The Manton Avenue Project Teaches Kids to Tell Their Own Stories

The non-profit after-school program is based in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood.

In an email exchange, Rhode Island’s Education Commissioner, Ken Wagner, says, “There’s no question in my mind that administrators and educators want to invest in arts programming and want to offer more opportunities to their kids, but are faced with very difficult financial and programmatic decisions.”

Wagner notes that, in an effort to elevate the status of arts education in Rhode Island, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the National Core Arts Standards, which offers grade-by-grade benchmarks in dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts. Additionally, students must demonstrate proficiency in an art form by graduation. But Wagner is careful to point out that schools and districts can’t afford, on their own, to offer a wide range of arts options to 
all students.

“So they must form partnerships — with public and private colleges, nonprofit organizations, businesses and with other schools and districts,” he says. “In the traditional model of education, the student must adapt to what the system offers; in the partnership model, the system must adapt to what the student needs.”

 

By mid-April, Manton Avenue Project’s third-grade playwrights have accumulated a wealth of material. In addition to their Farm Fresh RI field trip, the kids visited City Farm, a small-scale operation on the South Side of Providence that grows vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits.

City Farm was a big source of inspiration. Alix tasted citrusy cilantro and spinach at the urban oasis, and she’s using the plants as characters in her play. Rudy met a farmer named Dave and tried the edible viola tricolor, Johnny Jump-Up, so he wrote character outlines for both — except the Jump-Up, in Rudy’s world, is named Jennifer.

Jorje’s entire play is set at City Farm during the potato harvest, primetime for potato bugs. Katherine was also inspired by insect life, so she wrote roles for a ladybug and a butterfly. Camila was interested in the recycling process, so her characters, Swifty and Rocket, found ways to collect trash on the farm. And Anthony saw a compost pile with eggshells, so his characters became Eggo and Shelly.

Each playwright drew up character outlines at the clubhouse — “David the Spinach’s biggest fear: seeing people eat spinach,” according to Alix — and today, they’ll send those characters into a whirl of action.

Playwriting Weekend is set at New Urban Arts, a nonprofit youth arts organization in Providence. The playwrights are paired with adult volunteers from the theater community who help them develop their plots. It’s all so official — the retreat, the dramaturges — and the students take it very seriously.

Anthony’s dramaturge is Hernan Jourdan, a visual artist and writer based in Providence. Jourdan learned about MAP during an acting class at Trinity Repertory Company. It’s clear Anthony is leading the effort, with Jourdan transcribing notes on his laptop and occasionally probing his playwright to dig deeper.

“Just imagine the situation. What’s going on — what do you think?” Jourdan asks.

They’ve already written four scenes, including a heartbreaking Spanish-language monologue where an eggshell named Eggo recounts his separation from his family. He was playing outside when they were taken away to another garden bed.

Eggo’s friend, Shelly, was also separated from her parents. Together, the pair sets out on a daring adventure across garden beds to reunite with their families.

As Jourdan clicks away on his laptop, Sullivan, who is presiding over the retreat, shouts a five-minute warning. It’s almost time to circle up as a group.

“Aww,” says Anthony. He crumples a Rice Krispie Treats package in his hand, visibly disappointed that the writing session is almost over.

Jourdan asks Anthony which character should see his or her parents first.

“Eggo hasn’t seen his family in the longest time, so it’s only fair,” Anthony says. “When he sees them, he shouts, ‘Mom! Dad!’ And he’s, like, crying with emotions? Because he’s so happy and relieved because he knows where his parents are and that they are alive.”

“Okay. How do we make that happen?” Jourdan asks.

Anthony imagines a bridge that would get Eggo and Shelly from one compost bed to the next —maybe little twigs tied together with grass.

“On the stage it will be a plank, but in the story it’s twigs,” he clarifies, thinking ahead to when volunteers design his set.

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