- Durham Public Schools
Defining Your Gift: DPS Notable Lauren E. Banks Came Into Hers at Shepard Middle and the historic Hillside High School
Hillside High School International Baccalaureate alumna Lauren E. Banks of the “So Fine 09” Class of 2009 was sporting a colorful Bull City shirt representing her hometown of Durham when she signed on for our Zoom call, and within five minutes she was espousing the merits of being educated here. The City On A Hill actress (Showtime) was the class president at Hillside during her Senior year, and still stays in touch with her classmates, including her best friend who also graduated from the historic school.
“It was a very beloved time, a very special place to grow up in Durham, North Carolina and to be educated by Durham Public Schools. I would put Durham Public Schools up against any public school program in the country. I didn’t know how special it was of course until I left North Carolina…the history, the culture, the village that exists is literally responsible for anything that I have today,” said Banks, who earned a DPS Educator Scholarship when she considered teaching drama as part of her trajectory. After her sophomore year at Howard University, she and several friends started a camp called Camp Usanii, which is Swahili for art. It’s an art enrichment intensive she’s offered for nearly 10 years at Hillside in conjunction with the school’s theatre program. She wanted to make sure that Durhamites (it’s open to any Durham middle or high school student) could learn how to become an artist. The five art disciplines taught include acting, creative writing, dance, music, and visual art. She and her collaborators return home every summer for the camp. (COVID prohibited the camp from running for two years.) Some of the camp’s alums have graduated from Howard or are looking to pursue graduate studies at Yale and NYU.
“It has been a big gift for me,” she said.
The DPS Experience
Banks’ said she had “a ton” of educational and extra-curricular experiences while a student in the Durham Public Schools, including an elementary D.A.R.E. Program speech competition, the International Baccalaureate program at Hillside, the Student Government Association, Junior Class vice president, Senior class president, and summer enrichment which opened the door for her to travel. As an IB student, she had a chance to study abroad (she had the opportunity to study at Oxford but turned it down to finish her first short film), participate in Tabb’s theatre exchange program with other countries like Nairobi, Kenya and Sydney, Australia, and learn the critical importance of teamwork in sports.
Banks says teachers were major, affirming players in her life. “There is nothing more valuable than a teacher that sees a student, and sees the student specifically and individually and then speaks life into them about what their strengths are.” Her track coach affectionately called her “Boogie” because she was always boogying toward the next goal. Mr. Wormack always spoke of her potential. It was her track coaches who encouraged her to demonstrate her leadership as captain of the women’s track and field and JV basketball teams.
A former theatre arts student trained by recently retired Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb, Banks earned her Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Howard University. She then continued her education at Yale School of Drama, where she earned her Master’s in Fine Arts. In 2017, her acting skill earned her Yale’s Carol Finch Dye Award, previously awarded to Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep.
Finding Her Gift
“The seed of acting was planted at Durham Public Schools for sure,” said Banks. She said it all started at Shepard Middle School when she began acting under the tutelage of Kenneth Wormack in the drama club. Teacher Wormack’s instruction was focused on continuous improvement, learning, and exploring humanity, said Banks. Improv was the basis of that learning, and her exploration into humanity and the human spirit has never waned.
She eventually stopped acting at Shepard to play sports with her friends– cross country, basketball, and track– until Wormack told her she was throwing away her gift. She felt guilty for throwing away something she didn’t quite understand. Then Mr. Wormack took her and her classmates on a field trip to the historic Hillside High School.
“We got to see the big kids do their thing on stage. That was a big deal, and that’s where I met Mr. Tabb,” she said. Her face lights up with the memory.
On her first day in drama class as a freshman, Tabb was walking around the class and he asked who wanted to act “for real”. Banks raised her hand to acknowledge her dream, although in the back of her mind, she remembered telling other adults about it and being told to have a back-up plan. She started answering the question about her dreams differently because other answers seemed more acceptable.
She raised her hand and introduced herself along with the others who had raised their hands. He told her he knew her whole family and then gave those who had raised their hands an improv (improvisation) prompt.
“I remember thinking, my heart beating very fast, people giggling in the back of the room ‘cause they’re like ‘Oh that’s what you get!’ you know, and we partook in the improv. Now improv is what I had been doing at Shepard. “I kind of blanked,” she said. But she does remember that Tabb joined in.
“I remember coming to at the end of that improv and kind of looking up at my classmates and seeing their faces had changed…Everybody had suddenly been transformed by the collective experience that we all had. And then, in that moment, I said, ‘that’s what a gift is. Got it.”
