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This teen didn't think theatre was for her. Now she can't get enough of it
A few Sundays ago, a cohort of students from Queens' William Cullen Bryant High School went to see the Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me. Happily, this was not a novel experience for them. As participants in TDF's education initiative the Wendy Wasserstein Project, the eight classmates and their teacher attended six shows this season with their mentor, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and director James Lapine.
But there was something different about their Constitution outing: One of the students, 18-year-old senior Thursday Williams, wasn't in the audience. Instead she was in the show, debating the merits of our country's founding document with the play's creator and star, Heidi Schreck.
Formerly known as Open Doors, the Wendy Project was launched in 1998 by TDF and the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein. That first year was an experiment, as Wasserstein herself took eight high schoolers to seven shows to find out if theatre could captivate the hearts and minds of a new generation. As she 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 expanded exponentially. This past season, 28 mentors took 192 students from 24 New York City public schools to 144 shows. At an annual June celebration every year, Wendy Project alums from the past two decades come back and gush about how going to the theatre -- something many of them had never done before joining the program -- has enhanced their lives.
Theatre has certainly had a life-changing effect on Thursday Williams. Although she was cast in Constitution before becoming part of Wendy Project, the teacher who facilitates the program at her school, Kelly Gilles, had a hand in helping Williams land the part. "New York Theatre Workshop [which produced the play before it transferred to Broadway] reached out to several high schools with an audition opportunity for the show," recalls Gilles. "My colleague Allissa Crea, who's also worked with TDF, brought this to Thursday's attention, and we started coaching her at the end of her junior year." As a politically active student with crack debating skills and an interest in law, Gilles soon realized Williams wasn't just perfect for Constitution, she would also make a wonderful addition to her school's Wendy Project group.
"All the Wendy Project students are handpicked by teachers -- we look for diversity in gender and race so that the room is rich for discussion," Gilles explains. "I joined about 12 years and two schools ago, when it was still called Open Doors. I remember I received an email from TDF inviting me into the program, and it was so lovely that I thought it was a hoax. I almost deleted it! But my wife encouraged me to write back, just in case it was real." Gilles was paired with mentor James Lapine, who selects the shows with input from the students, and they've been taking teens to theatre ever since.
Some Wendy Project participants start out skeptical about the transformative power of the performing arts, including Williams. She admits that, even a year ago, "I actually didn't like theatre that much, which seems really crazy! But I've developed a real passion for it because of this program. I love seeing plays. I love seeing how the stories unfold and then meeting with James and talking about them."
Being in a show has stoked her interest, too. During the play, Schreck recreates the scholarship-winning speeches she gave about the U.S. Constitution as a teen while simultaneously commenting from her adult perspective on its flaws. Williams (who alternates in her role with Rosdely Ciprian) comes on toward the end to spar with Schreck. The one-act delves into a host of hot-button topics such as reproductive rights, domestic violence and depression, and Williams knows firsthand how much the production is resonating with audiences -- including her fellow Wendy Project participants.
"The show shines a light on something real," Williams says. "It made me become a feminist. During our Wendy Project post-show discussion, I shared a very personal story and explained that the reason I connect so well with this show is that every time Heidi goes on stage, it's like she's telling my story and my family's story. You would never think that anything I shared had happened to me. I always have a smile on my face and I always move on. Then one of my peers began crying and shared her story. Ms. Gilles started tearing up, too. If it was up to me, every woman in this country would see this show."
"I think Thursday's a really good representative of a Wendy Project student, she's an incredible young woman," says Gilles, adding that TDF and its education and engagement programs have been "a godsend" for her pupils, many of whom face incredible challenges. "When I first started with TDF, none of my kids had been to a show -- there was just no funding for that. Kids who are in the program really fall in love with theatre and become really opinionated about it. The Wendy Project allows children to look at the world through theatre and discuss the issues that surround them in a different way. They can be very deep and very personal, and everyone walks away from the program different -- including the teacher and the mentor."
Although Williams intends to go into politics -- "the show made me want to run for Congress" -- she acknowledges she's been bitten by the acting bug. She recently auditioned for another Broadway (though she didn't get the part) and she's considering minoring in theatre when she attends Trinity College in Hartford as a political science major this fall. Whatever she ends up pursuing, it's clear that theatre will continue to be a significant part of her life, and the Wendy Project has been a big part of making that happen.
"Like Thursday, most of my children are immigrants," says Gilles. "The Wendy Project gives them cultural capital to go into the world and into rooms with professionals and have a different level of discussion. It arms them with that skill and levels the playing field. That to me is one of the reasons I love the program so much, because it's not just about the shows. The discussions are why the kids come back."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Wendy Wasserstein Project mentor James Lapine, Thursday Williams and Kelly Gilles after a performance of What the Constitution Means to Me.
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