By PATRICK FARENGA
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?
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: 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?