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Already a natural performer as a kid growing up, Fort Wayne Youtheatre Executive Director Leslie Hormann had energy to spare and the creativity to write and direct plays which demonstrated her budding talents. By the time she reached third grade, it was clear she needed an outlet beyond her neighborhood. “My teacher told my mother ‘Get her in theater because she never shuts up. And she’s always coming up with little plays and skits for everyone to do.’ So that’s when I started taking classes at Youtheatre. Then the directors were Janice McNellis and Larry Wardlaw, and I learned so much and had a great time.”
Those classes lasted her through Harris Elementary School and Lane Middle School, but by the time she reached Snider she was ready to replace her Youtheatre classes with her own high school’s plays. After high school and college, Hormann spent more than a decade teaching before her son was born.
“When my boy came along, I decided not to teach full-time so I could spend time with him, but I kept my hand in it by teaching drama enrichment for Southwest Allen County Schools.”
She also stayed active in the theater, and in a surprising turn of events one of those stage appearances at the Civic Theatre led to an offer to join the on-air staff of WXKE Rock 104 where, as Leslie Stone, she became a radio fixture.
“I was put on the morning show. At that time Buzz Maxwell had been put on the morning show and Doc West had been moved to middays, so for nine months I was the crazy sidekick, read the news and did funny little stories. But they brought Doc back to the mornings.”
Thus a new favorite morning team was born. The pair worked together for 13 years, during which time Hormann says they forged a close relationship. When she received a call from Linda Ruffalo, director of development at IPFW and a board member of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, she decided it was time to move on to other things, however.
“My son was getting ready to leave for college, and he’s my only child, so I was facing the whole empty nest thing. Then Linda Ruffalo called and said they were reorganizing at Youtheatre and would I be interested in coming in as the new executive director? I was ready for a new challenge. With my son leaving, I had extra time on my hands, and obviously I had a passion and love for Youtheatre.”
She accepted the position in June 2010 and quickly began revitalizing Youtheatre through a series of new projects which helped expand its reach into the community, chiefly providing youngsters in the area a taste of theater they might not otherwise not have gotten.
“My first big project was to start Storybook Theatre, which is a traveling troupe that visits preschools, schools and libraries. It gives kids who haven’t experienced theatre a chance to have it come to them, and it provides three benefits to Youtheatre. One, it’s a great recruiting tool because kids see other kids up there singing and dancing and acting, and they think, ‘Hey, I could do that.’ Secondly, it provides free theater to the masses, and thirdly, we focus on literature-based shows and have 18 different tours we can offer that tie into their curriculum. We do anywhere between 55 and 85 of those shows in the region every year.”
One of the perks of the job has been sharing a work relationship with Youtheatre’s Artistic Director Harvey Cocks, who Hormann calls “the Lee Strasberg of Fort Wayne” and a personal mentor.
“He teaches the senior and junior high school students, and I learn so much from his example. He’s so respectful of those students, and he has the best stories of anyone I know. He’s 89 years old, and you would never know it because he stays so young and spry from working with these kids. He’s taught me that if I want to stay young, keep working with kids because it’s keeping me young.”
Having already spent a good deal of time with young people as a teacher, Hormann has brought that academic mind set to Youtheatre’s mission, looking for ways to expand upon its methods of teaching.
“My background has definitely helped in our governance because I have been able to set academic standards and an educational rationale so that when you talk to schools and organizations about our programs, they know we’re legit. Theater is an academic area; it’s not fluff.”
In four years as executive director, Hormann has taken on a number of exciting projects, including the staging of Anansi the Spider which included the use of large puppets to augment the performances of her students. But she counts one experience as an early favorite.
“I think the highlight so far has been the collaboration with IPFW on Oliver! and the opportunity to have our kids learning from the ‘big kids’ who were such great mentors and taught the littler kids so much. And that experience provided a template for doing those kinds of collaborations so that we were able to collaborate with [University of] Saint Francis this year [on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory].
“We’ve also grown our outreach so much and have worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, the Fort Wayne Urban League, Parks & Rec. Those are the things I’m most proud of – having that kind of community input and watching our reach in the community grow. And now that we have this great new black box theatre across the street, it gives us a whole new venue and so many new possibilities.”
Hormann still keeps active in radio, continuing to host her Sunday morning community affairs show, Closer Look, but most of her heart and energy is devoted to Fort Wayne Youtheatre. Although she doesn’t anticipate she, like Cocks, will still be working at Youtheatre when she’s 89s, she does plan to keep working with young students who are anxious to share her love of the theatre.
“I’ll always be working with kids, always be working in the theater or going to schools and reading in the classrooms. I’m already planning two years out for Youtheatre and have no plans to stop.”