Middle School Students Raise their Voices from the Middle
On Thursday, April 26, I attended the performance of two plays by Donald McKay Elementary Students, as part of Voices from the Middle, a program run by the Community Service Center. Voices from the Middle (VFM) sends volunteers to middle schools to help young students improve self-esteem and confidence levels. The volunteers achieve this by assisting the students as they write, produce, and perform original plays that depict the challenges they face as urban youth.
While attending the performance by the 8th graders at the Student Theater at Agganis Arena, I couldn’t help but notice the energy that volunteer Alec Nicholson (CAS 2012) exuded as he wildly cheered on the students from the back of the light booth. He may not have noticed himself, but his smile was ear-to-ear the entire night. Since this year’s running theme has been theatre as a medium for social impact, I wanted to ask Alec a few questions about his experience with Voices from the Middle, and he was kind enough to chat.
RM: How did you first become involved with Voices from the Middle with the CSC?
AN: I got involved with VFM in the spring 2009 – second semester of freshmen year – and have participated consistently since then, except while abroad during my junior year.
RM: Once arriving at the schools, what sort of involvement do volunteers have in the production of these student plays?
AN: We spend a lot of time working on confidence-building and group cohesion to facilitate conversations about the issues that come up. The students know during the first semester that they will eventually be working on plays, but we don’t start writing until second semester. This year we asked the students to choose how they wanted to participate – as writers, actors, costume designers, props teams, stage managers, producers, et cetera. We lead some brainstorming sessions to get basic elements agreed upon – theme and topic – and then let the writers take over, leading focus groups and getting further input from their peers. The writers did all the writing, so the plays are truly their own.
RM: I was taken aback by the very strong, aggressive themes these students’ plays tackled: homosexuality, bullying, suicide, substance abuse and abuse from other kids. Do you find that the students find it easier to deal with these themes through the lens of theatre and writing?
AN: Ideally that is what we would like to accomplish – facilitating a dialogue about important issues in their lives, and helping them think creatively about how to address them and live with them – but our time with them is very short. We visit their school once a week and get about 45 minutes with each class, but with our various breaks and holidays and theirs as well, it doesn’t work out to be that many visits in the end. With more time we would be able to really flesh out the problems and how they really impact their lives, but the playwriting process ends up taking up so much time that outside of rehearsal we have very little time to do this important part of the program justice.
RM: What other types of issues have students’ plays illustrated in the past?
AN: The most common issues addressed are peer pressure (bullying and gangs), substance use, and family problems. They’re middle-schoolers, after all, so their plays are almost always about social pressures of some kind or another.
RM: Can you describe any particular experience you’ve had while working with these students that illustrates why you chose to be a part of this program?
AN: The students try to play it cool and seem disinterested for much of the semester – many of them, anyway – but by the time they come to campus to perform they are literally buzzing with excitement. Seeing them up on stage performing and presenting their own play in their own production is one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced. Their confidence, creativity, and maturity make me incredibly proud.
RM: If BU students want to be involved with Voices From the Middle in the future, how can they go about doing so?
AN: Anyone interested in volunteering with this wonderful program should email Ana Aguilera at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Congratulations to Alec, and to VFM’s other volunteers:
Ana Aguilera (Program Manager)
Ryan McPhee (COM 2012) Indulging in art on the stage, in the kitchen, and everywhere in between. @mchadoaboutryan