On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, a group of parents and children beat the heat at a matinee of the Virginia Avenue Project’s play Force of Habit at the 24th Street Theatre near USC. It was a production by the Project’s after-school program, “One on One,” in which adult mentors write plays which are performed by the kids they mentor, and by adult volunteers.
Each of the nine playlets in Force of Habit dealt with a “bad habit.” In Carolyn Almos’ “A Pirate’s Life,” 8-year-old Stormi Sanders and adult Eve Gordon played “society ladies” who led double lives as pirates. “The Magic Wand” by Mary Cross had adult Zilah Mendoza and 10-year-old Kali Sanders as teenagers with different personal habits. Rebecca Zoe Leigh’s “The Scatter” evoked 1940s film noir as two thieves bungled a job due to one thief’s (16-year-old Jonathan Graves) tendency to fall asleep. And Steven Wolfson’s “I Love You Harold Hoffenheimer” featured self-declared “diva” Dion (12-year-old Sierra McGee-Whitney) and her employment counselor (adult Michelle Courtney) finding surprising solutions to each other’s dilemmas.
This latest in a series of “One on One” productions was created with the supervision of the Project’s artistic director Leigh Curran. She’s been working with the Project for 15 years and, according to Development Director Tom Carroll, she is “always reachable – she’s got to be there for those kids.”
The kids come to the Project through its partner, the Police Activities League. “They either come because they go to PAL after school or their parents hear about us or they have a friend,” says Curran.
Curran initially pairs a kid with an adult partner. “The adult interviews the kid and writes a play on a theme. If the writer is not an actor, they get an actor to work with them also.”
The adults are professional artists or creatively inclined community members whom Curran recruits or who volunteer their time.
The resulting plays are rehearsed during a week away at the Oak Grove School in Ojai (which, to be sure, includes some recreational time). The cast and crew then stage their shows either at the 24th Street Theatre or once a year at a venue in Santa Monica.
While many of the adults are veterans of the local theatre scene, Curran stresses that the Project’s dramatic program is not a “drama school.”
“If a child wants to continue [in the theatre] that’s fine. But we use the arts to help them to be creative in their lives.
“Kids come to us when they’re six years old and they stay with us through high school. What we do is long-term arts mentoring. It has a very profound effect on their lives as well as on the adults that they work with.”
Of the Virginia Avenue Project’s alumni, 100 percent graduate from high school and 90 percent go on to college.
Following the afternoon performance, the cast of Force of Habit enjoyed pizza and soft drinks and chatted with the Mirror about the play and themselves.
Kali Sanders, from “The Magic Wand,” said: ”It was interesting because I was in this for the first time. It was fun to work with people.”
Her adult co-star Zilah Mendoza commented that she enjoyed observing “what everyone else was doing” and praised Sanders because she “has this natural instinct for acting.”
The Virginia Avenue Project also does one-on-one tutoring, a magazine project, business mentoring for kids and poetry mentoring. Volunteers are welcome. To volunteer or for information, call 310.264.4224 or go to virginiaavenueproject.com.