Last week, six sophomores were given the Eugene M. Lang Opportunity Scholarship to undertake social action projects across the globe. The scholarship, given annually, offers students the chance to design and implement projects that tackle important issues in the community. Prospective Lang Scholars have to pass a rigorous selection criteria, demonstrating academic excellence coupled with a commitment to civic and social responsibility. The payoff is a guaranteed summer internship and up to $10,000 as funding for each of the six projects.
Michaela Shuchman ‘16, one of this year’s recipients of the scholarship, proposes an innovative and sustainable project based out of Philadelphia. Shuchman’s venture aims to create a drama program called “The Stage of Life,” intended to introduce middle school students in Philadelphia to the fundamentals of theatre.
“The reason I called it ‘The Stage of Life’ is because I really think that acting gives you skills that are applicable in real life,” Shuchman said.
The heart of Shuchman’s project lies in one of these skills: storytelling. All too aware of the rampant budget cuts in Philadelphia that reduce funding for arts programs across middle schools, she wants to allow students a chance to have their voices heard. The basis of her program lies in giving students prompts and listening to their ideas and stories, an effort that will culminate in a play that will be presented at the end of the semester.
In the midst of communicating with schools in Philadelphia and designing her program around their specific needs and curriculums, Shuchman nevertheless wants “The Stage of Life” to have a consistent foundation regardless of where it is being implemented.
“I want every class to be centered on a word,” she explained. “The first class, for example, will be built around fostering trust, and that’s what the games and activities will be focused on.”
With each class revolving around a theme that Shuchman believes to be an essential life skill, the program works not only as an introduction to acting but also as a community building exercise for students.
For Shuchman, an honors theater major and education minor, acting has been just that – a life-defining activity that has given her a community to relate to. A shy child in middle school, theatre brought her out of her shell and allowed her to express herself. At Swarthmore, she is involved in a wide range of performance related activities across campus, ranging from singing with Grapevine, the all-female a capella group, to performing with the improvisation troupe, Vertigo-go.
“To me, theatre is both an escape and a confrontation,” she said. Allowing children to become empathetic is one of the main goals of the program that will eventually teach them creative problem-solving skills, which would help them with their other subjects too.
One of Shuchman’s biggest inspirations was a dance organization called CityStep that first originated at Harvard, where undergraduates teach dance at public schools in Cambridge. Her final goal, modeled after CityStep, is to institutionalize “The Stage of Life” at Swarthmore, so that the program can continue even after she graduates.
“Bringing theater to students who wouldn’t normally have access to it is something I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
For Shuchman, being a Lang scholar is only the beginning of a career in acting and teaching that she dreams of. Look out for opportunities to get involved in assistant teaching with “The Stage of Life” sometime in the future.