The 2013 Prize for Innovative Teaching Award, from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education as well as the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, also recognizes Nelson for playmaking in best practices. She is scheduled to receive the award in February at a ceremony on Cape Cod.
“I’m pleased but really surprised,” Nelson said. “Given the word, ‘innovative,’ I thought they were going to look at the best use of computer technology, or something like that.”
A former public school teacher and principal herself, Nelson has worked with students in the poverty-plagued city north of Boston since 2009, when she received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant for the city of Chelsea to begin a playmaking project that looked at student role models.
But the program soon evolved. Last year Nelson had the students develop and perform a play that tackles two issues they identify as important to them: violence and money.
“Overwhelmingly the students chose these two categories,” she said.
Students spent the next eight weeks developing a play that explored their concerns.
“Using their ideas, I created a script,” Nelson said. “It was all their own words, all their own work. I only added two sentences to transition between scenes.”
The students performed the play for their peers at the school, as well as several Emerson students and faculty.
“They felt like they had something important to say and someone would listen to them,” Nelson said. “That’s what happened, and it was a huge thing for them.”
“I feel like this program helps them understand their potential for using theater as a teaching tool and artistic form,” Nelson continued. “We’ve brought this into an environment where kids with strained futures can see what’s possible in their lives.”
Graduate student Emily Temple MFA ‘12 served as ethnographer on the playmaking project, working directly with Nelson and the students. Undergraduate Theatre Education students participated in several workshops with the Chelsea students.