Our jaws dropped when we learned that twenty layers of wallpaper and forty layers of paint were found on the walls of 97 Orchard Street when the Tenement Museum purchased and began to explore the space that had been sealed since the 1930s. In less than a century, thousands of tenants had moved through that small space, each holding the memories of life in another country and working to survive in our unforgiving city. We couldn’t stop talking about the lives, the dreams, the hopes and the disappointments that were contained within those walls. We were moved by the overwhelming hardships endured in that space and grateful for the incredible ways the tenants contributed to the growth and culture of New York City.
Immediately, we knew that life in the tenements would be an awesome topic for family audiences and we knew it would be our next creative undertaking. While any family can tour the Tenement Museum (and should!), it often takes an imaginative leap to connect to the experiences of people in the past. By using theater to bring the tenement experience to life, we hope to connect young people to their surroundings in a new way, giving them a richer experience of their own family and community histories. Looking to the past can also illuminate the damaging cycles of prejudice, exclusion and injustice that still act on us today. Understanding these cycles is the first step in breaking them.
In our research and preparation, we were most moved by the simple, human stories of resilience and persistence. We chose to frame the show with Nina’s quest to be extraordinary because we have seen how today's "reality-show-instant-sensation" culture can leave young people feeling desperate to be seen. We believe it is vital to promote the message that fame is not what makes us powerful or worthwhile. We want young people to know that if they are not on a magazine cover or Facebook famous, they can still make important contributions to their community, neighborhood and the larger world. The immigrants whose lives intersected with the Lower East Side slums, forever altered our city even in the face of crippling discrimination and poverty. 'Layer the Walls' will explore the imagined stories of real individuals whose names have been forgotten but whose actions influenced our culture, helped to build infrastructure still in use today, and inspired policies that continue to benefit workers in 2016.
We invite you to join us on this creative journey through time as we discover some important things about our city and ourselves. Please sign up for blog updates below and stay tuned for discoveries in the rehearsal room!