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Youth Performance Company: The Twin Cities' Serious-Minded Starmaker

Jacie Knight, founder and artistic director of Youth Performance Company (YPC) spends her days tackling the issues, big and small, that are part of the territory for anyone who is running a nonprofit theater company--managing budgets, supervising staff, overseeing promotions, planning the next season, attending to a leaky pipe in the bathroom or a broken light fixture in the rehearsal space.

But she has some special additional responsibilities after school is out--because YPC is about kids, some as young as grade schoolers, but mostly teenagers. She knows that when they come in the door at 4 p.m., they are going to be starving, so she lays in a large supply of Twizzlers. She listens to the kids’ stories, sometimes of minor heartbreaks, sometimes of truly serious things that are happening at home. And, always, she holds them accountable--for the way they behave with each other, for the way they act toward adults, and for a commitment to the work they do on stage.

“The kids at YPC know that when they walk into a room, they’re supposed to say, ‘What can I do to help?’” Knight says. With a strict no-diva policy in place, her young actors learn to iron costumes and direct shows, hand out programs and stand center stage to deliver a compelling monologue. It’s hard work, it’s real life, and Knight somehow manages to both nurture her young artists and demand the absolute best from them. “We say ‘no fakey-foo-foo,’ and we mean it,” she says. “We always do some shows that are just for fun, but we’re willing to tackle the hard stuff like social justice, bullying, or teen sexuality. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always real.” This mix of nurturing, craft, and personal and artistic discipline has created a very consequential theater company, many of whose alums have made an impact in Hollywood and on Broadway.

Star Power

YPC has been a launching pad for a number of show business careers, including those of a Tony-award-nominee (Laura Osnes, “Cinderella”), a feature film actor (Josh Hartnett, Black Hawk Down), an ABC-TV drama star (Devin Kelley, Resurrection), a Broadway and West End actor (Seth Numrich, War Horse and Sweet Bird of Youth), and a film comedian (Nick Swardson, Just Go with It). Other alums are working behind the scenes, including television composer and music director Matt Koskenmaki and the duo of Charlie Sanders  and Colton Dunn, writers for the Comedy Central show Key & Peele. Locally, YPC alum Doug Neithercott, Artistic Director of ComedySportz, continues to direct shows for the troupe.

“Two summers ago, there were four YPC alums appearing in Broadway shows at the same time,” Knight says: Laura Osnes in Bonnie and Clyde, Seth Numrich and Stephen Anthony in War Horse, and Paris Remillard in Hair.

Answer in the Mail

When she looks back to January 1, 1989, the date she launched the company, she seems surprised that she started so small, and that she’s come so far. “I was 33, and I had been working as a freelance artist-educator and director for theater companies. I was growing dissatisfied, because I would come in, direct a show, build something up and then leave. I’m really more of a ‘gardener’--I want to nurture things and see them bloom.

“I became a talent agent, representing actors for commercial and film work, and I kept running into kids I’d worked with over the years, who would tell me that I had changed their lives. I began to feel as though I was really getting a message from the universe to start a nonprofit theater company for kids, even though I had no financial backing. It was hard to see a way I could make that happen, and I became disheartened. I remember this one horribly grey and cold January day, I went to the mailbox, and found a letter from a parent whose child I had worked with. The note said, ‘I believe in you. Go get your dream.’ Inside was a check for $100. I thought ‘Oh God, now I really have to do this, because someone believes in me.’ That $100 was a big turning point, and it came right when I was about to give up.”

One Desk, Borrowed

Reenergized, Knight convinced Steve Antenucci, Executive Director of Theatre in the Round, to let her borrow a desk and use his rehearsal space from 4 to 6:30 p.m. With that support, the company was able to stage its first show, Tom Sawyer, at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis, where they still perform today.

“At that point, we didn’t have any funders at all, but during our production of Little Rock, which was our first civil rights show, we got a grant from the General Mills Foundation,” Knight says. Eventually, more funders and contributors followed, and the current annual budget of $500,000 is maintained with institutional support from Target, General Mills, Youthprise, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Best Buy. Funding has also been increasing from individuals who make five-year pledges for sustainability. Looking back on 25 years that she says have “flown by,” Knight add, “I feel such an amazing sense of gratitude to all the people who have helped us over the years.”

