Thanks to their early recognition of the effects of COVID-19, the folks at Fort Wayne Youtheatre have been able to approach their 2020-21 season with tremendous flexibility.
The fall performances of Stuart Little were set outdoors with distanced areas for safer seating. The holiday production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was postponed until May due to tightening restrictions.
That leaves just one of the organization’s annual productions — and in recent years, one of its most high profile — to determine.
A Celebrated Tradition
The Young Heroes of Conscience series has become a celebrated tradition, profiling some of history’s most interesting figures through the eyes of these icons as children.
Ryan White, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King Jr. have been among those portrayed over the years. The initial plan was to revisit one of those productions this year.
“We were considering a full remount of The Kid from Kokomo, which was the story of Ryan White, in honor of the 30th anniversary of his passing,” said Gregory Stieber, the playwright and director for the series. “That all changed in the COVID world which gave us an opportunity to open up the concept and look at these figures from history that we’ve examined in the past.
“Each of these young heroes faced some kind of adversity, many of them in education. Ryan White, Ruby Bridges, Anne Frank all had a common thread of being separated from society and access to things like socialization. I thought about having the core group of young actors from the last six years and putting together a retrospective.”
But Young Heroes of 2020 is more than a mere flashback, a greatest hits package of the Young Heroes series. It provides a remarkable glimpse into those figures from the past and align them with the unique challenges faced by children in 2020. In early January, Stieber organized a strictly distanced and masked gathering of talents from those earlier shows to brainstorm ways that those historical experiences paralleled what young people were looking at as they navigated through a pandemic, isolation, school upheavals, and civil rights protests.
“I was really inspired by what I was seeing in the Black Lives Matter protests last summer,” Stieber said. “Over the years, you’d see African American athletes taking a knee, and you’d see the work of black activists, but you didn’t see a lot of white or even Asian participation. Last summer the protests were more Caucasian, in a way that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.”
Stieber saw the many connections between the stories he’d written about young heroes in the past and the young heroes he was seeing in 2020. Ryan White’s struggle with a virus that was misunderstood and feared, Ruby Bridges’ searchfor a good education, Anne Frank’s struggle with isolation, and Martin Luther King’s pursuit of civil rights and inclusion each tied naturally to many themes children faced last year.
Bringing in prior participants allowed Stieber to indulge one of his favorite aspects of creating.
“I love the collaborative process,” he said. “Opening up the discussion brought up things I didn’t even think about. I had thought about Ryan White and the virus and about Ruby Bridges and MLK with Black Lives Matter. But as people began talking that day, I starting hearing about other things that kids were facing last year — the interruption of their order, their routine, and all the other challenges that came from what they were facing with the pandemic and what they were witnessing socially.”
Finding Young Bravery
Writing Young Heroes of 2020 required more than writing one solidly researched script. Instead, Stieber began writing multiple scripts, adapting the words he’d written for the previous productions to juxtapose against the words and feelings of children of 2020.
The process for the production is also quite different since the performances will be virtual, requiring a different approach than he is typically directing with his young actors.
As a Youtheatre teacher, Stieber found some educational benefits to those challenges.
“My role specifically as an educator is imparting hope and inspiration to young actors,” he said. “I was able to say to them, ‘No matter what your circumstances, there are multiple forms that art can take. It’s not just about a soldout theater with all the lights on you. Sometimes it’s looking into a camera, and that can be its own challenge because on a stage full of people, it can be easy to hide. But when that camera is on you, there is nowhere to hide.”
Part of the popularity and impact of the Young Heroes of Conscience Series has been not only audience response, but the ability to take these shows into schools where the full import of these historical figures can be shared and discussed in depth with kids.
With no field trips and no visitors allowed at schools this year, those performances will also be available virtually.
“All of the information about this year’s show is available on our website,” said Christopher Murphy, assistant director and director of outreach for Fort Wayne Youtheatre. “Tickets are currently on sale, and we ask that you say how many people will be viewing it which is obviously on the honor system. Schools can also register for the show, and all of the teaching materials and information is available to them on our website as well.”
Access will be allowed for 90 days, giving ample time through the end of the school year for students to enjoy the performances.
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