New YTN director brings fresh perspective

YTN executive director Manuel Cawaling stands in front of the theatre. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
YTN executive director Manuel Cawaling stands in front of the theatre.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

For nearly a month now, Manuel Cawaling has been the new executive director of Youth Theatre Northwest. But he is no stranger to the Island’s only production house. Cawaling’s relationship with YTN goes back almost 10 years, to when he directed “The Nightingale” in 1999. Since then, he has directed a number of plays at YTN and has grown close with the theatre team.

At 38, Cawaling has dedicated much of his work in the performing arts to youth outreach and education, fringe theater, multi-ethnic expression on the stage, acting, directing and singing. As an administrator, he has worked for the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, the Repertory Actors Theatre, the Northwest Asian American Theatre and the Wing Luke Museum.

You have had a lot of involvement with youth outreach programs and less privileged communities in Seattle. It is a very different setting than MI. How is it similar or different working with Island youth?

Education has been a strong part of my career, and I’m very passionate about it. I’ve worked with kids from all different backgrounds. [YTN] serves about 1,200 kids a year. We are a regional facility, but the majority of our kids are from Mercer Island. It has always been a treat to direct here because the kids really know their stuff. They’re well trained and have a lot of stage experience.

When I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids or youth at risk, theater is a tool for different work. Most of those kids have never performed before. There’s some other story that they’re trying to tell. But what’s great here is that kids are really focused on the art of theater. At the same time, we are still doing other work. We are building self-esteem. We are building a team. We are educating kids on the importance of team work and giving them valuable skills to propel them into any career they decide to go into. I would say the difference here is that I’m working with kids who’ve really been involved in expert training.

Of course, [YTN] attracts kids who are interested in theater and the arts for the long term, but first and foremost, we are here to build self-esteem through self-expression. We are here to prepare kids for the rest of their lives.

Another thing we’re accomplishing at [YTN] is that we’re creating patrons of the arts -- young people who understand the importance of art and theater at the center of community life. We involve parents and grandparents, people sewing costumes and putting sign boards up across the Island. That’s how we build community; by involving the entire family in the process of this young person pursuing [his or her] passion and creative ambition. The amount of support from the Island community is amazing. Mercer Island parents are so involved and committed to education.

YTN welcomes children from ages 3 to 18. For you, personally, what makes working with young actors special?

Young people are growing and evolving at such a dramatic and enhanced rate. You get to experience that. You work with a kid one year where it’s just so much work to get them to speak above a whisper. And then by the next year, they’re so loud you can hear them from the back of the theater. There’s something purely inspiring about being able to support and witness personal growth.

Also, kids are just fun. Theater artists — we’re all just big kids who love to play games. Of course, there’s a lot more to it, but the bottom line is we love to play games. And theater is a lot of play. It’s all about imagination and creativity. Clearly, young people are usually more quick to play. So it’s an awful lot of fun.

As director, do you have any new ideas for YTN?

I do. And there are a lot of other people — on the board and on staff — who also do.

Youth Theatre Northwest is celebrating its 25th year. So first off, I really want to bring attention to an organization that has this rich history. We have served thousands of kids and families, and we have created countless profound moments for kids; moments of growth, moments of revelation, moments of community and friendship. I want to bring attention to that.

I also really want to raise the profile of Youth Theatre Northwest, not only on Mercer Island but in the greater Puget Sound area. We are a regional facility and we are the only dedicated performing arts place on Mercer Island. I think this is really significant. We play a really important role in this community. We have taken care of children from Mercer Island for years and years. I’d like to bring more attention to the role that we play in this community.

What specific ideas do you have?

I think it’s really important for us to look at the demographics of Mercer Island because the majority of our kids come from here. We have to understand how the demographics are changing and what the trends are. We are not just this alternative art space on the fringe. For us to be involved in the community, we need to be sure that we are offering programs that specifically serve the changing community and support the educational goals of the children here.

There’s a lot of talk these days about being the community center or being the ‘third place’ [for youth next to school and home]. I want to try and figure out how we can be that third place on Mercer Island.

I also want to try and become more widely recognized as a regional facility. We have a lot to offer, and I’d like to see us offer that to people more broadly. Imagine how good it would be for the Island to have a nationally recognized youth theater — a destination that brought people to Mercer Island. I’m talking about people coming here for an event or for great art. That would be wonderful for the community.

What are you planning for YTN’s 25th anniversary?

We are going to enhance our entryway. We have a facade and murals that are going up. We’ve also been reaching out and trying to contact all of our alumni. We are going to have some activities throughout the year, mostly in the fall, and try to stage some celebrations.

We are also starting a new campaign called “Twenty-five for five” to solicit support from alumni. It’s very simple — donate a minimum of $25 every year for five years. Why we are doing this is that we’re also trying to adjust our mentality.

The spirit behind a lot of our work is to give to the community and provide for the kids. We’re recognizing the contributions that we’ve made. We have been a strong pillar in this community, so now we’re asking people to come and support us. We’re doing well financially, but we could always use more, especially because we’re at this pivotal point where we are a small staff. For us to be sustainable, we need to grow.

What are your favorite plays?

I love our original plays. I love “Pigs the Rock Musical.” It was originally written for YTN, and it’s back next month. For our 25th anniversary, we made a list of all the plays we considered to be the most popular, and we had the audience vote on them. The [winning votes] are what we’re showing this season. “Pigs” was a big favorite.

Being on the administrative side, do you ever miss working on stage and directing?

I do sometimes, but as executive director I’m all over the place. I really do keep all of my different ambitions and interests alive.

Mostly, I’m just excited to work with Mimi Katano as artistic director. I think we make a great team. She’s a really gifted artist and has done a tremendous amount of work in expanding this organization. And the same goes for the rest of the staff. I’m so happy and I feel so at home to be working with a group where we share so many of the same values.

For YTN’s summer schedule, visit

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