Youth Theatre Northwest’s high-school actors had romped through two performances of the musical “Rent” when the plug was pulled on them in the form of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in March.
The Mercer Island theater company went dark for five months before it returned to the spotlight with an online stream-only production of “Men on Boats” in August.
With Mimi Katano, executive artistic director, and Kate Swenson, executive education director, at the helm, YTN — which raised its curtain in 1985 for kids ages 3-18 — has kids returning to the theater in droves as evidenced by 90 auditionees for its upcoming season. The plays will be performed in mask and social distanced and streamed online only.
Katano and Swenson are thrilled to return to the theater scene and roll things back out safely.
“Kate and I have been with youth theater for a really long time now and we have weathered many a storm, nothing like this, but really a variety of different challenges in our history here, and so I think having that experience really paid off in creative thinking and to just keep going,” Katano said.
Added Swenson: “The feedback we get from the parents and from the kids are like, ‘Thank goodness this is happening, this is saving my kid right now, it’s saving our teachers right now, it’s saving the artists right now.’ The fact that any little sip of it is really something we treasure right now even if it isn’t like the sip that we’re used to having.”
“Men on Boats” featured high school and college students because that’s an age group that has a deeper understanding of the COVID situation, said Katano, and used a smaller cast of 10 actors. In that test run for theater sans live audience, but by filming with the cast in house, YTN had to receive permission from the play’s publishing company to stream.
Per Washington state COVID guidelines for youth development programs, they were limited to have 22 people in the room. In addition, actors and staff were masked throughout filming, the doors were kept open at all times, there was a regular cleaning in between shots if actors touched anything, there was no sharing of props and actors dressed at home.
On the YTN site, “Men on Boats” is described as “the true(ish) history of an 1869 expedition, when a one-armed captain and a crew of insane yet loyal volunteers set out to chart the course of the Colorado River.”
During the filming of “Men on Boats,” a stage manager, lighting designer, camera operator, production assistant and assistant director were in house along with the 10 actors. As for social distancing, Matthew Lazure designed the stage with different levels where actors stood to create space.
Katano said they wanted to honor the theatrical experience for the home audience by filming the entire stage from different angles, and then they included some cinematic aspects by cutting in for some close ups and action sequences. After editing the multitude of shots together into a play, it was set to stream.
“We learned a lot by doing that show in what feels safe and what doesn’t, what is tangible and what is not and what is stressful and what is not,” Katano said of the actors and production team’s experience on “Men on Boats.” “It was probably a very good project to learn that on when the actors are older before we try it with younger children.”
YTN currently has two shows in rehearsal, “Rescued” (which is written by Andrea Karin Nelson and features a world where princesses train to save themselves), and “Sidekick Island” (which is penned by Swenson and visits a safe place where secondary characters can recover and reflect).
“Rescued,” featuring a dozen actors, will shoot in the second week of November and will stream on Nov. 28. The 10-actors-strong “Sidekick Island” will film a week after “Rescued” wraps and they’re aiming for a mid-December stream. The acting and filming process will follow the same path that “Men on Boats” paved.
Finding the actors for YTN’s entire season of plays began with individual auditions on Zoom, and then the directors held show-specific callbacks in person in groups of 10 or under.
Swenson said adult artists and students are hungry to create together again.
“One of the things I’ve really asked my educators to concentrate on in this time is the building of the community, of the ensemble, because that’s really what people’s hearts need right now is connection,” she said. “Theater is just a fabulous tool to do that. The sense of being in the room and working together to create something is still there.”
They miss the indescribable exchange of energy that is generated between a performer and the live audience, Swenson said, but they’re going for it and making the most of it. They’re using their creative minds to bring theater alive during the pandemic.
“We’ve been joking about reinventing a 2,000-year-old medium — that’s what we’re doing right now,” Swenson said.
For more information, visit http://youththeatre.org/