More Teenage Drama? Yes!

Homeschoolers are often criticized for depriving their childen, particularly teenagers, of group socialization and for keeping them out of the real world, ensconced in a bubble of parent-controlled choices. This ill-informed opinion has not matched our personal experiences of homeschooling and there is plenty evidence that giving young people more control and support for their self-chosen interests leads to new friends, experiences, and knowledge. But like youth sports, youth theater is often controlled in subtle and not so subtle ways by adults, so it is fascinating and hopeful to me that there are niches where teens can make serious, sustained efforts of their own choosing as part of a group with a purpose.

When I learned about two teen-run homeschooling theater companies putting on productions of Shakespeare plays on the same dates (June 16–18, 2017) in New York and Boston I wanted to know more. I contacted Leo Lion, founder of Firebird Youth Theater, and Abby Dickson, who founded Youthquake Theater, via email with these questions.

How did you learn about theater and become so involved in it?

 Abigail Dickson staged her first Shakespeare play, Hamlet, outdoors with her friends.

Abigail Dickson staged her first Shakespeare play, Hamlet, outdoors with her friends.

ABBY DICKSON: Theater has been a big part of my life ever since I can remember. I was lucky enough to have parents who valued the arts and took me to see countless theater productions. The thought that I could actually be an actor never occurred to me until my older sister, the original theater geek of our family, began auditioning for shows. After seeing her onstage, I knew I had to give it a try. Although my sister has long since moved on to other pursuits, I am heading off to college in the fall to get my degree in theater.

 Leo Lion (center, white shirt) rehearsing Romeo + Juliet. Photo by Joanne Rendell.

Leo Lion (center, white shirt) rehearsing Romeo + Juliet. Photo by Joanne Rendell.

LEO LION: I spent most of my childhood and early teens frequenting the theater—growing up in New York, I had a tremendous amount of opportunities as a young theatergoer. I was performing from age eight in various youth productions and community theater shows, and seeing as much theater as I could to help build my craft.

When I was eight, I saw the legendary Kneehigh Theater's production of Rapunzel at the New Vic. It was a riveting retelling of the original Grimm fairy tale: delightfully dark, rather morbid, rich in beautiful and dangerous themes. I was awestruck; it was a side of theater I hadn't seen before, and I wanted to be a part of it. I suspect that the curators of the family-friendly New Victory Theater may have not been as thrilled, as Kneehigh was never invited back there (from their home in Cornwall) in later years, but I continued to be fascinated by theater that was innovative, stark, strange, and that reinvented classics in a new light.

Tell me about the origins of Youthquake and Firebird as independent, teen-run theater companies.

ABBY DICKSON: Youthquake began the day I decided I wanted to be in a Shakespeare play. I was thirteen years old and not entirely sure how one went about being in a Shakepeare play. I remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking "What if I directed the play myself? It wouldn't be that hard, right?" My friends were excited about the idea and we began rehearsals forthwith. It certainly wasn't the easiest rehearsal process I've been through, what with actors dropping out and being replaced and my total lack of directing experience, but it was one of the most exciting, filled with discovery and new possibilities. One of the great things about that first production was that it was all girls. Sadly, few women get to play Hamlet or Claudius, let alone thirteen year old girls. But in Youthquake, no roles were off the table for us and we had the freedom to explore the characters we wanted to explore. Although in following productions I added in some boys, I never stopped giving girls the meaty parts, which is something I hope to continue throughout my directing career. We followed up "Hamlet" with "The Tempest" and we've been going for about five years now. Youthquake began as a creative outlet for me and my friends, and though it has expanded and changed through the years, the core has remained the same. The true beauty of Youthquake is that it creates a space for young people to make art together without outside interference. It's like a little creative bubble.

LEO LION: Firebird was founded on a desire for creative leadership in the arts for kids and teens. When I was thirteen, I had already been teaching classes to younger kids and peers for several years. Youth leadership was very important to me—I didn’t see any reason why a person my age should have to limit their work to a certain scale or level of legitimacy. Directing was something I'd always been interested in but which I knew I wouldn't be given the opportunity to try my hand at as an early teen in an adult-led environment.

