Young Writers Take Their Ideas To ‘Infinity and Beyond’ | chelseanow.com

Young Writers Take Their Ideas To ‘Infinity and Beyond’

Writers from The 52nd Street Project’s Fall 2016 Playmaking Shows: Front, l to r: Hannah Leon, Morgan Smalls, Arden Wolfe and Love Jones. Back, l to r: Ahmed Shabana, Aaron Ordinola, Messiah Green, Aengus O’Donnell, Ryan Billah, and Jade Johnson. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Writers from The 52nd Street Project’s Fall 2016 Playmaking Shows: Front, l to r: Hannah Leon, Morgan Smalls, Arden Wolfe and Love Jones. Back, l to r: Ahmed Shabana, Aaron Ordinola, Messiah Green, Aengus O’Donnell, Ryan Billah, and Jade Johnson. Photo by Winston Rodney.

BY NAEISHA ROSE | On the brisk and windy night of Dec. 2, shoppers crowded the sidewalks of Hell’s Kitchen in search of holiday deals — while inside, families, friends, and patrons of the arts packed the Five Angels Theater to see plays written by kids from the neighborhood. Ranging in age from nine to 11, they represented the fall 2016 crop from The 52nd Street Project’s semi-annual Playmaking series, in which local kids pair up with theater professionals who mentor them. The four-night run of “Infinity and Beyond, The Ultimate Plays” presented the fruits of their collaborative labors to the public for the first time.

A nonprofit founded in 1981, The 52nd Street Project is the brainchild of Ensemble Studio Theater (EST) company member and 1994 MacArthur Fellow Wille Reale, who began the Project as a way to enrich the lives of children attending the Police Athletic League’s Duncan Center after school.

“Willie Reale was 24 years old and spending a lot of time at a developmental theater [EST],” said Gus Rogerson, the Project’s current artistic director. “Someone from PAL went across the street and asked, “We have all these kids; can anybody here teach an acting class?’ ”

“Willie said, ‘I’ll do it,’ ” recalled Rogerson. “He’s a writer, his brother is a composer, and they wrote an original musical to do with the kids — and they did that at EST — and thought, ‘They [were] great, and now we are going to go back and do what we were doing.’ ”

However, one question posed to Reale by a young girl helped to make the 35-year-old institution what it is today, according to Rogerson: “She went up to Willie and went, ‘When is the next show?’ ”

Since then, “the whole organization has been driven by the appetite of the children for these opportunities,” said Rogerson.

Sue Jean Kim, as Hadi, a deer, and Omar Metwally, as Laycayon, a werewolf, in “Laycayon the Werewolf & Hadi the Deer” by Aaron Ordinola, age 9; directed by John Sheehy. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Sue Jean Kim, as Hadi, a deer, and Omar Metwally, as Laycayon, a werewolf, in “Laycayon the Werewolf & Hadi the Deer” by Aaron Ordinola, age 9; directed by John Sheehy. Photo by Winston Rodney.

While the first two decades of the program focused solely on theater curriculum for kids 10 to 18, in the last 15 years The 52nd Street Project grew to include mentoring and after-school programs for homework help, filmmaking, photography, songwriting, storytelling, and dance.

“We’re establishing a podcast, and we continue to create and refine all of the programming. It’s exhausting…in the best way,” said Rogerson.

Before the Playmaking works made their debut on the stage of the 150-seat Five Angels Theater (located at the Project’s 789 10th Ave. address, btw. W. 52nd & W. 53rd Sts.), the neophyte playwrights spent nine weeks crafting their stories.

“We don’t need to teach them about being creative,” said Rogerson. “They are wired to do that — it’s in their DNA. But we teach them what a play is, and how to write one. They learn to write a character profile: How old are they? What is their occupation? Who is their family? What is their habitat? What’s their wish, and what is their fear? Then, they write the play.”

Each play, noted Rogerson, must have “a ‘want.’ There has to be a conflict, and then change — and basically, you’ve written a play.”

Jose Joaquin Perez as Pine, a deer; and Michael Propster as Snowball, a harp seal, in “The Adventure of Snowball and Pine” by Aengus O'Donnell, age 10; directed by Tim J. Lord. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Jose Joaquin Perez as Pine, a deer; and Michael Propster as Snowball, a harp seal, in “The Adventure of Snowball and Pine” by Aengus O’Donnell, age 10; directed by Tim J. Lord. Photo by Winston Rodney.

The one-act plays were written by Ryan Billah, Messiah Green, Jade Johnson, Love Jones, Hannah Leon, Aengus O’Donnell, Aaron Ordinola, Ahmed Shabana, Morgan Smalls, and Arden Wolfe. Among the mentors, who also served as dramaturges/directors, were Jose Gamo, Michelle Taliento, Johanna Vidal and Nicole A. Watson. The cast included Omar Metwally (“Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2” and “Mr. Robot”), Annie Purcell (“The Coast of Utopia” and “Awake and Sing!”), and Stephen O’Reilly (“Orange Is the New Black” and “Girls”). All 20 actors volunteered their talents, without pay.

