Carnegie Mellon University
October 10, 2019

Using the Arts as a Pathway to Empathy

By Pam Wigley

Pam Wigley
  • College of Fine Arts
  • 412-268-1047

Rachel Harry of Hood River, Oregon, flew under the radar for 30 years and then, one day, it all changed. The theatre arts educator from Hood River Valley High School was named the third Excellence in Theatre Education Award (EITEA) winner at the 71st Annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Suddenly Harry was the focus of media attention and, to her surprise, asked to be a TedX presenter. Her presentation was titled "Theater education is going to save the world."

"It is amazing to me that I had the opportunity to even have that platform," she said. "People all around the world have seen it and sent emails to me for advice and just to share thoughts."

It was one more surprise that came as a result of winning the EITEA — the first named from the Pacific Northwest. She was recognized more as she was out and about, and she was thrilled to see that her students' work at Hood River was being recognized more.

Rachel Harry accepted the Excellence in Theatre Education Award in 2017 during the Creative Arts Awards portion of the Tony Awards ceremony.

"Even though we have been selling out since 2015, we actually had to turn people away in fall 2107 after the award was announced at the Tonys," she said. "We pride ourselves on the fact that people walk out of our shows saying, 'These are high school students?'"

Their talents, in fact, have earned them funds from private performances, which will be added to Harry's $10,000 EITEA award for a future drama department purchase. So far, she has invested in new lighting and sound equipment; and Hood River's School District has contributed to various purchases, including expansion of the theater. Harry said she has her eye on a large storage unit that would allow the school to house costumes from past shows that may be rented to others.

Her students also benefited in fall 2017 when Rachel was asked to speak at the Oregon Arts Summit, which gathers "the movers and shakers of arts in Oregon" together. Playwright Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Angels in America," was the keynote speaker. To Harry's amazement, he heard that she and about 20 of her students were attending, and he asked to meet with them.

"I sat and watched as my students had a wonderful, private session with Tony Kushner, and he truly cared about what they were saying," Harry said. "It was incredible."

Likewise, her New York Tony Awards experience produced lifelong memories. She remembers the "magical weekend" being a special treat because she was accompanied by her son, Duncan, and daughter, Tay Camille Lynne.

"When you know you've won, there's no anxiety ... so we enjoyed it and made the most of every moment," she said.

Rachel Harry delivered a TedX talk in November of 2017 discussing how theater education can save the world.

Harry said she wouldn't change a thing about the past two years, with one exception, and it goes back to that TedX lecture.

"One thing I didn't include in the talk was that, if you look at all the teachers in all the programs that are offered in our schools, none of them teaches about inclusivity or empathy for our fellow human beings," Harry said. "Some teachers might model being inclusive and model empathy — but in theater, we actively teach it. When you are creating a character, you have to go through experiential exercises and actually feel those things the character feels. There's no other subject in the world that does that — not chemistry, not algebra — no other area."

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