How do you get someone who's never been to the theater to try it out? In the case of Pillsbury House Theater, the answer is to put their children on stage. At the annual Chicago Avenue Project, Pillsbury House Theater in Minneapolis pairs professional actors with neighborhood kids, and they perform in a skit written by a local playwright.
This year, pro Jamila Anderson and youngster Alexis Ford were paired in a scene about a salesperson in a dress shop who's a little overenthusiastic in selling to her client. Alexis, who played the uninterested client, loved the opportunity to perform in front of her family.
"They tell me I do excellent and then they'll give me a hug," she says. "And they're like, 'You did SO GOOD!' And they'll go on and on."
For Jamila Anderson, performing at Pillsbury House Theater was familiar territory.
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"I actually grew up in this neighborhood myself," she says. "This was my place to play when I was a little kid, so it's nice be back to do some work."
Anderson says participating in the Chicago Avenue Project reminds her why she became an actor in the first place.
"There's more to it than just trying to be perfect on stage," she says. "And it's a very humbling experience just to see the simple joys the kids get out of being on stage, because it's fun and because it's exciting and because you get to be somebody else for a little while."
Pillsbury House traces its roots to Minneapolis' Bethel Settlement, one of 400 settlement houses established across the nation around the turn of the 20th century to improve living conditions in city slums. One of the ways it attempts to do that is through theater.
A lot of the kids who get into the Chicago Avenue Project start out in one of Pillsbury House's after-school programs. Urshawnda Laird's grandmother enrolled her so she wouldn't be home alone after school. She's been in the Chicago Avenue Project a few times, and has also gone with Pillsbury House Theater staff to see other shows around town.
"Those were tight! Those were cool," she says. "It made me want to be more into shows to see how much fun they were having up there."
Noel Raymond, the project's co-artistic managing director, says once neighborhood kids have seen theater or been involved in theater, they want to do it again and again. After working for years in the same neighborhood, Raymond says she's learned that the best way to get people to see a show is by building personal relationships, one at a time.
"Part of what we're trying to do," she says, "is create ways for people to be in the same room and have an experience that helps connect people to one another because they're seeing a window into somebody else's lives or a mirror held up to their own lives or just have a cathartic, experience while sitting next to somebody they wouldn't normally sit next to."
On a weekday afternoon, the dimly lit Pillsbury House Theater is jam-packed, with some kids sitting on laps in order to make room for late-comers. Others sit on the floor and a crowd of people stands at the back. The show is free, and the average attendance is 115 percent of seating capacity. In many ways it feels like a talent show, with the audience cheering the talent on. Raymond says it's not just theater; it's a community event in which kids get to be the stars.
"And really, we're all richer because we get that experience of seeing that happen, that transformation that happens with the kids and then their experience of sharing that and giving that away," says Raymond. "It's like a ripple that spreads out and their parents see them in this wonderful light and the community of people in the theater applauds them, and suddenly everybody's bigger, everybody's enhanced by that experience."
In a recent poll of Chicago Avenue alumni, Pillsbury House found that 94 percent or more of participants showed increased self-esteem, leadership skills and community involvement. Raymond says ultimately, the Chicago Avenue Project is not about teaching kids to act, but about giving every child an opportunity to show that he or she has something of value to offer the world.