It has been a year of change, challenge, and separation — and a year of growth, community, and resilience. Last fall and winter, which seem like a lifetime ago, our programs were thriving, alive with energy and creativity.
School closures in March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic presented us with new, unforeseen obstacles to reach our remote learners, including delivery methods, accessibility, and equity of opportunity.
We pivoted quickly to continue to serve our students, adapting all of our programming to the screen. Our Urban Improv teaching artists innovatively shared with our partner schools digital Classroom Care Packages that applied our model to video-based songs, scenes, and discussion prompts. Our Freelance Players creative staff moved their rehearsals online to successfully debut six final video productions, including one performance that was live-streamed on Youtube and Zoom. In April, our annual fundraising event Banned in Boston became one of the first virtual events in the city. An event reimagined completely and still capturing the spirit of our robust, caring community of donors, supporters, artists, and friends.
June brought another big change this year in our Rehearsal for Life community, Executive Director Francie Karlen stepped back into her former role on the Board after four years at our helm of the administrative team. Francie has been a force of good for serving the young people of our city and a force of change in building up our organization. Her vision of a better world brings all of us in. We are grateful for her contributions that will be felt and will continue for years to come.
Please join me in welcoming artist, educator, and activist Elena Velasco into her new role as Executive & Artistic Director. As we prepare Rehearsal for Life for the growth ahead with new vision, leadership, we are building the future together — with purpose, joy, community, gratitude, and hope. Thank you, Elena, for moving forward with us.
Thanks to the support of so many in our community. We would not be poised to face this year ahead without all of the people who comprise our community of creatives.
James Benenson, Chair, Board of Directors
A Message from Executive & Artistic Director Elena Velasco
I first became introduced to Urban Improv over four years ago through a chance meeting with Kippy and Toby Dewey. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to watch the program in action, witnessing similarities with the work that has been my life’s mission and the unique application of this form of applied theatre with Boston youth. It was the fusion of performance, social justice, youth leadership, and community engagement so desperately needed in this world. This was the way to enact a vision of empowerment and agency through one’s creative voice.
In my short time as Executive and Artistic Director of Rehearsal for Life, I have observed the impact of this work, evident through the warmth of our supporters and the testimonies from our partners. This loyalty is the result of programming that is responsive, timely, and sensitively crafted, centered on community-building and social- emotional development. With each Classroom Care Package developed this past spring to reach remote students, and each Freelance youth musical produced online, Rehearsal for Life programs continue to define the creative space.
Though we are in the midst of unprecedented circumstances, we know that one grows the most when faced with formidable challenges. This is a period of learning for all of us — youth and adults alike. While I come to this organization with over 25 years in professional theatre, education, and artistic activism, I am excited to join everyone at Rehearsal for Life on this path of innovation and learning. My deepest thanks to Francie Karlen, whose leadership steered Rehearsal for Life’s direction so this next phase of development can be dedicated to activating the ideals of equity, diversity, inclusion, and access, both internally and externally. To the board of directors, I thank you in advance for your faith and support as we embrace this next phase of our development.
Our greatest asset becomes our ability to empathize with others and remember that we are strongest when we work in union. That is the work of Rehearsal for Life.
Our dynamic programs embody the following Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Key Measures: Creative Self-Expression, Empathy, Conflict Resolution, Relationship Building/Community, and Diversity & Inclusion.
635 students served through March 2020
9 Boston neighborhoods represented
24+ topics explored
272 live performances
10 Classroom Care Package videos produced (894 views & counting!)
50+ submissions to our first-ever GROUP SCENE FESTIVAL, featuring original, student-written scenes
6 troupes in 5 towns
21 in-person performances
6 video/streaming productions
1 live-streamed performance
15 student leaders
5 scenes explored
15 sessions before March 2020
22.5 hours of creative collaboration & conversation
100+ Fruit Snacks consumed
~1670 students served
10 topics addressed
2 additional out-of-school-hours trainings (coming back for more!)
8 towns visited: Boston, North Reading, Cambridge, Groton, Belmont, Scituate, Brookline, & New Bedford
Our community is our strength and foundation. Here, we make a special introduction to some of the people who have helped us this year (and some for many, many years). Thank you for all you have given us.
Amo HoughtonFirst donor, former board member
It is with the greatest sadness that we mark the passing of Amory “Amo’” Houghton on March 6, 2020. We owe tremendous thanks to this beloved member of our community, who wrote Urban Improv’s first check in 1992. There would be no Urban Improv without his faith in our mission and in the future of the youth we serve.
