The Virginia Avenue Project: Learning by Example in the Arts

:: More than 20 years ago, Leigh Curran moved from the Big Apple to the West Coast, and brought along a desire to give back to her new community. In 1992, she opened the Virginia Avenue Project (VAP), a free after-school performing arts and arts mentoring program, in Santa Monica, California. 

"I wanted to do something that had meaning, and the Virginia Avenue Project allowed me to share what I've been artistically practicing all these years for a greater reason," said Curran, who had previously worked at the 52nd Street Project in New York City. "We hold the basic principles that the arts can help kids think creatively, critically, and courageously about what they want to do with their lives. Not turning them all into artists, necessarily, but helping them use all of themselves to make important life choices."

Working out of the youth center at the Santa Monica Police Activities League, VAP provides its students with a safe after-school space as they develop their creative-thinking skills and learn new ways to express themselves. Programming is divided into core classes, located at the activities league, as well as outreach efforts that sends volunteers into several Los Angeles area schools, where students are often struggling with learning disabilities or difficult financial circumstances. VAP's current core classes serve nearly 40 students while the outreach programs reaches an additional 360 children. For many VAP students, these programs are often their only access point to the arts. 

While both the core and outreach programs focus on writing and the performing arts, VAP also engages students in photography, video arts, poetry, and a tutoring program—Smart Partners—that helps VAP students with their coursework or in preparing for college admissions. VAP students join the organization as early as six years old and are encouraged to remain engaged through high school. Since the organization opened in 1992, 100 percent of VAP students have graduated from high school, and 95 percent have enrolled in college. Of these students, 98 percent are the first in their families to go on to higher education.

But the organization's influence extends beyond its own students. "One of the beautiful things about the program is we're not just exposing the children to the arts but also their families," said Kent Wallace-Meggs, VAP's executive director. "Often times it's the first introduction for their entire family and their friends to the arts. It has a far-reaching effect."

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The cast of Signs of the Times, a VAP student production, gathers for a group photo during a week of rehearsals at the two-week VAP summer program in Ojai, California. Photo by Leigh Curran

The cast of Signs of the Times, a VAP student production, gathers for a group photo during a week of rehearsals at the two-week VAP summer program in Ojai, California. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  "In VAP, our son has found a community where he belongs—a safe, accepting, and nurturing space where he can be his creative, quirky self. That level of respect and support for a child is meaningful, impactful, and can be measured in terms of self-esteem, development of language skills, social skills, and work ethic; but also in ways that are not meant to be measured, but are just as important because they have everything to do with the blossoming of the human spirit."

-Jonathan Zeichner, parent of a Virginia Avenue Project student

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VAP student Felix, age nine, participates in a group exercise for the program's beginning-level acting classes. Photo by Leigh Curran

VAP student Felix, age nine, participates in a group exercise for the program's beginning-level acting classes. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: Children start at VAP with a beginning-level acting program, Creative Play 1. They learn how to use their voices, bodies, and imaginations through theater games, storytelling, and commedia, or improvisational comedic acting. Classes take place at the Santa Monica Police Activities League youth center.

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Julian, age 13, and McKenzi, age 16, celebrate after attempting a silent acting scene. Photo by Leigh Curran

Julian, age 13, and McKenzi, age 16, celebrate after attempting a silent acting scene. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "I'm so happy. It's so hard not to be happy." - VAP student Franchesca Hladik, at age nine, seconds before going on stage

After completing beginning-level acting classes, VAP students join Creative Play where they are challenged with more advanced theater games, scene work, and increased improvisation. At VAP, age is not a defining factor. Teenagers play alongside middle school students, with older children serving as role models for their younger friends. In turn, the younger set become role models for the children that come after them. 

