Theater Project Finally Has A Place For Hell's Kitchen's Kids
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan may be only 10 minutes from Broadway, but it's a different world. For the last 29 years, the neighborhood has been home to the 52nd Street Project. It's a unique theater program for kids. Jeff Lunden has the story.
JEFF LUNDEN: It's a half hour before show time and 10 new playwrights have gathered in the green room at the Five Angels Theater to chill. They range in age from 10 to 12 and they're all pretty excited to see their work come to life with real professional actors.
Adnan Ahmed(ph), who's 10, wrote "The Brothers." He explains the plot.
Mr. ADNAN AHMED (Writer, "The Brothers"): It's this boy named Rick. He wanted to be in a singing contest, and if he wins, that's his job. But then he asks for his brother's help, but his brother says no.
LUNDEN: Do you have a brother?
Mr. AHMED: Yeah.
LUNDEN: Does your brother help you?
Mr. AHMED: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of play, "The Brothers")
Unidentified Man #1: Hello, Rick. I'll help you out.
Unidentified Man #2: (As Rick) Oh, thank you. What made you change your mind?
Unidentified Man #1: I was thinking, you need to get a job. Also, I could get more famous in New York.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUNDEN: Executive Director Carol Ochs says the idea of teaming up kids with some of the city's finest actors and directors started with Willie Reale in 1981.
Ms. CAROL OCHS (Executive Director, 52nd Street Project): He was an actor at Ensemble Studio Theater, and he got invited by the Police Athletic League, which was across the street, to teach acting class, which he started to teach. And he said, this is terrible; I'm just going to write you a play. And then they performed it at EST. The show ended and a kid came up to him and said with, you know, deep brown eyes, when's the next play? And that really was the beginning of it.
LUNDEN: Back in the 1980s, Hell's Kitchen was pretty rough, and the kids came from the projects and shelters. While the neighborhood has changed, the 52nd Street Project still serves 10- to 18-year-old kids from low-income families. They work as writers and actors with a pool of 400 volunteer theater artists. The shows are presented to the community for free.
Actress Frances McDormand started working with the group long before she won an Academy Award.
Ms. FRANCES MCDORMAND (Actress): The work that I've seen the adult actors and directors do in the 52nd Street Projects is not only some of their best work, it often is their best work that they've ever done in their careers. Because sometimes you're a slice of pizza, sometimes you're a yellow cab, sometimes you're a stick, sometimes you have to negotiate a play that is clearly about a child being abused in their home, but it's in a very metaphorical, allegorical setting.
LUNDEN: Artistic Director Gus Rogerson began as a volunteer too.
Mr. GUS ROGERSON (Artistic Director, 52nd Street Project): I find this stuff that they write endlessly fascinating and rich and incredibly gratifying to work on. And I think a lot of it is because they don't know what a play is. They don't really know what we're doing. And they find out over the course of it, it being unknown to them, they do things with it that are extraordinary.
LUNDEN: Ten-year-old Asia Holer Rosado(ph) is part of the first-year playmaking class. She wrote a show called "Jackie and Lilly," which features a fantastical dream sequence.
Ms. ASIA HOLER ROSADO: My play is about two best friends and then one of them is moving to Europe, and then the other friend is really sad and stuff. And then she has a nightmare that her friend who's moving to Europe is, like, going to smack her. Because the friend who's having a nightmare is an ant and then she gets scared.
(Soundbite of play, "Jackie and Lilly")
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible) an ant is (unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I want to go with you.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) You're an ant, not a person. Why would I take an ant with me to Europe?
LUNDEN: But, Asia adds, there's a happy ending.
It's a pretty happy time for the 52nd Street Project too. They've just moved from a cramped rental space down the block, which featured a clubhouse where kids could hang out after school, do homework and eat a meal. Now, there's not only a bigger clubhouse and library, there are rehearsal spaces, shops to build sets and props, offices and a beautiful 150-seat theater.
But the move means more than that, says Executive Director Carol Ochs.
Ms. OCHS: The neighborhood's gentrifying so much, it was really great to have a piece of it belong to the kids so that they - because these apartment buildings that this is attached to are fancy and, you know, there's new restaurants all of the sudden. And it's like they're already feeling a little pressed in the neighborhood. So, now they really own a piece of it, and that's really exciting.
LUNDEN: The 52nd Street Project will be welcoming its next bath of 10-year-old playwrights with the new semester.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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