Using Theater to Inspire and Empower Children

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By Serena Hajjar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BELMONT, Mass. — “A cooperative, collaborative venture…an outlet for experiences.”

These are a few of the many ways Marlene Fereshetian describes One Stage Productions, a community-based, non-profit organization with a mission to provide children in the elementary and middle school grades with a platform to express themselves through the performing arts. But this is no ordinary theater workshop.

“We provide the kids with a basic framework of a story and ask them to give us ideas, and [then] we help them build it,” Fereshetian explained. “It helps them develop a sense of self-confidence because the kids are contributing to the story.”

Fereshetian said she has always loved the performing arts, especially musical theater. She would frequently volunteer in community theater and even write short plays herself.

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“One thing I always loved was how excited kids were when they came to the theater,” she remembered. “I wanted the kids to be more involved and have a say in the creative process.”

The inspiration for OneStage Productions finally came in the form of a writing class at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

“We had to write a lesson from a kid’s point of view, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have the kids write it?’” said Fereshetian.

She contacted an array of like-minded friends — playwrights and others involved in theater — and they decided to give this venture a try, founding OneStage Productions.

Both Fereshetian and co-founder and creative director Ruth Housman help write the scripts, with an emphasis on stories to which the children can relate. The goal is to give a voice to the children, to their ideas and concerns, and to let them express themselves through original stories, music and dance, Feresehtian said.

The plot is based on conversations and exchanges they have with the children. Fereshetian also writes the original music for the plays and the kids throw in the lyrics. The plays last anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes and are composed of several vignettes around one central idea.

Fereshetian named bullying as one of the biggest recurring themes.

“They’ll tell you about an incident that happened, and I’m so glad they open up to you and talk about it because it’s really sad what’s going on — cyber bullying, ostracizing. It’s a problem of epidemic proportions at this point, how it affects children academically and socially. They want us to deal with the subject in our musicals,” she noted.

Fereshetian has noticed that having the children share their stories is like a healing process for them. It is an opportunity for them to creatively express their feelings as a group. Growing up, Fereshetian found her outlet for expressing her experiences in writing little books.

“When you’re creative and when you imagine and fantasize, you can be anything or anyone you want to be, and for that time you go into another world,” she said.

In fact, one of the productions dealt with the theme of self-respect, an idea formulated by the children themselves. The kids felt troubled by the way people would judge them based on appearances, and therefore they wrote a story about a “common” girl who saves a prince from drowning. However, after realizing her social inferiority, the prince acts in an extremely haughty manner and ignores her, even though she has just saved his life. In the end, the girl stands up to him, delivering a powerful performance in which she expresses feelings of pity for the prince who is so caught up in appearances that he cannot see the innate goodness in a person’s heart. The young actress who played the “common” girl composed most of this closing monologue herself.

“The last line brought the house down, it was so special,” noted Fereshetian.

Fereshetian uses her Armenian background to impart an important lesson to the students. To her, being Armenian means being true to herself and being proud of one’s roots. This inspires her to be the best person — as well as best Armenian — she can be.

“We tell the kids, ‘Be the best you can be, be true to who you are,’” she explained.

OneStage Productions’ performances have received positive feedback from parents and school administrators alike. She said they all want children to develop a sense of creativity and a sense of self, and OneStage provides the perfect avenue for such exploration.

She also emphasized the powerful impact that participating in OneStage productions has made on the children.

“They’re extremely eager, we know from their feedback. The kids are very enthusiastic, engaged. They compete for roles — they never fight but they encourage their friends,” she said.

The benefit is not just for the kids, however, as Fereshetian says she is constantly amazed by the children’s wisdom and their fearlessness when it comes to taking risks.

“They’re so honest; their minds are open to so much. … That’s when great creativity happens.”

Fereshetian cites her involvement in OneStage Productions as “one of the most rewarding experiences.”

“I get to spend time with wonderful kids who have a story to tell…Every child is creative, every child is unique. When you bring all those elements together, you get something very beautiful… [It’s storytelling and the innate creativity of children — that sums it up.”

Fereshetian and her husband, Belmont residents, have two sons.

A fall afterschool session will be offered at Belmont’s Benton Library branch.

For more information, visit www.onestageproductions.org.

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