Too Many Glue Guns

YPC’s space for offices and classes is on University Avenue between the University of Minnesota and Highway 280, right above the big blue teacup of Cupcake bakery. “We’ve never had our theater and administrative offices in the same place,” Knight says. “That presents a number of challenges, both big and small. For example, I think that we must own about 100 glue guns, because we’re always running through tech at the theater and needing one, and it’s faster to buy a new one than to drive 20 minutes to get one from the office.”

“I’d like a space that allows us to have everything under one roof, ideally in a family-friendly location in South or Southwest Minneapolis, where many of our class participants and actors live,” she says. She’s hoping for offices, a theater with 200--300 seats, storage areas, and rehearsal and class space.

A Dream Home--Like Milwaukee's

In her wildest dreams, she hopes that the organization could partner with other youth, theater, and arts groups in collaborative-use space. She cites the example of The Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC), which opened in 2005 and is home to First Stage Children's Theater, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, Danceworks, Festival City Symphony, Milwaukee Children's Choir, and African American Children's Theater. The building includes more than 55,000 square feet of program space, including five large rehearsal halls, nine classrooms, and two smaller rehearsal-practice rooms.

“I truly believe that with all the civic commitment that makes the Twin Cities so strong, there has to be the vision to make something like this happen,” Knight says.

Mr. Jones on the Phone

Of the 110 shows YPC has presented in the past 25 years, 48 of them have been original productions, many on social justice issues, including civil rights, gun violence, and bullying. That social justice focus has garnered significant praise, especially from what the staff describes as “the best voice mail ever.” In 1995, they arrived one Monday morning to hear a message from James Earl Jones on the office answering machine, praising their current production of Freedom Riders, which he had heard about from a friend while visiting the Twin Cities.

“That show was great for so many reasons, not just that phone message,” says Knight, who recalls that many Minnesota members of the original Freedom Riders came to the production and shared their scrapbooks and memories with the cast. The show will be reprised this season, January 31--February 16, 2014.

Food Poisoning and Romance

Anyone who has spent more than 25 years working with kids is bound to have some stories about the breakups, breakouts and broken bones that come with the youthful territory. Knight says she has worked with actors of every age, from her own son, Tobias, who was the baby Jesus in a production of The Littlest Angel when he was nine months old, to Bob Samples, who was 83 when he appeared as a hopeful voting registrant in Freedom Riders. She remembers a rare show cancellation that was required when the entire eight-member cast of The House at Pooh Corner contracted food poisoning, prompting the new show nickname “The House at Puke Corner.”

And of course, if there are teenagers, there is romance. Matt Koskenmaki, now a Los Angeles-based composer and music director, developed a crush on a girl during a run of Tom Sawyer, and, knowing she played the flute, wrote a part for that instrument into the music he was composing for the show. Love bloomed for the young couple, and Matt and Nora have now been married for 15 years.

A Shelf for Awards

One good thing about having a new home for Youth Performance Company, Knight says, would be that she would finally have a place to properly display all the organization’s awards, including two Ivey Awards, 10 film awards for YPC’s series of teen-health educational films (The Talk: An Intercourse on Coming of Age, Goddess Menses & the Menstrual Show and The Boy Show), an Aware award from the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Mission Award, given in recognition of the original bullying-prevention musical, MEAN.

“The Arts Can Transform Lives”

In thinking about what she hopes for the next years of her organization, Knight says, “Our role in the community must be to continue to create work that’s important to our young audiences and teens. That means keeping our ears to the ground and knowing what’s on their minds. Theater is a great tool to open up conversation, create change and teach them something in way that can be more powerful than in a classroom. We have to continue to do provocative work that inspires young people to do better.

“It’s just so important for us to continue to be arts advocates, too, especially when the arts are in jeopardy in our schools and communities," she says. "The arts can transform kids’ lives, I really believe that, and we can help young people learn about themselves and the world around them by finding their artistic voice."

Note: The first show of Youth Performance Company’s 25th anniversary season will be And Then They Came for Me, a multi-media drama about Anne Frank, running September 27 to October 13 (The show just might feature a future Broadway actor like Seth Numrich, who played a Nazi soldier in the 2001 production).

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a portrait of the board of directors of HUGE Improv theater, in our June 12, 2013 issue.

Photos courtesy Youth Performance Company

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