Our Story

A shared belief in the transformational power of the arts

Just over 30 years ago, Paula Conrad, a dancer and the educational director at an alternative school for youth with behavioral and emotional issues, witnessed firsthand the power of integrating the arts into the standard education plan. She brought in guest artists who infused the curriculum with art, music, dance, and theater, and saw the youth become much more engaged and curious. The Express Yourself model quickly took root.

A couple years later, Stan Strickland, a musician and adjunct professor of expressive therapy, connected with Paula through an Arts & Learning course at Lesley University. With their shared passion for integrating arts and learning, the two began the next phase of the Exyo creative collaboration: a grand year-end performance. Now a foundational aspect of the Express Yourself model, this first show was in the Wang Theatre lobby, with 30 kids performing for an audience of 100 who were seated on folding chairs.     

For the first several years, Express Yourself was headquartered at Paula’s kitchen table, with Kristi Jeffers joining the team in 2002 to develop a solid administrative infrastructure. Paula, Stan, and many guest artists continued traveling to residential treatment programs and alternative schools to provide programming on-site.

Youth artwork was exhibited at the Ashwell Gallery, and artists from Montserrat College of Visual Arts participated in our workshops which led to the development of our set design program. In 1997, Express Yourself moved to a small working studio on Rantoul Street in Beverly, pictured above, and expanded programming by welcoming youth from residential treatment programs and the greater community into the studio for additional classes. 

17 years later, bursting at the seams, Express Yourself was able to relocate to a larger studio at Cummings Center, where today we have over 10,000 square feet of space, including two large studios with dance floors, maker spaces, music rooms, and our administrative offices. Over 500 young people participate in our programs each year, coming from 54 zip codes throughout the region. Learn more about our impact.  

The first Express Yourself shows were performed at the schools where programming was offered. In 1995, there was an opportunity to perform in the Wang Center lobby. With Stan and his band as the musical foundation, 30 youth performed for an audience of 100, who were seated on folding chairs. The set design was displayed on the stairs, lights were “borrowed” from the Boston Ballet, and the performance was a huge hit. 

It wasn’t long before the performance moved to the 1,500-seat Shubert Theater, where it quickly reached capacity. Today our annual performance is at the Boch Center–Wang Theatre, where over 300 youth perform for an audience of nearly 3,000. It’s an evening of Pure Kid Joy that you really don’t want to miss! Learn more about the show

The steady growth of Express Yourself over the past three decades has been helped by the steadfast support and enthusiasm of key collaborators like the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and the Boch Center–Wang Theatre. Learn more about all our collaborators.

You can make Pure Kid Joy possible!

Consider becoming a sponsor of our annual performance at the Boch Center-Wang Theatre.