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Connecting to Story = Building Empathy


By Youth in Arts Mentor Artist Hannah Gavagan

I love teaching the 3rd graders of Cornell Elementary about the stories of Civil Rights Leaders. The students build empathy by imagining what it would be like to live during that time.  It seems like such a long time ago to them. But it wasn’t. And many students express that racism is a thing of the past. But it isn’t.  Sometimes students think that protests and marches were things people did a long time ago to create change. But they are happening today.

The students of Cornell Elementary participated in a school-wide walk out and I was full of gratitude to be able to participate with them. When I walked into the school that morning, it was a sea of orange to honor the students of Parkland, Florida. They held signs that said “Schools Should be Safe” and “Students Stand United Against Hate.”

Students ran up to me expressing how it made them feel powerful to take a stand and make their voices heard. They realized they were change makers. That their voice matters. I was moved to tears as I witnessed lessons sink in and expand their personal power.

Courageous Conversations – Hannah Gavagan

The 4th and 5th graders at SRCS created some stellar short plays on issues they were passionate about changing.

5th graders collaborating on a play for LGBTQ rights

5th graders collaborating on a play for LGBTQ rights


4th graders discussing their play about homelessness

4th graders discussing their play about homelessness

I received so many thank you’s after their classes. So many questions about different issues. So many stories of how they are taking agency to create change in their lives.  They were fired up.

5th graders collaborating on their play about immigration rights

5th graders collaborating on their play about immigration rights

Then one day after a class, I received a different type of response to the work we were doing. “Can I talk to you Hannah, about something that happened to me that’s about racism?” one of my 5th grade students at SRCS asked me after class.

I nodded and we sat side by side on the edge of the stage. My student shared with me that he had been the target of racist words multiple times. His voice shook as he told me story after story. I listened. When he was done I thanked him for having the courage to share those stories with me. I asked if he had shared this story with anyone else.  He replied,

“No. I didn’t think it was ever OK to talk about racism until you taught us it was.”

My heart broke.  Some topics are really uncomfortable to talk about. Like racism and sexism. Especially because so much shame can be linked to those topics if we have personal experiences with them. I was beyond grateful to provide this student an opportunity to share his experiences. Though it might be painful, working through our negative experiences is how we heal. Not by covering them up and pushing them down.

After a lengthy conversation I walked this student to the counselor to help him process and get support. As I walked through the muddy field to my car, I was reminded that this is why I do this work. This is why I help young people create a sense of agency and power around making change in this world. This is why I work so hard to normalize having these uncomfortable conversations. So that through a safe-space, we as a community, we as Americans, we as human beings can hear each others stories with empathy. And find inspiration in the discomfort so that we may all heal, grow, and change.

Youth in Power through Youth in Arts

By YIA Mentor Artist Hannah Gavagan

The 6th-8th grade students at SRCS were amazing. They were able to discuss the issues in the world with a determination to create change. They exuded power by telling their stories. In short, they had something to say.

Menu prop for a 7th grade play on the food industry

Menu prop for a 7th grade play on the food industry

One group especially had something to say. And they worked harder than any group I have ever taught in my entire teaching career. That is a bold statement, I know. But these four 8th grade girls would pop their heads into the theatre at lunch, recess, and every break they had to ask me, “Is it ok if we rehearse on the stage?” OF COURSE was always my answer. The short play they devised was constantly growing and shifting. Every practice was an opportunity for them to make their message stronger. They knew they had something to say. The issue they chose to tackle was consent.

I am not writing about these girls because the play they performed was so well executed (it was), or because they were some of the most talented actors I have had the pleasure of teaching (they were), but because of their collaboration and determination to make there voices heard in the most creative, powerful ways possible.

The class before their final performance, they asked if it was alright if they wore shirts they made. OF COURSE was my answer. They showed up to their performance donning white shirts with black lettering across the front that said “You are not alone.” I loved them! However, they still surprised me. During the final moment of their play, one of the girls who dealt with someone who did not respect her lack of consent spoke to the audience. She said she felt so alone and did not understand why this happened to her. She turned her back on the audience and knelt, defeated. As she turned around, I saw the back of her shirt. It read,


Queens supporting Queens

Queens supporting Queens

I burst into tears. That moment was emanating with power. Then the three other girls in the cast came onstage and physically helped her up. All their shirts also read #MeToo on the back. Once they all stood with locked arms, they faced the audience and reminded us that no one is alone in dealing with our traumas.

These girls used every opportunity to strengthen their message. And the hundreds in the theater heard them loud and clear.  I was one proud director. But more importantly, they were incredibly proud of themselves.


Canal Alliance Speaks Out through Film

Canal Alliance - Winter Potluck 2017-7

Hannah and her student introducing their video to the audience at the Canal Alliance’s Winter Potluck

by Mentor Artist Hannah Gavagan

On my first day at Canal Alliance, I introduced myself and Devised Theatre – to the 8th grade students.  A few hands shot up with fear consuming their faces. “Wait. We HAVE to perform?” I assured the class that by the time the 10 week residency was completed, they would feel ready and excited to perform. I could see in their faces they were uncertain. None of the students had ever performed live or had any experience with theatre. They were terrified at the thought of having to perform.

The students excelled at “table work.” Anytime we were writing or having discussions about issues or social justice, they were engaged.


Previewing the video in class

I created a plan to best support my students where they are at. Instead of creating an issues-based live performance, we created short films. The films showcase each student performing a monologue on an issue. Students selected images to go with their monologue. This format gave students  the freedom to express themselves and create art, while still operating in a safe space. Their films turned out beautifully and they were so proud of what they created.

We were able to show the finished film to friends, family and fellow students at the Canal Alliance’s Winter Potluck on December 15th.  It was wonderful to showcase what the students had learned, and contributed to in our 10 week residency.

These kids taught me that flexibility is an asset. Rigidity breeds rigidity.  I chose to listen to my students, recalibrate, and create something beautiful with them.


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.