By the time Todd Espeland assumed the duties of Executive and Artistic Director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre on July 1, he had already spent two months working with the staff, including his predecessor Leslie Hormann, and easing his transition into his new role. Coming to Fort Wayne from the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre — the third largest community theater in the country — the position at Youtheatre came at just the right time.
“My reasons for wanting to move here were twofold,” Espeland said. “My fiancée is head of photography at the University of Saint Francis, so I was already looking to move to Fort Wayne. I was just looking for the right moment. But I also wanted to get back into teaching which is possible here at Youtheatre.”
The job he left behind included overseeing a huge production schedule, one far more extensive than is tackled by the community theatres in this area.
“I had a staff of seven and seven interns, and we produced 16 plays a year,” he said. “With 16 shows, it’s a breakneck pace. It never stops. Coming here is a great situation for me because this is a great organization, and it really feeds a need in this theater community and a need for arts for the youth in this community.”
Espeland was brought in to expand upon the constantly growing outreach opportunities, with performances in schools and performances at the Arts United Center for students in the region.
Having come in after the 2018-19 season was already announced, Espeland now gets to dive right in and found his first directing assignment almost immediately.
“I have a lot of experience in stage combat and asked who was directing Treasure Island,” said Espeland of the season’s opening production. “Leslie said, ‘Why don’t you take that on?’ So I decided to adapt a script for our production. I have a relationship with Theatrefolk Publishing which publishes age-appropriate scripts for junior high school and high school productions, and I’m pleased to say that they’re going to publish this particular script. So we will be the first theatre of record listed as having performed this Treasure Island script.”
Although he wasn’t familiar with the Youtheatre students and local talent which auditioned for the show, Espeland thinks that may have been an advantage for him.
“I came into it with a fresh eye, without any pre-existing ideas of what each of them could do,” he said. “When we had our first read-through, they came ready to play.
“I approach it the same way as I do when I’m directing any cast, whether it’s professionals or college students or any of the casts I’ve worked with over the years. I was impressed with their maturity, and they were all very clever about interpreting the script.”
The second show of the Youtheatre season will be a return of last year’s wildly popular holiday offering, A Charlie Brown Christmas, directed again this year by Christopher Murphy who also serves as Youtheatre’s assistant director and director of outreach.
“I was happy to see they had scheduled it again this year because it was received very well last year and completely sold out,” Espeland said. “Many who wanted to see it weren’t able to, so it makes sense to bring it back. The music is really good, and I’m thrilled that we’re doing it. Murphy and I are already talking about ways to make it a different experience this time. We’d like to do something with the set design to match the art style of a 1960s cartoon in presentation. I think we’re going to approach everything in terms of making the community want to come see our shows, not just coming because their kids are in the shows.”
Espeland is particularly happy to have inherited a very special series, the Young People of Conscience Series, which will return this year with After the Miracle: Helen Keller, written and directed once again by Gregory Stieber.
“I was in town interviewing last year during the performances of Harriet Tubman, and I think programming like that during that time of year is very forward thinking. As an artistic director, I’m very excited about that series because it’s very cutting edge. Not all kids’ theater needs to be about animals or fairy tales, and programming like this is very progressive and smart. And the kids get it. I’ve told Greg Stieber that I want him to be as creative as he wants to be and to be as risky as he wants to be. I think that series is a real feather in our cap.”
Of course, there is still plenty of room for fairy tales. Espeland was already on hand when last May’s Fairy Tale Fest came to life in downtown Fort Wayne, so he is ready to oversee this year’s Youtheatre season finale, Rapunzel.
“I think Fairy Tale Fest is great and imaginative theater,” Espeland said. “I also have a background with Dell’Arte International, which takes a Julie Taymor-like approach to masks and movement, so Fairy Tale Fest really feeds the imaginative background I come from. I really want to flesh out ways to use that here.”
With his first year at Youtheatre well under way, and his first production about to hit the stage, Espeland is excited about the future of Youtheatre and where its 85th and future years will take them.
“The board of directors is great, and Leslie and the board have really set a great foundation. Now we need to see what we want to do next. What is our next phase?”