Joanna Gerdy not only believes theater and arts education has the power to change lives, but she has experienced first-hand that it can even save lives.
The 44-year-old professional actress moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania in 1994 to work with the Children's Theatre of Charlotte.
Also a playwright and a director, she has taught theater to students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade at Davidson Day School for the last three years with a specific goal in mind: use theater to effect change.
She wrote and directed "Twist & Shout," a play that promoted awareness about teenage dating violence, which was performed for all ninth-graders in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system for nine years before changes in funding ended its run.
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Students broke down in tears or left the show before it ended, overcome by emotion, the playwright said. They visited school counselors shortly after seeing the play, seeking help with their own similar situation they saw come to life on stage. Others told Gerdy the play saved their lives and opened their eyes to the situation they were living, giving them courage to leave abusive relationships.
"I think theater helps people find commonalities more than differences," she said. "I'm always using theater as an agent to recognize what it means to be human. It's all about making connections and relating them to other people in the world and their experiences."
She also created a play with several members of the homeless community as an outlet for them to express what it's like to be homeless and deepen community awareness.
Currently, she's working with fifth and sixth-graders at Davidson Day on a play based on the life of Nobel Peace Prize-winner and avid mountain climber, Greg Mortenson.
Mortenson founded the nonprofit Central Asia Institute and also is the co-author of New York Times best-seller "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School At A Time."
Through the nonprofit's Pennies for Peace program (www.penniesforpeace.org), numerous schools have been built in Pakistan that focus on community-based education, especially for girls.
Through plays like this, Gerdy hopes to show students a world outside their own while proving that a small idea can grow and help others.
"If you care really deeply about what you're doing, you can make change," she said. "I try to get (the students) to see beyond themselves."
While her resume reads like a seasoned professional, she actually graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and even worked with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for seven years before pursuing her true passion.
Theater enriches students in all sorts of ways, she said, helping them improve their ability to communicate, encouraging them to take risks and try new things, but most noticeably, it enhances their self-esteem and confidence.
Tonya Crowe-Chinuntdet, a parent of three kids who have received instruction from Gerdy, said arts education adds a whole new layer of complexity to students and agrees it helps boost their confidence.
"She really gets the kids," she said. "She gives 100 percent at whatever she feels strongly and passionate about and she hasn't forgotten how to be a kid herself."
The two biggest assets Gerdy is passing on to the students, Crowe-Chinuntdet said, are the gifts of introspection and empathy.
"Even though they're probably not going to be world famous actors, they're going to use what they're learning from her in whatever they do in life," Crowe-Chinuntdet said.
Bonnie Cotter, the head of the school, loves that Gerdy is able to bring her professional background and experiences to the classroom - or to the stage, in this case.
"She's someone who's actually living (the lifestyle) and is sharing that with the kids," she said. "She lives it and shares it with the kids in every lesson, through everything she does in the classroom."
When it came to hiring Gerdy, Cotter paid extra attention to her background.
"I try to hire teachers who go above and beyond an academic degree," she said. "You have to be more to be a teacher here. And she epitomizes that in the art program."
Arts in education is a major focus at Davidson Day.
"Not enough is said about developing the creative side in kids," Cotter said. "Through the arts, they learn problem-solving skills and nourishing their creative sides will make them more effective people. (Gerdy is) not just a performer, but everyday she's touching the lives of kids who will go out and touch the lives of others."