Samantha is a tenth grader. She is 5'2" tall and a little overweight. She has jet-black, chin-length hair, with a big shock of bangs hanging over her forehead, just a little past her eyes. Her most frequent gesture is brushing her bangs away in order to see.
Last year Samantha went through a big life change: her parents got a divorce and her dad moved from Bellevue, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts. Her mom got to keep the house where they live with her two elementary aged brothers and one pre-school aged sister. Although the family is not short on money, her mom's arthritis makes it necessary for much of the housework to fall on Samantha's shoulders.
There are two more things you should know about Samantha; she has dyslexia and depression. Her parents are smart people and see what she struggles with, so they've been good about arranging disability assistance at school for the dyslexia and getting treatment for depression. The hard part, however, seems to be finding the right medication for depression -- typical teenagers’ moods are always in flux, so trying to medicate to stabilize a "normal" feeling must be a moving target. Samantha's quiet, inexpressive face, hiding behind bangs, is what most people see. It is easy to dismiss her or take her for granted since she does nothing to draw attention to herself. However, when Samantha is in a musical, her whole body lights up. She smiles from ear-to-ear when she sings. She dances with the focus of an aspiring pro and practices her moves every spare minute. She delivers her lines with confidence in a clear tone and with excellent enunciation.
Samantha isn't the kind of girl a typical youth theater would cast, but she has found a home at Bellevue Youth Theatre. She has participated for years in the children's ensemble. Last fall she was given a role with some extra dancing and several extra lines. Over the winter, she was cast as a dancer in Singin' in the Rain. In the spring, they gave her a role as one of the “Pink Ladies” in Grease. She danced, sang, and acted in many of the scenes, and lit up like fireworks for every one of them.
Bellevue Youth Theatre (BYT) is an uncommon performing arts organization, as it is one of the only free youth performing arts programs in the country. Its mission is to provide opportunities for all young people regardless of income or ability. The theater is exceptional in the way it serves youth, families, and people with disabilities, giving a role to everyone who auditions, encouraging all participants to develop skills, and focusing on building individuals' confidence and self-esteem. The theater also seeks opportunities to develop community by integrating volunteers and professionals from the surrounding area to create quality productions and educate participants in all aspects of theater.
Jose is seventeen and has an over-the-top personality. He also sings well enough for professional theater, dances like a cast-member from Glee, and acts with the confidence and flair worthy of any leading man. He has been at BYT since he was a small boy and is now happily snatching up leading roles. Jose is a youth theater's dream -- a handsome, confident, skilled triple-threat. But he didn't start that way; he started as an ensemble member and was given his first solo at fifteen. He tentatively took a stab at that solo, repeatedly asking if he was doing OK. The next year he helped with BYT outreach by confidently grabbing a mic at a Parks and Rec event and singing out show tunes. Last winter he played Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain. He learned to tap dance and to pace his voice use. He won the hearts of the audience with his charming smile and energetic dances. This tremendous growth was the result of his involvement with BYT, as he has never taken private lessons in acting, dance, or singing.
BYT seeks to serve people who would encounter obstacles at most youth theaters. Many participants are financially challenged, lack music theater training, deal with transportation and job issues, and have stressful home lives. Some participants have mental health problems such as Asperger’s, Autism, Tourette's, and Down’s syndrome. However, there are also hundreds of participants each year who don't have to manage any of these extra complications. This melting pot of social and economic groups blends in seamless cooperation in rehearsals and performances.
Mike is nine and has been acting in BYT productions since he was seven. Last year, he played the Munchkin Barrister in Wizard of Oz. He had to continually remind the Mayor of Munchkin Land of his lines -- a part played by the real mayor of Bellevue, Washington! Actors enjoy teamwork and social interaction, develop dependence on and trust in each other, and learn to appreciate people different from themselves.
The audition process itself is an exciting event; there’s a spark in the air as everyone is anxious about the audition and thrilled to see friends from previous productions. It begins with every actor filling out paperwork regarding which shows they would like to be considered for and conflicts for the entire two to four month rehearsal process. The actors then move into the dressing rooms where they are measured for costumes. Next stop is the green room for "sides" which is usually a simple eight-line dialog. After a short wait, they are called to audition in groups of six in the black-box theater. All of the directors are there, waiting with smiles and friendly greetings. Each auditionee is required to sing unaccompanied, and usually chooses something from the radio, a patriotic song, or even a song they've made up. The principle criterion is being able to hold a tune; music theater songs are not the norm for auditions and might even seem a bit pretentious.
The unusual practice of giving a role to everyone who auditions can create a substantial challenge for the directors. With casts of thirty to sixty people, and the requirement that everyone gets at least one line, scripts have to be rewritten for each production. Careful consideration has to be given for individuals challenged by mental issues or performance anxiety. Casting considerations based on body-type must take into consideration the self-esteem of the actor. Shawn is sixteen. She is heavy-set with short hair of various colors. She has an open, caring face and is always happy to talk. Until last year, her name was Annie, which she changed over the summer. Last year she also wore fuzzy cat ears and a tail every day. She no longer wears the cat outfit; it seems that she got too old for costumes. Shawn has been home-schooled every year of her education, except for second grade when she tried regular school and didn't like “trying to get along with the other kids.” She's easy to get along with now. She has been at BYT for a couple of years, participating in ensembles in both fall and spring productions. In Singin' in the Rain, she chose a man's suit for her ensemble role costume, and requested to sing tenor. For Grease, she was cast as Johnny Casino, the All-American, rock-star student at Rydell High.
"Each production becomes a world where all individual talents are recognized and the collaborative result is celebrated,” is a statement made by the BYT Foundation. BYT is jointly sponsored by the City of Bellevue and Bellevue Public Schools. The theater has been serving the city for twenty-two years under the leadership of James McClain and is managed through the Bellevue Parks and Community Services. The BYT Foundation helps support the organization's mission through volunteer hours, community outreach, and fundraising.
Volunteers and paid professionals from the community are an important component at BYT. Henry is a professional actor in his fifties who has volunteered continually for over ten years. He provides the participants with an example of what truly excellent acting is, as well as lends a hand with directing from time to time; he is one of the pillars of the program. In addition, he has enjoyed watching his nieces grow up in the theater, one of whom played Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain.
Volunteers guide youth with costumes, make-up, tech work, and acting. Professionals are hired for directing, music, and more complicated tech work. Additionally, responsible high school students are encouraged to fill entry-level jobs as stage managers, assistant stage managers, assistant costumers, and tech. It is typical for the post-college adults working as directors to be former youth participants. It is also typical that the adult actors filling mature roles such as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, the adults in Grease, and the older adults for musicals written in-house, are parents of former participants who value the organization to such a degree that they give their time and skills in mentorship for years after their kids are grown.
BYT is a diamond in the rough, not only because of the vast number of untrained participants and the chaos inherent in dealing with enormous casts, but also because of the aging, cramped facility it calls home. Plans have been drawn for a new, spacious theater in the heart of this diverse community. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for construction, and with the support BYT enjoys from the city council and grant organizations, the dream of the new theater is bound to become reality.
At a recent fundraising event, a former participant and veteran of the war in Afghanistan stated, “The only way to fail at BYT is to refuse to succeed.” Bellevue Youth Theatre is indeed a cherished part of Bellevue, as a theater, as a community service, and as a life line for hope.
Lives are not only being transformed at BYT, they are being transformed wherever people are given opportunities to participate in noncompetitive and inclusive theater venues, choirs, and studio performances. And, on a personal note, I must say in each of these venues, a caring and committed singing teacher can play a significant role in these life-changing experiences. Join me, fellow NATS members?