By Nicole Salemi, Director of Community Engagement
Our new Acting Director of Children’s Ministry Mara Flynn has been three weeks on the job and she’s already found a soulful community of enthusiasm and joy among the children of FRS and their parents. The joy she brings to her work with our children is contagious. And through shared laughter and mutual respect, this joy is quickly creating a warm connection among the youngest of our Beloved Community. I spent a recent morning getting to know Mara, how her journey lead her here, and how she and the children are enthusiastically stepping into their future together. The warmth is real. The humor embracing. The joy enlivening. It is easy to see why what Mara brings to FRS is infectious.
Q: You connect easily and openly with the children at FRS. What in your experience enables you to do this?
Mara: I have always loved the performing arts since I was a young child. My mom tells a story of how we walked by an outdoor production of a Chekhov play when I was three years old and I refused to leave. I just was glued to the performance. I wanted to stay and watch the whole thing and go back again. And in some of my earliest memories, I am sitting in the back of the car making up and singing “stream of consciousness” songs. I was also incredibly fortunate to have parents whose unconditional love and support for me and my passions have never wavered. It is this love and my training in theater that I use to create joy and fun and connection with the children here in Young Church. Through the use of theater games we get up, move, engage and connect together as a group. And when we are really engaged that is when we are primed for learning.
Q: What kind of role does your theater training play in your journey to FRS and in shaping the Young Church program?
Mara: Theater is storytelling and humans need stories for connection and context. I bring a lifetime of experience to shaping the work I do with the children of Young Church. When I was eight, my family and I moved to Byfield from Salem, MA. I performed in productions with local director, Anna Smulowitz and soon after began performing with the Newburyport Children’s Theater, which is now Theater in the Open. I participated in theater and music (some dabbling with songwriting specifically) all throughout high school and in the fall of 1993 entered New York University’s TISCH School of the Arts in its Experimental Theater Wing.
Experimental theater was soulfully connected theater to me. It invites you to push your understanding of what theater could possibly be. This is a natural fit with children who are open to original and spontaneous creation. I use improv as a tool to spark their creative spirit. It gives the children the space to really take ownership of their own creative process, which not all children have an opportunity to do in their day to day.
Q: Did schooling in theater lead right into to working with children?
Mara: Though I had been teaching children’s theater camps in the summers since I was 15, when I graduated from the TISCH School of the Arts in early 1996 I did not jump right into full-time work with children. I had an agent right after graduating and spent about a year in New Your City temping and auditioning. It was a very difficult lifestyle, trying to make ends meet when you can’t really get a job in order to be available for auditions. The nature of auditioning was also a bit of a culture shock as I found myself being sent out for commercials and televisions shows that didn’t really resonate in any meaningful way. It started to feel unhealthy, so I moved back to this area. At that same time, in my early twenties, I connected with a music producer in NYC who was interested in my songwriting and we recorded two records together on a label called Shimmy Disc in 1998 and 1999 and went on several European and West coast tours. I would teach children’s theater in the summers and in between tours. When that project ended, I settled down in Maine, and music fell by the wayside as I focused on teaching and raising kiddos.
In 2005, Deirdre Budzyna and I took over Anna Smulowitz’s theater ed program at the Tannery in downtown Newburyport; we renamed it “Acting Out”.
Shortly after taking over the business, I experienced a sequence of life events that were life-changing and opened me up to my spirituality in a way that continues to this day. In the process of honoring grief, I was also connected with gratitude in a deep way. At a certain point in this process, after years of not songwriting, music just came pouring out of me. It felt like something coming through me, it helped me to process my grief and led me back to a path of music, which was a tremendous gift that has connected me to so many dear and musical friends. Eventually, I went on to release three solo records on Burst and Bloom Records, my most recent album “Good Hands” in 2016.
Q: You speak of your life-changing events and spiritual opening – how does that influence what you bring to the children in the church today?
Mara: If we live long enough, we all experience suffering. When we are able to lean into it and love ourselves through it, we grow on so many levels. Every time we go through these difficult times in our lives, we have another opportunity to grow, learn to surrender to what is, and ask for help. We develop more emotional tools to help us navigate through the next challenge. This organic process of opening, surrender and growth is directly connected to my love of theater and music, arts that open and connect us to ourselves and each other. And so far, improv with the Young Church children and adult guides has been a wonderful way to warm up community relations because it is so joyous; it teaches us empathy, respect and listening and connects us to one another through play.
Our use of improv in Young Church has already created some opportunities for intergenerational connection as well! This past Sunday is a great example. We played a game called “use an object as something else”. The object was a pool noodle. We had one child who was shy and had waited until the very end to join in. She asked if she could have someone go with her and she chose one of the adult guides. When she got on the stage, she pretended she was swimming and the adult guide entered with the pool noodle bent around his head like a shark fin. At this point, all the children in the audience screamed, “shark!” and we were all laughing and singing the “Jaws” theme as the adult guide swam toward the laughing, swimming girl. It was joyous!
Q: Where will yours and the children’s joy bring you next? What do you hope to experience together?
Mara: Coming into this position, I have been tasked with the creation of a new Young Church space in Parish Hall. It is exciting that there is a stage there and the kids seem to be very open and excited about doing Young Church in this space. I look forward to continuing getting to know the kids and talking about issues that matter to them, working together to turn those into service projects. Also, as we journey together, I am excited to use my knowledge of theater games as a way to learn about UU principles.
In our immediate future, I am hosting a Young Church breakfast on November 3 (details below / link when posted on web). I’m really looking forward to having a dedicated time to talk to parents. I love the idea that parents and kids can help shape new programming.
Overall, the kids are really receptive and engaged and having fun. Using theater in my approach feels like it’s really helping to create a sense of community. We are building enthusiasm together and that will help set the stage for what we want to work on in the future.
Get to know Mara at Young Church breakfast
You’re invited to a Young Church Breakfast on November 3, Lower Meeting House, 9-9:40am – Family Breakfast / 9:40-10:15am – Just Us Grownups. Starting 9:40am we will have an activity for the kids not participating in choir. I would love to connect with parents and hear all your questions, ideas and dreams about our Young Church programming. Please RSVP to Sharon Broll, if you know you can make it, but we’d love to see you there even if it’s last minute – all are welcome!
Listen to “Good Hands”, by Mara.