Confidence. Empathy. Creativity. Teamwork. They’re all traits we want in our kids, and they are traits that local theater directors say can be learned in youth theater. The other pluses of these programs are stage productions that are short, cheap and engaging for kids as audience members.
Tacoma’s youth theater options have ebbed and flowed over the years, but with the start of the new Tacoma Youth Theatre and the revamping of others, there are even more choices for kids wanting some drama or comedy in their lives.
“Theater is incredibly important to our culture, our world,” says Scott Campbell, who began Tacoma Youth Theatre with Maggie Knott last May, offering summer camps in July. “It’s important to instill a sense of what it means to be human.”
Adds Knott: “There’s a lack of empathy in the world – theater is one thing that breeds empathy.”
It’s evident that Campbell, a former director at Tacoma Little Theatre and assistant director at Lakewood Playhouse, and Knott, who founded Lakewood’s education program and ran it for 13 years, agree that theater is important. What they also agree on is that there’s room for another company in Tacoma – specifically, one that caters to young people. In that, Tacoma Youth Theatre is a first. Community theaters such as Lakewood, TLT and Tacoma Musical Playhouse, as well as other arts entities such as the Broadway Center and Metro Parks, have offered youth theatre education for many years. But what makes TYT different, say Campbell and Knott, is that kids are responsible for entire productions.
In other education programs, it’s usually adult instructors who handle backstage production – such as sets, props, costumes, lighting and stage management. Tacoma Little Theatre and the Broadway Conservatory have opt-in classes on production for interested teens. At TYT, though, kids do it all. Recent summer camps saw cast members as young as 5 shifting props and set pieces, changing costumes and handling the nitty-gritty of running a play over multiple performances.
Taking charge of their own production gives kids confidence, say Campbell and Knott.
“What we do puts the ownership on them, and that’s something that’s not the point of a lot of things kids are taught to do,” Knott explains. “Leading children through something really carefully isn’t always the best thing for them – having them discover and make mistakes works better.”
TYT also is choosing different repertoire: Because the company is working from public domain scripts, kids get to sink their teeth into classics like Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and adaptations of classic authors.
The other thing that sets TYT apart from the rest is the focus.
“Other companies have different missions relating to their main-stage work,” says Campbell. “Their youth theater is adjacent to that. Our mission IS youth, which is a completely different vision from everyone else in town.”
Yet while Campbell and Knott have plenty of expertise between them, TYT is struggling to get off the ground financially. While they’re applying to arts resource group Shunpike for umbrella nonprofit status, which will allow them to apply for grants, at the moment, they’re dependent on tuition fees. And since they, like most theaters, are committed to giving scholarships to any child that needs one – they provided $9,000 in scholarships over the summer – they’re currently operating in the red.
It doesn’t help that the space they carved out in the basement of Tacoma’s First Congregational Church has just been sold to Seattle’s Mars Hill mega-church, with no certainty about whether they can stay. In addition, they’ve been renting lights and other equipment, a cost that established community theaters don’t have.
Finally, the two directors are still figuring out what Tacoma parents want for their children theater-wise, something that other local theaters also are experimenting with. Lakewood Playhouse, which hired a new director just before Knott left in April, has a new education director Casi Wilkerson, a new name (Lakewood Institute of Theatre), a new space near the theater, and a splitting of offerings between acting classes at Lakewood and productions at a Gig Harbor satellite. They’ve begun offering programs inside First Presbyterian School and home-school classes.
“We’re trying to bring the theatrical experience to anyone who mightn’t have it,” says Wilkerson.
Tacoma Little Theatre, which for a few years has only offered summer camps for youth, is now branching back out into after-school classes and winter/spring productions, focusing on teens with drop-in improv classes and a drama club, and allowing them to learn more about technical production.
“The focus is on collaboration and improv,” says director Jennifer Niehaus-Rivers. “No one else is doing that.”
The Broadway Center’s Conservatory has solicited parent suggestions and expanded into acting classes, especially musical theater and acting for preschoolers in addition to its Year program that sends directors, costumes and props into schools in Tacoma, Bethel, Puyallup and South Kitsap districts at state-education standards. The 29-year-old education program is not only supported by a Kennedy Center partnership but also offers kids use of the professional theater spaces downtown.
Tacoma Musical Playhouse, meanwhile, is sticking to a formula of Saturday classes and after-school productions that focus on musical theater. It’s the biggest program in town, alongside the Broadway Center; each serve about 500 kids a year, which for TMP amounts to about 10 percent of the theater’s revenue – not to mention the audience generated by families of kids who participate.
“Youth theater is a tiger by the tail,” comments Amanda Westbrooke, a former education director at TLT. “It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to even build it, then it escalates very quickly. … You have to make sure those dollars are used for education, not operational expense. They often aren’t. That’s why programs fluctuate.”
For Tacoma Youth Theatre, however, the goal is simply, at the moment, to stay afloat. Campbell and Knott are spending September asking former participants and families what suits them best, then planning a season of five productions plus acting and home-school classes.
The directors also are looking at alternative revenues, such as marketing online theater curricula and taking productions into schools.
Participating in theater isn’t, of course, for everyone – most programs average out at $16-$25 per class – but the good part about youth productions is that anyone can attend the final performance. And with tickets usually being free or by donation, and shows being short and filled with kids, that makes an attractive alternative for parents wanting some theater for their children.
But is there room for yet another theater company in Tacoma?
“I think so,” says Campbell. “I think theater is going to come back as an alternative to a digital lifestyle. People have a need for the human experience that’s real, not digital.”
Youth Theater Resources
Contact each company to get details on youth theater offerings.
Tacoma Youth Theatre: 253-677-0531, tacomayouththeatre.org. Ages 5-18. Improv and combat classes, home-school programs, plus productions including “Anne of Green Gables,” “A Christmas Carol,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Macbeth.”
Tacoma Musical Playhouse: 253-565-6867, tmp.org. Ages 4-18. Acting, movement, voice, improv and character classes, plus productions including “The Adventures of Lewis and Clark,” “A Pirate Christmas,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr.”
Tacoma Little Theatre: 253-272-2481, tacomalittletheatre.com. Ages 8-18. Drop-in improv and drama club, plus productions including “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and a Shakespeare play.
Broadway Center Conservatory/Year: 253-591-5890, broadwaycenter.org. Ages 3-18. Acting and dance classes, plus productions in winter and spring.
Lakewood Playhouse: 253-588-0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org. Ages 5-18. Audition and combat classes, home-school programs, plus productions including “A Christmas Carol” (in Gig Harbor).
Metro Parks/Tacoma School of the Arts: 253-305-1022, metroparkstacoma.org. Ages 3-18. Stage play and acting email@example.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts