By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
ECCF Communications Writer
On a late-spring evening in Boston, nearly 200 youth performers stepped onto the stage of the Boch Center Wang Theatre. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it. Instead, in front of an audience of thousands, they sang and danced their hearts out, surrounded by vibrant ocean-themed stage sets which, by the way, they created themselves: fish and starfish and life-sized bright pink flamingos.
“Splash” was the incredible culmination of a year’s worth of work at Express Yourself, a Beverly-based nonprofit that, over the course of a school year, immerses young people experiencing behavioral health issues in the arts and equips them with powerful tools for self-expression, to uncover inner strength and deepen their connection with others.
“We completely believe…that the arts teach creativity and give people self-esteem and that is no more present than at Express Yourself,” said Boch Center President and CEO Joe Spaulding before the start of the performance. “We are thrilled to be involved with Express Yourself and the Department of Mental Health for the last 29 years.”
Twenty-nine years. That’s longer than many of the longest-running Broadway shows.
Each year, the Express Yourself program, which is largely funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH), impacts hundreds of youth from across the region.
“They have grown, developed confidence and found talent they didn’t know they had,” said DMH Commissioner Brooke Doyle before the start of the show. “Thank you, Express Yourself, for showing us how healing the arts can be and at a time when we need it more than ever.”
Express Yourself was started by Paula Conrad, a dancer and educator, more than 30 years ago. Soon after, she was joined by Stan Strickland, an accomplished musician and Berklee School of Music professor. Today, the two serve as Co-Executive Directors of the nonprofit. Over the years, they have grown the program – and the annual performance, which started with 30 performers and 100 guests seated in folding chairs in the lobby of the Wang – year after year.
In its infancy, Express Yourself was headquartered at Conrad’s kitchen table. Today, the nonprofit, which employs more than a dozen staff members and 25 volunteers, operates out of a 10,000 square foot space at the Cummings Center, where ECCF staff and a small group of donors found themselves on a recent spring morning, just weeks before the big show, completely moved and captivated by the work that takes place there.
“We work with youth from the Department of Mental Health and youth who are identified in the community, but we prefer to work without labels,” Conrad tells us. “I think that’s very important.”
A group of young students from Centerville Elementary School in Beverly arrive ready to work on choreography with artist-in-residence Carlos Thomas, a longtime performer in the NYC-based show “Stomp,” famous for its rhythmic drumming and high-energy dance performances.
Thomas leads the students through a seated dance routine to Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There?” while Strickland beats a drum. The effect is almost spiritual. And slowly but surely, many students shed their inhibition, immersed in the connection between themselves, their movements and the music. Eventually, two young boys rise from their seats to dance in the middle of the circle.
“That’s the trick, is to get them up and dancing. Once they’re up on their feet, it’s easy. And when it all comes together at the end, it’s magical,” said Thomas, who makes multiple trips from his home in NYC to work with Express Yourself students. “It’s my relationship with the kids that keeps me coming back.”
NYC-based actor Quincy Giles, also an artist-in-residence at Express Yourself, has a similar story.
“I love seeing the growth of a kid barely being able to sit in the circle, to now where they’re performing and becoming leaders,” he said. “Being able to transfer that nervousness to positive energy? Those are real skills.”
The transformative power of the arts is well documented. According to Americans for the Arts, arts education lowers dropout rates, increases academic performance and encourages healthy behaviors.
“Right now, mental health with kids is a big issue,” said Conrad, who added that while much of their funding comes from the state, Express Yourself consistently looks for ways to build additional funding resources. “More and more people are focusing on mental health and understanding that it’s a real issue.”
Emily Surabian, an Express Yourself teaching artist and art therapist who’s leading the students in making colorful cardboard starfish for the show, said through their participation in the program, youth develop a sense of community and a sense of comfort with each other.
“Being able to have a place to be themselves and explore who they are really helps them,” she said.
Participating students, who hail from across the region, attend the multi-art program one-to-three times a week. They regularly create art, dance, and make music. Eventually, they find a talent that’s all their own.
“Everyone has something, but we don’t always feel we have a way to get it out there,” said Strickland, who, at the end of the kids’ session that day, leads them in song while he plays a thumb piano, known as a Kalimba. Strickland exudes a sense of tranquility that is palpable. The kids seem calm, happy and engaged.
“This is a very special place,” Centerville Elementary School teacher Nick Bouchard stops to tell us. He said he’s gotten to know at least a few of his students on an entirely different level. “It has truthfully been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had as a teacher.”
Express Yourself will be celebrating 30 years at the Boch Center – Wang Theatre, an event free and open to the public, on May 23, 2024. To learn more about Express Yourself and the work they do to support youth experiencing behavioral and mental health issues, visit www.exyo.org.