From growing the family business, Corning Inc., to representing New York state as a US Congressman for 18 years, Amo was known for his uncanny ability to reach across the aisle and connect with anyone. He was guided by both his heart and his head, finding common-sense solutions to the complex issues that faced his community and our nation.
Amo opened the door for Urban Improv with his wife Priscilla Dewey Houghton, introducing our organization to countless people and future supporters. An accomplished musician, Amo sang hilarious parody numbers in Banned in Boston for 13 straight years, bringing the house down every time. He loved to note that, as often the lone Republican cast member, these numbers had been written at his own expense!
His brother Jamie said it best: “Most importantly, Amo has understood and believed in the elevation of the human spirit.” Thank you, Amo.
Julia HendrixPrincipal, Birch Meadow Elementary School, Reading, MA
Principal Hendrix had never seen anything like Urban Improv. Since Birch Meadow Elementary’s 2019 Re:Action Assembly and subsequent teaching training with Urban Improv, Ms. Hendrix considers her staff “more comfortable addressing things in the moment – I know, because I am getting more phone calls from parents asking questions about issues that teachers are addressing in the moment. Ms. Hendrix laughs, “When I get more concerns expressed from families, I know teachers are addressing [these topics, which] people have really strong feelings about… it’s a barometer.”
“Our teaching ha[d] been geared to not doing hurtful and harmful things, but not explaining why,” Ms. Hendrix observes. Her staff now “feel[s] comfortable presenting info to students in unprecedented ways… feeling that [we now] have the power to make these decisions that [we] know are right, and that [we] don’t have to have all the answers when we start. Improv lets [us] ask questions instead of having answers — it models that for people.”
Jesenia CortesUrban Improv alumna
“Urban Improv gave me a healthy outlet to express myself and topics that are usually difficult to communicate and work through. It allows you to be free and leave all your problems at the door. I love that you can be whoever you want to be when you step into the Urban improv studio. It allows a lot of students to work through their stress and trauma in a safe and healthy way.”
As Youth Programs Coordinator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Jesenia hosts internship opportunities for youth of color, in hopes of making the healthcare field more equitable for people of color.
Diane Ly-Leahy5th-Grade Math & History Teacher, Richard J. Murphy School, Dorchester, MA
“Urban Improv and social-emotional learning (SEL) engage students in a supportive environment and help them… develop[e] the social skills needed for lifelong success. Urban Improv provides students the tools to navigate their emotions and situational awareness. It allows students to express themselves. The program has always had a great impact on my students and me… My students enjoy the performances, the skits, the music, the discussions, and the audience participation. Students are motivated to learn how to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, deal with peer pressure, and cope with challenging situations.”
Kayla J'Kyah WilliamsYouth Unscripted alumna, John D. O'Bryant High School '20
“Hi, my name is Kayla J’Kyah Williams. In the fall I will be attending UMass Dartmouth. After school, I want to be a gynecologist. My favorite color is yellow, and I love all animals, especially dolphins and dogs. My family describes me as an outgoing, caring, silly, sarcastic, adventurous, and lovable eighteen-year-old.
Youth Unscripted made me feel like I belong. It is a place where anyone can be their best self and not have to deal with judgment. I believe that everyone deserves this.
When I first got to Youth Unscripted, it was like I was coming home to a family. Everyone was so open-minded, and I liked the encouraging vibe and the way everyone was there for each other. Improv, for me, served as a safe space where I could talk to people about things I had never admitted to out loud before, open up, and have a weight lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t even know I was carrying. It helped me become outgoing and confident with who I am.
Youth Unscripted made me more open-minded, and it has also shown me how to stop and assess issues rather than reacting, which usually leads to trouble. I also learned to be okay with the unknown — to try something even if I don’t know if it will work out. You won’t have any growth if you don’t do anything new or try to see things from a different perspective. You can’t go through life close-minded.”
Faith SolowayMember, Board of Directors
Before joining RFL’s Board of Directors, and before co-creating the groundbreaking Amazon TV series Transparent with sibling Joey Soloway, Faith Soloway was a teaching artist and Music Director of Urban Improv and Freelance Players. From the mid-1990s through the next ten years, Faith helped write the songs and devised the scenes that are still used in Urban Improv workshops to this day.
“I’m excited to be a part of the next generation of leadership with Elena and the entire RFL team. As an Urban Improv ensemble member, I found it exciting when trying a scene for the first time, and finding the pocket where it resonated with the kids. I see the future of Rehearsal for Life embracing this same ethos in creating a hybrid approach of in person and online programs.”
Currently, Faith is working on a genderqueer teen comedy series for Amazon, as well as with the A.R.T to bring Transparent to the stage.
