For the third time in its history, Youth Performance Company (YPC) is staging “Freedom Riders,” a play with music that honors 1960s civil rights workers who registered voters in the Deep South. Artistic director Jacie Knight wrote the piece 19 years ago and then produced it again in 2004.
“Young people still have a strong commitment to wanting to make a difference in this world,” Knight said of the show, which runs to Feb. 23. “We continue to tell stories like ‘Freedom Riders’ to remind our artists and audiences that the work is not done.”
Knight is marking her 25th year as founding artistic director of the company, which has helped spawn the careers of Josh Hartnett, Broadway actors Seth Numrich and Stephen Anthony and local talents Zach Curtis and Kinaundre Lee. And that’s just a partial list.
YPC also created “The Talk: An Intercourse on Coming of Age,” which won a 2006 Ivey, “Mean,” a widely recognized play on teen bullying, and “Angst: The New Teen Musical,” which made it to the New York International Fringe Festival in 2007.
We asked Knight five questions about her experience with YPC.
Q Have kids changed in their tastes and attitudes for theater?
A I think that kids always want and are interested in a good story.
Q Have you changed your approach to teaching, directing and mentoring young actors?
A I’m always trying to raise the bar on the quality of work that we do. My goals when I work with young artists have stayed constant. I want to train them on the skills that are important and necessary to be a successful artist and to inspire them to accomplish more than they thought was possible. And to value and honor the opportunities that they have been given.
Q How does theater for youth refresh itself over many years?
A By listening to the young people. What are the stories and issues that are important to them?
Q What’s a story that illustrates the very best of what YPC has accomplished?
A I’m really proud of our original work. “Mean,” our show about bullying, is a great example. We listened to what was going on with the young people in our community and created a show that I think was bold and fearless. The production was created through doing interviews with kids who had experienced bullying. Kids in the audience could see themselves in the story, and as a result the experience was authentic and truthful. There was no sugarcoating, no dumbing down.
Q The Twin Cities area has four youth theaters. How does YPC find its place in that environment?
A From the beginning we’ve been a place for young artists — specifically teens. Hence our work reflects that niche. We created a structure to serve the artists in the best possible way. We have provided leadership opportunities like the Young Artist Council, which is a leadership board. They create and produce their own season of shows. There are not a lot of places where a 15-year-old gets the opportunity to direct a show. And what they accomplish is truly amazing. We also provide mentoring opportunities — where young artists can work directly with professional artists in music composition, playwriting or any area they want to explore. And we produce shows that have a broad range of theatrical style and content.