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On a screen above the stage, a cartoon chair tumbles down a staircase, and then, from the wings, emerges an actor, sitting on a rolling office chair. Relishing her freedom, Lindy, the chair, doesn’t realize she’s headed straight into a tree named Adam.
“You woke me up! And tomorrow I’m going to find a job!” Adam says.
“Sorry—but, why do you want a job?” Lindy replies.
“To have money to buy a house. I don’t want to live with my dad anymore!”
“The house wouldn’t happen to have… furniture, right? … My dream is to meet new furniture!”
The audience laughs, and over the next 15 minutes, Adam and Lindy go from bickering housemates to best friends. Throughout the performance, at stage right sits nine-year-old Katty Lopez, behind a desk with a plaque that reads “The Playwright.”
“The kids have a right to express themselves and take pride in what they’ve created,” said John Sheehy, who’s worked at The Project for 20 years. “The audience watching the play can see there’s the author right there who wrote this play that’s being performed.”
Furniture and Trees was one of six plays put on by The 52nd Street Project in December. It’s an organization that teaches children aged nine and older to write plays. The collection, Piece of Cake: The Slice of Life Plays, was the product of nine weeks of afterschool “playmaking” classes offered by The Project last fall.
The 52nd Street Project is turning 40 this year. Over that time, it has built a community in Hell’s Kitchen around creating theater. Some of its staff and members’ parents participated as kids. And while the pandemic has forced some elements of their programming online, they’ve maintained steady participation, with 180 members even through the ups and downs of remote learning.
“If you hate doing writing, which I used to … they make writing fun for you, and just before you know it, time flies by, and you want to come again,” said Giovanni Benedicto, 10, in an interview on The Project’s podcast, the PROJcast. “But guess what, you have to wait a whole ’nother week.”
The students didn’t always have to wait a week between meetings — the organization’s space on 52nd and 10th, affectionately called the Clubhouse, has long been an afterschool destination for hanging out and homework. The Clubhouse was closed to members who weren’t coming in for a class until just last week, when it reopened for homework help and free time twice a week.
“This was my second home when I was a kid,” said Johanna Vidal, who’s now The Project’s Director of Education. With strict parents, Vidal said The Project was one of the only places she was allowed to go after school. She’s loved seeing other kids have a similar experience, but says that over the past two years, the community has taken a hit.
“Not being able to come after school and hang out with their friends and you know, just be here, has affected them,” she said. “So they’re not as connected with us as they usually would be.”
Despite the Clubhouse going offline, The Project has been able to hold performances in person since last summer. Piece of Cake was put on in The Project’s Five Angels Theater, in December.
Still, The Project is a fixture in the neighborhood, with many members sticking with it through their teens. Playmaking is the gateway program; after completing the classes and putting on the show, members can move an array of other arts and theater mentorship programs and classes until they graduate high school.
“Everyone’s really friendly, which I don’t have in my school and afterschool,” said Katty, on the PROJcast. “So I think the fun part of being here is everyone being friendly, and they just want you to talk more.”
Katty said her play was inspired by her relationship with her sister. Her main characters each have their own goals — the tree to find a job, and the chair to meet new furniture — but in Katty’s words, they realize that “they don’t want what they have, they just want each other.”
The latest eight members of The Project are halfway through their spring playmaking classes. While they’re hard at work scripting, The Project held its next production, Flying Solo, a series of spoken word pieces performed by their kid poets earlier this month.
“All the work that we do is basically all new work either written by kids for adults to perform or written by an adult for kids to perform, or some combination of writing for each other,” Sheehy said. “So that’s always new and fresh and exciting.”
The mission of The 52nd Street Project, a community-based arts organization, is to bring together kids from Hell’s Kitchen, starting at age ten and lasting through their teens, with theater professionals to create original theater offered free to the general public. More details at 52project.org