Foundation Trust Spotlight: Rehearsal for Life

The Foundation Trust Spotlight showcases our staff and partners and highlights the important work they are doing to advance resources and services in our programming areas of focus. In this installment, we are excited to share details about our partnership with 2020-21 grant recipient Rehearsal for Life.

A major element of our foundation’s annual calendar is our grant cycle, in which we partner with small- to medium-sized nonprofit organizations in the Greater Boston area. The range and creativity of the applications we receive astonishes us every year, and we are thrilled to be a small part of the important work these organizations are doing in our community.

The Urban Improv ensemble


In 2020, the Foundation Trust selected Rehearsal for Life for a multi-year grant to develop new curricula for their Urban Improv program. While we offer support in four separate program tracks, this partnership with Rehearsal for Life represents a unique, seamless alignment of multiple Foundation Trust program tracks. Lauren Liecau, Manager of the Foundation Trust comments that “from the outset, it was clear that we had found a great fit. Not only does the partnership with RFL on this new Urban Improv curriculum advance inclusivity in the arts, it does so in a way that empowers at-risk youth in a trauma-informed way. It felt serendipitous to receive their application.”


About Rehearsal for Life and Urban Improv

Rehearsal for Life uses theater as a vehicle for social change and has served over 80,000 young people in Boston and beyond. Through their flagship Urban Improv workshops, students in grades 4-8 use their minds, bodies, and creativity to explore solutions to topics such as cyber bullying, racism, conflict resolution, or peer pressure.


“Our students struggle to navigate adolescent stressors, exacerbated by the impact of poverty, systemic racism and inequities, social media, and a divisive political climate,” Francie Karlan, then Executive Director of Rehearsal for Life, noted in RFL’s Letter of Inquiry for a Foundation Trust grant. The program aims to help students build self-esteem and pro-social behavior, such as self-control and cooperation, and empower students in underserved communities. The program also exposes students to theater, music and performing arts programming, which is often limited at the partner schools.


Merle Perkins with Urban Improv (c) Jack Foley 2019

In Urban Improv’s traditional model, an ensemble of actor-educators develop and ultimately present the scene on a given topic to the students. As the scene unfolds, there are opportunities for classes to discuss what they are observing and how characters may be feeling. At the height of a scene’s conflict, students are invited to jump in and use their minds, bodies, and creativity to resolve the conflict. The class can then discuss the choices made, the consequences, and share real life experiences.


New Urban Improv Topic: Loss

The Foundation Trust received RFL’s application about developing new materials on the topic of Loss in Spring 2020, and no one could have anticipated how timely the proposal would prove to be.


On why the topic of loss was identified as a priority for Urban Improv to undertake, Jamie Ullrich, Head of Programs and Community Partnerships at Rehearsal For Life shared that “back when Kobe Bryant died, there were a lot of students wanting to process that sudden and dramatic loss even though it was not the topic of the workshop being held at the time. With the Foundation Trust grant, we saw an opportunity to develop curriculum with someone with therapeutic expertise. It was important to us to learn frameworks to provide useful tools to students, rather than risk triggering them unintentionally.”


“Culturally, we don’t discuss grief and loss well, and we pass that on to our children,” added Elena Velasco, Executive and Artistic Director at Rehearsal for Life. “We need to normalize this as part of self-care and pass that on to our kids, because there are mental health implications to not letting people openly process their losses. This is not a conversation we’re accustomed to having with our youth. It requires a frank conversation that recognizes the acceleration of maturity needed during a period of change.”

Screen capture of one of the new Urban Improv scenes on "Loss"


Kristen Sherman, Managing Director at Rehearsal for Life, agreed that “there is not a lot of public discourse about grief, especially as it impacts young people, but our model is an effective one for this topic. It depicts realistic conversations about difficult topics. Students can better recognize what loss may feel like or look like in themselves and others. It demonstrates possible alternative responses as valid and allows students to practice their own responses.”


Leveraging Foundation Trust Expertise

In the case of the materials on Loss, the Foundation Trust was able to provide contextual expertise on complex trauma through a training for members of the troupe by Foundation Trust Senior Training Associate Dr. Jana Pressley. This professional development to program staff and ensemble actor-educators helps to ensure a safe and engaging environment for the students.


“I’m extremely grateful the ensemble could have discussions and professional development with a licensed therapist. This training and insight helped inform how we approach the work we do,” commented Velasco.