After a beloved community theater I had worked with for years unfortunately closed down, I decided the time was right to step up and get my long-dreamed teen-run project off the ground. The cast and crew of our inaugural show in 2013 was comprised of young theater artists I had worked with in other companies. People seemed really eager to participate in youth-led theater, and after that first show sold out five nights out of five, I knew our work was well received. With nearly-five years of production and counting, we continue to work on the principle of providing agency and leadership opportunities for young people in the arts.

How do you choose the material you adapt for Firebird? Is it just you or a group process?

LEO LION: Like many artists, I have a lot of ideas for potential projects constantly on the docket, and selecting work to produce with Firebird is a long process that always involves several potential production ideas that get worked down to just one. I am passionate about reinventing and developing new adaptations of classic works.

I select the material and make initial choices about the direction of the adaptation. From there, the process varies—more often than not, I'll work alongside a teen co-adapter or dramaturg to form the source material into the eventual script.

Abby, why do you focus on the work of Shakespeare? How do you choose the material you adapt for Youthquake?

ABBY DICKSON: I saw my first Shakespeare play (Hamlet) when I was seven. Shakespeare plays were a large portion of the theater I was exposed to growing up and the plays I most enjoyed. I think even as a young child I had a strong connection to the material. As the director of all of Youthquake's shows, I like to choose material that inspires me.

Although I am the one who chooses what we’ll be performing, my actors play a huge part in the development of ideas about the play and how we want to present it. One of my favorite parts of the process is our first rehearsal when we read through the play together. I start by throwing out a few of my ideas for the show and everybody else chimes in with theirs. Every time I am not sure what I want to do with a scene I ask my actors for their ideas.

I remember when we were doing Twelfth Night and I was trying to figure out the sequence where Malvolio is put in a “dark house” for being crazy and we were performing outside so there was no lighting changes to be made. I presented this problem to the actors and one of them mentioned that they had a large suitcase we could put him in (our Malvolio was pretty short and could fit easily) and thus the suitcase scene became one of the funniest bits in the show. I'd say many of the most creative ideas in our productions come from the actors themselves.

How many homeschoolers are in your theater company?

ABBY DICKSON: Youthquake has about 12 actors per show give or take, all homeschoolers.

LEO LION: The number of people working on our shows changes from year to year. We’ve had ensembles as big as twenty-two people and as small as nine. Some people do one show, and some people have been with us for five years. It really depends on the kind of production. The ages of our company members also vary greatly—usually from twelve to nineteen. I think that being in intimate casts of mixed age really helps establish a sense of balance and mutual respect among the cast and crew and facilitates growth among both the older and younger members.

How much of the work of your theater companies is done by young people and how much by adults?

LEO LION: On the whole, Firebird is teen-run on the creative, technical, and managerial sides of things. On occasion, to boost our professional growth, we bring in adult industry professionals to consult on our work in fields such as stage combat or lighting and technical design. They generously offer their time and advice in order to aid this teen-run endeavor. In addition, company parents offer volunteer services like transportation and donating concessions. But in terms of production, these shows are teen-organized, teen-directed, and teen-managed.

ABBY DICKSON: All the actual theater work in Youthquake is done by the youth. Parents of the actors certainly play a huge role in getting actors to rehearsals, selling refreshments at performances, and just all-around support and love.

How do members learn to do stage design, fundraising, and publicity if they’ve never done it before?

ABBY DICKSON: For many of my kids, Youthquake was the first time they were involved in theater at all, in acting or any other capacity. For me personally, Hamlet was the first time I had directed, let alone organized my own show. Any knowledge of how actual theater companies run came from me and one or two other actors who had some previous theater experience. In the beginning, costumes, props, and sets were a collective effort. We discussed the characters and the play and decided what we thought worked best. Even when I began to get some designers for costumes and props we the actors always talked about what we were looking for with the designer. I never looked for any outside grants or fundraising, so our budget was relatively small and consisted only of ticket sales from previous productions. Publicity for the shows fell mostly on my shoulders, but fortunately my mother works in that field so she was able to give me some helpful tips on writing press releases and the like.

 Leo teaching improvisation to the Firebird actors. Photo by Sofia Negron.

Leo teaching improvisation to the Firebird actors. Photo by Sofia Negron.

