This article was originally written in February 2003 for a chapter in the book "Communities that Heal: Profiles of Innovative Organizations, Institutes, and Groups of People Working to Promote Quality of Life and Create PositiveChange", Ed. Dan Holland. The article describes the work of the not-for-profit youth theater company The 52nd Street Project, Hell's Kitchen, NYC.
“I know I can do it because I did it”: Learning Through Success at The 52nd Street Project
By Megan Sandberg-Zakian
I saw Carmen on the block today – she spotted me from far away and waved, walking her slow, loping, all-the-time-in-the-world walk towards me and hugging me in that slight, polite way, “How you doin’?” Carmen – all curly curly hair and glasses, bony shoulders, short shorts and sneakers. I knew she hadn’t been to school, but she smiled, she had a boyfriend, she had plans to get her GED. And she was happy to see me.
I’ve been wanting to tell Carmen’s story for a long time. But first things first. I am the Associate Artistic Director of The 52nd Street Project, a not-for-profit theater company dedicated to the creation and production of new plays for, and often by, kids between the ages of nine and eighteen that reside in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. Through a series of unique mentoring programs that match kids with professional (and volunteer!) theater artists, The 52nd Street Project (or simply “The Project”) creates over eighty new plays and serves over 125 children every year. The Project is a well-known and well-loved institution, among theater folks and the Hell’s Kitchen community alike. Both Carmen and I, however, are fairly recent developments in Project history.
This is the chronicle, as it’s been passed down to me: The 52nd Street Project began in September of 1981 when someone from the Police Athletic League (PAL), an after-school center for kids from Hell’s Kitchen, walked across 52nd Street to the Ensemble Studio Theater (EST), a thriving little off-Broadway outfit. The PAL emissary asked around at EST to see if anyone would be interested in teaching an acting class to kids across the street. There was one affirmative response from a very droll young actor and writer named Willie Reale. Before long, Willie realized that there was no way he was going to retain the attention of a bunch of kids after school by just having an acting class. There had to be a payoff. There had to be something to work towards. So, naturally, he wrote a play for the kids to perform. This play, “Seen But Not Heard,” was produced at the Ensemble Studio Theater. I don’t know what it was about, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a kid who was in it. But that was the beginning.
Over the next several years, Willie continued to create productions with kids at PAL and perform them at EST across the street, recruiting his friends in the professional theater community to perform alongside the kids, as well as compose, design, write, and direct. In 1986, the Project became a funded organization, and in 1994, Willie was named a MacArthur Fellow (more commonly known as a “Genius Grant”) for his unique theatrical vision and his work in the Hell’s Kitchen community. In 1996, the Project moved out of a series of small office spaces and into the “Clubhouse,” a complex with offices for the staff (now numbering a staggering seven!), two classroom rehearsal spaces, a kitchen/lounge, storage space for costumes and props, and a full array of resources for kids including computers, an extensive library, art and school supplies, and, of course, snacks. The way Willie tells it, what we know now as The Project evolved because the kids kept asking him “When’s the next show?”, and he couldn’t find it in his heart to say “Never!”. The programs that resulted are outlined in 52 Pick-Up: A Practical Guide to Doing Theater with Children, which gives a much more complete picture of The Project’s mission, history, and programming than is possible in these pages (see sidebar for a brief excerpt). Over the years, the Project programs have been consolidated into today’s series of consecutive opportunities for youth:
Playmaking: Every kid is introduced to The Project through this nine- week playwriting workshop, based on a curriculum adapted by Daniel Judah Sklar from his book, Playmaking . After the classes are over, the ten kids involved go away to the country for a weekend to write their final plays, which are then performed in an off-Broadway theater by professional actors and directed by professional directors (all of the new plays written at The Project are short form).
Replay: Two classes of ten kids take an “advanced” nine-week playwriting class which culminates in loosely staged readings of their final plays by professional actors at a celebratory spring picnic.
One-on-Ones: Ten kids are each matched up with an adult partner who writes a play specifically for the two to perform together. The Project takes all ten pairs out of town for a week in the summer to rehearse their plays (and go to the beach and eat ice cream); upon returning to the city the show (ten short plays) has a weekend run at an off-Broadway theater.
Playback: A group of seven teenagers, each matched with an adult partner, take part in a weekend writing retreat to come up with a play for themselves and their adult partner to perform. The adult partner then writes an “answer play” (also for the adult/kid pair to perform together) and the seven sets of plays are presented in a weekend run at an off-Broadway theater.
Two-on-Twos: An adult playwright writes a new play for two kids to perform together. The play is directed by a professional director and has a weekend run at an off-Broadway theater.
Teen Ensemble: A two-year long, college-level introductory acting class for teenagers who have completed the preceding Project programs, culminating in the full production of a Shakespeare play (featuring the teenagers side by side with adult professional actors) which is performed in New York and then tours to Europe.
