THESPIAN VALERIE FARLEY, a senior at Somerville (Mass.) High School, first dabbled in theatre and Spanish language in middle school before committing to both in high school. This winter, Farley combined those passions as the student director of her school’s first bilingual production, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Holy Broth.

“It’s this really beautiful one-act show about a 15-year-old Puerto Rican girl named Ashley,” Farley explained. “She speaks English and she’s enrolled in Spanish classes at her school, but she’s not very good at it and she’s failing. She’s also trying to connect with her grandmother, who speaks predominantly Spanish. She ends up finding a soup recipe her mother tells her about, which she uses as a connection.”

The theme of connection drove Somerville’s Highlander Theatre Company to select this play. “We have a very large, multilingual immigrant community in Somerville,” explained Charles Jabour, the school’s theatre faculty and Thespian troupe director. “More than half of our students speak English as their second language. We want to tell stories relevant to our community, to make sure the doors of the theatre are thrown as wide open as possible. Holy Broth is about connecting with your roots, and that’s something we all relate to.”

Somerville recently reconnected to its Thespian roots. Jabour rechartered the dormant Troupe 3011 last year, after he and his theatre students attended the Massachusetts Thespian Festival. “We came back from ThesFest, and the students pretty much demanded that we revive the troupe.”

In fact, the rechartered troupe’s second round of Thespian inductions took place the same night as their February school performance of Holy Broth. This two-part theatre event doubled as preparation for their return to the Massachusetts Thespian Festival the following day. Jabour describes the first half of the evening as an “almost awards show-style” revue of individual events the students had prepared for the festival, interspersed with public Thespian inductions. After intermission came the evening’s main event, a performance of Holy Broth with an audience talkback.

In addition to the school and ThesFest performances, Highlander Theatre also took the show to the Emerson College High School Drama Festival, making Holy Broth the company’s first show performed at two local theatre festivals. “I remember at one point Jabour said, ‘This is probably the show that the most people outside of our community are going to see,’” said Farley. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my god. You’re letting me do this?!’”

Student director Valerie Farley (left) and actor Adriana Martinez rehearse Holy Broth.
Student director Valerie Farley (left) and actor Adriana Martinez rehearse Holy Broth. Photo by Jeanine Farley.

For Jabour, the choice to have Farley direct came down to her strong concept and vision for Holy Broth, as described in her application for the position. “Applicants were expected to read the script and provide a general concept statement. I was really impressed with what she laid out. She went the extra step of writing part of her application in Spanish.”

As Farley put it, her concept focused on portraying the grandmother character as “Ashley’s rock … even though she couldn’t quite communicate with her.” The vision she brought to the overall production emphasized the play’s elements of magical realism. “There are a lot of scenes in the show where her Spanish teacher is showing up in her grandma’s place and translating things, but as maybe a figment of Ashley’s imagination.”

While Holy Broth was Farley’s first time directing an entire play on her own, she did have previous directing experience. Jabour recruited a sophomore Farley to mentor and assistant-direct students at their local middle school as well as direct scenes for a special student-produced show Highlander Theatre put on last spring and assistant-direct and dramaturg the company’s December production of Rent.

“I think the best way to learn to direct is to be an assistant director,” Farley said. “You can really see what your head director is doing, then have opportunities to do staging, but with fewer responsibilities. And you have someone asking, ‘Why did you do it this way?’ or ‘How are you going to get this message across?’”

For Holy Broth, Farley led every rehearsal, managed scheduling communications, coached the actors, and did all the staging. Jabour’s job, he says, was to be on hand and occasionally check in with her. “Everything was hers. And that was actually a learning experience for me, too. There were moments I had a different vision, so it was a great opportunity to make sure I was asking questions in a way where I wasn’t leading the witness, so to speak.”

According to Jabour, Farley worked closely with head costume designer and cast member Athena Parkman to integrate performance and technical aspects of the play. “Athena’s design concepts really refined the broad vision that Val brought. So they collaborated really, really well.”

For Parkman, the play spoke to her experience. As she told the Somerville Journal, “I’m Puerto Rican, but I don’t know much Spanish like Ashley, so I struggled to connect with my grandmother,” she said. “She died a few years ago, so I’m doing this to get close to her.” Parkman developed her costume designs with a color palette reflecting the colors of the Puerto Rican flag.

Highlander Theatre performed Holy Broth in a thrust setting at the Emerson College festival before performing it on a proscenium stage at both their school and Massachusetts ThesFest, which presented unique staging challenges for Farley. “The circular nature of the movement, the way things flowed into themselves so naturally in the thrust space — which at Emerson is more of an arc — that was such a crucial part of the way that she saw the play and how the actors moved,” said Jabour. “We had some really wonderful and challenging conversations about how to translate that to a different theatre setup.”

In particular, the grandmother character served as a stable nucleus from which the other characters and even set pieces spiraled. “Ashley’s grandmother remained in the middle, then her mother and her teacher were circling around, with Ashley caught in between,” Farley explained. “Translating that to a proscenium stage was difficult, because you don’t have the depth perception. You can’t fully see that they’re circling around her. In the thrust setting, it was enough that the actors could move the set pieces, but without the circular aspect, it was hard to get across that stuff was moving away from her. I had a run crew come onstage and circle around and move things in a very choreographed way. It spoke more to that magical realism aspect.”

For all its challenges, Jabour values student-directing. “When I was in high school I moved around a lot, including to some rural schools that didn’t have any theatre program,” he said. “So it was on me to create theatre opportunities, because that was the only thing I knew in high school that would give me a safe space and a community.” Each time Jabour couldn’t find a teacher to direct a theatre project, he directed it himself.

“One reason theatre is such a powerful tool for education is that it is so unbelievably multidisciplinary, so dependent on different types of thinkers, on different approaches to the work,” Jabour explained. “There are brilliant directors who never want to step foot onstage. I wanted to give those opportunities to students.”

The opportunities are only growing as the Thespian troupe and school company gain steam. While the school previously produced one musical a year and sometimes a smaller show they could bring to a local festival, this academic year marked their first four-show season.

When planning the season, representation and inclusivity were first on Jabour’s mind. “I was really conscious of looking at our community and figuring out how we represent the community and the values we have here in Somerville High School. We did Rent to kick off our season in December. We did a strong women-in-science piece called Silent Sky in March. And we’re doing another student-voice driven piece at the end of the year. I want to establish that theatre is a place where everybody is welcome, where everyone’s stories — especially people who have been othered in society — are told.”

To drive home this inclusive approach, Jabour incorporates community dialogue through audience talkbacks. For their March production of Silent Sky, he even brought female astrophysicists from MIT and Harvard for a post-show panel discussion. “We had a fantastic conversation framed around what it means to be a woman in science now, as a backdrop to this fantastic piece.”

According to Farley, answering audience questions during the Holy Broth talkbacks helped her see the impact of her work. “You got to see how people connected to the show and what it meant to them,” she said, adding that it was also an opportunity to answer questions about process and recognize the hard work and collaborative spirit of their school theatre company. “We all want to see each other succeed, so the success of one person in the group or in the cast of a specific show is a success for everybody.”

This story appeared in the June 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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