Christina D. Eskridge, MPH
Follow Christina at @Steenagrammm and Elevate Theatre Company at @ElevateTheatreCompany.
1. What is your background in both theater and health? Why did you decide to pursue those two disciplines? (This is more of an introduction, so feel free to expand on these topics!)
I started out in theater in the first grade performing in an original play written and directed by one of the parents of a classmate (she and I are still friends today). That opportunity sparked my passion for the performing arts and it has remained a constant in my life ever since. I performed around the Bay Area throughout my secondary schooling, was a dancer and actress and participated in singing competitions. I perform in all kinds of dance shows and musicals throughout my 4 years of college and once I graduated, I started to pursue performing in regional and community theaters.
My public health interests came a bit later than my passion for the arts, in my last year of college as I was finishing up my degree in Spanish Language with a minor in Political Science. I didn’t want to go into teaching and didn’t really know what I would do with my skills in Spanish language, until after a casual chat with a physician, I discovered the need for interpreter services in the medical setting. I began working for a small free clinic as an interpreter and then moved onto the admitting department of a larger safety net organization helping patients get registered for Medicaid. The majority of my clients were Spanish speaking and I was able to leverage my new degree and skills in the public health setting right away upon graduation.
Realizing that the system was challenging to navigate, especially for those with limited English language proficiency, I wanted to learn more how to make a bigger impact in our public health system. I pursued my Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, and began working in health care consulting. Over the past decade, as a healthcare consultant, I’ve supported a variety of programs from interpreter services to equity, inclusion, and diversity; supply chain efficiency to communications and member services. All the while, I’ve also been a performing artist, traveling the country with the North American Tour of Mamma Mia! and in a variety of performing roles around New York City. The eventual fusion of the arts and public health was inevitable for me. And both my health care consulting practice and my performing career helped me to clearly identify what I wanted to create through my company, Elevate Theatre Company LLC.
2. When was the first time you performed, and what part of that experience do you still carry with you?
As mentioned, I started performing in the first grade. I believe the experience I love most about the performing arts (and it is true in every show I’ve been a part of), is community. The sense of community one finds when taking text, music, and/or movement, and bringing it to life through a collaborative effort is incredible. It’s amazing how quickly bonds form in the performing arts. I’ve done shows for months and months, and shows for a few days, and each experience has its own unique community that is built on the craft. Community is also what I love about public health. Public health, in my view, is the act of uplifting everyone, engaging a variety of stakeholders for the greater good, and ensuring we all have what we need to thrive. And personally, my community has my back. My community helps me rise to every occasion. My community carries me through everything I do. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
3. Such creative journeys often face great challenges and successes. What event(s) inspired or challenged you personally to pursue theater, and to incorporate it into your health training?
There wasn’t one challenge or inspiration that brought me to pursuing my theater career, but a series of small impactful moments that drove me to making the choice to go for it. For example, working in a corporate setting with sometimes long hours and limited creative outlets, drove me to continue performing in the community outside of work. Performing in the community helped me identify where I needed additional training. Training helped me to realize my passion for performing was more than just a hobby. My first big challenge was transitioning from a full-time public health professional and health care consultant to pursuing a performing arts career more purposefully. I realized I was not going to be able truly have any regrets, if I didn’t really invest fully in my craft. And it was scary. Scary to quit a secure, stable and well-paid job that I actually liked, to pursue something unstable and not well-paid (at least not in the beginning). It was scary to move across the country from California to New York City. And, it was scary to fully commit to calling myself a “performing artist” and not a “public health professional.” I didn’t realize at that time, that I could be both. Overcoming that fear and realizing that I could pursue both my passions simultaneously, was a big and necessary challenge to face.
I would also say, a big challenge after pursuing both of my passions separately, was identifying how to fuse them into one. I didn’t know how to articulate what “theater for health” looked like and I didn’t have many, if any, examples of plays or dances, or songs, or performances that had the explicit purpose of improving health literacy or impacting people from a public health lens. So, I had to build what I wanted to see myself. And that is what I’m most proud of. I’ve been able to take my seemingly unrelated experiences in health care and the arts and identify ways that they can complement one another. And, though the impact of the pandemic has been devastating around the globe, I’ve had the opportunity to shape in a purposeful way, what is now Elevate Theatre Company LLC. I’m very proud of creating a theater company with a public health purpose in the middle of a pandemic. I have been on this journey to build Elevate for years, but the pandemic exposed the need for a unique take on health messaging and health literacy. So far, that’s my greatest success, but there’s so much more I want to do!
4. How did the idea behind creating Elevate originate?
I was performing in a show called “Up and Away” with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company. The project was commissioned by Lincoln Center Education as part of their Big Umbrella Festival, a festival of theater programming specifically for kids on the autism spectrum and their families. This show changed my life in so many ways. Not only did it challenge me artistically to open up, lean into improv (which is a scary artform for me), and perform for children (something I hadn’t yet done in my career); this particular show set off a lightbulb in my brain about why I was a performing artist with a Master’s in Public Health. We were not going to cure autism with this performance, but we were impacting the public health of these kids by providing them a safe and tailored space to experience live performance unencumbered by the traditional theater viewing structure. The audience members were able to experience the show in the ways they wanted and needed, and that was an incredible offering. The festival also hosted teaching artists, educators and parents who wanted to learn more about creating arts programming for this audience. It was the fusion of art and tailored practical information sharing among the community. That was where the spark for Elevate was born.
5. In what ways do current events (the pandemic, the BLM movement, etc.) shape the work the theater company does?
Elevate is theater for health. As far as I’m concerned, anything going on in our communities is public health, from the pandemic to our Black Lives Matter movement, from the challenges we face with climate change to the increasing violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Public health influences everything we do. We’ve covered a variety of topics including: Black women’s reproductive health; isolation, sexual health and safe connections during the pandemic; Black Fatigue; and environmental health and justice, because those are some of the topics impacting our communities today. We want to identify what’s relevant, shed light on it in an artistic way and then provide health and wellness expertise so audiences can walk away with tangible next steps.
6. What’s one concluding piece of advice you can share for those individuals who aspire to merge their passions for health and the performing arts?
I’ve taken gigs in a variety of venues, with different types of people, different experimental artforms and I’ve performed everywhere, from grand and traditional theaters to bars and art galleries and in parks. At first, I thought all those wild venues were just part of the path to Broadway. But now I see that they are the path to something much bigger and greater than anything I imagined before. I thought I was going in one direction, only to discover there was something around the bend I didn’t expect. And now I have a new, bigger dream reaching beyond Broadway. So, don’t ever stop dreaming. Don’t limit yourself. Dream as big as you want to. You can do anything you can imagine. Be bold and pursue things that light you up, even if they don’t seem like they fit together. Find where they mix for you, and follow that path, even when it is unclear. Work hard, be self-aware and pursue all of it with an open mind, an open heart, and a supportive community!