New YTN director brings fresh perspective
September 9, 2008 · Updated 4:27 PM
For nearly a month now, Manuel Cawaling has been the new executive director of Youth Theatre Northwest. But he is no stranger to the Islands only production house. Cawalings 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 Im very passionate about it. Ive 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. Theyre well trained and have a lot of stage experience.
When Ive worked with disadvantaged kids or youth at risk, theater is a tool for different work. Most of those kids have never performed before. Theres some other story that theyre trying to tell. But whats 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 Im working with kids whove 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 were accomplishing at [YTN] is that were 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. Thats 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 its just so much work to get them to speak above a whisper. And then by the next year, theyre so loud you can hear them from the back of the theater. Theres something purely inspiring about being able to support and witness personal growth.
Also, kids are just fun. Theater artists were all just big kids who love to play games. Of course, theres a lot more to it, but the bottom line is we love to play games. And theater is a lot of play. Its all about imagination and creativity. Clearly, young people are usually more quick to play. So its 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. Id like to bring more attention to the role that we play in this community.
What specific ideas do you have?
I think its 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.
Theres 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 Id 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. Im talking about people coming here for an event or for great art. That would be wonderful for the community.
What are you planning for YTNs 25th anniversary?
We are going to enhance our entryway. We have a facade and murals that are going up. Weve 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. Its very simple donate a minimum of $25 every year for five years. Why we are doing this is that were 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. Were recognizing the contributions that weve made. We have been a strong pillar in this community, so now were asking people to come and support us. Were doing well financially, but we could always use more, especially because were 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 its 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 were 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 Im all over the place. I really do keep all of my different ambitions and interests alive.
Mostly, Im just excited to work with Mimi Katano as artistic director. I think we make a great team. Shes 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. Im so happy and I feel so at home to be working with a group where we share so many of the same values.
For YTNs summer schedule, visit www.youththeatre.org.