When Stephanie Sanchez was a high school student in Chelsea, Massachusetts, her school got a visit from Bethany Nelson, senior theater educator-in-residence at Emerson, who was recruiting students for a pilot theater program at the College.
The program, EmersonTHEATRE, invited teens from urban high schools in Greater Boston to come, not just learn to act, but to express themselves in a variety of ways – through writing, music, dance, and acting – about the things in their lives that hold them back.
Four years later, Sanchez, 19, still comes just about every week.
“I think it was really the fact that we were able to talk freely about what was bothering us,” Sanchez said about what keeps her returning to the program, “and take our pain and anger and make it into art, make it into something productive.”
EmersonTHEATRE is an offshoot of the popular and well-regarded EmersonWRITES program. It meets weekly throughout the school year, and each semester culminates in a performance showcase written, composed, and performed by the students under the guidance of Nelson and teaching assistants.
Nelson said when she was approached to create the program, she knew she wanted to offer something beyond free acting courses, which were offered widely throughout the city. She wanted to create something that allowed the students put their “lived experience into words and action.”
The first crew of about two dozen kids produced a show about the “American Dream and American Nightmare.”
“That actually came out of a [writing] prompt I gave that asked ‘If you could change one social ill that would make life better, what would it be?’ and two of them said ‘the American Dream,’” Nelson recalled.
Every semester, the students, who are primarily black and Latinx, explore different topics that resonate with them; they’ve done shows on their relationship with police, immigration, racism, self-esteem. But no matter the details of the themes, they’re all designed to do two things: build advocacy skills; and help them understand that the things that happen in their lives are not isolated to them, but are part of a larger social construct, Nelson said.
This semester, because the students have “very profound feelings,” about the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Nelson said, particularly around issues of immigration and the marginalization of populations.
“What’s going on is very upsetting to them, so we’re doing a show about resistance. What does it mean to resist?” Nelson said.
The sessions use improvisation and game playing to loosen the students up and get them interacting. But the process is largely driven by writing prompts given to the students.
On a recent Saturday in the Tufte Performance and Production Center, lead teacher Charles Jabour MA ’15 asked students to describe on notecards a defining moment in their life, and how it changed them. Responses ranged from deciding to go with natural hair or discovering a desire to be an actress, to leaving an abusive relationship or no longer trying to have a relationship with her father.
Nelson’s group was asked to write down dialogue from the voices in their heads that keep them from doing right. Those lines would be used to write an original song for the final show, though at this point in the semester, the full structure and dialogue of the show was still very much a work in progress.
Kayla Smith ’18, a Theater Education major, was at the rehearsal to observe and try to understand the playmaking process, and how that could reverberate out into the community.
“The whole process is very honest and vulnerable,” she said.
Nelson said as always, EmersonTHEATRE will try to get a good mix of parents, friends, Emerson students and faculty to the showcase on April 9.
“One of the most compelling things about the program for them is there is an audience of 75 or 100 people who weren’t all people of color, who were shocked by the information in the show and were moved to tears about it,” she said. “And the kids were shocked that they cared what they had to say.”
EmersonTHEATRE also provides students with the opportunity to interact with students at other high schools, through performances at local theater festivals. Later this month, the students will attend the Massachusetts High School Collaborative Theater Festival, something Nelson called a “win-win.
“The white, upper-middle-class, suburban kids who make up the bulk of the participants get to experience some theater that has a distinctive urban flavor to it,” she said. “My kids get to see their performances, and they don’t get to have that opportunity very often.”
The first year EmersonTHEATRE performed at the College-sponsored Emerson College High School Drama Festival, they performed a “gritty” piece that had to do with immigration and racism. Wayland High School, an affluent suburban school west of Boston, did a choreopoem, a piece comprised of poetry, dance, and music. When Nelson’s students saw that, they said they wanted to do one.
The following year, EmersonTHEATRE performed a choreopoem about immigration, and in what Nelson called a “real ‘Gift of the Magi’ situation,” Wayland High did a show that was obviously modeled on what her students did the year before.
“There’s been real ripple effects from this of people coming to a greater understanding of someone else’s reality,” Nelson said.
For Sanchez, the Chelsea High graduate, the ripple effects have been personal.
She took off the year after graduation to try to figure out what she wanted to do, all the while attending EmersonTHEATRE as a kind of mentor to younger participants.
She said she thinks she has it pretty well figured out now. She wants to go to college to get a degree in Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, and eventually teach high school.
“For a long time, I was opposed to teaching,” Sanchez said. “Seeing the type of person Bethany is and the way she’s touched our lives as an educator and a mentor is something I want to do.”