Elianni Martinez (left), and Adanna Castellano-Brown, both 9, teach a dance to their classmates and Harvard teachers Rachel Share-Sapolsky ’21, Jenna Lang ’21, and M.K. Howard ’21.

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

STAGE struck

Phillips Brooks performing arts program gives kids a new voice

4 min read

For more than a century, Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) has provided resources to the local community while it nurtures public-service leaders. The student-run, community-based nonprofit offers more than 80 programs, today serving 10,000 low-income people in Greater Boston.

Below, Lang and Howard share snapshots of their time spent working, learning, and creating with fourth-grade students attending the STAGE program at the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury.

One of those programs, Student Theater Advancing Growth and Empowerment — STAGE — is dedicated to empowering Boston and Cambridge youth through the performing arts.

STAGE members believe that everyone has a voice, and work to give students the confidence to express it. During the first semester our team worked with students on the fundamentals of theater, exploring plot, characterization, improvisation, and more. The local children got the chance to express themselves and create their own characters and stories.

The teaching strategy shifted in the second semester, applying the skills the students had learned in first semester to create an original show they wrote themselves. The students made up characters, often based on people in their own lives, and complete with backstories, careers, and families. Through improvisation they began to interact with each other as their characters. From there, we created a plot the students were able to call their own.

Guy McEleney ’19 (from left), Samantha Berman ’19, M.K. Howard, Rachel Share-Sapolsky, and Heidi Lai ’21 work on a lesson plan. Lai (from left), Howard, and Berman head to the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury, where STAGE is held.

Performance day was an absolute blast. Our final show even included a dance choreographed entirely by the students. The actors’ excitement was tangible as they kept nervously poking their heads from behind the curtain. It was amazing to see their eagerness and pride in performing something that was entirely their own.

At first some of our students barely spoke, and in the end they were teaching us dance moves.

Often when we arrived at the school, the students would be tired, but we put on smiles and stood in a circle on the classroom rug. Each class started with “Hey STAGE,” a call-and-response warm-up in which each student and teacher got to show off a dance move. It was, overall, an incredible experience.

The students join STAGE for different reasons. The teachers do, too. Some of us have backgrounds in theater and others have a passion for childhood education. Regardless, the experience is beyond rewarding. There is nothing as gratifying as seeing a child come out of his or her shell. At first some of our students barely spoke, and in the end they were teaching us dance moves. To all of us at STAGE, that exemplifies growth and empowerment.

Over the course of the year, the STAGE team consisted of Heidi Lai, Samantha Berman, Guy McEleney, Rachel Share-Sapolsky, Mary Kathryn Howard, Yiting Yang, and Jenna Lang.

Guy McEleney (left) and Rachel Share-Sapolsky teach drama to 10-year-old Mia Gonzalez in a classroom at Hernández. Share-Sapolsky (from left), 9-year-olds Kevenlys Flores, Adanna Castellano-Brown, and Cecilia Gray, and Heidi Lai (partially hidden) work together on a play. Their co-written script became their final performance.

Cecilia Gray gets dramatic.

The students head to the stage for their final performance. But first: a warm-up. Rachel Share-Sapolsky cues the music “Lean On.”

Elianni Martinez looks out from backstage.

M.K. Howard watches as Kevenlys Flores (left), playing a veterinarian, and Adanna Castellano-Brown, playing a tennis player, try on their costumes.

Rachel Share-Sapolsky goes over lines one final time with Adanna Castellano-Brown and Elianni Martinez. Nervous performers Kevenlys Flores (left) and Luna Garcia, both 9, get a pep talk from Share-Sapolsky.

Elianni Martinez is excited and nervous while Kevenlys Flores pulls open the curtain.

Parents and families watch the show written and performed by the STAGE children. Jenna Lang and M.K. Howard cool down with the young actors after the performance.

Rachel Share-Sapolsky (left), Jenna Lang, and M.K Howard head back to Harvard after their final performance with STAGE.