Avi Amon composed original music, marking the fifth time he’s created melodies for the series. “This is really special,” said Amon. “The kids write all the words; everything — and then they hand you the script.”

“This is the craziest, most imaginative and beautiful thing of all time, and then you work it into a song little-by-little and show it to the actors,” added Amon. “It’s got to be quick, it’s got to be catchy, and you got to think, ‘Would this kid like this song?’ ”

For Love Jones, 9, who wrote “The Swap” — about two classmates that are complete opposites, but bond over a lost loved one — music was her favorite element, “because it represented how my character was feeling.”

“Friends Forever” by Hannah Leon, 9, dealt with what happens when a best friend moves away, and adjusting to a new school — and, like a true friend, she was dying to see the other shows come to life on stage. “I’m most looking forward to seeing my friends’ plays because I want to see what they’re going to do,” said Leon, before the Dec. 2 performance.

Taylor Trensch, as Leon, and Helen Cespedes, as Jessica, in “Friends Forever” by Hannah Leon, age 9; directed by Natalie Hirsch. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Taylor Trensch, as Leon, and Helen Cespedes, as Jessica, in “Friends Forever” by Hannah Leon, age 9; directed by Natalie Hirsch. Photo by Winston Rodney.

“The Hike” and “Brothers in Disguise?,” by Jade Johnson and Messiah Green, respectively, depicted betrayal.

In “The Hike,” Yogi, a floral teacup, is tricked by Fire, a candle, into a yearlong hike into the mountains for lighter oil, but later discovers that her newfound friend simply wanted a companion on her journey to save her father.

Kaaron Briscoe as Yogi, a teacup, and Naomi Lorrain as Fire, a candle, in “The Hike” by Jade Johnson, age 10; directed by Arielle Goldman. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Kaaron Briscoe as Yogi, a teacup, and Naomi Lorrain as Fire, a candle, in “The Hike” by Jade Johnson, age 10; directed by Arielle Goldman. Photo by Winston Rodney.

“Brothers in Disguise?” depicts a man, Stephen, down on his luck after being robbed by Bubba, who he considered his best friend. After a lot of soul searching, the wealthy Bubba tries to reconnect with Stephen, who has been forced to eat pizza all day to survive. Stephen forgives Bubba and they both realize they are long lost brothers and undercover FBI agents.

L to R: Ben Mehl, as Bubba, and Stephen O’Reilly, as Stephen, in “Brothers in Disguise?” by Messiah Green, age 10; directed by Jonathan Bock. Photo by Winston Rodney.

L to R: Ben Mehl, as Bubba, and Stephen O’Reilly, as Stephen, in “Brothers in Disguise?” by Messiah Green, age 10; directed by Jonathan Bock. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Ahmed Shabana, 10, hoped his play would bring some joy to the audience.

“I’m looking forward to [making] people laugh,” said Shabana, whose play “Silly and Boa” features two brother snakes, one serious and one silly, arguing over living space in the forest. After they make peace, they realize that although they have different living styles and have to live apart, they will always have love for each other.

Arden Wolfe, 11, was overwhelmed after seeing her play “Becoming a Manager,” bring joy to the audience. “It was so cool, because it was like seeing all my work come to life; to see a figment of your imagination [up there] is mind-blowing.”

Jenelle Chu, as Jolina, a taco, and Morgan Everitt, as Beana, a burrito, in “Becoming a Manager” by Arden Wolfe, age 11; directed by Rachel Dart. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Jenelle Chu, as Jolina, a taco, and Morgan Everitt, as Beana, a burrito, in “Becoming a Manager” by Arden Wolfe, age 11; directed by Rachel Dart. Photo by Winston Rodney.

Stephen O’Reilly, who played Stephen in “Brothers in Disguise?,” loved the feedback and working with the kids. “It’s like a rock concert,” he said. “The energy here is so positive, and I mentor a kid here and it’s, like, a total joy. What I love is that it is not a training program for kids; it is using the arts to give them a good foundation for self-expression and positive reinforcement — and it seems they get a lot out of it.

For more information about all of the programming at The 52nd Street Project, visit 52project.org.

L to R: Jennifer Van Dyck, as Katlen, and Mozhan Marno, as May, in “The 2 and 3 Musketeers” by Morgan Smalls, age 10; directed by Alexandra O'Daly. Photo by Winston Rodney.

L to R: Jennifer Van Dyck, as Katlen, and Mozhan Marno, as May, in “The 2 and 3 Musketeers” by Morgan Smalls, age 10; directed by Alexandra O’Daly. Photo by Winston Rodney.