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From 52nd Street to Virginia Avenue Essay

Sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Santa Monica Police Activities League, brightening the face of 14-year-old Stevie as he offers an imaginary gift to his friend Mike, who is turning 10 today. “I give you a pill to turn anything into anything,” says Stevie, and Mike grins as he places the pill into an imaginary pile of gifts already received from the kids and adults in his acting workshop: a million pieces of paper and the ideas to write on them, a Nintendo, a bag of second chances, $100 and a magic carpet to fly around the world.

Mike is not the only one celebrating a birthday. The party’s host, the Virginia Avenue Project, is turning one. Like its parent, the 52nd Street Project in New York City, the Los Angeles-based Virginia Avenue Project brings professional artists and inner-city kids together to create theatre. Along with similar programs starting up in Macon, Ga., Roanoke, Va., Hastings and Buffalo, N.Y. and Tuba City, Ariz., the Virginia Avenue Project is one of many replications of the 52nd Street Project using playwriting and acting to give economically disadvantaged children an arena for self-expression.

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Started by actor and writer Willie Reale in 1981 as an acting class for eight kids in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, the 52nd Street Project has mushroomed into a New York fixture with multiple programs, more than 70 young participants, an annual budget of $300,000 and a volunteer roster of more than 150 adult artists including such eminent figures as Wendy Wasserstein, Spalding Gray and Kate Nelligan.

In the early years, Reale and his brother Robert wrote full-length musicals with parts designed to show off each kid’s personality. But Reale felt uncomfortable always giving starring roles to the same few, so he began to look for ways to offer them the individual attention sorely lacking in their overcrowded public schools. In 1986, he started the “One-on-One” program, in which an adult playwright writes a short two-character play for his or herself and a particular child. A year later, he hooked up with teacher and playwright Daniel Judah Sklar, who had just moved back to New York from Macon, Ga., where he was developing “Playmaking,” a technique for teaching children to write plays.

Now, the project’s programming is multifaceted, with children acting and writing in several venues. In addition to the One-on-Ones, the sequence of programs include Playmaking, in which kids take an eight-week playwriting course, then interview two adult actors and write plays for them to perform; Replay, a second level of Playmaking; and Playback, in which an adult writes a play in response to a piece written by his or her child partner.

Growing sideways

The process first makes the child the center of attention, then asks him or her to create for someone else, and finally engages the child in collaboration. Periodically, groups of children and adults retreat to the country to write and rehearse, and then return to the city to perform Off Broadway, where the plays are attended by an eclectic audience of neighborhood families, suburban yuppies and famous theatrical personalities.

The emphasis on the individual child means that the project cannot support more than 70 or so kids per year, so it is focusing on replication. “It’s the kind of organization that can only grow sideways,” says Reale. “When you discover something that works, you want other people to know about it.”

Leigh Curran, a former 52nd Street volunteer who moved to Los Angeles to start the Virginia Avenue Project in 1992, is the perfect West Coast ambassador. An imposing figure whom her colleagues say should be running whole cities, Curran is a writer, actress and performance artist who shares Reale’s dedication to the individual child.

In the after-school acting class at the Santa Monica Police Activities League, Curran’s group plays a game called “Up Against the Wall,” in which one person expresses an emotion and the others try it on for size. Ed, a fully grown 15-year-old, volunteers to go first, then can’t think of what to say. “Ma-an,” he says, head in hands. “I can’t do this.”

 

“What are you feeling?” asks Sharon Madden, an earthy redhead who has been teaching theatre to children for more than 10 years.

“Embarrassed,” replies Ed, laughing nervously.

“Then do embarrassed,” proclaims Madden, and with a little prodding, Ed walks to the center of the room, head still buried in his too-large hands, an extraordinarily honest picture of how it feels to be an embarrassed adolescent.

The kids in the projects are proud of their work and of their newfound ease of self-expression. Stevie, whose learning disability prevented him from learning to read at the pace of his peers, wrote a play in the Playmaking program called Greedy Joe about a boy who steals his friend’s wallet and then struggles with his warring good and bad consciences over whether to return it. When asked if he wants to keep writing, Stevie replies, “Yeah, it’s fun,” and then describes an idea for his next play, The Last Bottle, in which there are no soda bottles left in the world. “In the project, you can express your feelings, and be loose, act the way you feel like,” says Stevie.

Unveiled feelings

Playmaking, taught for the first time in December to the Virginia Avenue kids in a two-week intensive class with its creator, Sklar, is designed to do exactly that. As Curran, who now teaches the technique, points out, “When they start to feel their emotional responses are valid, whether they are wrong or right, their minds open up and they can learn.”

For many of the kids in the program, the feelings they unveil are difficult. The Virginia Avenue group, working on an improvisational piece for Mother’s Day, plays a game called, “When I’m a mother, I’m never going to…” Seven-year-old Samantha, lisping from her missing front tooth, asks, “If our mother beats us and stuff, do we have to say the opposite of that?”

The room falls silent, and Madden replies, “Of course not, sweetie.”

In both 52nd Street and Virginia Avenue, adults act in the kids’ plays, a twist developed in New York to involve the dozens of professional actors who wanted to volunteer their time. Professional productions show the child that his or her words are worthy of respect not only among peers, but in the larger community as well. And the adult volunteers are committed to bringing the child’s vision to life. “I was really conscious of doing what I thought Stevie wanted,” says Jody Price, an actress in Greedy Joe. “We respect the playwright. It’s a gift as opposed to a job–you’re really giving the kid something and including him in the process.”

Reale explains: “The kids’ plays have a lot of leaps in them; they have gaps in what we might consider logic. An adult actor can work an enormous transition with a wink, so that whatever the kid has written is going to come across in a favorable way.”

This philosophy, so fundamental to the 52nd Street Project, is not shared by all of the replicators. Former 52nd Street volunteer Garrett Brown, who started the Youth Theatre division of the Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) program in the fall of 1992 after moving to Los Angeles to join the cast of NBC’s Sisters, believes that adults should play a less visible role. When his kids saw the Virginia Avenue Project perform, they wondered where all the kids were–so Brown put them on the stage. “It’s the process that’s important,” he says.

While problems may vary from city to city, the need for self-expression cuts across racial and geographic barriers –and the children and adults who have been involved with these programs are overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “This is joyful work,” says Curran. “It’s stressful and frustrating, but at bottom you know that you’re doing something that is going to make a difference in a couple of lives, and nothing can replace that.”

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From 52nd Street to Virginia Avenue Essay
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Sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Santa Monica Police Activities League, brightening the face of 14-year-old Stevie as he offers an imaginary gift to his friend Mike, who is turning 10 today. "I give you a pill to turn anything into anything," says Stevie, and Mike grins as he places the pill into an imaginary pile of gifts already received from the kids and adults in his acting workshop: a million pieces of paper and the ideas to write on them, a Nintendo, a bag of second
2021-07-13 02:34:14
From 52nd Street to Virginia Avenue Essay
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