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Performing Arts

The Mad River Theater Works summer theater residency for youth will present a devised theater performance, created over two weeks by its young artists, Friday, June 23, 7 p.m., at the Foundry Theater. At left, in the foreground, residency artists Solomon, Maggie and Kian perform a tableau representing injustice, as fellow resident Wisdom surveys the scene. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

Mad River Theater Works youth residency debuts

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“Equal rights for women!”
“Medical care!”
“Black lives matter!”
“Union rights!”

With stomping feet and clapping hands, 14 local young, aspiring thespians stood in a circle at the Foundry Theater this week and shouted, in turn, the answer to the question they had been meditating on since that morning: “What would motivate you to march?”

The question will continue to drive the young artists during the two weeks of the inaugural Mad River Theater Works summer theater residency for youth as they head toward a culminating public performance on Friday, June 23, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Foundry Theater.

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As the News reported in March this year, local theater company Mad River Theater Works launched the summer residency as a way to engage young artists in the craft of theater following last summer’s closure of Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse after 27 years.

The residency aims to be a unique experience for its participants by founding its program on principles of devised theater, or theater created collaboratively by its young artists without a prewritten script. Instead, during the first week of the residency, participants were given a simple theme to interpret and grow into what will become the performance at the program’s end: “Keep Marching.”

This theme inspired the question about which the dozen-plus young artists meditated and shouted, overseen by Daniel Carlton, one of the program’s directors.

“We’re creating an anthem for the end of the show,” he told the News during the second day of the residency. “The things they have to keep marching for, from their perspectives — ages 10 to 18 — will lead into a deeper discussion [of the theme].”

Carlton, a longtime actor, storyteller, playwright, poet, director and educator, may be known to Yellow Springs audiences as the writer and director of “Freedom Flight,” a Mad River Theater Works production that debuted at the Foundry Theater in January of this year. That play, as with many of the theater company’s works, involved a lot of collaborative work between its cast and crew — but where “Freedom Flight” had Carlton’s script as a starting point, what emerges from the summer residency for youth will truly be a work created by residency students from scratch. 

To that end, in the first week of the residency, the young artists spent each day participating in a variety of activities. These included creative and musical movement with educator Athena Potter, of The Antioch School, who on the second day led participants in singing and physically interpreting the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Also on the schedule were improvisational games and exercises with Carlton and fellow program director Evelyn LeTeshia, a South Carolina-based actor, director and screenwriter who is a member of Mad River Theater Works.

“We’re doing a hodgepodge of a lot of things to get them moving and thinking,” Carlton told the News.

And with the theme of the residency in mind, many of the program’s activities center around getting students moving and thinking on issues of social justice and activism.

During the News’ visit, the young participants took turns creating tableaux, in which actors don’t speak or move, but create still images that express an idea or emotion. Carlton directed one participant to move and shape three of the other participants — with their verbal consent, which Carlton stressed as paramount — into a tableau that represented injustice.

After a moment’s thought, the young artist fashioned his peers into a scene that involved the tallest two jeering and leering aggressively at the third and smallest, who slumped and covered her eyes with her hands.

“It looks like the larger two are punching down on the smaller one,” one student said, studying the tableau. “It’s usually unjust if someone punches down at someone else — I guess in this case it’s literal, but sometimes the point of art is to be literal with something that’s metaphorical.”

A later tableau that embodied the word “bullied” encouraged a long conversation between the participants about bullying and how it shows up in their lives, particularly at school.

“Why is it so hard to find allies in these situations?” Carlton asked.

“Because people are not willing to be made fun of if they support the bullied person,” one student said.

“It can be hard to speak up if you’re not high up in the social hierarchy,” another added.

While the young artists of the residency are plumbing deep into issues that matter to them, they’re also learning basic elements and terms related to stagecraft — every break, for example, ends with a call for “places.”

“We want to offer [students] a variety of experiences — kind of like an introduction to theater toolkit,” said Chris Westhoff, who is the managing director of Mad River Theater Works and an instructor at the residency. “I think [Carlton and LeTeshia] are finding really good moments to emphasize stage management, and everything is being run a little bit like a rehearsal.”

“We’re focusing a lot on concentration, improv, listening, giving and receiving, learning their space,” LeTeshia added. “Many of [the students] have done theater before, but it’s still important to review stage directions, how that informs what the audience sees, their personal safety and where they are when light cues come up.”

Where the first week of the residency will focus on rooting out the pieces of the young artists’ selected theme, the second will center on putting those pieces together into a theatrical performance — one that, Westhoff said, may look different from the kinds of shows they’ve performed, and which local audiences have seen, in the past.

“The tall order in front of us is that we have two weeks, and we have a lot we want to explore with the kids,” he said. “There’s a sort of back and forth between playing for play’s sake and creating a work [the participants] will have ownership of that has enough of a beginning, middle and end that we can present it to a small audience.”

Whatever the show looks like at the end of two weeks, Carlton said he’s excited to see what grows from the students’ collaboration and the relationships they’re building with one another.

“It’s been such an interesting dynamic so far,” he said. “It’s really play with a purpose — but at the core of it is really about how their community starts out of play, and becomes the play.”

The Mad River Theater Works summer theater residency for youth will present its inaugural performance Friday, June 23, beginning at 7 p.m. in the experimental space at the Foundry Theater. Admission is by donation; seating will be limited.

The workshop is supported by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, The Ohio Arts Council and local individual donors.  Mad River would like to thank Antioch College for their commitment to hosting the workshop at the Foundry Theater and John Fleming and the Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse for their years of fabulous youth theater in the village and their encouragement to facilitate the program.

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