Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN), a K-12-centric arts organization based on Mercer Island that caters to the Eastside, has pivoted to remote/in-person hybrid operations amid COVID-19 (coronavirus) concerns this summer.
But questions remain over how long the short-term solution, which has seen support from the community and continues to engage students, can be sustained.
“We’re putting our brains around how to operate next year and to still provide our arts education for kids who desperately need [it],” said YTN executive director Mimi Katano.
Before the unprecedented transition, YTN didn’t think, like anyone entering 2020, that only a few months would pass before everything would essentially be put on pause.
At the end of 2019, YTN had successfully completed its regular annual drama as planned. In January, high-school students began working on a production of the musical “Rent.” It was set to debut to audiences in March.
“It feels like nine years ago now,” recalled Katano with a laugh when remembering the beginning of the year.
In early February, some of the organization’s students started touring nursing homes to put on small shows. YTN additionally has a program where staffers venture to a handful of Eastside high schools without drama departments to organize stage shows. Work was continuing without a hitch.
Many YTN students were looking forward to June, since the organization typically throws an event celebrating graduating seniors. Spring and summer classes, as well as subsequent shows, were on track to continue as scheduled. A May show was set to follow “Rent.”
One might be able to predict, as it goes with most stories involving the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, what happened next. The virus, which had for so many months mostly been whispered about without ever becoming the “presence” it is now, became unequivocally severe. After a short period of increasing cancellations and closures, Gov. Jay Inslee announced mid-March a stay-at-home order that would by necessity hinder operations at organizations like YTN.
The nursing home tour, with a single date left, was canceled.
“Obviously, it did not seem like a good idea for young people to be going to [see senior citizens],” Katano said.
Rehearsals for the Eastside high-school shows abruptly stopped. Other YTN outreach programs were canceled, too. The planned May show metamorphosed into a simple virtual reading, which was subsequently released online for streaming revenue.
“Rent,” which was to be the tentpole show of the first quarter of 2020, got through two performances. Once gatherings of over 50 people were barred, YTN made the decision to close the show. There were still three weekends left, with a total of nine performances.
“That came quickly,” Katano said. “And then, which was devastating emotionally especially for high-school kids who are graduating, some of them grew up in our theater, and we always have a special graduation. That slot is popular for a reason. It was very difficult.”
Only two weeks remained for winter classes. Those had to be quickly transferred to an online-only format.
The financial fallout was swift. The YTN wouldn’t be getting the box-office revenue it had anticipated from “Rent.” For 2020, summer camp registration had drawn record numbers in just a few months. But then, with coronavirus guidelines in place, the organization’s education team had to regroup and dismantle the entire summer program as it had been constructed, Katano said.
After rejiggering the program to have a virtual emphasis, Katano said that over half the people who had registered requested a refund.
Although many people used part of or all of their returned money to use as a donation, the mass repayments, paired with the postponements of the first summer show and uncertainty over the fate of the second one (when Katano spoke with the Reporter July 9, talks were still ongoing), posed major concerns.
“We are incrementally making decisions depending on things are going,” Katano said. “Things are not looking good at this moment. The summer is pretty bad right now.”
Next season, there will be no musicals. Any potential projects will have to be either an original work or part of the public domain so that if a performance has to be streamed, copyright issues are avoided.
YTN received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan; the organization pays the Emmanuel Church for its space, and the latter entity forgave YTN’s April rent. Via a streaming event a few weeks ago over Facebook, the organization received $10,000 in donations, which enabled them to close out the fiscal year, which ended in June. Donations from locals poured in after the March shutdown.
“The community has been very thoughtful,” Katano said.
Still, Katano said, additional obstacles have been posed by the fact that most staffers have gone to either half-time or three-quarter-time since March and by an unrelated-to-COVID-19 loss of storage. After transferring from its original storage space in January to one underneath a brewery in SoDo, a recent arson extensively damaged items. For the second time this year, YTN is searching for another storage facility.
“This upcoming season is going to be really crucial,” Katano said.
She noted that YTN’s challenges, and anxieties about the future, are not uncommon among other local arts organizations in its orbit.
“Every place has the same story,” Katano said. “We’ve been talking to a lot of colleagues and sharing information and ideas…everybody’s in the same boat. We’re very concerned not only for YTN, but for arts and culture in general.”
Mercer Island’s Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC), for example, postponed for the first time in its history its famed film festival, which earlier in the summer was reinstated but in an exclusively-online format (as have the majority of SJCC offerings). Katano has heard similar struggles from Seattle-area organizations like 5th Avenue, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Studio East, Seattle Children’s Theatre, the Village Theatre and others.
When asked what the community can do in addition to making donations and supporting streaming opportunities, Katano stressed the importance of spreading awareness about the YTN’s summer camp, which is ongoing and using an online/in-person model that she stressed is “really careful and diligent in following every guideline.”
“The angle that we’re trying to really push on is that when we do online camp, it has the potential to expand our audience,” Katano said. “So what we try to do is [encourage people to] sign up for a camp, but also invite your cousin from Minnesota to join you at this camp. Or, ‘let’s watch a show together with a friend out of state.’ That could be a different way to connect with your extended families, through a class or events. We’re trying to get people to spread the word in not only their normal circles, but outside of the state to do that. When we say that to people, they kind of go, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought about that.’”
She also noted that partnerships or sponsorships from local businesses can be mutually beneficial.
“I think it’s a situation where we all have to help each other out,” Katano said. “Our ask would be to not just look out for YTN, but for all arts organizations out there who are going to be suffering for years to come.”
For more information about Youth Theatre Northwest and its offerings, go to its website.