Cultivating Confidence, Leadership, and Student Voice in Shipley's Theater Program

Debra Finger
At Shipley, developing student voice—where students can address problems, communicate effectively, and responsibly collaborate with confidence and humility—is not limited to our humanities classes. It is also cultivated in our theaters and on the stage.

Teaching these skills to students starts early. Students have the opportunity to grow their confidence and ability to share their ideas starting as young acorns with the Wolf-Pac program in Kindergarten and continuing to our studio theater courses in Upper School. Each age group focuses on different skills, yet all seek to empower our students to use their voices with confidence, compassion, and humility, and to grow as leaders in the community.

When students come to Ozzie Jones’s class in sixth grade, his goal is to help students overcome fear. “It can be challenging for students to stand in front of their peers by themselves and be silly; they can be silly as a group, but it is different when everyone is looking at them,” he explains.

Mr. Jones’s class is about getting students to feel comfortable doing what they are doing—whether portraying a character with a superpower or just being silly—in front of anyone who might walk into the theater. He is not dictating what is appropriate; instead, students learn to monitor their own appropriateness.

In seventh and eighth grades, students develop their acting skills and continue to overcome fear and self-consciousness as they work through personal experiences. In eighth grade, students perform Shakespeare monologues that explore serious topics. Their success in this endeavor is the result of their ability to be silly in sixth grade and the safe environment in Mr. Jones’s theater that allows them to be themselves. “The nature of the room is such that students can let their guards down. The things that they might be thinking about or dealing with, in here it’s not a discussion; they just get to do it,” he says.

By the time students move on to Upper School, those who continue with theater courses are more emotionally available and much less concerned with what others think. “They can just be themselves,” Mr. Jones adds.
Upper School Theater Director Phillip Brown agrees. The theme of his classes is "Find your voice, love your body." He says, “To fully come to a place of confidence, you have to know your vessel—how it moves—and be okay with how your body is framed, how your voice sounds.”

Mr. Brown’s classes help students feel comfortable in their own skin by getting them to know and accept their unique designs. “The more they can accept themselves, the more confident they’ll be,” he explains.
Mr. Brown empowers his student actors by affirming every choice they make as the right choice; there is no wrong way to express truth. Empathy and self-awareness are at the heart of his classes. Students must know themselves to portray and become someone else. They need to embrace their own truth: know their fears, flaws, and imperfections to realize they are no different from any other human being. “When you can celebrate that, that’s empowering. You can own who you are in a humble way,” he says.

Mr. Brown regularly reminds students that they are never seeking perfection because no one can truly become another person. “The best they can do is to allow their body to respond honestly to what or how it feels in every moment.”

This requires students to embrace mindfulness so they can be in the moment without overthinking.
Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Jones provide safe spaces for students to explore their emotions, discover who they are, and gain the confidence to express themselves with empathy and compassion. This confidence will empower our students to become leaders who can share their ideas and creatively solve problems as they live our mission of compassionate participation in the world. “When they deepen their curiosity about the world, they will want to explore more,” says Mr. Brown.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.