Bethany Nelson, a stern woman in bare feet and a green shawl, is teaching Boston Arts Academy sophomore Omar Lopez how to throw a punch.
“You’ve seen violence,” Nelson says, miming an exaggerated blow to Lopez’s face. “But on stage it needs to be slow — boom!”
Nelson, theater educator-in-residence in Emerson College’s performing arts department, steps back to give Lopez space to practice the sequence again. Lopez grabs Marc Theodule Jr., a Cristo Rey High School sophomore, by his vest, then swings a closed fist across the front of Theodule’s face, striking Theodule’s open palm with a smacking sound as Theodule stumbles backward.
Now it’s Lopez’s turn to critique the choreography of the skit, which contains no dialogue and is set to the opening notes of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man.”
“When you run away, you have to turn around and go the same way we were coming,” says Lopez, who’s sharply dressed in loose-fitting brown pants and a white T-shirt.
“Yeah,” Theodule agrees. “That was stupid.”
This workshop, held in a practice room deep in the Paramount Theater, is part of EmersonPathways, a free, weekend enrichment program at Emerson, which aims to put at-risk Boston public high school students on track to enroll in college.
On Saturday mornings, theater-track students attend a workshop at the Paramount while writing students meet in an academic building a few streets away. In the afternoon, the two groups join for lunch and academic and life-skills training.
Pathways, which Emerson hopes will bring more urban minority students to its student body, has roots in a writing program that began four years ago. The idea of that program, which was offered over eight sessions in fall and spring semesters, was to lure promising city students by offering them the opportunity to work with members of the college’s respected writing programs.
Besides working on their writing, the students would also get a taste of life on campus — most come from families who have had little or no experience with college.
Last spring, the college added a theater track, and there have been discussions of eventually adding one in film.
This year the college has launched the more ambitious Pathways that turns the semester-long program into a three-year one, with 15 students admitted in sophomore year to the writing track and an equal number in theater, according to MJ Knoll-Finn, vice president for enrollment and one of the primary forces behind the programs.
“What Emerson had that was special was the creative piece, and that was a hook for a lot of these students to see and feel like they might want to be a performing artist or a writer,” said Knoll-Finn, who is herself a first-generation college graduate. “It was exciting to them, so it was a way to get them to come.”
Pathways has the funding to see the current class of 30 through to their senior years. But Emerson officials are hoping to raise enough money through grants to keep the program alive so that in the future there will be 90 students involved at any given time.
To identify candidates, Emerson reached out to teachers at five schools: Boston Arts Academy, Boston Community Leadership Academy, Cristo Rey High School, New Mission High School, West Roxbury Academy. Those teachers kept an eye out for freshmen with an interest in theater or writing and recommended them.
Faculty and MFA candidates who teach the workshops try to keep in mind that outside the program, the students often deal with problems far greater than the typical travails of high school — in many cases poverty, violence, homelessness, or family members who have been incarcerated or addicted.
“I’m inviting them to bring those experiences into the room, explore them through theater, make sense of them and perform them, if that’s what they want to do,” said Nelson, whose doctoral work at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom focused on how theater can help at-risk urban youth. “This isn’t therapy. I don’t push them to share stuff. You create a trust environment; you create a community in the room, and the next thing you know kids are talking about their lives.”
That’s one of the project’s goals, according to administrators and teachers who designed the curriculum: Listen to the students’ stories and try to help them become comfortable sharing their perspectives in an academic setting.
“It was very important that anything we developed would acknowledge and empower the students’ experiences and where they were coming from,” said Mary Kovaleski, a senior lecturer in the Writing, Literature and Publishing department who helped create some of the curriculum. “It was more thinking about access and empowerment, and finding out how to say what you wanted to say.”
Nelson, who helped design the theater curriculum, believes in the power of playmaking — a pedagogical technique in which her students write and adapt their own dialogue, often just minutes before they perform it — not just to teach writing and performing skills, but also as a way for students to make sense of injustice and trauma in their own lives.
Back in the Paramount, Nelson instructs the same groups of students to write monologues. “I was only trying to make a living, but they stopped and frisked me,” Lopez reads in a soft voice, after scribbling for a few minutes. “I do what I have to to get by. They took away my rights, right before my eyes.”
As a freshman at English High School in Jamaica Plain, Marcell Murray attended the writing program in 2010.
“I was instantly hooked by Emerson College, and I told them that in four years I would be applying,” he said.
True to his word, Murray applied and was accepted with a full scholarship. He started his first year this fall and plans to major in film and work in the industry.
Murray speaks diplomatically about his time at English, where he observed fights and misbehavior in class but took advanced placement courses and graduated as valedictorian. Murray’s mother and father, who work as a cashier and an
MBTA bus driver, encouraged him to excel academically. He and his two older siblings are the first in the family to attend college.
Murray says he’s sure he would have pursued higher education even without his Emerson experience. Still, he recalls the program offering a refreshing way to look at writing. Instead of recommending rigid rules, the instructors — with whom he has stayed in contact in the years since — encouraged him to write freely and to keep a journal. “I think it was about getting us open to the idea that our work could become well known. There are a lot of opportunities here,” he said.
By the time he finished the program, Murray says, he had completed a draft of his first novel.
After a lunch of pizza and juice, all of the students gather in a classroom overlooking an overcast afternoon on Boston Common. Today, three Emerson undergraduates who work for the admissions department have joined Knoll-Finn to help the sophomores sketch out a three-year plan to identify and apply to colleges and universities.
For mentor Gabrielle Ruiz, a second-year Emerson student from New York, the program is an opportunity to provide guidance she wishes she’d had access to in high school.
“My family couldn’t help me,” she said. “I learned to do it myself, and I was fine, but it would have been nice to have.”
Eventually the students break into three groups in separate classrooms. In one, Ruiz hands out magic markers that the students use to chart their plan for each remaining year of high school.
“I applied to one for people with curly hair,” Ruiz says, after a student mentions scholarships. “I applied for one for first-generation college students. I applied for one for Hispanics.”
This afternoon, Knoll-Finn makes a sad announcement. In a few weeks, she tells the room, she will be leaving Emerson for a position at New York University.
“The only time I cried was when I thought about this program,” she tells the group.
After Knoll-Finn shares her news, she passes out a parting gift: a Picadilly journal for each student, in blue, lavender, or black. She tells them to do whatever they want with the notebooks, but to write down a dream they have for the future as the first entry.
Dreams have already come up several times this afternoon: One student wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon, another a marine biologist. Lopez, the Boston Arts Academy sophomore, planned since eighth grade to pursue a performing arts career — after he finishes college.
“I want to move to New York or Los Angeles and write my screenplay,” he said, fingers interwoven on the classroom table.