When Harvard undergrads travel to obscure locations in Boston wearing bright costumes, it usually means one thing—the ritual of secretive club initiations, which usually take place in the fall. As members of the group the Harvard Story-Time Players (HSTP), however, these students are not attempting to get into their finals club of choice and instead, have a very different aim in mind. Combining both theater and community service, HSTP brings story theater to children in Boston area hospitals.
The mission statement of HSTP is to “strive to bring joy to children residing in hospitals….through theatrical performance and interaction on a level that is age-appropriate.” Much like any other form of children’s entertainment, the group performs shows with seemingly simple themes—things like “Mixed-Up Fairy Tales” and “Pirates”—that ultimately serve to teach the children valuable lessons, such as the importance of friendship and hard work.
Unique to HSTP, however, is its interactive aspect. An integral part of the show is that the players solicit the participation of all the children watching. The President of HSTP, Linnea N. Meyer ’07, says of the children, “We want them to be visually stimulated by colorful sets and costumes and we want to reinforce good messages.” After each performance, the actors play and talk with the kids, even letting them paint their faces and hands and “asking them about the show and about what they like to do.” Meyer states that the ultimate goal is for the kids “to be immersed in a different world for 20-30 minutes, so they forget that they are in a hospital.”
Though the Story-Time players may not be acting out Shakespeare, performing for hospitalized children has difficulties all its own. Not surprisingly, interacting with sick children can often be a heart-wrenching experience. Meyer describes the initial shock at dealing with “the fact that these kids are in hospitals, not playing around outside or studying in school like we were as children.” Most challenging is coming to terms with the fact that “most of them have quite debilitating illnesses.”
Meyer also points out that the players must become great improvisers, due to the unpredictability of the responses given by the children when they participate in the show.
Meyer states that the actors must “learn to think on the spot and keep the kids entertained….Sometimes the children have mental disabilities and will shout during parts of our performances where we aren’t asking for audience participation; as actors we have to train to speak louder or pause or incorporate these reactions into the play.”
But the students who participate in HSTP find the group an extremely rewarding experience. Meyer states that in a recent group survey “everyone said that seeing the kids smile and laugh was the best part of Story-Time.”
Meyer also encourages all Harvard students looking for a relaxed environment in which to interact with kids through theater to get involved with her group, regardless of acting or production experience. Meyer insists that “we aren’t looking for theatrical talent as much as a good attitude and energy.” Script writers and production designers are also needed, in what will be “quite a creative endeavor due to our small budget, wacky scripts, and necessity for sets that we can bring on the T as we travel to the hospitals.”
Meyer also declares that the benefits of HSTP for performers go far beyond providing much-needed enjoyment to sick children. The group is not only a vehicle through which students can make an impact on their community, but a place for them to “take risks without feeling nervous or embarrassed…and get a great break from schoolwork.”