I’m thrilled to have been a part of the incredible Mantua Theater Project this past weekend, sponsored by Drexel University and created by Drexel Theatre Program head Nick Anselmo. Nick modeled it on New York City’s 52nd Street Project where he used to work, based at my old stomping grounds The Ensemble Studio Theatre. He also previously replicated this phenomenal organization at a theatre in Trenton, NJ several years ago to work with economically disadvantaged kids there. Now he has replicated it for at-risk 4th through 8th graders in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood which borders Drexel’s campus.
Nick’s technique is based on Daniel Judah Sklar‘s book Playmaking: Children Writing and Performing Their Own Plays which was the foundation for the 52nd Street Project. This summer’s inaugural program at Drexel took place over the course of four weeks during which Nick taught the basics of playwriting to about a dozen kids.
After that, the students were paired with professional playwrights for a retreat weekend, working one-on-one to create short plays. That’s where I came in, helping an energetic 8-year-old girl realize her awesome creative vision with her Peter Panlike fantasy play Croc Galore which is 7 pages of poignancy and hilarity about two orphaned creatures helping each other survive in a jungle full of traps, danger and liars. Hers and the other students’ plays are now being handed off to professional directors and actors, and will culminate with a performance for these young writers’ friends, families and community members on Drexel’s main stage, the Mandell Theatre, in August. I plan to be there front row, center.
As Drexel’s website accurately puts it, “the process yields funny, creative, surprisingly truthful and often hilarious results. Along the way students develop self-esteem as they create something to be proud of.” Drexel students are also helping with various aspects of the program. Education, and Screenwriting & Playwriting students will be involved in the classes, and Theater students and alumni will help with the production.
For me, a similar lifesaving program didn’t come along until I was a teenager. That program was the Young Writers Workshop at UVa which I’m glad to see is still going strong. Thanks to a partial financial aid scholarship from the good old Vinton, VA Moose Lodge across the street from my high school (thanks to the efforts of my profoundly influential 10th grade English teacher and lifetime friend Rose Townsend) and a donation from my now-departed grandmother, Ethel Orelia, who had an 8th grade education and had been out picking tobacco at the age of 4, I was able to attend the 2-week UVa workshop two summers in a row. The experiences I had there — visiting a college campus for the first time, getting a taste of college life, meeting professional writers and other like-minded kids — set the course of the rest of my life. I had been raised in a cash-strapped single-parent home and wound up becoming the first person in my family to attend college, let alone grad school, moving to New York City at age 19 with a one-way ticket and a duffle bag, and went on to terrific success as a dramatist and university faculty, and it all started because a writing workshop presented itself to me out of the blue.
I hope that my thimbleful of work this weekend yields similar results for these kids someday. Not that they all need to become playwrights but that they see there’s a whole, wonderful world just outside the borders of their own neighborhood and that they’re just as entitled to participate in it and have a piece of it as anyone else.
Congratulations to Nick Anselmo and the Mantua Theater Project.