Kids are only admitted into the Project as nine to eleven year old members of the Playmaking class. After they have completed the Playmaking class they are then full-fledged members of The Project. Project Kids can come to the Clubhouse any day after school for homework help (or just to hang out), and they are invited to participate in each of the other theater programs in sequence.
Because virtually all of The Project’s programs involve one-on-one relationships between kids and adults, Project staff and volunteers are able to cater each kid’s specific experience here to his or her needs. For example, I spend a good deal of time with Artistic Director Gus Rogerson examining the “match-ups” (which kid will work with which actor or director) because we know how important it is to marry the strengths and needs of our kids and of the adult volunteers who work with them. It’s pretty much like setting two people up on a blind date, except instead of going out to dinner and a movie, the couple has to make a play together. A good match-up is about 75% of what makes a good play (as in any relationship, the rest is hard work!), and our goal is always a good play. Of course, sometimes a kid will form a relationship with his or her acting partner that extends beyond the theatrical experience, and that’s great, too.
Match-up decisions form the cornerstones of experiences kids have at The Project, and determine what they will take away from their time here. The Project staff works with each adult to determine what we think is the best approach for each child, using their strengths to address their weaknesses. What we ask of kids is simple: depending on the program, we ask them to write a play, or to perform it, or both. Of course there are other tasks leading up to this, such as coming to class and to rehearsal, learning lines, etc. But at the end of the day, if they do the show, they’re a success, and so are we. So in spite of our individualized approach, it all boils down to the same thing: we are successful if they are able to do what we ask of them.
A lot of the work we do is the minutiae of doing theater with children – we yell “Louder!” and “Clearer!” a lot – but it’s all geared towards making each play, each performance, really, really good. If it’s good, then people will laugh, and people will be breathlessly silent, and people will stand up and shout and clap. Being onstage, and seeing a hundred people react like that to the play that you wrote or performed – well, as Willie said, “I have seen the joy in their eyes and have heard it in their voices and I have watched them take a bow and come up taller.”
Of course, what we ask is more difficult for some kids than for others, and sometimes success takes different forms.
Which is where Carmen comes in.
Carmen, as you may remember, is a slight Puerto Rican girl who, when our story begins, is sixteen years old and in the second year of the Teen Ensemble. In the first year, Carmen had been the pariah of the class – skipping classes and coming late, participating only marginally in group activities, and generally alienating everyone by her sullen behavior. She was described by her classmates as “rude”, “trashy”, “cheap”, and “wack.” Gus, the Artistic Director, had more than once considered kicking her out of the class, but in the end she’d made it through.
The first class of Year Two: we were doing a group exercise involving the following line of Shakespeare, “Peace, Kent, keep not the dragon from his wrath.” Each teenager was to say the first word of the line, “peace,” using that word to scare someone across the circle. Teenagers love this kind of thing, and were soon shooting the most terrifying “peace”s I’d ever heard across the circle. Among these loud, pugnacious, tightly wound teenagers, Carmen alone stood out. Limbs languid and eyes unfocused, when it was her turn Carmen scuffed the carpet with her toe and kept her eyes focused on the floor. She muttered “Please.” Please? The word, the instructor informed her, was “peace.” Try it again, and use the word to scare the person across from you. She tried it again, and a third time, still saying “please,” and scaring no one. Not wanting to embarrass her, we moved on.
It soon became clear that Carmen was often coming to class stoned. In fact, she probably went most places stoned. She was also recovering from a double whammy of heartbreak (she was devastated by the defection of her long-term boyfriend to another girl), and an abortion (also courtesy of said boyfriend). Unlike most kids in the neighborhood, her parents were still together, though I suspected both of them were quite physically violent, both towards her and each other. She attended a small alternative school where, although she should have been a junior, she’d only accumulated the credits necessary to complete one year of high school.
When we assigned the teenagers their own personal Shakespeare sonnets to work on in the fall, Carmen could barely read hers out loud in front of the class. She stumbled over the words, and offered interpretations of the text that were, at best, perplexing. Each teen was assigned a director, and charged with the task of memorizing his or her sonnet and performing it in a few weeks with “given circumstances” – i.e., setting the sonnet in a particular situation and speaking it with a particular intention. Carmen and I were working together, mostly because the Project staff didn’t want to assign her one of our adult volunteer artists as her director for fear that she wouldn’t show up to classes or rehearsals, hence dissing our generous volunteer. I, as a staff member, was deemed diss-able.
Our sonnet, Number 29, went a little something like this:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself, and curse my fate.
