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An alum of TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project returns to the program as a teacher
Growing up in the Bronx in the '90s, Erica Vargas-Catucci saw a Playbill long before she ever saw a play. "At the time, I used to help my mother clean houses in Manhattan," she says. "At one, the person always had Playbills on the table in their living room. Sometimes I would peruse them, wishing I had the opportunity to go to the theatre. When that opportunity presented itself through TDF I thought, this is my chance! This is how I will get to see what I've been so curious about."
Vargas-Catucci was a senior at Dewitt-Clinton High School when she was picked to participate in the inaugural group of TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project. The brainchild of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, the Wendy Project (formerly called Open Doors) began as an experiment in 1998. Wasserstein herself took eight high schoolers, including Vargas-Catucci, to seven shows both on Broadway and off 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 grown exponentially and even won a special Tony Honor. Last season, 28 professional artist mentors took 192 students from 24 New York City public schools to 144 shows. And this season, for the first time, a Wendy Project alum has returned to the program with her own group of students. Vargas-Catucci, who teaches 9th grade and AP English at Bronx Health Sciences High School, is thrilled to come full circle—especially since she credits the Wendy Project with instilling the self-assurance to pursue a career in education.
Although Vargas-Catucci always dreamed of becoming a teacher, as an adolescent she worried that she was too shy. "I didn't think I had what it took to stand in front of a classroom and command a bunch of students because of my own perceived limitations," she recalls. That started to change during her time with the Wendy Project. "Wendy always knew when to turn to me, what questions to ask during the post-show discussions that she thought I would have something to say about," Vargas-Catucci says. "I didn't feel confident enough to jump into the conversation, but she always made space for me. It was encouraging that someone that important had that kind of faith in me."
Vargas-Catucci vividly remembers every show she attended with the Wendy Project 20-plus years ago; a revival of On the Town on Broadway (starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson before he became famous on Modern Family) was the first. "It just blew me away," she recalls. "It was very grand and so well-orchestrated. I guess part of me was waiting for somebody to fall down! I remember wondering, how are they not making any mistakes? And how do they do this several times a week? I was amazed."
Of the seven productions Vargas-Catucci saw that season, a field trip to New Haven, Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre to attend An American Daughter—a play about a woman's embattled nomination for Surgeon General written by Wasserstein herself—left the strongest impression. "I think that was my favorite," she says. Initially, "I thought I was very different from Wendy, but with that play, I started to see more ways that we were connected. At the time, I had already been accepted to college and I knew I was going, but I was kind of scared. I wanted to remain true to myself and grow at the same time. In her play, that was a prevalent theme, the idea of existing in this in-between space. That struggle to be truthful to who you are was something I took away from that show.
Vargas-Catucci says the members of the original Wendy Project group have kept in touch all these years. All are theatregoers (Vargas-Catucci went to see Bombay Dreams on one of her first dates with her husband), and a few are involved in the performing artists. "It's a nice family to lean back on," she says. "Along the way some of my peers have done interesting things in the arts. It's nice to see them and provide encouragement."
While the Wendy Project has greatly expanded over the decades, Vargas-Catucci says the format—eight students, one artist mentor, one facilitating teacher, one TDF rep and post-performance discussions over pizza—is the same save for the number of shows seen each season, which is six. Vargas-Catucci's group saw seven because of that bonus out-of-town production of Wasserstein's play.
Vargas-Catucci says her students—who are being mentored by Tony-winning choreographer and director Kathleen Marshall and her husband, Tony-winning producer Scott Landis—have only seen two productions so far: Hadestown and Jagged Little Pill. Both post-show conversations were "pretty agreeable," but she expects more spirited debates soon. "I'm getting the sense that they're opening up to the idea of having different opinions," she says. "They're becoming more comfortable with sharing honestly."
Vargas-Catucci admits that 22 years ago, she didn't know what the future of the Wendy Project would be. But she's glad it's still going. "I think it feels the way that Wendy wanted it to be, where it's happening in many schools," she says. "It feels big; it feels like I'm part of something that's meaningful. I think it's awesome."
Want to experience the Wendy Wasserstein Project yourself? TDF is hosting a Grown-Up Wendy Project Outing on Tuesday, January 28. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for info on available shows, mentors and prices. All proceeds benefit TDF's life-changing Wendy Wasserstein Project.
Top image: the original Wendy Wasserstein Project group from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1998, with Wasserstein center, and Erica Vargas-Catucci in the back row second from left. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.
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