High School Students Get a Peek Behind the College Curtain

A smiling woman in glasses holds her arm between two younger women on a stage. Image by Ed Brennen
Theatre arts alumna Melissa Allen '15, center, leads her Haverhill High School students through a warmup exercise on the Comley-Lane Theatre stage during rehearsal for their staged reading of "All in the Timing," a collaboration with UML students.

By Ed Brennen

Is Unamunda very hard to learn?
Eedgy. Egsovereedgy. Da bop.
Da bop?
Senior psychology major Rebecca Phillips, aka Dawn di Vito, and junior digital media major Colin O’Neil, aka Don Finninneganegan, are rehearsing their lines in the comedic play “The Universal Language” on stage at the Comley-Lane Theatre on South Campus.
It’s the final run-through before the next night’s performance of “All in the Timing,” a collection of one-act plays by David Ives, and nailing down the silly, make-believe language at the center of the story is a challenge. Fortunately, the performance is a staged reading, so Phillips and O’Neil don’t have to memorize lines.
From the back of the darkened 500-seat theatre, their director, UML alumna Melissa Allen ’15, stops them periodically to give notes. Bigger gestures. Quicker pace. Phillips and O’Neil, who are both minoring in theatre arts, nod and scribble notations in their scripts. Meanwhile, a half dozen high school students from Haverhill, Massachusetts, look on from the first row of seats, waiting to rehearse their acts. 
A young man gestures with his arm on stage next to a young woman. A silhoutte of head is between them. Image by Ed Brennen
Senior Rebecca Phillips, left, and junior Colin O'Neil, right, rehearse "The Universal Language" with director Melissa Allen '15, center, at the Comley-Lane Theatre.
The production is a collaboration between Haverhill High and UMass Lowell — one started three years ago by Allen, a drama teacher at the high school, and Shelley Barish, one of her former theatre arts professors at UML.
“We were brainstorming ways to bring performances back on stage during COVID — there wasn’t a lot happening in-person — and we thought it would be cool to bring some of my students to experience what it’s like here on the UML campus,” says Allen, a Billerica, Massachusetts, native who earned a B.A. in English with a theatre arts concentration. 
So, in 2022, Allen and Barish formed an ensemble cast and produced a staged reading of “Alone, Together,” a collection of short plays about the pandemic. They followed that up last year with “A Night of One Acts: A Staged Reading.”
A young woman with long hair sits on a stool on a chair on stage. Image by Ed Brennen
Sheeba Nabiryo, a first-year psychology major from Haverhill, rehearses her role in "Sure Thing."
Celia Schoenfeld stage-managed those productions during her junior and senior years at Haverhill High. She was back as stage manager again this year, this time as a UML student. Participating in the collaboration while in high school, she says, helped ease her fears about going off to college — and made her want to attend UML.
“Mrs. Allen created a welcoming space in a college setting that bridged the gap between high school and college. When I got here, I was like, ‘Yeah, I know my way around this place,’” says Schoenfeld, a first-year environmental science major in the Kennedy College of Sciences.
First-year psychology major Sheeba Nabiryo followed the same path, enrolling at UML after participating in the collaboration in high school.
“It’s strange having both perspectives,” says Nabiryo, who played Betty in “Sure Thing” this year. “When I was in high school, I thought the college kids were so much older and the campus was so big. Now I’m here, and I get to see some of my friends from high school.”
One of those friends is Sarah Tucker, a senior at Haverhill High who played a monkey named Kafka in “Words, Words, Words.”
A small group of young people talk, some are sitting on a stage. Image by Ed Brennen
First-year environmental science major Celia Schoenfeld, second from left, has stage-managed all three productions of the Haverhill High-UML collaboration.
“It’s so much fun to take a break from high school theater and come here to see how this works,” says Tucker, who is still deciding where she will study environmental sustainability in college.
This was the first time on the college stage for O’Neil, who did some acting in high school in Hudson, New Hampshire.
“It has been a great experience. Melissa is an awesome director, and the Haverhill students are extremely talented. It’s been fun getting to know them and going to work with them,” he says.
Phillips has acted in several performances at UML, including the lead role in “Dracula.” She wishes she’d had something like the collaborative available to her as a high schooler in Malden, Massachusetts.
A woman in glasses with a scarf around her neck gestures with her right hand toward a woman on a stage. Image by Ed Brennen
Theatre Arts Prof. Shelley Barish, left, gestures toward Melissa Allen '15 while rehearsing their introduction for "All in the Timing."
“It’s great that Haverhill is having kids come over and get a first glance of a university theater,” says Phillips, who is “grateful” for the way the theater community embraced her at UML.
While the collaborative’s first two performances were held in the auditorium at O’Leary Library, “All in the Timing” was on the Comley-Lane stage — making it the theatre arts program’s first production in the venue since the pandemic.
“It’s nice to be back,” says Barish, who is preparing for the return of full productions on the stage, starting with “Melancholy Play” in April.
Barish hopes the collaborations with Allen and her students continue.
“Anybody can be involved with the program, which is the brilliance of it. Staged readings are a great way for students to test the waters and have some fun without the stress of memorizing lines,” she says.
Eleven young people pose for a cast photo on a stage. Image by Ed Brennen
This year's ensemble cast included four UMass Lowell students and six Haverhill High School students.
Allen, who has taught at Haverhill High since 2017, feels “a bit of nostalgia” bringing her students to campus.
“The arts program at UML gave me every opportunity to round out my education,” says Allen, who spent summers at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
She also met her husband, music studies alum David Allen ’15, in one of Barish’s classes. They have a 1-year-old son, Luca.
“I really made the most of my time here,” Allen says before returning her attention to the rehearsal stage.