Youth Performing Arts is celebrating two decades engaging Forest Lake children in the arts with a toe-tapping musical about the power of working together – a story not dissimilar from the ethos of YPA itself.
From Aug. 9 through 11 (with a preview show Aug. 8 featuring an American Sign Language translator), YPA will present “Newsies,” the Broadway musical based on the Disney film of the same name depicting a fictionalized version of the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, at Forest Hills United Methodist Church. Vanessa Novak, who took part in the first YPA production in 1999, has transitioned in adulthood to a directing role, working with fellow alumni from that first year: Shalee Dunaski-Palmquist, Kristi Jacoway, and Novak’s husband, Chad Ruter. She’s excited to show the public what the youth cast of 23 kids can do.
“‘Newsies’ is a beast of a show,” she said. “We wanted a challenge; we wanted to highlight some dancers; we wanted to highlight some actors and singers.”
Beyond the technical aspects, YPA leadership felt the tone of “Newsies” fit an anniversary celebration for the organization.
“The message of ‘Newsies,’ to not discount the little guy, to really stand up for what you believe in, is just an important message for this time, for this world that we’re living in,” Novak said.
YPA, a local institution that has now long been sponsored in part by the Hallberg Family Foundation, got its start not as an intentional theater company but as an aspiration of several high school kids.
“Really it was me and a bunch of our friends who wanted to put on a show, and my mom said she’d direct,” Novak said.
Novak was going into her junior year at the time, and her mom, YPA founder Susan Novak, organized the show, a production of “Godspell,” with 15 kids. From there, YPA grew to a group that now produces two shows a year: the smaller, more focused, audition-driven summer shows and the big tent, take-all-comers winter shows, which have had casts as big as 70 kids.
“We’ve done a variety of shows, some that were written by the directing staff [and] some major musicals,” Vanessa Novak said.
Though the cast sizes grew the first few years, much of what is now established as YPA remains the same as when the group was founded. The company still performs its shows at the Forest Hills sanctuary, which presents unique staging challenges due to the lack of backstage area. Normally, the production crew has compensated for this by having actors enter and exit the stage from the back of the sanctuary, though Novak remembered one year where the crew had to build a small area where actors could wait before they had to walk immediately onstage. When it came time to break set after the show was over, the crew discovered that the cast had brought a mini fridge and other ways to pass the time into the space.
“It was a little apartment,” she joked.
While Novak was in college, she started teaming up with her mom to co-direct shows, and now she and some fellow “Godspell” alums helm the shows themselves. Novak feels like YPA has settled into a fruitful groove: a big, but hopefully not too big, show that rehearses for four months before a January production – “When we get over 60 youth in our program, we don’t feel like kids feel connected,” she said – and a lightning-fast turnaround summer show with an intensive two-week rehearsal period, allowing YPA to cultivate and work with young acting talent. “Newsies” is the latter.
This year’s show
YPA’s first rehearsal for “Newsies” was July 28, less than two weeks before the show’s first performance. Actors who were cast from the spring audition are in for a rigorous rehearsal period – due in part to the show’s heavy emphasis on dance (choreographed for the local production by Abby Berglund-Lundgren).
“It’s a lot of time with the same people, so I do feel like sometimes we get a little sick of each other,” Novak said of the compressed time frame, punctuating the thought with a laugh. However, she added, “The kids and the directors, we really become a pretty tight crew.”
In addition to the elaborate dance numbers – Novak described the work put in by Berglund-Lundgren as “incredible” – YPA is hoping that audiences will be wowed by the authenticity of the production. Due to the venue, YPA’s ability to build sets has always been somewhat limited, but this year the group decided to rent some of the props used in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s recent production of “Newsies,” which wrapped last fall.
“We’re trying to really have a really great look and feel,” Novak said.
Though the kids only get together to rehearse for a couple of weeks, the production team has already been hard at work. In addition to details like choreography, casting and prop rental, the team has been mulling over the best way to stage the production. On July 29, as the performers hashed out dance numbers and went over lines at the church, Ruter worked quietly, assembling the set in the background.
Though Novak and the rest of the YPA team are passionate about theater, she views the group as an opportunity for youth outreach as much as a theater company.
“We just kind of uphold values of being good human beings and just try to instill it into kids,” she said. “Everyone is welcome. We try to create a safe space for kids to come and explore theater.”
To Novak, who has directed or co-directed about 30 shows, each production brings together a unique group of people in a unique community, crafting lasting friendships and encouraging growth and self-expression. She’s watched kids go through the program and become better human beings along the way – a powerful motivator to keep her on the job, year after year.
“In general, theater is an amazing outlet for youth and adults,” she said. “I feel like it is a safe place for people to come and express themselves in a way that is unique to anything else you do in life. … To have a company, or even to be an actor in it, is something special.”
The performances will be shown at 7 p.m. Aug. 9, 3 and 7 p.m. Aug. 10, and 3 p.m. Aug. 11 (the Aug. 8 preview show will also start at 7 p.m.). The performances are free, but space is limited, so YPA recommends that those interested in attending reserve a spot in advance at youthperformingarts.org. After the Aug. 11 show, YPA will be hosting a special 20th anniversary celebration for alumni of the program.