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Fort Wayne Youtheatre Brings the Bard to an All Ages Audience

As Fort Wayne Youtheatre brings their 2021-22 season to a close, they do so with a nod to theatre’s ultimate playwright. In staging a brisk and family-friendly version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Youtheatre is moving their students and performers along in their education while fulfilling the wishes of many active in Youtheatre classes and productions.

“When I first came here, I was surprised that Youtheatre did not do Shakespeare,” said Todd Espeland, executive director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre. “One way to make sense out of Shakespeare is to do it. It’s so contemporary even though it’s so old.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s outreach program, Youtheatre on the Go, staged a short Shakespeare production which was a hit with audiences but also lit the flame for many of Youtheatre’s own students and actors.

“That show was a 30-minute production, and after that so many of our students, the teenage girls especially, started encouraging us to do more Shakespeare,” said Christopher J. Murphy, outreach director for FWY. “It turned out to be a gateway drug into Shakespeare. Especially the shows that feature young people and center around young love like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They can totally relate to the story in this silly, goofy, funny story. Todd has done a beautiful job trimming it down to a bare 75 minutes while still telling the story.”

“This was a perfect first one to do because it’s about capricious, immature kids, and our kids totally get it,” added Espeland.

Fifty-five actors auditioned for the show which features 26 young performers ranging in age from 10 to 18. Murphy added that as young as 10 may sound, the young actor “walked into the door so fearlessly” that they knew it wasn’t too young to tackle the job. Such is the sophistication of Fort Wayne Youtheatre students. Also bringing special talents to production is Espeland who is not tackling his first bit of the Bard.

“We’re so lucky to have Todd because he is extremely well-versed in Shakespeare,” Murphy said.

Espeland estimates this is the 18th or 19th Shakespearean production with which he’s been involved in some capacity, and he and Murphy are sharing directorial duties on this production, a plan which has worked out very efficiently though not in the way they first imagined it more than a year ago.

“We were first planning on doing this last May and had chosen to direct it together in case we needed to make concessions to COVID,” Murphy said. “A lot of the scenes are so segregated that we thought if we were both directing, we could separate them into pods if necessary so there wasn’t as much contact. We divided certain storylines for me and certain storylines for Todd. Now it’s not quite as a big of a deal as it would have been last year, but it’s still been nice to have two sets of eyes.”

“Chris comes up with ideas that are new and refreshing,” Espeland said. “We have split up certain storylines, but we have the same collective vision. Chris has the final say because you need to have one person who pulls the trigger.”

Together Espeland and Murphy have pulled together a stunning achievement – a fast-paced and easily understood version of a playwright both revered and feared, making Shakespeare available for audiences of all ages.

“In terms of interpretation, Todd has made this very accessible,” Murphy said. “It happens in and around a school, and all of the lovers are played by school students. You have the adults like parents and teachers while some of the rude mechanicals are filled by people like lunch ladies and custodians. I think this story is as relevant today as it was 500 years ago.”

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