When Todd Espeland arrived early last year to assume duties as the executive director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, he inherited a 2018-19 season that was already in the books before his tenure began.
This year, working with his assistant director Christopher Murphy, he had a season of Youtheatre which could bear his own mark.
For this year’s season opener, The Wind in the Willows, Espeland adapted the Kenneth Graham book for the Youtheatre stage. It puts Fort Wayne Youtheatre in the spotlight and allows even more creative input for the young students and actors they’re training.
Stretching the young actors
“As we go through the rehearsal process, I make adjustments to the script,” Espeland said. “I’m open to what they’re bringing in, and they can help me shape the scene better. Sometimes I’m at a loss for a line, and they’ll help me figure it out. It really empowers them to have an adult say, ‘What do you think?’ and let them know that their ideas matter.”
With The Wind in the Willows, Youtheatre brings to life a story that prominently features an unlikable character, that of the manipulative Toad. Allowing for the young actors to stretch themselves with characters that aren’t necessarily heroes is part of what makes the story special, but there’s a much larger issue being targeted — and one that’s always timely.
“Kenneth Graham’s book isn’t really a children’s book though it’s often thought to be because it has animals as the characters,” Espeland said. “It’s really a funny sendup of various characters in society, and they’re good characters, not just cutesy little animals. The behavior of Toad is really manipulative, and it can also be hilarious. But there’s also the issue of how all of his friends stick with him in spite of that. Toad is really terrible, but the friends don’t give up on him and help him move toward better behavior.”
With a blend of Youtheatre veterans and those new to their productions, the cast ranges from age nine to 18. Espeland took advantage of the animal characters to make some atypical casting choices, with a girl tackling the role of Toad. There are 19 cast members in all, and Espeland feels good about what each is able to contribute.
“Everybody has something of value to contribute, and they’re all doing something,” he said. “It’s not like we have a bunch of kids just showing up for a big crowd scene. And we have quite a few older kids in the show, which is great for us. When they start reaching high school age, that’s sometimes when we start losing them. But we want to be a resource for the older kids and augment what they’re able to do in their own high school programs.”
New Educational approaches
Part of what Espeland brought to Youtheatre are new educational approaches to the classes Youtheatre offers and the training their young actors receive. Developing thematic classes allows more engagement (for example, enrollment for one voice class more than tripled this semester) but also more input for the faculty who teach for Youtheatre.
“The instructors have been thrilled with the themes for the classes,” Espeland said. “I went to them and said, ‘What do you want to teach? What are you passionate about?’ It’s a best practice mentality to do themed classes because we can really focus on what interests everyone and will teach performance fundamentals.”
The Wind in the Willows is the first of Youtheatre’s four productions this year, and the one coming in December — the area debut of Frozen Jr. — is highly anticipated. Coming on the heels of the release of Frozen 2, Espeland is confident the production, which will be directed by Murphy, will be a popular choice.
He also spoke extensively to Gregory Stieber, the playwright and director for the Young Heroes of Consciousness Series, to choose this year’s installment of that.
“Greg and I threw a couple of ideas, but what made us decide on Martin Luther King Jr. was that he was 15 when he went to college,” Espeland said. “It was those years that shaped his views of the world.”
Relationship with the Embassy
Fort Wayne Youtheatre has been able to experience the Embassy up close and personal already this season. It’s a growing relationship that is helping the student actors gain incredible experiences on stages across the city and providing different environments for their rehearsals including this production of The Wind in the Willows.
It has also helped prepare them for life after Youtheatre.
“This year for three of our four productions, we’re spending two weeks of our rehearsal time at the Embassy,” Espeland said. “When we first went, Barb Richards gave us a full tour of the building, and it’s just such a beautiful facility. We also visited the business office, and it was a great opportunity for me to point out to the kids that there are lots of jobs in theater. It isn’t just acting, but there are management jobs, administrative jobs, technical jobs. There’s a whole gamut of things you can do with a background in theater. There are jobs in the performing arts that have nothing to do with performing.”
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