Howard ChaffeyFreelance Players alumnus
After more than thirty years, Howard still feels the influence of his time in the Freelance Players.
Times (and productions) have changed, but, to him, the heart and soul of the organization remains the same. “I find myself returning to the lessons given to me in Freelance, like ‘stick-to-it-ive-ness,’ and community-building to problem-solve. Also, adaptability: understanding value in making loose plans and being able to change them. These are key traits developed in me in my time as a Player.”
Working as an IT educator at a Quaker school in Brooklyn, Howard sees a parallel with his Freelance days. “There is tremendous value placed on both the inner light of the individual and the power of community.” Being sincere, kind, and friendly is his work each day. “I recognize that I came from a place of opportunity,” he says. “What I found in Freelance was something theatrical and spiritual, something that transcended just me. Having a solid cast of characters outside of my family meant a lot. That’s why I support the creativity that continues today.”
Jimmy TingleBanned in Boston all-star
When he isn’t center-stage at a theatre or running his fundraising social enterprise for nonprofits, “Humor for Humanity,” we have been lucky to have Jimmy Tingle as a bonafide Banned in Boston cast member. Each year he brings the funny and gets everyone to get into the act, raising their hands and their wallets for Urban Improv. This year, amid the surge of the pandemic in Boston, it seemed likely that our supporters might have other things to worry about than our work. But, leading with his heart, Jimmy stepped up to the task, bringing both humor and heart to inspire the Banned in Boston community to continue to support our young people.
Skye Morrison KramerMember, Board of Directors
Skye Morrison Kramer joins the Board of Directors of Rehearsal for Life after serving for many years on the Freelance Board of Advocates. She first became involved when her daughter, now 31, took a Story Theater class (for our youngest participants!). Participating in Freelance throughout elementary and high school was a transformative experience for her daughter, and Skye wants to help ensure that opportunities for growth and development are available for children in Boston.
Skye brings to the Rehearsal for Life board over 30 years’ experience in nonprofit management, and as a volunteer, community leader, as Executive Director of the Brookline Education Foundation, and, most recently, as Executive Director of First Literacy.
Lisa AhnFreelance Players parent
For families like Lisa’s, “spring 2020 brought so many wrenching challenges — but every week, Freelance was there, as always; the Troupe was there, full of life, and humor, and fellowship.” While Lisa admits that “everyone in the Freelance family has gotten used to the idea that [Freelance] can pull off miracles,” she “can’t imagine how much love and effort was poured into this. During a global pandemic, [Freelance] made space: space to act, and dance and sing.” And, for Lisa, “that’s the heart of Freelance: the idea that art, that making art, keeps us together — no matter what.”
Thank you to the many individuals, organizations, and institutions that have contributed to Rehearsal for Life in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. We had a smaller budget than previous years and a goal for a modest surplus to replenish reserves. We are appreciative of the generosity of many that helped us reach our financial goals in a very difficult fiscal year.
Earned Revenue: $264,393
Donated Goods & Services: $16,365
Youth Programs: $972,861
General & Admin: $102,793
BANNED IN BOSTON
While we were heartbroken not to be able to present Banned in Boston onstage at the House of Blues due to the pandemic, we rallied to focus on Urban Improv. And we did it! Our socially-distanced community “came together” to raise $632,852 for our young people! A HUGE thank you to Jim Braude and Margery Eagan for their introduction to “Virtually Banned,” and to Jimmy Tingle for his impassioned appeal to our audiences and his good humor throughout a tumultuous time. Heart and humor win again!
Narcissa Campion, Program Manager: Freelance Players
Kippy Dewey, Founding Director
Emily Duggan, Marketing & Development Associate
Francie Karlen, Former Executive Director
Lisa McColgan, Office Administrator
Kristen Sherman, Managing Director
Jamie Ullrich, Senior Program Manager: Urban Improv
Elena Velasco, Executive & Artistic Director
Tory Bullock, Associate Artistic Director
Holly Tarnower, Associate Education Director
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670 Centre St, St 8
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
James Benenson, Chair
Lisa Schmid Alvord, Co-Vice-Chair
George Bennett, Co-Vice-Chair
Levin H. Campbell, Jr., Treasurer
Katie Kulikoski, Clerk
Susan Bredhoff Cohen
Skye Morrison Kramer
Kristina Hare Lyons
Photo credits: Rich Crable, Jeph Ellis, Jack Foley, Grant Hamilton, Lisa Kessler, Mike Kligerman, Joshua Lavine, Jamie Ullrich