This new theatrical and educational material addressing themes of traumatic loss and grief is being developed as curricula that will be shared by Urban Improv and Trauma Drama, an improvisational theater-based complex trauma intervention model for youth developed by Dr. Joseph Spinazzola, Executive Director of the Foundation Trust, in partnership with several of the founding members of Urban Improv. The scripts and accompanying psychoeducational facilitation for the three new filmed scenes called “After Koda” were developed by Dr. Spinazzola and Urban Improv’s Elena Velasco. The trilogy explores the immediate, ongoing, and enduring effects that the loss of a peer can have on youth.


“The topic of loss is universal. The complexity of the topic and the sensitivity with which Urban Improv creates its materials made this an incredible partnership project for us," shared Dr. Joseph Spinazzola, Executive Director of the Foundation Trust. “We were honored to share our knowledge about the range and evolving nature of youth responses to traumatic loss to help shape the curriculum. And it was an utter delight for me personally to have the opportunity to collaborate with the brilliant and sagacious Elena Velasco on the playwriting for this trilogy.”

Writing About Loss During the Pandemic

Developing this content during the pandemic “was illuminating for everyone,” said Jamie Ullrich. “People deal with grief in different, sometimes opposite ways. It was fortuitous to be able to look at the toll of the situation through that lens, and be aware of how it impacts our interactions on a day to day basis.”


Elena Velasco expanded that “the topic was at the forefront of our awareness due to COVID, thought the pandemic doesn’t appear in the narrative itself. It was important for us to not have the focus be on extraordinary circumstances, since grief can be in the most ordinary of circumstances.”


Reaction to the Pilot

The first two installments of this curriculum have been piloted with 7th and 8th graders, and RFL anticipates rolling out the third installment in Fall 2021.


Elena Velasco shared how the content has been received so far and what adjustments are planned, noting that “some students need this space to be able to open up, those who are interpersonal or very verbal in how they process things. Other people are more intrapersonal. Loss is a delicate topic and it will take more than a 30-minute session to process, so we also developed follow-up activities through Flipgrid, like a diary. This is a good step, but there are many steps still ahead of us. The way we examine the human experience continues to evolve. Theater is never finished, just as social-emotional learning is never finished.”


Turning Pandemic Challenges into Opportunities

Soon after receiving RFL’s application, it became clear that the program would not be able to move forward as proposed, as it was unknown when groups would be able to convene again or when outside programs could be back in schools.


Dr. Spinazzola commends the team at RFL for their adaptability, noting that “We’re immensely proud of the team at Rehearsal for Life for shepherding this new content that has the potential to help so many kids. This would be a great achievement any time, but especially during a global pandemic that majorly disrupted the way things had typically been done. Rehearsal for Life was able to pivot their activities to leverage the creation of digital content as an enhancement to their services, rather than as a stopgap. Their staff worked creatively and tirelessly to find solutions, echoing the values they share through Urban Improv.”


With in-person workshops and live performances suspended, the Urban Improv ensemble provided filmed scenes and added new asynchronous activities. “Using Zoom and digital tools such as Flipgrids, we provided a multimodal, multiple intelligences approach. Having these asynchronous materials means we can extend the reach of Urban Improve beyond our current partners,” commented RFL’s Kristen Sherman, creating the possibility for Urban Improv curriculum to reach even more youth.

Even with the changes to delivery method, the priorities remained the same. As Sherman noted, “we emphasized conversation and expression, and the ability to do small breakout groups allowed for intimate conversations and personalization, like with our traditional group scenes. This was a year of research and development, learning, growth, connection, and innovation. We’re excited to get back to serving students in person, as well as through digital avenues.”


Strength in Partnership

The partnership with Rehearsal for Life is part of a greater shift within the Foundation Trust to work more comprehensively with our grantees. As an operating foundation, the Foundation Trust can engage directly in programming, and we have been grateful to pilot this approach with Rehearsal for Life.


“We are thankful for this trusting, collaborative approach. Dr. Spinazzola’s expertise as a therapist, plus his nuanced understanding of our programming from a long partnership, combined with RFL’s ensemble’s expertise in program delivery and evaluation, made for a successful and mutually-beneficial partnership,” commented Kristen Sherman. “He’s got a little playwright in him!” added Elena Velasco.


“This really is a case of two organizations being greater than the sum of our parts,” notes Lauren Liecau. “By working together and blending our areas of expertise, we were able to create materials that are really strong and will have staying power. It’s a great example of us being able to do more together than we could have on our own.”

For more information about Urban Improv and Rehearsal for Life, visit

For details about Trauma Drama, see the last section of this page on