Music Theater Transforming Lives

Article excerpt

SAMANTHA IS A TENTH GRADER. She is 5'2'' tall and a little overweight. She has jet-black, chin-length hair, with a big shock of bangs hanging over her forehead, just a little past her eyes. Her most frequent gesture is brushing her bangs away in order to see. Last year Samantha went through a big life change: her parents got a divorce and her dad moved from Bellevue, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts. Her mom got to keep the house where they live with her two elementary school aged brothers and one preschool aged sister. Although the family is not short on money, her mom's arthritis makes it necessary for much of the housework to fall on Samantha's shoulders.

There are two more things you should know about Samantha: she has dyslexia and depression. Her parents are smart people and see what she struggles with, so they've been good about arranging disability assistance at school for the dyslexia and getting treatment for depression. The hard part, however, seems to be finding the right medication for depression - typical teenagers' moods are always in flux, so trying to medicate to stabilize a "normal" feeling must be a moving target.

Samantha's quiet, inexpressive face, hiding behind bangs, is what most people see. It is easy to dismiss her or take her for granted since she does nothing to draw attention to herself. However, when Samantha is in a musical, her whole body lights up. She smiles from ear to ear when she sings. She dances with the focus of an aspiring pro and practices her moves every spare minute. She delivers her lines with confidence in a clear tone and with excellent enunciation.

Samantha isn't the kind of girl a typical youth theater director would cast, but she has found a home at Bellevue Youth Theatre. She has participated for years in the children's ensemble. Last fall she was given a role with some extra dancing and several extra lines. Over the winter, she was cast as a dancer in Singin' in the Rain. In the spring, they gave her a role as one of the Pink Ladies in Grease. She danced, sang, and acted in many of the scenes, and lit up like fireworks for every one of them.

Bellevue Youth Theatre (BYT) is an uncommon performing arts organization, as it is one of the only free youth performing arts programs in the country. Its mission is to provide opportunities for all young people regardless of income or ability. The theater is exceptional in the way it serves youth, families, and people with disabilities, giving a role to everyone who auditions, encouraging all participants to develop skills, and focusing on building individuals' confidence and self-esteem. The theater also seeks opportunities to develop community by integrating volunteers and professionals from the surrounding area to create quality productions and educate participants in all aspects of theater.

José is seventeen and has an over-the-top personality. He also sings well enough for professional theater, dances like a cast member from Glee, and acts with the confidence and flair worthy of any leading man. He has been at BYT since he was a small boy and is now happily snatching up leading roles. José is a youth theater director's dream-a handsome, confident, skilled triple threat. But he didn't start that way; he started as an ensemble member and was given his first solo at fifteen. He tentatively took a stab at that solo, repeatedly asking if he was doing OK. The next year he helped with BYT outreach by confidently grabbing a mic at a Parks and Rec event and singing out show tunes. Last winter he played Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain. He learned to tap dance and to pace his voice use. He won the hearts of the audience with his charming smile and energetic dances. This growth was the result of his involvement with BYT, as he has never taken private lessons in acting, dance, or singing.

BYT seeks to serve people who would encounter obstacles at most youth theaters. Many participants are financially challenged, lack music theater training, deal with transportation and job issues, and have stressful home lives. …