LEO LION: We encourage young people to pursue any aspect of theatre they wish to work in, be it creative or technical, and to strive toward doing professional-grade work in that field. As I mentioned earlier, we sometimes bring in industry professionals to mentor our rising designers, stage managers, and tech personnel. These adults act exclusively in advisory roles, outlining the position responsibilities for our teen members and teaching them their duties from a hands-off standpoint.

For example, our Resident Stage Manager, Thomas M. Pflanz (18), started out as a stagehand during our first show, and started his stage management training during our second. He received mentorship from Joanna Lodin, a long-time industry professional stage manager and producer. She introduced him to the ropes of the trade prior to his work in Expresso (2014) and acted as a consultant for him throughout the process. As of 2017, he has stage managed four of our shows, as well as a number of other productions in New York City, including as part of the New York Fringe Festival. I have not seen a lot of people our age receive this kind of guidance, and I believe it gives our young workers a significant head start in their training.

Did you find your age to be an obstacle or a benefit as you organized the theater company over the years?

ABBY DICKSON: I think ultimately it was a benefit. At the beginning, it was tricky getting people to believe that a thirteen year old could produce, direct, and star in Hamlet, but after that first production it got easier. In retrospect I can see that my age allowed me to explore the material more freely than I would if saddled with the responsibilities of adulthood. I wasn't worried about impressing anyone or doing it the right way. I was working with the best material and my best friends and having a ball with it.

LEO LION: My age certainly has played a deciding part in Firebird's history, both as a boon and a difficulty. People don't know what to expect from teen theatre, and so it's easy for us not to be taken seriously. Public skepticism makes it difficult to market teen-directed work, despite our being an established company producing professional-grade work. Within the company, however, my being both a peer and an authority figure to the performers really helps create an environment of mutual respect and understanding, bringing a great horizontal hierarchy to our working process.

What happens to Firebird and Youthquake as teen-run operations when you’re no longer teens?

LEO LION: I plan to continue my work with Firebird long after my teen years are over. Though it will no longer be a teen-run organization under my leadership, my mission will continue to be helping to develop new art led by young people, and cultivating the next generation of young theater-makers. We will continue to produce art by young people. I endeavor to work internationally to help young artists to develop their own artistic communities around the globe, both by offering training and encouraging arts patronage among young people, and by supporting and providing a platform for youth-driven work.

I teach classes in theater arts for kids and young teens, who I hope will carry the skills they develop with me into their own future lives and artistic endeavors. This year, I’m continuing Tween’s Intro to Improv, a two years-running class on improvisation for performers ages 10–13. In addition to this, I’m facilitating the first term of a playwriting workshop for young teenagers called Firebird Nest Playwriting Workshop & Festival, a semester-long weekly workshop for writing, revising, and giving and receiving critical feedback, and which culminates in a series of staged readings of original short plays. The more I get to work with these amazingly bright young artists, the more excited I grow for their continuing artistic growth, and for the generation of artists whose work I hope Firebird can help foster.

ABBY DICKSON: I haven't decided yet. I plan to start a professional theater company someday, and perhaps Youthquake will become a branch of that.

Do you have a preference for acting over all the other roles you fill in the theater (director, artistic director, organizer, etc.)?

ABBY DICKSON: I love my roles both as a director and an actor. As a director, I get to shape the vision and message of the production. As an actor, I get to bring that vision to life.

Info and tickets to Youthquake Theater’s annual Sheakespeare in the Park program and their upcoming production of As You Like It on June 16–18, 2017, in Somerville, MA can be found here.

For more information about Abby’s work in theater, here’s a TEDx Youth Day video she made to describe it.

LEO LION: Acting, writing, and directing all have individual soft spots in my heart. I identify as a director professionally, though I have great penchants for both performance and writing. As far as interdisciplinary work goes, I think it's very good for the development of each of the three skills to have experience in the other two. I’m currently in the early stages of workshopping a one-actor theater piece to be written and performed by me, and have asked a good friend of mine, who is also the dramaturg for the current Firebird show, to direct it. This will actually be my first time being directed by a teen, and I greatly look forward to being on the other side of that dynamic. But at the moment, I am in full director-mode for Firebird’s Romeo + Juliet, and am loving every minute of it.

Info and Tickets to Firebird Youth Theater’s upcoming production of Romeo+Juliet, June 16–18, 2017, at the Hudson Guild Theatre in New York City can be found here.

For more information about Leo Lion, visit his website.