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Performing Arts

Mad River Theater Works debuts summer youth program

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When the beloved youth theater company Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse, or YSKP, closed last summer after 27 years, its longtime director and founder, John Fleming, told the News: “There are always going to be creative young people here, and I feel sure there will be people who want to work with them.”

Less than a year later, Fleming’s prediction appears to be accurate: Theater company Mad River Theater Works recently announced that it will host a two-week summer theater residency workshop aimed at young artists this year.

The workshop, which is supported by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council, will be open to 25 young people ages 10–17, and will take place at the Foundry Theater, Monday–Friday during the weeks of June 12 and 19, with a culminating performance on Friday, June 23, at 7 p.m. Enrollment cost for the program is ​​$325; some scholarships will be available via funding from the YS Community Foundation.

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Mad River Theater Works’ productions are for all ages, but are often created with young audiences in mind; its latest show, “Freedom Flight,” debuted at the Foundry Theater in January and was later performed at Mills Lawn when the company passed through Ohio on its national tour of the show.

The company, which was formed in Yellow Springs in 1978 before moving out of town in the 1980s, returned to the village last year when Managing Director Chris Westhoff, who is also the development coordinator at The Antioch School, moved to town.

Westhoff told the News in an interview this week that, when he was considering the village as a new home for his family and for Mad River Theater Works, he thought about ways the company might also involve young people not as audience members, but as artists and performers themselves —  and YSKP came immediately to mind. He reached out to John Fleming, wondering if there was any way for the two organizations to collaborate. Within a few months, Fleming let him know that the longtime youth theater company would be closing shop.

“[Fleming] said, ‘There will be a gap — and if you want to pursue that, we will support you,’” Westhoff said. “So when I submitted the application to the YS Community Foundation in winter to support a summer residency, it was with a letter of support from [Fleming] and the YSKP.”

Westhoff added that, though Mad River’s summer workshop for youth intends to fill that gap, it won’t necessarily be filled with the same material that YSKP used.

“[Summer youth theater] seems to be something that this community wants and has had and misses right now,” Westhoff said. “But we’re not going to do it the YSKP way — we’re going to do it the Mad River way, which is what we have experience with.”

The “Mad River way,” Westhoff explained, will be something of a “hybrid approach” based on collaborative storytelling. The program will present young artists with identified themes — not a finished script — that they will develop into an “original piece of theater” over the two-week program. Participants will work together, and with program instructors, to grow a story together from the ground up, Westhoff said, learning a “broad range of stuff” along the way: acting, writing, directing, music, stage design, lighting and costume.

He added that, ideally, the process will help participants find what they love about theater and build a sense of both agency and community at the same time.

“What we believe is that we’re all creative, and we all have ways to contribute to a creative project — especially young people,” Westhoff said. “If you’re not interested in acting or singing, you’re not going to be pushed to do it, but you’re going to be encouraged to give it a shot.”

This is not only Mad River’s approach to the upcoming youth program this summer, but to theater in general: Though January’s “Freedom Flight” had a playwright — New York-based Daniel Carlton, who directed that show and will also serve as director for the summer youth program — the show’s script and music were sculpted and refined by everyone on the cast and crew.

“Conversation is at the bedrock of what Mad River does,” Westhoff said. “That’s what we’d like to bring to our residency work as well.”

In addition to Carlton and Westhoff, two other adults will work with the participants of the summer residency; Westhoff is still in conversation with some artists to fill those roles, he said, with the aim of putting together a creative instructional team with different skill sets. Carlton, for example, is not only a playwright and director, but also an actor and an educator who has worked with youth for years via the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s summer academy theatrical presentation.

And thanks to the support of the YS Community Foundation, the program will also offer stipends to a few high school students to act as mentors during the residency.

Westhoff, who has helmed Mad River Theater Works since 2009, first began working with the company in 2006. A background in music, study and work in museums and documentary arts during and after college, and time spent as an educator for a GED program, he said, provided him with a diverse enough skill set that he was asked by a family friend and company member to serve as road manager for a tour.

“I ended up driving all over the country with Mad River Theater Works — and I haven’t stopped doing that since,” Westhoff said.

Westhoff said his long career in theater arts was spurred by exposure to robust music and theater programming in his Connecticut high school. He pointed specifically to an experience in which he and friends formed a jazz combo, which performed alongside a group of other friends who performed Renaissance choral pieces — an unusual pairing of musical styles, he said, but one that worked.

“I think a lightbulb went off for me that music functions in different ways — different kinds of music can belong together if they’re presented in a certain way,” Westhoff said.

Revelations about art like the one he made in high school, Westhoff added, are the kinds he hopes the summer residency will inspire for its young participants. Those kinds of “lightbulb” moments — when young people intimately connect with the work they’re creating — can be formative, he said.

“What we really want to do is communicate not so much what it feels like to put on a show — though that’s part of it — but what it is to put up a show, and in that sense, to put up anything,” Westhoff said. “Because there are so many lessons in this work — like in my high school story, what we learned about was not just the music, but about each other.”

He added: “We know that the possibility of turning somebody onto [a love of art] is there — that’s what we want to do.”

For more information about Mad River Theater Works’ upcoming summer residency for young artists, and to sign up, go to

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One Response to “Mad River Theater Works debuts summer youth program”

  1. Amy Magnus says:

    I’m so excited for this!

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