The Bordy Theater is dark except for an image of the Statue of Liberty that illuminates a large screen.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” fills the room. One student comes forward, his face hard to see but his voice clear and strong. He says, “All Star Converse. Denim jacket. Levis. I’m as American as it gets. Stop trying to tell me I’m Asian because I’m not. I was born here. I’m an American.” Other students come forward stating what makes them an American.
It’s a powerful scene and one of 20 vignettes performed as a final showcase Saturday, November 23, in a pilot program called emersonTHEATRE, which allows local high school students to work side by side with faculty from Emerson’s Performing Arts Department to develop acting and playwriting skills.
The program was conceived by MJ Knoll-Finn, vice president of enrollment, who spearheaded emersonWRITES, which connects high school students with first-year graduate students from Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department to hone their writing skills.
Theatre Educator-in-Residence Bethany Nelson ’82, of Performing Arts, wasn’t sure how students participating in the first emersonTHEATER program would get along since they were coming from three different public high schools: Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Chelsea High, and Lawrence High. But she remarked that on the first day something amazing happened: “By the end of the first meeting, [the students] were all out of their seats, gathered together on the floor, and singing.”
The collaborative spirit that struck Nelson on that first day continued for 10 consecutive Saturdays, when 24 students from Cambridge, Chelsea, and Lawrence would gather. emersonTHEATRE is distinct from other programs because the students write the play that they perform. “It’s a high level of work and, once their show was scripted, they had only five and a half hours of rehearsal,” said Nelson.
Throughout the showcase performance, the students’ points of views came through as they portrayed a range of day-to-day life experiences, from families struggling to make ends meet to employees dealing with bullying bosses. The transitions from one scene to another were complicated but happen seamlessly—moving from scenes with multiple performers to monologues and a cappella performances.
The finale scene, a performance with all 24 students, compelled the audience of friends, families, and teachers to give a standing ovation.
“I’m so proud of him and all of the kids,” said Darlise Senatus, referring to her son Francibel of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, who got the show’s biggest laughs during a scene in which he portrayed a narrow-minded boss. She had always loved acting but never had the opportunity to pursue it growing up in Haiti.
Stephanie Sanchez, a Chelsea High student and emersonTHEATRE participant, was supported at the performance by her mom, Miriam Aguilar, and 7-year-old brother Julian. “We made it. This is our story,“ said Sanchez proudly. When asked about the experience working with students outside of her own high school, she said, “Within the first week, we bonded. We got very close because this is something that we all love to do.”
The program will continue next semester led by Rebecca Opstad, who was the assistant teacher to Nelson during the pilot program.