You Can Take Your Kids to See Theatre, Or They Can Make It Themselves

Two very different youth programs are taking similar risks: asking kids to be the directors, actors and producers of new theatre.

The Rough Eagles rehearse at Intiman | photo by Peter Mumford

Armed with digital recorders, a group of teenagers recently descended on Pike Place Market to ask strangers, “What kinds of burdens do Americans carry?” The kids were dispatched by Intiman’s annual youth theatre program, Rough Eagles, named after the participating schools’ mascots: Roosevelt High’s Rough Riders and Cleveland’s Eagles. The interviews would offer inspiration for an original play in the works.

Selected from competitive auditions, the Rough Eagles forsook summer fun for intensive workshops. After (most of them) read All the King’s Men, the group focused on a theme of American burdens, inspired by Robert Penn Warren’s character Jack Burden.  In an early rehearsal, the teachers asked everyone to share a personal burden.  In my memories of high school, burdens involved getting boys to notice — or not notice. The Rough Eagles’ burdens were much more complex: negotiating Asian American identity, losing loved ones, being a role model to younger siblings, making parents proud, being gay, fighting fear.

Theatre artists Mark Chaitin and Devin Bannon and Intiman community programs coordinator Annie Green took students to plays around town and coached them in movement and writing exercises, introducing many of them to theatre for the first time. Through it all, they worked to interpret and express abstract ideas: What burdens do we choose? How does burden move? Students were encouraged to act out, to make bold choices, but also pushed to go further: to break out of literal-minded thinking into a critical awareness both physical and analytical.

Six weeks after their street interviews, rehearsing three afternoons a week, the students performed Burden’s Web on the set for Intiman’s mainstage production, All the King’s Men. Directed by Tikka Sears, the play combined dramatic scenes, complex movement choreography, commercial parodies (“Buy this brand-new SUV and speed far away from all your burdens!”) and “What We’re Lacking Is Love,” an original song composed by Rough Eagle Hishinuma Ayrton. The smartly orchestrated montage had a clear overall message: we’re all carrying our own dirt around — what matters is what you do with it.

After the show, the actors sat in a line on the edge of the stage and answered questions.  It was fun to see them, despite this huge grownup accomplishment, acting like kids. A few hollered when their school name was called out; others rolled their eyes when a teacher called on them to speak to the audience. In the lobby afterwards, I noticed them running up to other kids who hadn’t been in the performance, radiating things teenagers aren’t famous for: confidence and positive attitudes. It was infectious, even for a grownup. —written by Bond Huberman


Young Americans rehearsing | photo by Johnny Valencia

How did five teenagers (Tommy Fleming, Hattie Andres, Chelsea Taylor, Emma Kelley and Zoey Belyea) invent a theatre troupe out of thin air last summer? By getting the old folks out of the way. “The only theatre young adults can participate in is run by adults,” notes Taylor, marketing director of Young Americans’ Theatre Company. “Adults are choosing the material, and interpreting it with their perspective.”

So, says Taylor, founding director Fleming “called a few of us and proposed the idea of a theatre company run entirely by us.” Fleming, a member of the Actors’ Equity union, and a group dominated by veterans of Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Young Actor Institute chose and directed one-acts, wrote press releases and mastered the sine qua non of theatre arts, marketing. Andres got a two-thousand-dollar grant from University Prep’s parent council, and they rented space from Washington Ensemble Theatre.

Another key to Young Americans’ success is the motto proposed by their mentor Karen Sharp, education director at SCT. “We have a slogan: Dare to suck. Dare to do something so outside your comfort zone that you’re ‘bad.’” Rita Giomi, YAI director, adds, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Young Americans chose some hard material. Gary Pospisil’s On the Edge, crisply performed by Tallis Moore and Rebecca Mostow, features a young man on a ledge thinking about jumping off and a lesbian classmate who finds him and doesn’t show a lot of interest in talking him out of it. It’s funny, sweet and tangy.
Women and Wallace, written by Jonathan Marc Sherman at age eighteen, starts with a mother committing suicide onstage and explores the psychological aftershocks. Later, there is simulated sex. These actions would be forbidden at Holy Names Academy, where some of the production members go to school — so strict is the policy on displays of violence that not even sticks may be used.

Young Americans doesn’t go in for sex and violence for its own sake, says box office manager Kelley. “We wanted to make a statement about theatre, prove that teenagers can produce really important work.”

“If the kids aren’t dealing with these issues themselves,” says Tallis Moore’s actor dad Terry Edward Moore, “they certainly know kids who are.” As for the troupe, “The opportunity to find their own community in a wider context than their own high schools has proved very empowering.”

“This entire process has been a learning experience,” says Kelley. “How do you handle a rowdy audience? What do you do when the light system crashes? Is it important to have preview performances?” For next year’s Young Americans, the graduating seniors recommend a focus on two crucial aspects of the art: “Money. And good technical equipment.”   —written by Miryam Gordon