Interview: John Sheehy from 52nd Street Project

This blog is a part of www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.

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I recently heard about the 52nd Street Project from my friend Kim D. Sherman, who is the gifted composer of O PIONEERS!, which I had the pleasure of musical directing at Marymount Manhattan College this past Fall. Nestled in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, The 52nd Street Project is a non-profit organization that brings children from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood together with professional theater artists to create original theater.

Walking into the organization’s colorful space, I was immediately transported back to my 8 year old self. Weird-awesome mobiles dangle from the ceiling, artful cut-outs of random objects placed on the wall in a perfectly haphazard way. All this, while climbing up to the Five Angels Theater (aptly named, given the hike up to the third floor). In short, this is the playground I wish I had had growing up (not to knock my hometown, which I love…).

John Sheehy, the organization’s Director of Development and Marketing, also makes one fine singing space alien, as evident in community’s recent performances of HERE. ME. NOW. The Present Plays this past July. HERE. ME. NOW. is a production of their One-on-One program, which is designed to give children the opportunity to go away for one-week stays in the country and enjoy the undivided attention of a professional theater artist who serves as their friend, mentor and collaborator.

I recently sat down with John as they prepare for the second edition of HERE. ME. NOW.

Tell us a bit more about The 52nd Street Project. How long have you been part of the community?

John Sheehy
John Sheehy

The 52nd Street Project is about 34 years-old and I’ve been privileged to be a part of it for over 16 years, now. The Project is my favorite not-for-profit in New York City. I have often said that this will be my last job in Development. I had gotten to a point in my Development career where I was not feeling the impact of my efforts and I was becoming disillusioned. I had started to look for work outside of the field. Then the Project called and asked if I would be interested in the position of Director of Development and Marketing. I had already known the Project for a couple of years and I immediately said, “Yes!” It is the most fulfilling and satisfying job I’ve had. The work with the kids, the creative atmosphere, the fun, the amazing staff and the talented and generous volunteers, the great board of directors: it all adds up to a dream job.

To give you a little history, The 52nd Street Project started out, back in 1981, at the Police Athletic League on West 52nd between 10th & 11th Aves. They were looking for someone to lead a theater class for the kids and so called Ensemble Studio Theatre across the street. Project Founder Willie Reale happened to answer that call. Ever since then, the Project has been creating original, hilarious, engaging and engrossing theater with the kids of the neighborhood in conjunction with professional theater artists. And everything is free. There is no charge for the kids to participate in the programming and the resulting productions are all free and open to the general public. People can donate what they’d like on the way out by putting money in the hat at the door.

So everything at the Project comes down to Development. There are year-round programs, classes, trips, rehearsals and productions and it all requires the support of generous individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies. But making the case for the Project could not be simpler. To sit in the theater for one of the Project’s shows is to have a visceral experience of the programming. You can feel the joy and the sense of pride that the kids get from their efforts. It is infectious, and being connected to the Project in any way — as a supporter, staff member, Board member, volunteer artist, intern, audience member, etc. — it all makes you feel good

I am lucky in that I get to participate in the programming in all aspects. I have training in theater from my undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, to my MFA in Dramatic Writing from Brandeis University. So I’ve had a chance to do it all, and at the Project I’ve acted, directed, written, worked on the technical side and as a part of the front-of-house crew. I’ve also participated in our academic mentoring programming called Smart Partners. It’s a tremendous place to work.

The One-on-One program sounds like an amazing experience for children who are interested in the arts. How long has the program been in existence?

The One-on-Ones is the part of the current programming that has been going on the longest. It started almost 30 years ago. In fact, it’s the program for which Willie Reale got his MacArthur “genius” grant.

In the early years, Willie mostly created shows in collaboration with his brother Rob Reale, the composer. These were silly, fun and funny musicals. The nature of most shows is that usually the most talented, adept, and/or charismatic person gets the lead. But the amazing insight that Willie eventually had was that it’s the kid least likely to be cast a the lead who could benefit the most from having that experience. This is what lead to the creation of the One-on-Ones. He conceived of pairing each kid with an adult professional tasked with creating a show for the kid to star in and then working directly with that kid to create a positive, successful experience.