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in this state, myself almost despising
Hap’ly I think on thee, and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth
Sings hymns at the heaven’s gate.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
After much discussion of the text, Carmen decided that she would speak her sonnet as a teenager who’d had a terrible day in school because “some girl said things to her” (in high school, “saying things” can be infinitely more brutal, and specific, than it sounds). She enters her room after school and begins to talk about how much she hates her life and wishes she were someone else. Then, suddenly, she remembers a good friend of hers who cares about her and loves her, and that thought makes her feel better.
It took a long time to establish a clear given circumstance, since Carmen kept staring off into space and going off on tangents. I kept asking questions. Once we had it nailed down, we began to work on staging and memorizing the sonnet. We developed a memorization method that worked for both of us: I would jump up and down around the room, saying a line (or half a line, more often) of Shakespeare. She would pace around the room too, and repeat the line back to me. I repeated the line again, varying the inflection, and she would mimic me. This went on for hours. We would spend ten minutes at a time on three words. I think “arising from sullen earth” probably represents about 45 minutes of pacing and jumping. Amazingly, she didn’t lose interest. She wanted to memorize the sonnet. I was encouraged.
Our breakthrough occurred on the day we began to polish up the blocking, close to when we would perform for the group. “Wait, do your entrance again. How can we tell you just came home from school?” I asked her. She started the scene again, this time carrying a backpack which she flung down violently on the floor upon entering. She then plopped herself into a chair and sighed before beginning the sonnet. Looking back, I can see this as the moment when I first believed in Carmen, really believed in her. Before that, I thought that she was just another tough kid. I was going to help her accomplish something so that she could feel good about it, but it was going to be hard. However, in that moment, I saw a perfectly and sweetly communicated anguish in the way she entered that scene. To me, that moment opened up a corridor of possibility. I suddenly saw – and loved – Carmen’s own particular brand of greatness.
Carmen went on to perform her sonnet with grace, charm, and deep emotion – though not quite perfect command of the text – and to write a play incorporating the sonnet, which she starred in. She stopped standing me up for rehearsals and almost always came to class, often arriving early to sit and chat with me or other staff members. So in January, when it came time to cast The Tempest, the play we’d chosen for the class to perform, Carmen was cast as Miranda. Though her classmates all had demonstrated better command of language than she had, as well as stronger work ethics, better focus, more consistency, and more basic acting talent, we saw in Carmen the very essence of what Shakespeare seemed to have attributed to the romantic heroine Miranda – a sweet willingness, a sincerity, a goodness, a romantic soul, and a tenuous grasp of reality. Of course, as the rehearsal process went on we saw other things in Miranda that emerged effortlessly from Carmen’s performance – her boredom (wouldn’t you be bored if you were stranded on a desert island with your father for 12 years?), her rebelliousness, and her confidence.
Carmen and her classmates had a successful premiere of their Tempest in New York, after which we all packed off to England where we performed in a small theater in London, and in an old barn in the Suffolk countryside. Carmen was delightful on this trip – happier and warmer than I’d ever seen her. Before the final performance, the group had the amazing opportunity to be interviewed by the BBC in the stately garden of the manorhouse where we were staying. Carmen, never eloquent, nor comfortable speaking in public, was startled when the interviewers first approached her to ask her about her experience at the Project. At first she waved them away, refusing to talk, but then (as they were recording) she took a deep breath and began. She floundered a little, and then she reached over and took my hand. I returned the pressure of her dry palm, her voice steadied, and she began to talk about how much The Project had meant to her. In the middle of a Suffolk garden, holding my hand, this teenager from Hell’s Kitchen took a deep breath – and told all of England about playing Miranda.
The Project staff considered Carmen our big success story for the year. Not because she accumulated enough credits to move on to her junior year of high school (she didn’t), or because she showed up at school more regularly (she didn’t), or because she stopped smoking pot (she didn’t), or because she stopped engaging in risky sexual behavior (I assume that she didn’t…). It was because she was successful at the limited but challenging task we’d set out for her – learning the role of Miranda in The Tempest, and performing that role as part of an ensemble of her peers in New York and in Europe. In spite of what we might all have predicted at the beginning of the year, Carmen was wildly successful at what we asked her to do. In addition, it was clear to us that that success was in some way part of a radical change in the way Carmen faced the world. A young woman who had been sour and withdrawn emerged a year later smiling and open. As her year-long private Shakespeare coach, I felt the changes in her almost palpably. Of course, there’s no way to know what role the Project or her part in The Tempest played in this transformation. We may have just been privileged to witness a teenager emerging from a sustained depression. But I suspect that The Project was at the very least one of the rungs on the ladder which she used to climb back out into the sunlight. The fact was that we asked something of Carmen which she had to change her behavior to accomplish – and she did. When I see her on the street now, I see a spring in her step. She moves with the confidence of someone who knows she’s worth something.
