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Mentors from TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project want grown-ups to experience this transformative student program
Whenever Broadway director Scott Ellis opens a new production, he's always anxious about a certain group seeing it. No, not the critics. Not his twin tweens or friends or family, either. His palms start sweating when the high school students he mentors through TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project are in the audience.
"I love that they're seeing a show of mine, but I'm much more nervous than when anyone else comes," Ellis admits. "They're always honest! I tell them, 'You don't have to like it, but you do have to be able to discuss it.' That's all that matters."
Originally called Open Doors, the Wendy Project began as an experiment in 1998, when the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein and TDF took eight high schoolers to seven shows to find out if theatre could captivate the hearts and minds of a new generation. As Wasserstein listened to the teens passionately discuss what they'd seen during their post-performance pizza parties, she discovered the answer was a resounding yes.
Since then, the Wendy Project has grown exponentially and even won a special Tony Honor. During the 2018 to 2019 season, 28 professional artist mentors took 192 students from 24 New York City public schools to 144 shows, always followed by food, enriching conversation and journaling. This November, adult theatre lovers can get a taste of this transformative program with five Grown-Up Wendy Virtual Events led by longtime mentors, including Ellis, who'll discuss his 2016 Tony-nominated revival of She Loves Me.
Ellis, whose dozens of Broadway credits also include Tootsie, Curtains and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was one of the program's very first mentors—handpicked by Wasserstein herself in 1999. "She asked me to meet her at Sarabeth's on the Upper West Side and pitched me the idea," Ellis recalls. Although he knew her work, they had never collaborated, so he was surprised, yet thankful, that she chose him. "I was really fortunate to be introduced to theatre at a very young age," he says, adding that he's "thrilled" to be able to do the same for underserved NYC public school students.
Tony Award-winning choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall joined the Wendy Project in 2003. Since then, she's been "working my way through the boroughs," mentoring students from schools in Queens, Brooklyn and now Bronx Health Sciences High School, where the teacher who administers the program is Erica Vargas-Catucci, a member of Wasserstein's inaugural cohort of teens 22 years ago.
"Erica and I always talk about that first group and how special it was," says Marshall. "I had the great privilege of knowing Wendy and working with her. It's just amazing what she started, how many people the program's touched and how many students' lives she's affected."
Many Wendy Project participants have never seen a professional stage production before starting the program. "Broadway can seem daunting to so many young people," says Marshall. "A lot of them think Broadway is out of reach—not just the expense of it, but they think it's just not for them, that it has some sort of elite status. It's a wonderful thing to have these students realize that many shows can speak to them."
That's what happened when Marshall brought her first group of mentees to the 2003 Broadway revival of Wonderful Town, which she directed and choreographed. "I thought, they're going to think this is old-fashioned," she says. "It was written in the '50s and takes place in '30s. But they loved it! They were doing the conga out of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre down 45th Street heading to our discussion. It's a story about sisters and young people coming to New York and trying to make it—they totally connected with it." For her Grown-Up Wendy Virtual Event, she'll be talking about another show she choreographed, the 2001 West End revival of Kiss Me, Kate, which originated on Broadway in 1999 and earned Marshall her first Tony nomination.
"The Wendy Project is probably the most powerful education and outreach program I've ever seen or been a part of," says Dawn Chiang, a veteran lighting designer who became a mentor in 2016. "It's so impactful spending a year with the students, taking them to shows and watching their peer-to-peer interactions. A lot of them speak about how empowering it is to be in conversation with their fellow students as opposed to teachers or other adults. They get to interact with their classmates in a different way. They're talking about human relationships, which isn't usually what you're talking about in history or math. That allows them to open up and take risks and be more than what they think is their prescribed role. I just marvel at that every single year."
For her Grown-Up Wendy Virtual Event, Chiang picked Elaine Stritch: At Liberty because she worked with the late stage legend on a Broadway revival of Showboat, plus "it's such a gem of a piece about an incredible person."
All three mentors agree that the post-show discussions and follow-up writing assignments are what make the Wendy Project, as Chiang says, "truly life-changing." Participants do much more than see a half dozen productions. They improve their critical thinking and become comfortable expressing their own opinions—skills that serve them long after they graduate from the program.
Ellis admits that when he became a father of twins, he considered resigning as a mentor due to lack of time. "It was definitely my out if I was going to get out of this," he says with a laugh. "But I remember thinking, I don't want to get out of it! I grew up with theatre. Seeing how this program affects young people who aren't as privileged has been inspiring."
Visit our Grown-Up Wendy Virtual Events page for the full lineup of offerings. Shows can be watched in advance at your convenience; mentor-led discussions take place on Zoom on designated evenings. All proceeds support TDF's School Programs.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Scott Ellis on the far right, with his Wendy Wasserstein Project students from the Bronx's All Hallows High School and their teacher Paul Fontana. Photo by Lisa Hershey.