I started to learn how to direct. I then left to take up a Drama teacher post in Bangkok, Thailand, at a British International school where I was also part of the leadership team.  It was an incredible experience.  Following that, I returned to the UK to work for my former Head Teacher, but this time in Wiltshire at a state-of-the-art Academy. I’ve loved working at a variety of schools as you learn so much from the teams around you. However, St Mary’s remains my favourite school – it’s just so special and has such a community feel.

Were you always interested in Drama? What fuelled that interest and why that subject and area? 

Yes, I’ve always been a performer from a young age, I used to do tap, ballet and modern dance; I got my first paid job as a dancer in the local pantomime when I was 7, I think I was paid £10 - I felt like I’d made the big time! I would also do a lot of role-play games at home; instructing my poor younger brother to answer the register in different tones of voice when we played ‘school’ - I was the teacher – obviously!  

At Secondary school I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher who was a fan of Shakespeare; when she put on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, I played Titania and the following year, in ‘Much Ado’, the feisty Beatrice. Drama was a form of escapism for me; I loved it, and all the friends I made in the cast and crew. In 6th form, I joined the Far East Theatre Company. I was very excited because it had a brilliant reputation. Rob John, one of the directors, was also a published playwright. I was lucky to be given some brilliant roles, including Eleanor in ‘Bookcase’, which was written with me in mind for the central role. I staged this production in my first year at St Mary’s.

What have been your highlights of working at St Mary’s? 

There have been so many; the girls make me laugh every day. I think that the musicals hold a special place in my heart. I particularly remember when the ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ puppets arrived and I saw that the fourth puppet was the size of my car! I was in a state of awe and trepidation and yet watching both Eve (who played and operated Audrey 2) and the other actors bring it alive on stage was just amazing.

Other moments that stand out are when the girls are being so supportive and caring towards each other. We dual cast the role of Audrey and I remember thinking that this might bring about a slightly difficult and competitive relationship between the two actors and yet, the opposite happened. I told the girls they could have the alternate nights off, but they declined, saying that they wanted to be in the wings to support the other. Watching Phoebe and Lily reminding each other of the prop needed for the next scene, handing one another water in the wings, and giving each other encouraging feedback as they came off stage, brought a tear to my eye. In a similar vein, on the last night of ‘Chicago’, Molly (Roxie) split apart her congratulatory bouquet in order to give her fellow cast members individual roses; it was a wonderful moment - the cast were on such a high.   

Practical exam days have also been a highlight. The Drama and Theatre A level exams, I think are a revelation for some staff and parents who come to watch. They see the girls in a whole new light and over the years we’ve made them laugh, as with ‘Teechers’ last year or ‘Lilies of the Land’; we’ve had them on the edge of their seats, frightening them with ‘Brides in the Bath’; and we’ve moved them to tears, as with the piece on the refugee crisis, or our most recent performance, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ based on young unmarried pregnant women in the 1960s placed in Mother and Baby homes. 

I guess for me, one of the main joys is working with an inspiring set of colleagues. I have to mention our theatre technician Joe here – we’ve worked together on productions for eight years and I love putting our creative heads together and pushing ourselves in terms of what’s possible in a school hall. The other highlights are the camaraderie between the girls; the thrill of the shows and the fact that the girls here are willing to work and play hard together to deliver fantastic productions and create memories they and I will treasure for life. 

Why do you enjoy teaching? 

No day is the same! Even though I can teach the same scheme of work, every student is unique and therefore, the work is always different, which keeps me genuinely interested in the outcome. Teaching drama and directing can be all-consuming, but it’s creative, exciting and I love seeing the dramatic jump from a wobbly, uncertain first read through to a student knocking it out of the park! I wouldn’t see that significant leap if I worked in professional theatre – it gives me such a sense of accomplishment and to know that I’ve helped to create a moment in someone’s life that will always be cherished – I remember my school shows so vividly.

In your opinion what are the benefits of teaching Drama in an all-girls environment? 

Having taught in mixed schools, I’d say that the benefits are that there’s definitely a sense of freedom in an all-girl environment for the students; I think it’s because they feel less self-conscious without boys watching and therefore are more willing to take creative risks.

Boys also tend to dominate Q and A and girls, in a mixed environment, can stay quiet – even when they know the answer. This is eradicated in an all-girl environment as the girls have to share they thoughts and ideas. I also like the fact that here, the girls run all the technical aspects of productions, again, an area which boys normally dominate but our girls are brilliant at.

And, of course, they get to play all the best male parts –  I have to say, though, we do it so well that many audience members think we’ve drafted boys in! And the girls get an insight first-hand into a male’s perspective, see how they create physical presence and exercise authority, and consider how they have achieved their place in the world – something that is likely to be overlooked in a co-ed environment, but is extraordinarily interesting.

What do you like to do in your free time when you are not teaching? 

Relax! I try to do yoga most days, I like to go running, I also love a trip to the spa, going to the theatre (of course!) and the odd jigsaw (don’t tell anyone)… all of this, when I’m not doing DIY.

What advice do you have for all the students you have taught – past and present – to help them on their journey in life! 

In the words of Oscar Wilde ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’.