The Project is in certain respects a self contained environment. We expect brilliance from our kids, and because of the persistent pressure (to be a part of the Project, they must do what we ask them to do), they usually deliver. Hence, a child that is known as “stupid” somewhere else can be smart here. A child that is notoriously late somewhere else can be punctual here. A child that is abusive to her peers elsewhere can be nurturing here. And a teenager that can never finish anything can be the star of a Shakespeare play. A side effect of this, of course, is that kids who decide that they can’t do what we ask will usually leave the Project early on, or never walk in the door in the first place. But most of them figure out that if they want to succeed, we’ll do everything we can to help them, and that the end result will be pretty damn great.
Actually, once kids realize that we want to help them succeed, we can’t get rid of them. Every day around three o’clock they start flooding through the door of the Project Clubhouse, and they aren’t particularly quiet about it. A few days ago, after I’d come to all of the above self congratulatory conclusions, the door buzzed, and eleven year old Zebulon wandered in, grabbed a granola bar from the table, and plopped himself down next to me. We chatted for a minute, and he asked me what I’d been doing. I explained that I’d been writing about what kids learned at The Project. “So Zeb,” I asked, “what have you learned at the Project?”
He smiled winningly at me and proclaimed, “I’ve learned that there are kind, funny people. You get a chance to talk to people, and they don’t say, like, ‘hold on, wait, wait, wait.’ You don’t bug them.”
To which I responded, “Hey, why don’t you go away. You’re bugging me.” He grinned and spun around in his wheelie chair.
But seriously – Zebulon hit on exactly what I like about working at The Project, and perhaps why our adult volunteers keep on coming back to work so hard for no money. Doing the kind of work that we do here – putting on a play – creates relationships that have the most positive of all origins: we have created something together. These relationships in turn create the community in which the kind of success I’ve described is possible. For a kid like Zebulon, The Project community he has access to includes generations of dedicated staff and volunteers who work with him in and out of the theater, older Project kids and Project “graduates” like Carmen who serve as models of what’s possible, parents, community members, and his own little brother who has just started Playmaking class. Everyone who is here is choosing to be here, everyone wants to be here. That makes The Project drastically different from school, or work, or home.
I subsequently made the rounds of a busy afternoon at the Project Clubhouse with a tape recorder. First I opened the classroom door to interrupt fifteen year olds Michael and Justin who were busy writing and performing raps. Michael announced, “I learned how to act and not be afraid and stuff in front of people. And to show myself.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the first time I ever acted, I was afraid. But now I’m not. And back then I wasn’t that good at writing plays, but now I could write a play so fast. And if you ask me any question, I could answer it real fast, like I’m doing right now.” He and Justin then dissolved into loud teenage boy posturing.
Mayleen, sixteen, looking on from her perch at the front desk where she works as our receptionist after school, commented dryly, “Most of the kids come in here like real shy, and then afterwards you have like Justin and Michael who won’t stop talking and who are always here. You can see them open up.”
In the kitchen, thirteen year old Solangee told me that she’d learned how to write better and to like writing. “But how do you know?” I asked.
She chewed thoughtfully on the slice of pizza she’d picked up for her after-school snack. “Well, after I was done with Playmaking, I wrote a story one day ‘cause I was bored.”
“Would you have done that before you took Playmaking?”
“No, ‘cause I wouldn’t care. I would think about doing it, but I’ll just leave it there.”
Twelve year old Suzette, looking up from her homework, had a different answer when I asked, “But how do you know that you’ve learned those things?”
Suzette replied, “Because I’ve done them.”
Of course. When you’re a young person in a society that can have an unfortunate tendency to send you negative messages about your abilities – you’re stupid, you’re never going to amount to anything – you don’t naturally believe that you can do something. When an opportunity comes across your path, your first instinct is to say “No way, I could never do that.” But if you’ve done things, accomplished things, been successful, you can carry that with you wherever you go. If you’ve written a play – a play! — and seen people stand up and applaud for something you made, you know you can make something good. After that, when there’s an opportunity, maybe instead of “No way” you think “O.K., I could try that.” And that’s the beginning of everything.
Then there was ten year old Victor, who was not pleased to be interrupted in the middle of the “Monopoly” game he was playing with an adult volunteer. Impatiently he explained, “Well, all we do learn is how to make plays, mostly.”
“And what’s the point of learning that?” I asked.
Victor looked at me as if I were truly a moron. He said, loudly and clearly, “Because it’s really, really fun!” Then he waved me away, stretched out on the floor, and rolled the dice for his next turn.
52 Pick-Up: A Practical Guide to Doing Theater with Children by Willie Reale
The 52nd Street Project Kid Theater Kit: Plays, Projects and Programs for Young People
The 52nd Street Project Teen Manual (all available through Dramatists Play Service)
Playmaking – Children Writing and Performing Their Own Plays by Daniel Judah Sklar (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1991)
All Rights Reserved, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, November 2008