by Mark Blankenship
On May 27, the crowd gathered at Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School was both incredibly diverse and entirely the same. It was easy to spot a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright toasting sodas with a high school senior, or a Tony Award-winning director running to hug a drama teacher in the school's auditorium. Though they came from all walks of the city's life, the group was united by their belief that theatre is the birthright of every New Yorker.
More specifically, these roughly three hundred people were celebrating the graduation of the latest class of Open Doors, Theatre Development Fund's long-running arts education program.
Founded by TDF and the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein in 1998, Open Doors pairs top theater professionals with a group of eight high school seniors from a New York City public high school. Together, the students and their professional mentor attend six theatre outings in the course of a school year, and they follow each performance with a ninety-minute post-performance discussion over pizza and soda. These discussions are the program's core, encouraging students to freely express themselves about what they've seen and how it relates to their lives, all while learning about the craft and art of theater from their mentor.
At this year's graduation ceremony, almost two hundred students, representing twenty-one schools in all five boroughs, gathered to reflect on what they'd learned and how Open Doors might affect their future.
"I learned about myself by going through the whole process, seeing all the themes in the plays and seeing which ones I liked" said Lusine Galoyan of Forest Hills High School in Queens. Gaetano Semilia, a student at Brooklyn's High School for Telecommunications, said that because he has done some acting, he entered Open Doors thinking he didn't have much to learn about the theater. "I thought I knew a lot," he said. "But I knew nothing compared to what I've learned."
In speeches given during the official graduation ceremony, several students and alums clarified how the program has affected them. Drusilla Ollennu, from Harlem's Young Women's Leadership School, spoke of being from a very conservative family and said the program had broadened her understanding of how other people think. She specifically praised her mentor, lyricist David Zippel, saying, "His openness has been a model for me to live my life sincerely and openheartedly."
Yscaira Jiminez, who was part of the first Open Doors graduating class in 1999, spoke of how the program's post-show discussions helped inspire her to found La Pregunta Arts Café, a "cultural social club" in upper Manhattan. "I realized that the biggest 'thank you' I could give [Wendy Wasserstein] and all those who made this program possible was to continue passing the gift forward," she said.
It wasn't just the students, however, who said Open Doors affected them. Opening the graduation ceremony, which also featured a student performance of "Those Canaan Days" from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
, playwright David Henry Hwang described how close he felt to his students after two years of mentoring. He admitted that he was still largely unpacked after a recent move, but that one of the first things he'd pulled out his boxes was a graduation gift his first group of students made for him.
Mingling at the reception before the ceremony, mentor Rachel Sheinken and guest mentor Adam Bock, both playwrights, explained why they enjoyed the programs' post-show discussions. "The students see things in the show that I don't see," Sheinkin said. "I feel like I end up learning things from them every time."
Bock added, "I love talking about the shows with these guys because they're so honest. They're blunter than my friends who are in theater. They'll say, 'I like it' or 'I don't like it.' That's refreshing because we lie to each other a little bit when we all meet each other."
Ideally, those lively conversations will lead to a lifelong theatre habit, and that may be the case with Christopher Ferreiras of Louis D. Brandeis High School in Manhattan. "Before Open Doors, whenever I trekked across 42nd Street, I'd get so upset and annoyed seeing the sight of tourists waiting in a huge line to see a Broadway show," he said in a speech. "I'm asking myelf, 'Why? Would a person want to watch a show in a theater when there are movies?"
At that, he paused for effect. Then he added, "I feel completely differently now. It's so amazing. I've come to learn and understand that theatre is truly a magnificent work of art."
Learn more about TDF/Open Doors