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Jesse, age nine, rehearses for a VAP student play about a puppy who can't fetch and a drill sergeant, played by Doug Sutherland, who learns to love him anyway. Photo by Leigh Curran

Jesse, age nine, rehearses for a VAP student play about a puppy who can't fetch and a drill sergeant, played by Doug Sutherland, who learns to love him anyway. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "VAP brings together in a beautiful and singular way two of my passions: theater and community. It is through a strong sense of community we become more compassionate and the communal act of theatre only strengthens that sense of community. VAP reaches down through generations of families to pull up a powerful, playful, and long-lasting artistic community built on compassion and a sense of community. I consider it a privilege to contribute." -VAP volunteer and artist Doug Sutherland
 
At the end of the intermediate acting classes, 22 children are chosen to participate in VAP's summer program, the One-on-Ones. Each child is paired with an adult writer/performer who writes a short play to perform with their VAP student.

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Zoe, 11, in her role as a wealthy girl who wants to do something meaningful with her life. Her mentor, Jeanne Syquia, plays a chauffeur who helps her find her calling. Photo by Leigh Curran

Zoe, 11, in her role as a wealthy girl who wants to do something meaningful with her life. Her mentor, Jeanne Syquia, plays a chauffeur who helps her find her calling. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  Rehearsals for the One-on-Ones summer program take place during a weeklong retreat at the Oak Grove School in Ojai, California, where students develop and write their respective works before returning to Santa Monica to put them into production.   

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VAP mentor Mary Pat Gleason presents her acting partner, Fernando, age nine, with the Brave Heart Award. Photo by Leigh Curran

VAP mentor Mary Pat Gleason presents her acting partner, Fernando, age nine, with the Brave Heart Award. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "When I was a kid, VAP was a magical place that allowed me to be myself. Now, I continue to carry a piece of that magic wherever I go." -VAP alumnus Alfonso Garcia 

At the end of the retreat in Ojai, kids and adults give each other awards that have to do with their inner qualities and unexpected growth.

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Genki, age nine, plays a pacifist police officer who believes hugs are more effective than guns and teaches his unit chief, portrayed by Jonas Oppenheim, to trust his heart. Photo by Leigh Curran

Genki, age nine, plays a pacifist police officer who believes hugs are more effective than guns and teaches his unit chief, portrayed by Jonas Oppenheim, to trust his heart. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "VAP reminds me why I do theater, why anyone should do theater, and how theater can be visceral, spiritual, and important." -VAP volunteer and artist, Leon Martell 

Following the Ojai retreat, the company returns to Los Angeles to rehearse, dress, and perform their plays in a professional theater. Students invite their family, friends, and other Virginia Avenue Project supporters to the free production to show off their hard work.

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VAP student Kaitlyn, age nine, and mentor Alicia Wollerton in their roles as Buddhist chickens working to solve the age-old question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Photo by Leigh Curran

VAP student Kaitlyn, age nine, and mentor Alicia Wollerton in their roles as Buddhist chickens working to solve the age-old question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "I use resources I already have working at the project—my time and my experience—to help empower young people at this crucial point in their lives. When I'm working with a student, I want that child to feel as safe and smart and creative as anyone on the planet, and to feel like anything is possible. If I feel like this is happening, I feel good, like I'm paying forward the good things that have happened to me." -VAP volunteer and artist, Jonas Oppenheim

The One-on-Ones program has a deep impact on all participants. Children experience the satisfaction that comes with accomplishing something fun and rewarding through hard work, and their adult mentors are reminded of the power of creativity and the collaborative process.

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VAP mentors Kim Dilts and Cameron Cash perform in a VAP student production. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: After children have participated in the One-on-Ones they join Playmaking, VAP's beginning-level playwriting program. Adult mentors guide students through the writing process. At the end of ten weeks, each child is assigned two professional actors and a professional director to work with them as they piece together their final production.

When the Playmaking plays are complete, the child attends rehearsals to answer any questions about the script and approve of the music composed by VAP's music director for their lyrics. When the plays are performed, the child sits at a desk on stage watching professional actors bring his or her words to life.

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Julian, 16, discusses what he's written with his mentor, Andy Goldberg, in the advanced playwriting program, Replay. Photo by Leigh Curran

Julian, 16, discusses what he's written with his mentor, Andy Goldberg, in the advanced playwriting program, Replay. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  "The project taught me that I had a voice and that it mattered." -VAP alumna Alejandra Campoverdi 

Replay is for children who have completed Playmaking and are ready to deal with the re-write process. Each child writes a second play that is read aloud by professional actors. The children then get feedback from adult artists and their VAP peers and, after a break of several months, reconvene to re-write their plays with their directors.

