Teaching the young to love the theater
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Upon his arrival in Fort Wayne last April 29, Todd Espeland, brought in to serve as the new executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, spent two months learning the ropes and easing the transition with retiring director Leslie Hormann.
It was the culmination of a varied career that took him through a variety of educational and professional experiences along the way.
Born in Rhode Island, his family moved when he was young, and he considers Las Vegas home.
While he had ample opportunities to see performances of all kinds, it wasn’t until he was in high school that he really caught the performing bug himself.
Starting as a teen
“I was 16 when I started taking a theater class,” Espeland said. “That led me to try out for my first show, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Up until that time I had thought maybe I’d be a journalist, but that whole show experience, getting involved in theater, I felt like I’d met my people. I found a whole lot of good friends, and by senior year I decided what I was going to do.”
Receiving a full ride to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Espeland said he “quickly saw that I could make a life out of this.” Finding work at Caesar’s Palace and the Aladdin, Espeland began to see the many ways to scratch his itch for performance. But it was studying with the renowned Dell’Arte International, a European style of theater that is taught in the United States and around the world, where he found his calling.
“Going there after UNLV, they really encouraged us in creating our own works and our own companies. I really focused on masks. If you think about what Julie Taymor did with The Lion King, it’s that kind of theatrical world I was working in. I really learned how to push the boundaries and learned that you don’t have to work for someone else. You can develop your own company.”
Espeland did just that for a time, and by 1994 he was in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he further expanded his resume with more acting, directing, and teaching. He created works that toured nationally and internationally, a variety of street theater and circus variety shows. He credits stints as sabbatical replacement and guest artist in residence with allowing him to grow. He returned to UNLV to earn his MFA in directing before settling into Kalamazoo for a longer stint in a new capacity, as artistic director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre where they produced an astonishing 16 shows a year.
As part of a staff of 37, Espeland was able apply much of what he’d learned in college and in his varied professional activities, and last year he brought all of that experience to Fort Wayne Youtheatre. In addition to the appeal of the job, he had a personal reason to come to Fort Wayne.
“I was in a long-distance relationship, going back and forth an hour and a half, two hours. She’s the head of photography at University of Saint Francis, so when this opportunity opened up, I was excited about it.
“It’s such a healthy atmosphere (at Youtheatre). I had already been teaching adults so in teaching youth there’s little difference really. The vocabulary is a little different, and you may have to break it down a bit more. But the challenges and fears are still the same.”
Espeland also loved what he discovered about the arts community in general in his new adopted hometown.
“What I really liked was how much arts are going on in Fort Wayne,” he said. “The arts in general in the Midwest are really active, and there’s so much theater, music, dance, and fine arts. There’s a huge opportunity for collaboration.”
Espeland looks forward to an upcoming collaboration with the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre when The Civic stages Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl book and beloved character, in February.
Youtheatre assistant director and director of outreach Christopher Murphy is directing the production, and with the focus on a young character, the show provides a perfect partnership between the two organizations who share a home at the Arts United Center.
Such collaborations not only benefit the Youtheatre students but allow each organization to share their audience with others, helping to expand their visibility and reach into the community. Having a considerably shorter season here than in Kalamazoo — four stage productions instead of 16 — Espeland can spend more time on other important Youtheatre components.
“Doing 16 shows a year was a roller coaster,” Espeland said. “It never stopped. Here I can be more thoughtful and spend time not just on the shows but on our Storybook Tours and our school performances. I can work to live and not live to work, so it’s been a more healthy environment.”
The Storybook Tours that visit around the community, including the Allen County Public Library, provides entertainment and programming to those who might not otherwise be exposed to theater.
Similarly, their school programs help them to reach tens of thousands each year as well as the many who attend their performances each season.
As for the slate of classes taught by Youtheatre each year — and their popular spring break and summer camp classes — Espeland is tweaking more than overhauling.
“We already had a strong curriculum, a strong foundation,” he said. “We are going to start theming the classes with our 2019-20 schedule, planning them around a style of literature or some pop culture theme. It’s a good way to bring in youth who might not otherwise take a theater class.”
Espeland will be bringing his own talents to teaching students about combat scenes through a Heroes and Villains class, a skill he was able to demonstrate last September in his first directorial effort at Fort Wayne Youtheatre, Treasure Island.
Espeland points out that studies confirm that theater students score an average of 65 points higher in verbal standardized tests and 35 points higher in math portions of those exams.
He feels his own career demonstrates how important theater can be in the development of a student.
“I come from a single-parent family, and statistically the odds are against those kids,” Espeland said. “But I’m the first college graduate from my family, and theater helped me get there.
“People think you only participate in theater if you plan to go on to be actors or directors, but there are so many other great things that kids can get out of it, soft skills that help them in so many other ways. Life skills that prepare them for anything.”