Without Emerson Stage’s partnership with Waltham Public Schools, drama specialist Kate Kelly, MA ‘05, is unsure if her students would have had the opportunity to attend a performance like Old Jake’s Skirts.
“It was such a gift to have these tickets, because I know for many of these kids, this was their first opportunity to experience theatre outside of school, and who knows if they would go out and see a show otherwise,” Kelly said.
Emerson Stage performed two school-time matinee performances of Old Jake’s Skirts for Boston and Waltham public schools students in mid-November. They provided tickets for 132 third- and fourth-grade students and teachers from Waltham Public Schools to attend a show. Waltham Schools’ parent-teacher organization (PTO) funded transportation to the show, so students were able to attend entirely for free.
Theatre Education alum Kelly , a drama specialist at Fitzgerald Elementary School in Waltham, was grateful for the opportunity to work with her alma mater. While at Emerson, Kelly was placed at Waltham Public Schools for her student teaching assignment and she’s been there ever since.
“At its core, Old Jake’s Skirts is about community,” said Joshua Rashon Streeter, MA ‘08, assistant professor of Performing Arts and director of the show.
Designers, dramaturg, directors, stage managers, actors, technicians, and the education and engagement team all worked together to imagine how to tell the story of Old Jake’s Skirts. Emerson Stage also formed connections with the aforementioned Waltham school and Boston public schools, Boston artists, and local nonprofit organizations.
Performed November 9-13, Old Jake’s Skirts was Emerson Stage’s annual Theater for Young Audiences’s (TYA) production. Playwright José Cruz González adapted the show from the book by C. Anne Scott, which follows Old Jake, a lonely pumpkin farmer, and his dog, Shoestring. They find a trunk filled with calico skirts on the side of the road, and start using the skirts in imaginative ways.
Streeter was attracted to Emerson for its unique focus on TYA. Emerson was the first college to offer a class in Theatre for Young Audiences in 1920. Today, Emerson is one of only a handful of colleges that offer it as a specialization.
“[Emerson] is an exciting and important place to be at,” Streeter said. “There are other universities that put on productions for young people, but it’s not always part of the curriculum in the way that it is at Emerson.”
Late faculty member and Performing Arts chair Bob Colby inspired Streeter to pursue multiple degrees after Emerson, and to return to Emerson to teach.
“One thing I learned from [Colby] is how to value the young audience, and what choices we make on stage and in the classroom that can engage young people,” Streeter said.
Engaging with Local Public Schools
Streeter said that partnering with community organizations should be a reciprocal process, more than just a transactional relationship where the production is asking organizations to donate or buy tickets to the show.
“Emerson has a lot of resources and it’s in a privileged place in our city,” Streeter said.
Old Jake’s Skirt’s education and engagement team consisted of Theatre Education graduate students who had taken Streeter’s Theatre for Young Audiences course during the summer.
The education team connected with the schools, their families, and were also in charge of engaging the audience through post-show workshops and talkbacks. Through interactive activities students at the matinee performances got a behind-the-scenes look at puppetry and sound in the play.
Using the resource guide and lesson plans put together by graduate students on the education and engagement team, Kelly connected students with the show before attending the show.
The Importance of TYA
Sofia Lindgren Galloway, MA/MFA ‘24, liaison for the education and engagement team, spoke of the importance of bringing theatre to younger audiences.
“In the theatre world, people are talking about how our audiences are dying off — they’re getting older, they’re getting smaller, so how do we fix that?” Galloway said. “A lot of people going to the theater as adults and spending money on tickets, had really positive experiences when they were kids.”
Kelly hopes to see a pipeline of students interested in theatre, too. One student from one of her classes shared that her experience was “so, so, so, so, so, so” amazing. Other students were captivated by the sounds, set design, and Shoestring the dog, after listening to the after-show workshop on sound and puppetry.
“In theatre, you have to suspend your disbelief and fall into the make-believe world. That’s something young people do all the time,” Galloway said. “[Young people] a fun audience to work with because they’re also more vocal about their criticism, so they challenge artists to be at their most creative and engaged.”
Puppets, Costumes, Photo Booth, and a Nonprofit
For the show, Emerson Stage also collaborated with puppet designer Steven Doucette, and costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt.
“It’s really exciting for [Emerson] students to get to know and work with them just as much as the other Emerson student designers,” Streeter said. “Boston is a great place to make theatre because we have those opportunities.”
The production also provided activities such as a photo booth and a letter to a loved one in the lobby of the Semel Theater before and after the show to reveal themes in the play. Students and the public could snap a photo in a photo booth using costumes and prop pieces inspired by those featured in the play.
While Old Jake’s Skirts doesn’t have a specific setting, it evokes an Appalachian-Americana feel. Education and engagement team member Kasey McFarren, MFA ‘23, curated an Americana art gallery highlighting visual artists from Appalachia that was featured in the lobby.
Emerson Stage also partnered with Company One (C1), a Boston theatre organization focused on building community at the intersection of art and social change, to teach its teaching artists the framework of Drama Based Pedagogy—a method of using drama to teach drama. Through its Stage One Residency program, C1 places trained teaching artists in Boston Public Schools. Some of these teaching artists were able to watch a rehearsal, participate in a workshop on TYA with Streeter, and receive educational materials.
“Theatre is a teaching tool—for any age. Attending theatre is being exposed to ideas. And it’s important that we extend that idea to every show we produce,” Artistic Director of Emerson Stage Annie Levy said. “What ideas are you being exposed to by witnessing this story? That is a question, consideration, and value that I hope all students develop as Performing Arts students at Emerson.”