By: Brynleigh Benak, REP Intern

“From the moment you guys first walked through the door of room 7-301 I knew that you were about to change my life.”

“Through this entire project I’ve learned to be a bit more free and silly and not to worry about it if people laugh or not because it’s theatre and it’s entire goal is to make people happy while sending a message and I love that.”

“You made me develop my leadership role by allowing me to share my opinions and thoughts amongst my peers.”

“Thank you for being my teacher, best friend, and guider.”

These quotes are from the students of Evans High School to Orlando Repertory Theatre’s Community Engagement Director, Emily Freeman. Emily was nominated, and ultimately selected, as an Evans High School Community Hero at EHS’s Honoring Our Heroes event, which recognizes members of the community who are working specifically with and for young people at Evans High School. Emily was selected based on her direction and involvement with students in one of The REP’s theatre-based community engagement programs.

“From the moment you guys first walked through the door of room 7-301 I knew that you were about to change my life.”

Brynleigh Benak (BB): First of all, congratulations on your recognition at Evans High School! Can you tell me about the program?

Emily Freeman (EF): Thank you! We have worked with Evans High School for five years providing an in-school residency program. We send teaching artists to Evans and work with their Leadership Development class—a class specifically designed for budding student leaders—and we ask [the students] what they are passionate about and how they are interested in making change in their community. Then, we come up with a topic together and work with the students to devise an original piece that addresses the specific issue.

The residency started five years ago with Jennifer Bohn who has been with EHS for over 20 years as a teacher and administrator. Every year she teaches the leadership course for young women, and each year with The REP program, the students focus on a different topic. This year, we wanted to explore the idea of ageism. The students approached the topic from the perspective of being young and the many ways in which they feel like they have a lack of agency and are not respected specifically as young people in the Pine Hills community. We decided to pair them with senior citizens in a senior living facility. We took the students to interview the seniors about ageism in order to hear from the senior perspective. Then, the students developed an original play called Beyond Age: The Truth Revealed that explored this issue of ageism from both a youth perspective and senior citizen perspective.

BB: What were some of the results of having students work with senior citizens?

EF: It was really powerful! We took the students to the senior center and they interviewed the seniors for about two hours. They asked them questions about their own lives, the ways in which they have experienced ageism living as seniors, and what advice they might have for young people. Those interviews played a big role in the piece. We brought the seniors back for the final performance at The REP where they sat in the front row. I think it was impactful in two ways: the young people were realizing that they are not the only ones who experience these stereotypes and issues. From the seniors’ perspective, they got a chance to engage with young people from a community that they likely would not have otherwise. So it was powerful for them to break down barriers and stereotypes.

Friendships were developed and it was really lovely. One of the seniors that we interviewed in the fall passed away before we were able to do the performance, so the students decided to dedicate the performance to her and her family.

Emily Story Photo Band 1

BB: How has receiving the Community Hero Award impacted you and made you feel?

EF: This is a night where the students select all of the folks that are going to be honored. So it was really sweet that the class selected me and one of the girls in the class wrote a nomination for me. I am so honored. We do a lot of work with young people here at The REP and in the community. I think to be specifically recognized by the young people we work with is so meaningful- to know that we are having an impact and theatre does matter to them, and that they’re really enjoying participating in the arts. For me, it’s just such a nice affirmation that the work we do is powerful and that we’re creating moments that matter here at The REP, as well as creating moments that matter in the community.

BB: What is an overview of your role with The REP as Community Engagement Director?

EF: The Evans High School program is supported by a grant from Disney. The funds from Disney are used to support all of our ACT (Arts and Character Training) programming. The ACT programming is a big part of what I do as Community Engagement Director. We look for community partners and young people that are going to be impacted positively by an arts experience. Oftentimes, we are working with students who would otherwise not have access to theatre classes. We’re trying to create partnerships that are truly reciprocal, so we’re not just going out and giving things away – we want invested partners that are going to participate fully in the programs that we are bringing to them. Evans is a really invested partner. We know that they are going to designate time for us to be with students, they’re not going to view us as a “free opportunity”. This is something they support internally. Their Principal supports it, the teachers support it, and they invest their resources into the program as well.

BB: Do you have any other remarks about the award, program, or anything that you want the community to know about what you do?

EF: Working with the students from Evans and Pine Hills is important because we make space for their voices and perspectives. They are invited to represent themselves- these students are highly intelligent, creative, and empowered young people who are going to make a difference. I think we serve as a support for those voices and let those voices shine through the programs that we’re doing, which is a big goal for the programs we do here at The REP. I think that the Community Hero award is an incredible affirmation that those voices are being heard and celebrated and that these partnerships do matter to the community. The partnerships matter to us, so it’s nice to hear that they matter to the students as well.

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If you would like to support programs and partnerships such as Evans High School, please go online to http://www.orlandorep.com/community-engagement/ or contact Emily Freeman, Community Engagement Director, at [email protected].