A young group of actors are travelling 3,300 km to perform William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the University of Calgary on June 29. The performance is the final leg of New York theatre company 52nd Street Project’s Teen Ensemble program, a theatre troupe comprised of 10 high school students between the ages of 16 and 18, all of whom have been members of the company since they were 10 years old.
The 52nd Street Project is a not-for-profit community-based theatre company that for the past 32 years has been working to create original theatre with kids from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood. Kids start as young as nine years old and are matched with volunteer writers, directors and actors from the community — many of whom are film and Broadway veterans. The company provides a mentorship-based program for children to learn in, while still offering an arena where they can develop and work on their individual voice.
“It’s all about giving them an experience of success, surrounding them with wonderful, talented artists,” associate artistic director Megan Cramer says, who is directing this year’s Teen Ensemble production.
These kids have the opportunity to stay with the company until they finish high school. They spend their final two years at the company in the Teen Ensemble.
“We teach them how to write a play and take them on a weekend retreat where they write a play for two adult actors to perform,” Cramer says. “Then, we produce those plays here with volunteer professional actors and the kids get to see their plays fully realized on stage, which is a really wonderful thing.”
For their final production, the Teen Ensemble will be performing first in New York, then in Calgary and Banff. Calgary is the furthest west the ensemble has ever ventured on their tour.
“I know it’s very far away and very pretty and I’m really excited to go there,” 16-year-old Lily Chapstick says, who plays Feste the Fool in Twelfth Night. “I love going to new places and it’ll be really interesting to perform somewhere other than New York and to explore this part of the world I’ve never seen before.”
Although the Teen Ensemble is performing a Shakespeare play, their goal was to bring as much of this particular ensemble’s personality to it as possible so it really feels like them.
“You’re literally having to disguise yourself as a boy when you’re a girl, showing a lot of false love rather than being true about your feelings, and they really dug into that and identified with that,” Cramer says. “And of course we got into all sorts of fun debates about men and women, love and love triangles.”
“It’s made me better at being open to different things and people,” 17-year-old Alvin Garcia says, who will play Duke Orsino. “And I feel that it made me a better person.”
This is Cramer’s first time directing the Shakespeare play, although she was involved with the last three ensemble groups in other ways.
“It has been an enormous creative challenge and opportunity for me,” Cramer says. “Especially this time around because I’ve been here eight years, I’ve known all of these 10 teenagers since their very first day here so I feel such a strong emotional connection to them and I also feel like I really understand them. I really wanted to be able to be a part of this creative process with them, so it’s been really fun.”
Cramer started as a volunteer and mentor before she became a member of the staff where she has worked for eight years.
Cramer says a lot of how kids get involved is word of mouth. The company gets a lot of the neighbourhood kids because of the great relationship they have with the elementary school across the street.
Kids also get involved through friends, family members and now children of past members since the company has been active for so many years — kids they call “legacies.”
The program is free for the kids — the company is passionate about serving kids who might not get that opportunity to get this kind of experience anywhere else.
Twelfth Night by the 52nd Street Project is showing at the F.R. Matthews Theater at the University of Calgary on Saturday, June 29 at 7:30 p.m. The performance is free.
After Calgary, they will continue on their Canadian tour at the Margaret Greenham Theatre at The Banff Centre, on Wednesday, July 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be $15 for adults, $14 for seniors and $10 for children.