MEd grad Eric Conners shines on the stage and in the classroom
Even if you don’t quite know his name, you might have seen Eric Conners’ face before, perhaps in a national McDonald’s commercial or on stage performing “Canfield Drive” with the St. Louis Black Rep.
Conners, a University of Missouri–St. Louis MEd grad, is not only an actor but also a drama teacher at Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves, Missouri, and at the Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis.
He has the kind of presence that lights up the stage and his classroom, which is, more accurately, an auditorium.
“There are not many schools, particularly middle schools, that even have drama programs or a theater,” he said. “It’s usually a gym.”
Conners counts himself lucky to have attended Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis. It was a formative experience, and as a city resident, one of the only avenues open to him for an arts-focused education. He was a student at Central VPA when he answered a casting call for a play titled “Making Choices.”
The play was written by local theater veteran Patton Hasegawa, and it dealt with a variety of teen issues from pregnancy to drugs. Conners admits he wasn’t sure if he could do it, but he’s glad he took a chance.
“It really was one of those experiences that changed the trajectory of my life,” Conners said. “As an actor, it was the first time that I actually got paid to do something. It also was my first time really being involved in a diverse setting with kids. I mean, we had kids from every background.”
Performances were staged for schools and organizations throughout St. Louis and occasionally, outside of the area. For Conners, it confirmed that there was a future in drama when it led to a job with The New Theater, a professional company in St. Louis.
“It led me down the path to working with a lot of the great St. Louis actors,” he said. “Patton really helped me. I would say that she’s my stage mother.”
That was also about the time Conners’ drama teacher, Amy Allen Cano, who now teaches at Whitfield School, started preparing him for college.
“She and her boyfriend at the time, who was a professional actor, would work with me every day,” he recalled. “They worked with me after school, on the weekends.”
It readied him to audition for the conservatory at Webster University, to which he was ultimately accepted. It represented something more significant than a place in that select program, though.
It also meant Conners was the first in his family to graduate high school and attend college. He didn’t think much about it in the moment, but looking back, he’s proud he was able to break the cycle and inspire relatives to further their educations.
“I have a cousin who just got her doctorate, maybe two years ago,” Conners said. “She said that me going to college, being an example for her, helped her down the line.”
After honing his craft and graduating from Webster, Conners worked as an actor with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for about five years. The role took him throughout the Midwest and involved leading acting workshops in addition to performing.
“I had not really thought about teaching,” he said. “But when we would do workshops at all of these schools, a principal or teacher would talk to me afterward, and they’d go, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about teaching?’”
It happened enough that it started to look like a real possibility. Conners was content with what he had achieved with the Rep but didn’t want to dive headlong into teaching. As a test, he started subbing in St. Louis County. When certain schools started specifically requesting him to sub, he knew it was time to start looking into teaching programs.
“I start thinking, ‘Well, what school is going to be the best for me?’” Conners said. “I didn’t want to go to a school that takes you through the process just to get you through the process. I really wanted a school that I felt was going to be affordable but also effective.”
That school was UMSL.
Conners earned his MEd and his teacher’s certificate simultaneously – a benefit of UMSL’s program – and found a job immediately after graduating. He first worked at Grand Center Arts Academy before moving to Hixson.
“For me, it really gave me the tools to be an effective educator,” he said. “Everything that I learned at UMSL, I use to this day. I liked the fact that my professors, all of them at the time, were also working teachers. You have people who are still in the classroom and who are able to give you that real-world application – knowing how to do a lesson plan from top to bottom, knowing how to have classroom management, knowing how to be a reflective practitioner. I still use all of that to this day.”
In addition to his full-time job, Conners started teaching at COCA. At first, he taught drama classes on Saturdays, but now he mostly works summer programs. Technically, it’s extra work, but it doesn’t feel like that to Conners. He just wants to reach as many students as possible.
He also tries to act in one or two productions a year. It keeps his skills sharp so he can better serve his students. Some of his recent performances include roles in “Canfield Drive,” a play about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, and “The Year of the Bicycle,” an intimate piece about apartheid in South Africa.
Whether it’s in his classroom, at COCA or on the stage, Conners wants to spark students to reach their full creative potential.
“When kids come in here, I watch them come alive,” Conners said. “I see them think through things. I see them problem solve. I see them engaging with each other socially. I see them be something that I don’t see outside of an arts class.”
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