Ironically, she said, sports began to take a back seat. “I spent that summer searching everything I could, acting, how to get into it, education programs like Yale drama, and here we are today,” said Banks.
She used the search engine popular at the time, Ask Jeeves, to begin her research with “How do I become an actor?” Schools that came up at the top of the results were Yale School of Drama, NYU, and Mr.Tabb told her about Howard and other programs. She found out about alums of drama programs like Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Lynn Whitfield and other people and women artists who she admired. “And I understood that they were complete artists and that’s exactly what I wanted to be. They’re educators. They’re directors. They’re actors.”
City on a Hill was her first major job after graduating with her Masters in May, booking the pilot for the show that December. She’s been a regular on the show for three seasons. Prior to City on a Hill, she became a member of the Actor’s Equity Union through a play called The Container at the Baltimore Center Stage. She also worked in television as a co-star in CBS’s Instinct, and had guest star roles in MANIAC (Netflix) and DIETLAND (AMC).
The Joy of Acting
“It is an extreme privilege to be an artist, to be an actor, and to also be able to support yourself as one. That’s what City on a Hill has given me.
Being a working actor also gives her the opportunity to learn more. She picks up tips from veteran actors, like Kevin Bacon and Jill Hennessey, whom she watched on television with her parents. “Now we’re colleagues!” she said.
She has shadowed two episodes as a director, and doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s started her own production company called Visionary Village, which provides artists, filmmakers, directors and music artists with a platform to manifest their creative vision. She’s also produced short films for other artists she’s met in New York and Los Angeles, and is writing her own project, and collaborates with other artists on various projects.
“Ironically enough, my directing began at Hillside when she began assisting Tabb as a writer/director during her sophomore year as a member of a group called One Voice. She also helped write content for a play called Joy’s Story about a family’s challenges and conflicts during the Civil Rights movement. “Storytelling is the thing that we’re doing. We’re not just acting. We’re not just writing. We’re storytellers. Storytellers get fulfillment from any side of the story. I found that out at Howard too.”
Storytelling has an objective and for Banks, it’s about liberation and humanity, said Banks.
“I am deeply curious about what it is to be human, about humanity. I’m fascinated, starting with my own, of investigating my own humanity and that of others. As an artist I reflect that. I express it via my instrument, which is my person, and I share that with the world, and I think that is towards the goal of liberation. It’s about liberating the human spirit, it’s about liberating our gifts. It’s about our courage just to be who we are.
Storytelling offers perspective, said Banks. “We liberate ourselves and each other by telling our truths. I find the truth in my work, whether I’m picking up a script or writing one, I communicate that truth.”
Using her gift to communicate that truth is gratifying for Banks. She lives with gratitude in order to honor the gift of expression that she carries.
“My job is to take care of it and then to choose wisely about who I share it with and in what ways I share it.”
Although she’s living her definition of success, Banks frequently acknowledges her roots, which keep her grounded.
“I love my home so much. It’s given me so much. I am living my dream, in real time. Dreaming with my eyes wide open. That’s an incredible privilege…the hope and the inspiration and the fulfillment that comes with being able to dream is major. It feels great.”
“There’s nothing like an educator who carries a sense of pride and enthusiasm about what it is they have to share with you as students. I have a countless list of educators who did that for me, and they carried themselves with such professionalism. They inspire things in you like Kathy Poole. They push you, like Kenneth Wormack. And they champion you, like all of my coaches. I hope that the work that I'm doing by taking what they did for me and then putting it forward into my life and then also giving it back to another young person, passing that baton on, it is my hope that my work is my thank you, it is the manifestation of their efforts and their passion. I was listening. I was listening to them. I remember. I keep them with me in every room I go in, on every stage I perform.
My first teachers are my Mom and my Dad. And I hope that is my thank you. Because I don’t know that thank you is enough. So I hope that they know that they’re present with everything I do, every success that I have.
Lauren E. Banks’ advice to aspiring actors and actresses:
Invest in the craft
Be curious about what acting is, what is driving you towards it. What is your purpose?
Define what your definition of success is. “You find success so often outside of yourself. That (your) mantra will be what leads you in so many decisions that you’ll have to make. You have to have a guiding principle,” said Banks.
Balance is important
Be about discovery
Enjoy being who you are
Take work that supports your belief. It is sacred and special. “I take work that I believe in and avoid taking work just for work’s sake. I avoid giving my gift over to something that would shame me.