Lighting Up the Stage
Many teenagers clamor to perform in front of an audience, and in the Bay Area, there are enough stages for all of them to shine.
In an era of school budget cuts, with some high schools dropping the traditional fall play and spring musical, local nonprofit theater companies fill the gap. Theaters like Peninsula Youth Theatre (PYT) in Mountain View and Marsh Youth Theater (MYT) in San Francisco provide exciting and diverse programs for teens – with productions, workshops, internships and camps.
“Teens are hungry for performing arts opportunities,” says Emily Klion, director of Marsh Youth Theater. “We have a very, very vibrant teen troupe.”
While most teen groups are arms of either professional or children’s theaters, a significant portion of the organizations’ resources and energy go to them. Because most teen thespians want to perform and aren’t as interested in the ongoing, weekly training younger kids enjoy, theaters focus most of their efforts for adolescents on providing opportunities on stage, say Klion and Karen Simpson, executive director of PYT. They typically not only encourage teens to audition for their main-stage productions – in some, teens make up a large part of the cast and crew – but they also offer specific, teen-only productions. These run the gamut – from Broadway musicals for families to original dramas created by and for teens. For example, Marsh Youth just completed In and Out of Shadows, a play about local undocumented teens written by Gary Soto with contributions from teen writers. PYT’s teens, meanwhile, are getting ready to put on Legally Blonde.
Many Roles Available
Production schedules can be taxing for busy high schoolers, but the theaters accommodate them. Both PYT and Walnut Creek’s Youth Theatre Company rehearse just twice a week, and most theaters finish their school-year shows in early spring to avoid conflict with high school spring musicals, prom and graduation.
Because teens are so busy during the school year, many theaters offer one-time Saturday workshops, such as PYT’s recent Improviganza class and one-week summer programs, or Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s four-week summer intensive.
Internships are another way teens participate in theater, and most teen troupes offer several positions each year, paid and volunteer. Interns typically work with an adult mentor and learn the business as they teach younger actors, help with administration or hone backstage skills.
Walnut Creek’s Youth Theatre Company has roughly 15 teen interns each school year. Marsh Youth offers several summer positions that are paid through government funding. PYT’s summer internships make such an impression that many return later as teachers, Simpson says.
Friendships and Self-Esteem
No matter how they get involved in theater, the benefits to teens are immense, theater representatives say.
“We have had many students go on to study theater in college,” says Rachel Pergamit, production coordinator for Youth Theatre Company. “But even those who don’t (pursue careers in drama) count their time with us as some of the most beneficial.”
Benefits include developing teamwork and responsibility to the group, Simpson says. In fact, it cultivates the group and the individual at the same time.
Being a performer is intrinsically scary, requiring teens to take risks. Those vulnerable moments on stage can boost a teen’s confidence, improve their speaking skills and bond them to others.
“You have to go out there and be ridiculous in front of people,” Simpson says. “You’re all putting yourselves on the line. Performing in front of other people can help you be yourself in front of other people.”
Putting on a production also fuels creative thinking, problem-solving and leadership in teens, says Benjamin Hanna, community programs manager for Berkeley Rep’s theater school.
“The process of creating a performance requires great empathy and demands a sensitivity to self and others not found in the average school assignment,” he says.
Teens are at an age when they can accomplish great things, but also make big mistakes. Teen theater keeps them out of trouble by providing a healthy, supervised place for them to take risks, Klion says. It provides a home and a stepping stone.
“Some of our kids say that without MYT, they’d be lost,” she says. “It gives them a portal to success that they may not have in school.”
Read on for details about four of the region’s active teen drama programs:
• Teen Council – Meets monthly to hear from guest speakers in the theater business and to help plan 40 annual events, ranging from teen discount nights at Berkeley Rep to field trips to other theaters.
• One-Act Festival – Each year, the festival debuts two original works produced, written, directed, designed and performed by local high school students.
• School-year Classes – This spring, five multi-session classes are offered for teens, including improvisation, stage fighting, on-camera acting and Shakespeare’s lab, with fees starting at $165 and scholarships available. One class, Musical Theater, culminates with the production of a streamlined Sound of Music. Private voice and audition classes are also offered for a fee, and half-hour workshops are held several Sundays each year for free.
• Summer Theater Intensive – Studying with master artists and playwrights, students create an original play that they perform on stage at Berkeley Rep. The four-week sessions are for grades six to 12. Fees start at $1,150, with scholarships available. For details, see www.berkeleyrep.org/school/teen_index.asp.
Marsh Youth Theater
• Teen Troupe – Members write, or help write, and perform an original play on teen issues. This year, 50 teens participated in In and Out of Shadows, the play about undocumented youth. Ten writers interviewed 30 undocumented youth, and their transcripts were included in the play, which was performed by 25 teens. Teens generally pay $150-200 per program at MYT.
• Teen Touring Troupe – A separate company of teen actors takes the production on the road each year, performing at Northern California schools and community centers. Teen interns help with many productions.
• Classes – MYT offers multi-session classes on topics like improvisation, with fees based on ability to pay. Find more at www.themarsh.org/myt_Teen_Troupe.html.
Peninsula Youth Theatre
• Youth Advisory Board – Kids ages 14 and up plan events and serve as a liaison between the young actors and the board of directors.
• Teen Production – Besides welcoming adolescent actors in its many children’s productions each year, PYT puts on a teen-only musical each summer. The participation fee is around $300.
• Stories on Stage – Each month, youth ages 12 and up put on a different show for young kids, such as James and the Giant Peach in April. Older teens serve as stage managers; typically, only the directors are adults.
• Camp – Features one- and two-week camps where kids ages 11 to 15 rehearse a comedy and perform it at the end of the session. Teens can also work as interns at camp for younger kids. Fees start at $250. For more information, see www.pytnet.org.
Youth Theatre Company
• Teen Theater – After auditioning for roles, approximately 25 teen actors rehearse twice weekly from October to April and produce two large musicals per year. This year, they performed Once Upon a Mattress and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr. Interns help with backstage work and teach younger kids.
• Musical Theater Competition – Every other year, the Teen Theater group travels to Southern California to participate in cattle-call auditions, take workshops and perform in a contest against other teen troupes.
• Charity Events – The Teen Theater group organizes an annual event to raise funds for the company’s scholarship program and the Monument Crisis Center in Concord. Read more at www.youththeatrecompany.org.
Angela Geiser is the editor of Teen Focus and mother of two teen thespians.