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A community-based arts organization teaches kids skills that extend well beyond the stage
When the young actors and playwrights participating in The 52nd Street Project's shows take their final bows to wild applause, it's thrilling fun for the kids. But on a deeper level, long after the curtain comes down, alumni routinely discover how "The Project" profoundly influenced their futures.
"The Project taught me that I could take things head on," says alumnus Alvin Garcia, who's now attending the University of Michigan. "It took me on the path to where I am today, helping me get into college and giving me the confidence to do whatever I needed to do."
Founded in 1981, The 52nd Street Project is an arts organization that brings together kids from Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood with theatre professionals -- including actors, directors, and playwrights -- to create original productions that are presented for free to the public. The nonprofit's numerous acting and playwriting programs stress literacy and life skills under an umbrella of caring mentorship. Several of its workshops take place in country retreats, offering many Project kids their first out-of-city experience.
Upon enrolling with The Project at age 11, Garcia discovered that acting could directly address a personal challenge. "I had a speech problem," he explains. "I spoke too fast and didn't enunciate, so I didn't like to talk because people didn't understand what I was saying. At The Project, I learned how to slow things down and speak clearly. And it resonated when I was onstage. I speak better now and have more confidence."
Project artistic director, Gus Rogerson, says that such skills inform far more than just stagecraft. "We give every kid the same direction: 'Be loud and clear.' We say that over and over. Essentially, we're telling them: 'We want to see you and we want to hear you.' That's something that has a big impact on all of the kids that come through. For a lot of the kids, it's a new thing for them to hear from an adult: 'I want to hear what you have to say.'"
Jenisse Bouret, who recently graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a BA in Journalism in Spanish, joined The Project at age 10. Like Garcia, she participated in ascending offerings, eventually joining The Teen Project, an advanced two-year program that culminates in a Shakespeare production presented at The Project's Five Angels Theater and another venue outside New York City.
Many Project grads have continued on to theatre or media careers, and Bouret shares those aspirations. "I developed a love for acting because of The Project," she says. "I just remember feeling empowered and thinking, ‘Okay, I have the talent to do this.'"
Bouret traveled on a memorable trip to Canada with The Teen Project to perform The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Banff Centre and the University of Calgary. "One of the Canadian actors there told me, 'You're going to be a star' and that still resonates with me today because I know that, no matter what I do, I can be great at it. I'm still terrified of being on stage but I love performing because my goal is to be an on-air talent in the media industry."
Alumna Johanna Vidal represents a full-circle success story. "At The Project, I learned to take risks and take responsibility," she says. "And it was also important to me knowing that there was always someone there who appreciated me as a kid; it was like my second home."
Her increased confidence and go-getter attitude led her to attend the University of Michigan with the aid of a Project scholarship program. Impressed with her focus and determination, The Project offered Johanna a full-time position following her graduation.
Now serving as The Project's community coordinator, Johanna supports participating kids and their families. Says Rogerson, "She's an incredible staff member. We've now gotten to the point where we'll all ask her, 'Johanna, what should we do?'"
Upcoming productions at The Project's Five Angels Theater include two collections of mini-musicals: Clothes Lines: Plays from the Costume Trunk (July 22-24) and Clothes Lines: Plays from the Costume Trunk, Round Two (Aug 19-21).
Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.
Photos by Winston Rodney. Top image: the cast of The Teen Project's The Two Gentlemen of Verona with Jenisse Bouret at center.
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