Arts & Culture

On and off stage, Olneyville kids write their own stories

Manton Avenue Project empowers disadvantaged youth through playwriting mentorship program

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 14, 2014

While standardized testing and data benchmarks dominate national discourse around public education, the Manton Avenue Project places creativity center stage. MAP, modeled after the 52nd Street Project in New York City, aims to improve quality of life for children in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood through engagement with theater.

Under the mentorship of professional theater artists, children write and develop original plays to be directed and performed by professionals in the Providence area.

Past productions have addressed such themes as the plight of endangered animal species and the role of music in facilitating social change in American history, said Meg Sullivan, MAP’s executive artistic director.

 

Exposition

MAP founder Jenny Peek worked as a stage manager in New York City for over 10 years. But she said her involvement with MAP was more valuable than any of her other work in theater.

“There are children who don’t understand how powerful they are and can be,” Peek said, adding that her experience with the program sharpened her perspective on how her achievements were influenced by her own background.

“I was raised by people who pushed me and who believed in my future success, and I was lucky enough to be a part of an economic demographic where people expected me to be successful,” she said. “But so many people don’t have that, and I think that’s ridiculous.”

Each year, MAP admits 10 new third-graders from the Olneyville neighborhood.

Students learn “the basics of dialogue and monologue, conflict and resolution” in small, often volunteer-taught classes and through one-on-one playwriting mentorship, Sullivan said. The playwriting sessions are especially intensive — five hours a day for two days — but mentors work hard to keep children motivated, asking questions to prompt plot and character development, she added.

 

Rising action

Sullivan said she strongly believes in playwriting’s power to cultivate the imagination both inside and outside of the script — from peacefully resolving a conflict to “finding creative alternatives” to obstacles.

“I think that communicating how much we value their imagination is the most important thing we can do for kids now,” Sullivan added, citing increasingly standardized school curricula as a reason students may believe “creativity is not valued in our culture.”

Peek emphasized the importance of instilling the virtues of industry and determination in the children.

“We don’t just pat them on the back. If they want to take that bow at the end of their play, they have to work at it. They have to earn the accolades,” she said, adding that the idea is to spark a sense of self-worth in all areas of life.

Students exhibit measurable growth in self-esteem over the course of the program, wrote Kelly Seigh, MAP chair of the board, in an email to The Herald.

“Many of the older kids have come back to help the younger kids, and time and time again, I notice their poise and confidence, and I can’t help but think that MAP has played a very important role in their lives,” she wrote.

 

Conflict

Over its decade-long history, MAP has encountered many challenges, often due to its limited budget, Peek said.

MAP can currently afford to pay only one full-time staff member — Sullivan. As a result, she is responsible for a number of duties, including teaching classes, producing shows, writing grants and recruiting volunteers who “keep everything going,” she said.

For nine years, a major logistical obstacle was having no official headquarters. But last year, the Olneyville Housing Corporation donated an abandoned building on Putnam Street, which was renovated into the “Clubhouse,” the program’s offices and performing space.

Sullivan said the building has drastically improved MAP’s ability to meet its goals.

“Before, I was literally working out of my dining room and carting everything around in my car,” she said. “Now, all of our props and costumes are here on site. We have classrooms. We can hold rehearsals and workshops. We’ve become a hub in the community.”

The additional space has also allowed her to begin pursuing a teen program, which would continue the mentorship MAP provides to younger children throughout high school, Sullivan added.

 

Resolution

Logistics aside, a major challenge remains in debunking misconceptions surrounding the plays, Peek said, explaining that people often automatically dismiss the quality of each show before they’ve seen it on the basis that it was written by a child.

But the quality of the performance is surprising for those who don’t expect it, Sullivan said.

“I’m moved by how they really understand the characters they’re writing — how much empathy and creativity and passion they show,” she said, especially when a child addresses painful or uncomfortable issues.

Volunteers echoed this sentiment.

“I can honestly say that some of my favorite lines ever spoken on stage have been written by a seven-year-old. There is a certain humor, honesty and life perspective that the kids are able to capture in their writing,” wrote Seigh.

Melissa Bowler, a local actor, estimates that she has volunteered for roughly 20 MAP shows in seven years. And the material in the shows is “refreshing and exciting to create,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

“The best part is the magical moment that happens every opening night when you get to watch the kids watch their plays come to life for the first time,” she wrote.

“Be my ally: the upstander play” opens tonight at 7 p.m. in the Media and Performing Arts Center at the Met School at 325 Public Street. The show will also run Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets, according to the MAP website, are “pay-what-you-can.”