Grown-up actors, elementary school lines

Theater Dept.
By LIZ LEE  |  November 6, 2013

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'A TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE' at MAP.

In a once-abandoned storefront in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood, three actors are going over their lines for an upcoming performance. The space is filled with props in various states of completion — a cardboard wheelbarrow, a bunch of carrots — and a handmade sign on the wall instructs players how to pronounce the word Woonasquatucket: woon-AHS-kwa-tuk-it. Bass thumping from a neighboring apartment reverberates the walls like a giant heartbeat as the director asks them, for the fifth time, to take the scene from the top. One of the actors starts to sweat. The playwright, not present, is in the fourth grade.

The play, titled How Red Carrots Can Walk, is part of the latest installment of shows put on by the Manton Avenue Project (MAP), a nonprofit uniting children from Olneyville with local artists to create original theater. It works like this: third and fourth grade students from William D’Abate Elementary School write plays with the help of a MAP dramaturge, and a volunteer cast of adult actors performs them for the community. “There’s something really incredible and weird and magical about the plays,” says Erin Olson, an actress who’s been working with MAP since 2007. “It sort of just allows your brain to enter this kid state. It’s amazing.”

Founded on the idea that theater is a powerful tool for personal and social change, MAP is now in its ninth year. Executive artistic director Meg Sullivan says the program’s success lies in the talent of its dedicated volunteers and the amazing brains of Olneyville students. “I am always so moved by the very radical action of putting a child into a position of power,” she says. “MAP kids come up with characters and creative solutions to problems that are so beyond the box.” Olson agrees with this sentiment. Her eyes light up as she gives a synopsis of one of her favorite MAP plays involving a Grammy Award-winning Shar-Pei and the world’s saddest lighthouse. Says Sullivan, “It’s a transformative experience for everyone involved.”

Olneyville is a neighborhood that’s as renowned for its arts community as it is for having one of the city’s highest concentrations of families living below the poverty level. This, Sullivan says, is why MAP took root here. “Olneyville is a community with amazing families and teachers and an incredible sense of community and history, yet it’s a neighborhood in which incomes are low, unemployment is high, and families have been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.” As an underserved population, says Sullivan, students here reap tremendous benefits from having their ideas and voices not only heard, but heralded as works of art.

Likewise, audience members benefit from being exposed to memorable theater experiences — like the upcoming play about a friendship forged over a mutual love of vegetables that hilariously turns into a promo for a fried chicken restaurant in Eagle Square. That particular play, Dangerous Rabbits, will appear as part of this season’s show, for which MAP playwrights have teamed up with South Side Community Land Trust to create works based on the experience of planting and growing. Jealous carrots, vengeful bunnies, and tomatoes skilled in the art of self-defense are just some of the characters that pop up over the course of nine plays. And because adults never edit the playwrights’ words, audience members can expect dialogue and narratives that are at times profound, bizarre, and magical.

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