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Alyssa and her Smart Partners tutor, Maggi Walker. The pair have been working together in the tutoring program for three years. Photo by Leigh Curran

Alyssa and her Smart Partners tutor, Maggi Walker. The pair have been working together in the tutoring program for three years. Photo by Leigh Curran

:: "Smart Partners gave my daughter the confidence and courage to step forward and run for student council. She has done a complete turnaround in her grades and disposition since she joined the Virginia Avenue Project." -Mary Cornejo, VAP parent 

Smart Partners is the Project's creative tutoring program, which pairs mentors with students. Children meet with their mentors once a week throughout the school year to receive help with their homework and also to participate in written and visual creative exercises. The resulting work is included in The Buzz, VAP's magazine, to celebrate the work that Smart Partners have accomplished together.

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Miko, age seven, reads a piece he wrote for The Buzz. Photo by Leigh Curran

Miko, age seven, reads a piece he wrote for The Buzz. Photo by Leigh Curran

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VAP student Miku, 13, adjusts her camera before taking a photo of the reflecting pond at the Getty Villa. Photo by Leigh Curran

VAP student Miku, 13, adjusts her camera before taking a photo of the reflecting pond at the Getty Villa. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  In addition to the core writing and performing programs at VAP, additional adjunct programs are implemented based on the kid's needs. For example, PhotoPlay is an adjunct program that combines poetry and photography. Students then perform their poems in a museum or gallery setting where their photographs are also on exhibit.

Excerpt from "Family" by VAP student Kara McVey 

"Forty years later, the world is a different place
Frontiers less foreign, customs less often conformed to.
The two people settled down in California.
They set about picking up their cultural patchwork
I am the product of a cultural collaboration.
Weaving together odds and ends to make something new."

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Julia, age 17, participates in QuickPlay. Photo by Leigh Curran

Julia, age 17, participates in QuickPlay. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  Julia, pictured above, attended her first VAP show when she was two, watching her older sister performing in a play. She later joined VAP when she was six and has participated in all the organization's programs including the organization's improv workshop, QuickPlay. QuickPlay brings experienced VAP students together with professional improvisers for an unpredictable evening of spontaneous theater.

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VAP kids with the camel puppets they brought to life in Valley of the Mist. Photo courtesy of Virginia Avenue Project

VAP kids with the camel puppets they brought to life in Valley of the Mist. Photo courtesy of Virginia Avenue Project

::  The Virginia Avenue Project also collaborates with other California arts organizations so their students can experience the way other artists approach their work. Valley of the Mist was a product of such a collaboration and combined storytelling with puppetry.

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Painters, VAP kids, and adult artists are inspired by music and the spoken word in the recent exhibition, Dark to Light. Photo by Dan McCleary

Painters, VAP kids, and adult artists are inspired by music and the spoken word in the recent exhibition, Dark to Light. Photo by Dan McCleary

::  Dark to Light was VAP's most recent collaboration with Art Division and UCLA Arts and Healing. Kids and adults were asked to respond to music through movement, poetry, painting, and drumming.

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VAP alumni Simon Hanna, Alejandra Campoverdi, and Robert Campion. Photo by Leigh Curran

VAP alumni Simon Hanna, Alejandra Campoverdi, and Robert Campion. Photo by Leigh Curran

::  The majority of VAP's alumni have served their communities through teaching, public service, social services, and other roles within the nonprofit sector. The VAP alumni shown above have each reached impressive milestones. Hanna served as the Virginia Avenue Project's director of development from 2009 to 2012. Campoverdi worked as the special assistant to the deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House from 2008 to 2011. She also served as the deputy director of Latin media from 2011 to 2012 and was the recipient of the Virginia Avenue Project's Community Hero Award in 2009. Campion was the first VAP student to join the organization's board of directors and founded the group's Young Professionals Board.