Maggie Budzyna developed a social conscience at a very young age. A few years back, she was starring in a local production of Annie when she noticed that none of the 50 actors in the cast were from Lawrence, where the performance was taking place. Her mom, Deirdre Budzyna, explained that some kids couldn’t afford to participate in theatre programs.
Budzyna couldn’t imagine anyone living a life without theatre—and decided to do something about it. Less than eight months later, at 11 years old, she had raised $5,000, enabling Lawrence kids to attend a free two-week theatre program and put on a production of Annie Jr. Since then, Budzyna’s nonprofit, The Performing Project, has staged five plays, engaging more than 350 kids in musical theatre.
“When you are young, you feel like you can do anything,” says Budzyna, now a poised 16-year-old. “It was a huge undertaking at 11.”
The program is almost entirely run by volunteers—nearly all of them kids. Budzyna directs each performance, and she has friends who help with everything from choreography to teaching theatre games. The intensive two-week experience goes from auditions on a Monday to a flurry of dozens of costume fittings Tuesday, when roles are assigned, through rehearsals and set decoration to a polished performance in just 10 days—giving kids who may never have been exposed to musical theatre a chance to explore their talents and shine.
“We want to make sure every child has a professional-level experience,” says Budzyna’s mom, Deirdre Budzyna, who mostly shows up because an adult needs to be present. “The kids do all the work.”
That work incorporates everything from fundraising to outreach, and from ordering costumes to organizing lunch for the kids—something they realized was necessary on the first day of the first program. “We thought the kids would bring their own food, but they didn’t,” Budzyna recalls. “I had no idea; the whole process was eye-opening.”
The program targets children in grades 4 through 12, but younger siblings are often accommodated when both parents work. The group has never turned anyone away, and everyone who wants a part gets one. That can lead to some large casts—two years ago they managed 80 actors for a performance of Shrek The Musical Jr.
“That was wild, but we made it work,” Budzyna says, adding that directing kids who are older has never been an issue. “It’s very collaborative. Everyone really wants to be here.”
The experience was important for Jazmine Mateo, now a junior at Salem State University studying theatre with a concentration in performance and business. “The Performing Project helped pull me out of my shell,” says the actor, who appeared in performances of The Wizard of Oz and Seussical the Musical. “I had experience working on stage and behind the scenes because of The Performing Project that I believe helped open doors for college.”
Of course, it all starts with fundraising, from an annual holiday bake sale to selling raffle tickets and refreshments at performances of Acting Out, a local children’s theatre company. Its biggest annual event is a dinner and performance, held in the spring at the Newburyport Senior Center. Local Newburyport students team up with The Performing Project participants for an open mic, as well as to sing songs from the organization’s musicals through the years.
“The kids feel so empowered,” Budzyna says. “We’ve showed them that they can have an impact.”
With a budget of about $15,000 a year, The Performing Project is able to manage its biggest nonnegotiable expenses—renting the theatre space at a public school in Lawrence and acquiring the rights to the musicals they perform, along with the other costs of putting on the play—and also offer theatre outings and after-school gatherings throughout the year. But Budzyna isn’t resting on her laurels. With some of her students interested in attending college for the performing arts, she has raised money to provide financial assistance for the application process, which can run into the thousands of dollars, including voice training, a professional video application, and travel for in-person auditions.
Chris Vega, a high school senior who has been with The Performing Project for four years, was one of the first beneficiaries of the new Performing Project Education fund, and notes the program has helped him in ways he never thought possible. “They have endlessly supported me, not only financially but also emotionally and physically. The staff at The Performing Project have definitely become my backbone,” says Vega, who has applied to several performing arts programs, including the Boston Conservatory. “They’ve helped me find my way through not only the process of college auditions, but with life.”
Budzyna herself will be headed off to college in a few years, and is already looking ahead to grooming a replacement—preferably another kid—to take over the Lawrence program. “It would be awesome to hand it down to someone in the program,” Budzyna says. “It is important that so much is done by the students themselves.”
Handing over the reins isn’t the only thing on her plate, though—Budzyna is also hoping to launch pilot Performing Projects in other states. “I have three more years; I’m hoping to have three summer programs established by then,” says Budzyna, still displaying the ambition that comes with youth. “You should use your voice and the power you have to influence for good.”
To learn more about The Performing Project, or to buy tickets to the March 25 fundraiser at the Newburyport Senior Center, visit performingproject.org