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A company of minors makes award-winning professional theater

Callie Harlow and Joey McManus in rehearsal for "The Wrestling Season." Credit: Melissa Carter

Seattle's Young Americans' Theatre Company (YATC) has been nominated for Teeny Awards every year since 2010. It has even won a few. But last year the company came closer than it's ever been to taking home the Teeny's most prestigious prize: best theatre company. YATC lost — by a mere two points — to Seattle's highly-acclaimed ACT. That second place finish would have been impressive for any professional theatre company. But for YATC, a theater run exclusively by young people, it was a hefty achievement.

YATC is composed of and managed entirely by young people, age 14 to 21, and has been since then Seattle high school students Tommy Fleming, Zoey Belyea, Hattie Andres, Emma Kelley, Sam Tilles and Chelsea Taylor founded the company in 2008. According to its members, YATC is the only all-youth theatre company that has survived and been successful for this long in Seattle. Each year, the company is passed down to the new wave of students, who begin planning the upcoming season by October, pick out the season’s shows by January and spend the entire summer performing.

Performances are typically held at a different Seattle venue each summer, although the Center House Theatre has hosted the past few seasons, which featured YATC’s all-female Julius Caesar and Jon Jory’s Love, Death, and the Prom. Rehearsal locations are a bit more free-for-all. Each director is responsible for finding a place to rehearse — often at his or her own home. This summer season will feature two full-length shows (Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam and Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek) and a festival of one-act plays. All will be performed at the Eclectic Theater in Seattle.

In every respect YATC is a professional theatre company: It holds auditions, hires actors and produces plays that regularly enjoy sold-out houses. There are no grownups to fall back on if YATC’s members don’t follow through. “One thing I really learned is we’re going to find a way to do it,” said YATC artistic director and Roosevelt High School junior Rey Zane, who will be directing The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. “And having zero adults, it really makes you have to follow-through in that mindset.”

Still, being teenagers in a field dominated by adults is no easy feat. YATC members say they sometimes struggle to be taken seriously. Many people lose interest as soon as they hear the word “young” in the company’s name. But YATC members have found a way to turn their youth into a positive hook. “There isn’t anything quite like this around. or that has been around this long,” said Callie Harlow, marketing director and senior at The Northwest School. “[YATC is] kind of the exception and there’s a lot of power in that.”

Running a professional theatre company entails a whole lot more than simply choreographing a play and performing it. Costumes, sets, booking a venue at the right price. The theater business comes with a wide array of complicated, behind-the-scenes tasks. The majority of these tasks are not part of standard theater curriculum for young people, so YATC’s members experience a lot of on-the-job training.

Harlow, who is co-directing Speech and Debate this season, said YATC has given her the opportunity to call a show, paint zombie makeup on actors and even spend hours hanging curtains in a theatre that didn’t provide them. But one of the most important lessons she has learned came from auditioning her peers. “It’s a really good experience as an actor to be on the other side of that table,” she said. “You realize how badly people want to succeed, and you see how a casting decision can sometimes be so arbitrary.”

YATC members spend a lot of time spreading the word about upcoming auditions or intern openings. They post on Facebook, talk to actors at their own school and do presentations at other Seattle high schools. But the majority of their members come from the Young Actor Institute, a rigorous and competitive training program run by Seattle Children’s Theatre.

YATC board members normally begin as interns. Its directors normally start as assistant directors or co-directors. Coming up through the system like this helps members learn the ropes and – mostly – avoid missteps. “Most of us started out co-directing shows, so we can see when [directors] screw up and how to not make that mistake,” said managing director and full-time Bellevue College student Jamie Kelley, who directed The Wrestling Season last summer. “You’ll make your own mistakes. You just won’t make theirs.”

Kelley remembers one YATC director, who was staging a two-person show. He failed to contact the male lead after auditions and wound up having to perform the role himself. Then there was the director of last year’s play Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (by Jennifer Haley) who, with a week left until opening night, still hadn’t cast the zombie ballerinas. Tough to find zombie ballerinas at the last minute.

Running a theater company is no easy feat, at any age. But the YATC team, both past and present, has found a way to make it work. The result has been popular, award-winning performances, and company veterans who get real-world, hands-on, professional theater experience before they’ve even graduated from high school.

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