Another challenge that Willie faced in the early days was getting kids to show up for rehearsal. He was constantly chasing down the block or to the school yard to find the kids who were supposed to be in the shows. So he hit upon the idea of taking everyone on a retreat out of the city to rehearse. This has the dual benefit of widening the kid’s world-view by taking them out of their environment, while also ensuring that they are going to be there the next day for rehearsal. Willie’s family had a presence on Block Island and that’s where the Project started going back in 1987, and we’ve been back every July since. We have long since added a second iteration of the program each August, and we’ve taken the kids to Tannersville, NY; to Tyler Hill, PA; and currently to Wareham, MA.

What is the time commitment for the professional artists and children involved? What does a typical day look like?

This is one of our more intensive commitments for the adult artists who work with us. That’s because of the week away prior to the week of performances here in the city. So the authors meet their kid and write the play two to three weeks ahead of the trip. Just before we leave the composer gets the lyrics (typically 12 – 19 songs in a production, including a theme song that the entire cast performs before each show). This way they can sometimes get a jump on writing the music before they’re on the retreat with everyone. Sometimes this works out, sometimes all of the songs get written on the trip, while the composer/Music Director is also teaching music and rehearsing with the casts of the ten shows.

Each day on the trip starts at the main house with breakfast for everyone at 9 a.m., then a meeting at 10 a.m., followed by rehearsal until 1 p.m., and then lunch for about an hour. Then we hit the beach, usually until about 4 p.m. We return to the main house for snack and then another hour of rehearsal from 5 – 6 p.m. Then (another genius move) there’s adult-time/kid-time, which is an hour when the adults gather for a little wine and cheese and to discuss how things are going, while the kids and the interns run around like mad outdoors. Dinner for everyone around 7 p.m. The evening ends around 8:30 or 9 p.m.and everyone reconvenes the next day to do it all over again. On the Friday of the trip, instead of evening rehearsal we do an informal presentation of the entire show for the local community and invite everyone to join us for a BBQ pot luck. The next day we pack everything up and head back to the city.

In town the shows get technical rehearsals, there are adjustments for the theater. Lights, costume, set, sound, props, etc. are added and then there’s the weekend of performances — usually dress rehearsal on Thursday, opening Friday night, a Saturday evening performance and then closing on Sunday matinee. It’s intense and a lot of work, but an there’s an amazing amount of joy and bonding as well. I love it.

How involved are the children in creating the pieces in which they perform?

For the One-on-Ones, the kids are interviewed so that the authors can get a sense of what the kid is like. We strive to have each show be showcase of what the kid has to offer. The shows are challenging, but they play to the kids’ strengths. The kid is the star of each show, but the adult writer tries their best to set it up as an experience of success. So sometimes the kid has lots to say, ideas about what they would and would not like to play, talents or tricks they might want to include in the show. Sometimes the authors just go with what they think will work best for the performers. In general, the shows are wacky comedies, because if an audience is laughing, that’s the most blatant demonstration that they’re with you.

We also have other programs where the kids are the generators of the material. In our Playmaking shows, the kids are the authors and the adults direct and perform. In our Playback performances which happen each October, the set up is the same as the One-on-Ones with one adult and one kid in each play, except that the kids are the writers, creating the work for themselves and their partners to perform. Those are reliably outrageous shows — last year’s batch included a show set on Mars in which the two characters got so excited at the end that their hands exploded. Spectacular.

What do you find most exciting about children creating theater?

The thing that is most compelling about creating theater with kids is their imaginations. Especially when they are the writers, they have imaginations that are unbridled, rich, fascinating, and wildly unpredictable. They seem to come up with the most zany things with ease, and then frequently they throw in some insight or turn of phrase that strikes you to the heart with its truth and perspective. In the performance programs like the One-on-Ones, the real excitement is seeing the kids progressing from shy or uncertain, to bold and proud and present. It is incredibly gratifying. To be on-stage with a kid who has just delivered a punchline and is getting the laugh, and the two of you are there in that moment “holding for the laugh” and you can see that glint in their eye that says, “This is fun.” That’s just everything.

From the July, 2015 HERE. ME. NOW. performance, here is “Clown Time is Over,” written by John Sheehy for Stevens Vasquez and himself.

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