campus map campus directory The University of Utah Home Page
Students    Future Students     Faculty & Staff     Alumni & Visitors

About Continuum Advertising Advisory Committee Archives Contact Us Continuum Home Faculty/Staff Subscribe

related websites

Alumni Association Marketing & Communications University of Utah Home


Sharing Center Stage

The U’s summer youth theater builds character for lifetime performance.

by Taunya Dressler

Nine-year-old Robin Young has played an outlaw, a dinosaur, a ragamuffin, and even a baby spider, but it’s her most recent role as a frog that has affirmed her as an actress. In a musical about insects, the part was added to the original material by the playwright herself, specifically for Young.

Penny Caywood, artistic director of the University of Utah’s Youth Theatre at the U (YTU), assures that there are no small parts for her small actors, even if it means creating a new role to fit the number of students in her program, or having five Romeos and five Juliets, for that matter.

Caywood has been carving out opportunities for young artists in YTU since 2002. As director of both YTU’s after-school Theatre Arts Training Program and its summer Theatre School for Youth, she dedicates herself to developing the whole child using theater as the medium to help them access emotions and explore complex issues.

“We use drama as the foundation for our curriculum,” explains Caywood, “but our primary goal is not to create or train professional young actors. It is to teach students valuable life skills and give them a human experience through theater.”

This summer, more than 300 youth will gain those skills by dancing, singing, rehearsing, and creating the roles they will play on stage and in life. Involved in the entire creative process and development of productions, the students engage in everything from set design and lighting to stage makeup and material selection.

“We perform a lot of classics, and Shakespeare abounds, but we also create original material based on issues relevant to youth today,” says Caywood. “We’ve done pieces on eating disorders, cutters, and gay characters coming out, as well as environmental musicals on insects, the jungle, and even dinosaurs. It’s important that theater is relevant; that it reaches into the lives of the students and asks questions of them.”

It is that aspect of the program that makes fans of parents, as well. “The kids get a great liberal education out of their experience,” says Gary Ellis, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the U, whose 14-year-old daughter, Liz, first came to the summer program at age 5. Ellis recalls countless summer evenings driving home in deep discussion with Liz about the Nazis in Germany during the time of Anne Frank, or the role of prejudice in the tragic destinies of Romeo and Juliet.

“Theater tells stories that provide perspectives on life and situations such as confronting death, racial and ethnic prejudice, or struggling with substance abuse,” notes Ellis. “The material lends itself to reflection and discussion. As a parent, you can’t ask for a better window into complex issues.”

Beyond the discussion, Ellis has been impressed by the confidence his daughter has gained throughout her years in the program. At the young age of 5, she began learning the subtleties of nonverbal communication, the intricacies of interpersonal skills, and the delicate balance of group dynamics. “Her character has deepened through this experience. That’s the merit to this program—it really does build character for performance in life.”

Ellis laments that recreation has grown away from the arts. The arts, he says, provide the foundation for liberal education, which is at the heart of creating citizenship, competence, and an affinity for exploration and risk. “The quality of any program comes from its leaders. Penny and the rest of the staff are changing lives,” he says.

Liz says the best part of the program is making friends and learning about theater, which is not taught in school. “You are around people who really want to do this and are with people who are fun. They don’t get into the program because they don’t have anything else to do; they want to be there.”

She also says that the most important thing she has learned from her time in YTU is character analysis. “It helps me understand what the character is thinking and their background.”

YTU has a unique relationship with the University of Utah. As an entity of the Department of Theatre, the organization is composed of University faculty, staff, and students, complemented by a mix of professional guest artists from both the local and national Young People’s Theatre communities.

Caywood takes pride in the fact that the kids and the teachers all want to be there. The program is popular among high school drama teachers and local actors, and provides a teaching opportunity for alumni returning for the summer from prestigious institutions such as Yale, NYU, or even the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“Many of our students go through the entire program from age 5 to 18 and continue on as professional actors,” says Caywood. “We are thrilled when our students keep returning, because it’s clear that they have a passion for the program that goes beyond drama. Many youth have a hard time finding their place in their respective school communities, but when they come here, they all fit. That’s part of the draw and the reason I believe so many stick with it—they find a social home. I always say that if you’re funny at inappropriate times, we want you!”

Kim Bartel BS’89 MPA’95, mother of 9-year-old Robin Young, says her daughter found her niche in the program. “When I became a parent, I just figured I would be a soccer mom, but Robin had other ideas,” explains Bartel. “Since she was 3 years old, she would invite her neighborhood friends over to create and perform their own plays. There had to be a stage in house at all times. She was born a diva. Discovering and enrolling her in the summer youth theater program was exactly what she needed, both for the theater training and for the social aspect of discovering other peers with the same passion.”

Bartel praises the summer program for its focus on inclusion and creating community, noting how beneficial it is for young children to engage with pre-teens and teens. “They learn that they can approach older kids and even adults with ideas, and that those ideas will be heard and respected. There is a sense of value created from such dynamics that the kids carry with them into life and adulthood.”

When asked what keeps her returning summer after summer, Robin says: “I like to go because they include everyone and have plays that make us all feel important. Everyone counts, no matter what part they have or who they are. The best experience I’m having is now. I am a frog, and I get to sing my own song for the first time.”

Robin’s mother notes that the summer program engages youth in experiences throughout the summer, rather than focusing solely on a final production. “No matter the age or talent, every child is included in the process on every level, from rehearsals to stage design,” says Bartel. “There are never children left watching the rehearsals while the same experienced performers take center stage again and again.”

Now in its 25th year, the summer Theatre School for Youth has subsisted primarily by word of mouth. Even so, it’s a hidden treasure Caywood wishes more University families would discover. Working year-round on a wide range of outreach opportunities, Caywood partners with the University and public schools to make theater accessible to everyone. Part of this recipe is creating shorter, hour-long performances designed specifically for youth.

“I hope students can look up on the stage and picture themselves there,” she says. And she does everything she can to make it happen, from working with the parents’ advisory committee organizing fundraisers for scholarships to engaging in community outreach in public schools and local programs.

“Theater can help these kids in so many aspects of their lives,”“ says Caywood, pointing out the benefits it has in developing speaking and reading skills as well as building confidence and even helping with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder that affects a child’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.

All the world may be a stage, but the stage of YTU is where young actors learn about the world. Caywood’s productions teach history and science, psychology and music, participation and collaboration. The issues they face on stage prepare them for the challenges they may face in their own lives—be it friends with eating disorders, exclusion, violence, or simply working together.

One aspect of theater is certain—the stage is meant to be shared. Working to achieve a true ensemble cast in which the performers are assigned equal amounts of importance in a production, YTU also strives to create a sense of ensemble, or togetherness, among its cast. A production is more powerful when the performers believe in themselves and their place on the stage. Helping youth find that place is the challenge and the joy Caywood engages in every day.

— Taunya Dressler BA’96 is a writer for University Marketing & Communications.

Return to Summer 2008 table of contents | Back to top