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Learning About Mentor Artist Hannah Gavagan

HGavaganSince Youth in Arts completed our new strategic plan this spring, we wanted to properly introduce our Mentor Artists to our more in-depth model, and to each other.  Our artists work directly in the classrooms, so they rarely have a chance to interact.  We hosted an “all artist meeting” in August, and it was wonderful to see them talk to, listen to, and learn from one another.  Our icebreaker activity was a worksheet that asked the artists to identify a problem in the world today, and how they would use their art form to solve it (using words and/or pictures).  The prompt was WITH MY ART I CAN…

Here is theater artist Hannah Gavagan’s thoughtful response and accompanying artwork:

“A problem I see in the world today is a cycle of hate spurred by fear of difference.  With my art I can…bring youth together from different backgrounds to share their experiences and stories.  I can create theatre with youth that teaches an adult audience how to step outside of their comfort zone to stop oppression.
Hannah Gavagan ArtworkI can create worlds where sexism and racism do not exist, and show what our world can look like with equity.  I can teach youth about oppression and how to be “upstanders” in their community.”

Hannah is doing wonderful work in two Youth in Arts residencies this fall: Devised Theater for an after school program at Canal Alliance, and Theater for Social Change at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts.  She will return to Cornell Elementary to teach her Civil Rights Storytelling & Theater residency this spring.

BIO: Hannah Gavagan is an actress, teacher, and mentor whose heart lies in social justice. She is passionate about devising issue-based theatre with youth so they may gain personal awareness and understanding of the issues in our world today. This awareness leads to students creating a positive impact through performances and social-action. Through her skills-based drama classes, she works to help unlock students’ personal power so that they may learn, grow, and thrive. Building trust with students, helping them trust each other, and practicing social-emotional skills through play are the foundation of her classes. She earned a BFA in theatre performance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is inspired by the teachings of Sanford Meisner and Michael Chekhov. She acts in plays and films, directs student-devised plays, creates films with a social-justice lens, and stars in a YouTube series called the Go-To Go Girl! which aims to inspire girls to be the change they wish to see in the world.

Civil Rights Stories Come to Life at Cornell Elementary

By Mentor Artist Hannah Gavagan

unnamedHappy July 4th!

There is nothing like a good story. Some stories are life-changing and some stories are told over and over again but still somehow sound new. That is the magic of theater and story telling.

The third grade classes at Cornell Elementary were studying the civil rights movement and were exposed to all kinds of stories. The story of Martin Luther King Jr. The story of Ruby Bridges. Of Rosa Parks. But there was one story they learned that I didn’t know. And that was the story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer worked tirelessly to be registered to vote. Then she gave back and helped so many people of color register. Then she ran for office. She lost every time she ran.

At first the students weren’t happy with the ending of the story. “But…She never won?!”

So often we overlook the most important part of the stories of these leaders – the struggle. Fannie Lou Hamer never won an election but she educated countless people on voting rights. She paved the way for others after her to run for office. I realized that was wanted I wanted to teach the students through her story. Sometimes we don’t get the outcome we wanted. But hard work and perseverance ALWAYS pays off, even if it pays the generation after you.

The students collaborated beautifully and told sides of the stories that are forgotten. I hope the walked away with knowing that persevering is worth it. That grit is good. That progress trumps perfection.

Issue-Based Theatre Changing Hearts at Harding Elementary – By Hannah Gavagan

“Why are we doing these plays and scenes?” The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders of Harding Elementary heard me ask them this question about fifty times. Some of the answers I got were, “We want to change the world!” “We want to show people an issue in a different way!” “We want to help people be better people.”

Hunger Performance

Hunger Performance

The students not only created and performed completely original pieces over ten classes, but they told stories based on an issue that they cared deeply about. In the first few classes we explored the issues they see in the world. We talked about the root causes. About how they are connected. About how it can be really uncomfortable to talk about certain issues, but they won’t get any better if we ignore them. About how we can create art to lessen an issue just a little bit.

Bullying Performance

Bullying Performance

The students created their plays in groups that centered around an issue they wanted to change. The plays spanned many issues, including bullying, sexism, racism, and even a satirical play about politicians who are too selfish to care about the people. The students learned basic theatre skills, but the real magic was how they learned to collaborate, make mistakes (and learn from them), and take agency to shape the world into a place they want to live.

Issues Web

Issues Web

We opened the performances to the school and any family and friends. Some classes had small audiences, some performed to a nearly full-house, and all gave their creations away with full participation and excitement.

At the end of each class I ask the students what they celebrate about each other. When I asked the audiences what they celebrated about the students’ performances, my favorite answer came from a kindergartner. She said, “I celebrate how in the plays some people learned they were being mean and then was nice. I liked seeing them be nice.” And that is how Harding Elementary’s fourth, fifth, and sixth graders planted seeds of compassion, and hopefully, just maybe, changed a few hearts. – Hannah Gavagan

The Magic of Ensemble – By Hannah Gavagan

Every now and then as a teaching artist you find yourself with a really special class. The Harding After-School Playwright Program was an absolute joy to teach. They learned story structure and created original scripts. They learned the basics of directing. They strengthened the acting skills they learned through the in-school program. But the fairy dust that sprinkled over this group was the ensemble they created.


Their team was strong in every sense of the word. They collaborated. They listened to each other. They helped each other through their mistakes. They believed in each other. When these students gave away their original short plays to an audience my heart filled with pride and gratitude. Because a truly amazing class teaches the teacher. These 5th and 6th graders taught me to be a bit more silly. To let go a little bit more of perfection. To support each other unconditionally.


There was one student in the class who needed a little extra support.  He didn’t want to perform or write a play, but my goodness could he draw. So, to invite his skills through the process that everyone went through, he created a story-board about UFOs. To say it was incredible would be an understatement. I planned to show his story-board over a projector during the short play festival. But when we got to the school that evening, the projector I reserved was broken. All the other projectors were locked up. I started to feel anxious imagining his disappointment when I broke the news. But I caught myself with an idea. The rest of the ensemble should just act out his story-board on the fly! Would they be willing?

When I asked the class who would be willing to improvise his story on the spot, every single student raised their hand. Every. Single. One.


The last “play” was the improvisation of this student’s script and I grinned with tears in my eyes as every student zoomed on stage as fighter jets, UFOs, and aliens. They had so much fun. The creator of the story beamed with pride at what they created together. That is a true ensemble. It was one of the best moments of my teaching career.