West Village resident leads theater group for urban youth


By Mara McGinnis

The story of Gabrielle Kurlander, a West Village resident, starts out like many. A 19-year-old comes to New York from a small town in upstate New York to pursue her dream of an acting career. She waits on tables hoping for her break. For Kurlander it came early – – a national tour of a Broadway hit. Other tours came her way, too.

Eventually, however, she found life on the road a lonely one. She decided to seek a new path and found one – the All Stars Project, a theater company for urban youth. It was a perfect fit for Kurlander combing her love of theater and a long held interest in social activism.

The All Stars runs the Talent Show Network, giving anyone from age 5-25 the chance to perform on stage and work backstage. Performers rap, sing, and dance – while other youngsters run lights and sound.

The All Stars Project is far from an ordinary volunteer effort. When Kurlander took over as president in 1990 the local organization had a budget of less than $300,000. Thirteen years into her presidency, ASP now has programs in San Francisco, Newark, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and the budget has grown to $4.5 million.

“We’ve convinced some very wealthy Americans to put philanthropic support into poor communities,” says Kurlander. “What they’ve invested in is an innovative and sophisticated approach to the development and education of young people in this country.”

The organization purports to remain free of government funding. All Stars supporters and volunteers have included Susan Jaffe, former principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, Dominic Chianese, cast member of HBO’s the Sopranos, and Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi in the original cast of the Broadway hit Rent.

Kurlander’s association with the All Stars began when she was looking for a therapist. Then in her early 20’s, she ended up at what is now known as the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, currently located on the same floor as the All Stars Project Inc. at 500 Greenwich Street, just north of Canal.

“Instead of trying to feel better before doing things, it encouraged me to do things to feel better,” she said. Her therapist invited her to the Castillo Theater (also under the auspices of the All Stars) where she starting doing some volunteer work. The East Side Institute was founded by philosopher Fred Newman and development psychologist Lenora Fulani, who also founded the All Stars.

“I really enjoyed it and it gave me the chance to combine my interests in social activism and theatre,” she said.

Kurlander continues to direct and act in Castillo productions.

In addition to the Talent Show Network and the Castillo Theatre, which has put on nearly 100 political productions in its 20 years of existence, another one of the ASP’s major programs is the Joseph A. Forgione Development School for Youth, a leadership-training program for young people ages 16 to 21. Named for the former Merrill Lynch & Co. chief operating officer of investment banking, who helped fund it, the school was founded in 1997 and recruits 120 students each year into the three-month program.

Forgione is currently the vice chair of the All Stars Board of Directors. He became interested in the program after he met a teenager on the street near Lincoln Center who was fundraising for the group.

“The young fella had gotten out of a gang and was very articulate and his story really struck a chord with me,” says Forgione.

He added that he was encouraged to become more involved with the organization because he immediately recognized the quality of Kurlander’s leadership.

“She recognizes opportunities and manages potential conflict beautifully,” says Forgione. “She is a very sophisticated leader. She’s a talented businesswoman as well as an actress and can sit in both worlds very well.”

The next local All Stars Talent Show Network audition will take place on October 4, 2003 at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn. It is open to the public and about 1,000 people are expected to attend. (Admission is $5 per person. For more information, call 212-941-9400.) In the last 20 years, nearly one million young people have participated in the All Stars talent shows.

This November, the All Stars will be relocating from its Greenwich Street home to a new $12 million headquarters at 543 West 42nd St. in the heart of the theatre district.

Kurlander said the All Stars will always remain a “product of and part of the downtown arts scene,” but she hopes their new midtown location will serve as a bridge to some of the neighborhoods they want to target.