RI Artscape: A New Approach To Children's Theatre In Providence

Oct 27, 2016

Live theater is thriving in Rhode Island, and one program may inspire a new generation of playwrights. The Manton Avenue Project has kids write the plays and adult actors bring them to life. Rhode Island Public Radio intern Tarpley Hitt went to a performance to check it out.  

On a Saturday evening, kids race around a small stage in Roger Williams Memorial Park, fighting for the best patch of grass. Parents lean back on beach chairs as two performers enter with microphones.

“Me and LK have been friends for two or three years now,” said the actor. “We met at children’s school. I got a bad grade because they swapped my test by accident.”

These two friends happen to be a walrus named Alex and a teddy bear named LK. The walrus wears long, felt tusks. The bear’s got fuzzy ears and an AT&T nametag -- he’s a phone sales specialist.

In case the talking walrus didn't clue you in: this is children’s theatre. But the leads are full grown men -- professional actors, in fact. Tonight, they’re volunteering for the Manton Avenue Project, a playwriting program for students in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood.

From the audience, Manton Avenue director Meg Sullivan watches the performers intently. Sullivan knows tonight’s plays well -- she worked with the playwright -- third grader Roberto Guifarro -- for months.

“What’s really cool about seeing the plays they end up writing is seeing how each of them is really expressing an incredible sense of empathy for each other for the characters, for the simple idea of helping each other out,” said Sullivan.

Manton Avenue’s main exercise in empathy comes with writing characters-- when kids are challenged to step into someone else’s shoes. One of tonight’s playwrights, Angela Vinas, describes her protagonist.

“Kathy, the bird, she is a brave bird,” said Vinas. “And she was mad that her parents left her behind. But at the end, when she got to see them again, she was happy again and she was brave again.”

Academic settings geared towards reading and math, might not emphasize skills like empathy and conflict resolution, but they’re themes that come up again and again in writing. Live theatre may have a unique ability to address them.

It’s really about that moment that happens in live performance where we can all imagine a better world,” said Sullivan. “We, together, have experienced this “liveness” where we can see something bigger than ourselves and it’s empowering us to leave the theatre and want to do better.”

And Sullivan said that feeling isn’t just for kids. Often, adults need crash courses in empathy, and sometimes children are the best teachers.

“I think in their ability to empathize, in their ability to say --well do you want to be friends, right? Despite our differences, despite the fact that we just had a really big challenge that we had to face together,” said Sullivan. “I think that’s such a big lesson for all of us.”