You may have heard the news that’s been circulating throughout the community. I’ve resigned as Executive Director for Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN), a position I’ve held for the past decade. On Sept. 17, I begin work as the Executive Director for Cultural Access Washington, representing 50 arts, science and heritage organizations across King County with the objective of promoting more cultural programming in their communities. As I approach my final day, I’m awestruck by the story of YTN’s last 10 years. What an epic tale my time on Mercer Island has been!
Here in the backstage of YTN’s “theatre by kids, for kids,” we have stood our ground against many challenges, like the downward economy of the Great Recession. We have suffered great losses, like the building and home we gave up and emptied box after box of props, costumes and endless cans of paint. Please don’t misunderstand. This part of our story was really hard but we would make the same sacrifice again to ensure the children of Mercer Island receive the high-quality education that Northwood Elementary now provides.
Every great story has an ensemble of interesting and appealing characters. Do you know the actual breadth of experience and talent within YTN’s artist pool? With many high-level degrees and vast creative and life experiences, our artists trek out to Mercer Island year after year to ensure that this community’s children receive the best creative education possible. Sometimes, I’m surprised that they do. Our interim facilities aren’t professional. In addition, our artists hear the arguments made by unqualified people about what kind of space we need or can make due with.
YTN’s work is stuck in a strange and awkward dynamic. The Mercer Island community has extremely high standards but isn’t always quick to provide the resources that promote high quality. Maybe with schools, sports or parks but not with cultural work. This makes for a difficult world to run a theatre in. I’m pretty exhausted from arguing our value and need for a new home, when five years after our move, very little has changed. I urge this community to take a higher road. Your children are talented, and they deserve the best teachers and professional facilities to give them the space to grow, learn and thrive. Theatre skills are life skills. We’re not just creating good actors. We’re nurturing articulate, passionate, expressive, community-minded, collaborative, solution-focused and imaginative young adults.
Many good tales have an unresolved quest. For us, that’s the Mercer Island Center for the Arts. I want to be optimistic about the future. I want to believe that their recent Community Visioning process has galvanized the support we need, married all our creative dreams together, and is forging a path to a site within the next year. We have a real and exciting opportunity right now to ensure that YTN’s future for your kids is just as epic as the past has been.
But if that’s not how this story ends, then what’s next? Does YTN continue to lose valuable team members who have grown tired of the apathy? Does the organization finally tire of all the extra fundraising work that’s necessary because our revenue is limited to an 85 seat social hall/theatre? Or does YTN finally give up trying to convince this community that cultural work is important, valuable, and offers real opportunities for civic and economic growth? Several other communities don’t need as much convincing.
Please don’t get swayed by the speculative and mostly uninformed talk about YTN’s ability to carry its weight in a newer and more expensive facility. No one knows better than I what YTN’s resources are and its ability to grow. When I came on as Executive Director in 2008, YTN’s annual budget was barely $500,000. Today, YTN is an $800,000 institution. If not for the Great Recession and the big move from a professional facility into a smaller location that, unfortunately, hinders our ability to sell tickets and offer classes, we could be a million dollar organization right now. YTN is poised for growth.
Please don’t be concerned that I’m leaving. YTN’s Artistic Director, Mimi Katano, and Education Director, Kate Swenson, have a collective 30 years of history with YTN. They are fully capable of carrying the organization forward if momentum sparks for a new home. Without a spark, I fear that our talented artists will find other places and communities that offer much more.
I haven’t totally given up on the dream of MICA. I’ve volunteered to help shape and guide the recommendations that are emerging from their Community Visioning sessions as a Senior Adviser. I’m asking you to stand with me. Your advocacy will ensure that the community and its leaders provide our creative children with the performing arts center they deserve (and lots of other MI arts groups with the home they’ve long hoped for). Amplify your voices and keep talking to City Hall, your neighbors, and anyone who will listen. And, please join me at City Hall for the City Council Study session on Sept. 17, from 6-7 p.m.
YTN’s story is not over yet. The outcome is squarely within the hands of the community and its leadership. Please, please, let’s get MICA moving. We’ve been revving this engine so long, I’m afraid we will run out of gas. Provide a site for MICA. Represent the children that want a creative home. Embrace and fuel the opportunities that come with cultural placemaking. Give your kids an inspiring story that comes with a happy ending. This is the what they’re counting on.
On behalf of the YTN Board of Directors, staff and our kids,
Manny R. Cawaling
Executive Director, Youth Theatre Northwest (2008 – 2018)