Just before 3 o’clock on a recent Thursday, Kate Johnsen wrestles with the lock on the door to the Mary Ellen McCormack Youth Center. Moments after she gets the entry to the basement room open, children steadily trickle in. The center is strewn with evidence of spirited use: Checkers are scattered on the floor, homework charts and art projects hang on walls, and toy trucks occupy corners. But the kids, who are between 8 and 10 years old and all live in the Mary Ellen McCormack Housing Development, the oldest public housing project in New England, aren’t darting to the toys and games. After all, they have a show to rehearse, a pair of plays that they’re debuting for the public on Harvard’s campus less than two weeks from the day. They’ve been on April vacation all week, but they’re still faithfully at the center during the usual after-school program schedule to get ready for the big show.
On a weekly basis since October, the children at the McCormack have worked with three Harvard students to write and produce original plays through a program
Harvard STAGE presents ‘Crazy For You,’ a musical spectacular Thursday, April 29-Saturday, May 1, and Thursday, May 6-Saturday, May 8. Performances take place in Agassiz Theatre at 8 p.m., with an additional children’s matinee May 7 at 1 p.m., which is free to all children under the age of 18. Tickets are $10 general; $7 for students and senior citizens. All proceeds go to support arts education for Boston youth. Tickets are available through the Harvard Box Office (617) 496-2222.
dubbed STAGE, or Student Theater Advancing Growth and Empowerment. This Saturday (May 1), seven children from the McCormack and seven students who participate at the Curley Middle School in Jamaica Plain will premiere their plays in the Hilles courtyard at 4 p.m. for families, friends, and the Harvard community. The performance is followed by a reception, after which all can attend a STAGE-produced Harvard student musical, “Crazy for You.” Funds raised from ticket sales throughout the musical’s run (April 29 to May 8) will go toward developing and expanding STAGE in the coming years.
This particular practice Thursday, the kids are rehearsing one of the plays they wrote about a new student who speaks limited English and is accused of cheating by his teacher. After the first run-through, some kids sneak off to a quiet corner to look over their lines, but Leona Okes ’07 quickly gathers everyone to offer some performance pointers.
“A big part of acting is always acting like your character, even when you don’t have lines,” she says.
Though the theatrical aspect may seem fundamental to the program, it’s actually just a means to a grander end.
“We go in knowing we want to focus on kids. Putting on a show is just a cover.
We want to give them a stable presence by going in week after week,” said Robbie Pennoyer ’05, STAGE co-founder and the only member who has worked at both sites all year. “These kids don’t have much consistency in their lives and we knew we could fulfill that. Our real goal isn’t putting together an incredible show, it’s to make them realize that they already have the skills, talent, and energy to produce something they can be really proud of. While putting on a show is great way to do that, [STAGE] is more about making them realize they have something in them that’s worthwhile, because there’s not a lot of people to point that out to them on a regular basis.”
Currently in its pilot year, STAGE, the brainchild of Rebecca Rubins ’05, blends theater arts and public service to carry out a multipronged mission. By connecting college students with inner-city children, the Harvard participants expand the scope of the University’s theater enterprises, but as they partner with area communities, they also show how the arts nourish self-expression, which, in turn, has a positive effect on a child’s attitude and outlook. The program satisfies a critical need at a time when funding for arts education is suffering from increasingly drastic cuts. Rubins has harnessed input from arts leaders and supporters in the Harvard and Boston communities to raise funds and awareness so they can expand the program. She foresees STAGE serving as a model for colleges around the country.
The children, for their part, are introduced to various facets of the performing arts, from storytelling, to playwriting, to acting and directing, to technical aspects like set design, costuming, and props as they develop valuable mentorship relationships with Harvard students.
“I like it ’cause they take me to a lotta good places, like Harvard, and I get to meet more people. They taught us how to make plays and get used to when you’re talking [in character] to talk like you mean it,” said Rafael, a soft-spoken 10-year-old who’s prone to rowdy outbursts. When asked whether he’d like to have such a program in school, he simply said, “I won’t be nervous no more because I would already know how to make a play.”
Rafael’s mention of his trip to Harvard was a reference to a daylong campus visit he and fellow STAGE participants from both sites took on Saturday, April 17. They got a backstage glimpse of the American Repertory Theatre, and were treated to a performance of a musical number from “Crazy for You.” Afterwards, they offered the actors advice and suggestions. That feedback was reciprocated when the “Crazy” cast watched the kids’ shows and gave them suggestions about acting.
But it’s safe to say that the memory of being on a stage in front of an audience will be more long-lasting in a child’s mind than the particular acting tips.
“Artistic expression can be a productive and meaningful way of channeling emotions and ideas. STAGE helps children express themselves by exploring their creative sides. That’s important because of the self-worth it gives these children. In a way, it’s giving kids a sense of realizing their own power. That’s something they won’t forget,” said Jack Megan, director of Office for the Arts. “I think that with budget cuts and policies, public schools have suffered a loss with respect to the arts and learning the arts in school. They always say arts are the first thing to go. Certainly this program is one response to that. While its effect may not be felt throughout the public school system and all arts organizations, it’s certainly felt by these students. For them, this experience is unique.”
Indeed, self-worth was flourishing at Thursday’s rehearsal as the kids beamed and giggled despite struggling with some of their lines.
“No matter what happens on performance day, we’ll have done our job,” Pennoyer said. “No matter what happens in their show, they’ll have a full audience and they’ll get a big standing ovation for the first time in their lives and have big smiles on their faces and a great sense of pride in themselves.”