At Shelburne Museum, Children Step Into the Past for a Better Future

Feb 3rd, 2020

By: Matthew H. Califano
Gold Key, 2020 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Matthew Califano has been a cast member of History Comes Alive! for the past six summers and will return to the program this summer as a leader-in-training. In addition to his interests in history and writing, Matt is an avid distance/trail runner and a fan of old-time radio shows, particularly the Orson Welles episodes of The Shadow. He will be a freshman at Craftsbury Academy this coming fall.

SHELBURNE, Vermont - The summer of 2020 will mark the twenty-fifth year of History Comes Alive!, a week-long summer educational program for children sponsored by Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in cooperation with the Shelburne Museum. Since 1995, History Comes Alive!, created and directed by Joan Robinson, a playwright and faculty member of the Flynn Center and St. Michael’s College , has introduced children to theatre and Vermont history by giving them the opportunity to participate in a series of improvisations set in some of our State’s most challenging and transformational periods. In recent years, the program has dealt with subjects such as the Underground Railroad, the Great Vermont Flood of 1927, and the immigration of Italian stone workers to Barre in the early 1900’s. While the program has had other venues, the Shelburne Museum, with its vast collection of Vermont artifacts and historical buildings, now provides both inspiration and the backdrop for these young historians’ week of learning through improvisation.

Although each year covers a different subject in Vermont’s history, the basic structure of the week’s activities follows a familiar pattern which Joan has refined over the past quarter-century. At the beginning of the week, the children are introduced to a very basic plotline which they each will help to enhance and develop. With pen and paper they create names and give their characters jobs, skills, and relationships. Once the children have created their characters, they participate in a series of scenes and behave as they believe their characters would have, using what they have learned about the pertinent historical period. At the end of each day, every student records his or her character’s experiences in a written diary. For the concluding performance, the camp’s instructors take excerpts from these diaries to narrate a series of tableaux summarizing the historical episode in which the students have immersed themselves. These tableaux, along with a live, unscripted final scene are performed in front of the children’s parents and friends and are followed by a question and answer period. During this session, students are given the opportunity to answer questions about the plot, their characters, and how these characters dealt with the issues that arose during the week’s improvisation.

Ms. Robinson was inspired to create History Comes Alive! by the work of the late English educator Dorothy Heathcote, an aspiring actress who believed that drama and role-playing could be used as a means to enhance students’ engagement with and understanding of virtually any subject. “Our mission,” says Joan “is to get youth engaged in local history through the arts. We want them to create a character. As I always remind the children at the beginning of each session: ‘You are no longer yourselves, but the people you are trying to be’. We want them to be the character, to ask themselves the question: ‘What would my character do in this situation?’.”

By its very nature, improvisation is unpredictable, and each year no one quite knows what twists and turns the story will take or how it will end. Given that History Comes Alive! has recently dealt with such difficult subjects as slavery, racism, and immigration, one would expect this unpredictability to be a cause for concern. Joan, however, does not see things this way: “What we try to do is help these kids see that they have the ability to change [outcomes]. Children have a natural tendency to compromise. We want them to use that ability…[We want] to teach them the power of compromise.”

As a student of History Comes Alive! for the past six summers, I have myself witnessed this natural tendency to seek consensus, one which I believe is enhanced by the fact that the students spend the week seeing the world from a perspective other than their own. Take, for example, this past summer’s story: During the 1920’s, the town of Barre, Vermont is hit by a wave of Italian immigrant quarry workers. The town’s established Vermonters feel that the new immigrants are a threat to their way of life. After a long period of strained relations between the groups, both the immigrants and Vermonters set aside their differences to combat an employer who is exploiting them both and work together for the common good.

To be sure, the Barre imagined by this past summer’s students was by no means a utopia. Over the course of the week, there were tensions and struggles between the immigrants and the native Vermonters. However, they were able to find enough common ground to forge a new community that was beneficial to both groups. This result was both surprising and unexpectedly hopeful, particularly in a world in which The New York Times reports that the U.S. President advocates the use of alligator and snake-infested moats as a means of preventing immigration.

Despite her contagious optimism, Ms. Robinson knows that the actual ending of each improvisation of History Comes Alive! is not realistic, but realism is not ultimately the point. By stepping into the past and living for a week in someone else’s shoes, these students learn to be empathetic, responsible, and compassionate citizens. In this age of entrenched partisanship in which our leaders seem incapable of even listening to any opposing perspectives, this may be History Comes Alive!’s most enduring legacy. As Joan herself says, “at the end of the day [History Comes Alive!] shows not what we have done, but what we can do if we work together.”

Works Cited and Influence:

Heathcote, Dorothy and Gavin Bolton. Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to Education. United Kingdom: Heinemann Drama, 1995.

Robinson, Joan. Personal interview. 8 Aug. 2019.

Shear, Michael D. and Julie Hirschfeld Davis. “Shoot Migrants’ Legs, Build Alligator Moat: Behind Trump’s Ideas for Border.” The New York Times, 1 October 2019. Newspaper Source,

Filed in: Community  Theater 

Please wait while we retrieve your events.