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Youtheatre's Bagdad Zoo Brings Poignancy to Story of Iraq

Last year at this time, I was sharing my experience behind the scenes at Making Little Women: Louisa May Alcott. It was my first effort as a playwright, and I had the fortunate and very welcoming experience of working with director/playwright Gregory Stieber along with the good people at Fort Wayne Youtheatre. With Stieber, Youtheatre executive director Todd Espeland, and assistant director Christopher J. Murphy, the young actors involved in their productions (not to mention their classes) are brought into a creative and nurturing environment, and I, very new to this process, found the same.

Greg, of course, is not new to this kind of environment and has been a veteran of Fort Wayne theatre as an actor, playwright, and director for many years. But perhaps his most prolific legacy has been the Young Heroes of Conscience Series which he co-created with Leslie Hormann, former director of Youtheatre, almost a decade ago. Now in its ninth outing, the series has profiled icons like Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, Ryan White, Anne Frank, and Helen Keller. Shortly before the lockdown changed our theatre experiences for a time, Youtheatre presented the Young Heroes production about Martin Luther King, Jr. which Greg and Todd cowrote.

This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend many of the rehearsals, this time as only a fly on the wall, and see the evolution of their upcoming production of Bagdad Zoo. For the first time, the Young Heroes show has been written by someone entirely outside of Youtheatre. In fact, the playwright, Kevin Dyer, is British and presents an emotionally gripping tale of young children who attempt to save the animals at the zoo during the early months of the war in Iraq in 2003. It marks a big leap for the series, but it was one Greg was happy to take.

“Todd brought in the script to me, and he said ‘It’s completely your call,’” Greg said. “It was a new regional setting in the Mideast, and these were kids were not renowned like Ruby or Anne Frank or MLK. And it was appealing to me that it wasn’t my writing. I think the Young Heroes should start expanding to different playwright voices like with you last year or Todd with MLK.”

Among the challenges, however, was an inability to rewrite to accommodate Youtheatre’s typical production specifications. But Stieber found that making it fit brought a new sense of teamwork to this production.

“This is the most collaborative cast I’ve had, and we’ve created it together. There’s that phrase ‘It takes a village,’ and that has definitely been true with Bagdad Zoo. This is the first of the Young Heroes where every character is a minor. I usually have some adults in the cast, but this cast is ages eight to 18 so instead I brought it some actors – Dotty Miller and Jennifer Mann – who stepped off the stage and lent their passion to it, helping the young actors with their roles.”

With five young leads who carry the bulk of the dialogue and action, there are also soldiers, an ensemble of Lost People and, significantly, the animals at the heart of the narrative. Rather than just putting kids in suits to portray them, Greg’s direction allowed the actors to find more depth and nuance in their performances.

“I wanted them to find the essence of the animal rather than mimicking them in these very basic ways. I didn’t want them to come out and pound their chests or roar. I guided them through the metaphor for that animal instead of just pretending to be that animal.”

Assisting with that process is the costuming of Emerson Conner and the masks which capture the animal’s soul rather than presenting a caricature of the creature. With Todd Espeland, Fort Wayne Youtheatre has an expert in masks, and two of his own are part of the “cast.” Others came through a very interesting technology.

“The lion mask we had from when we did The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Todd said. “I was looking for a way to make a mask without carving it out of clay, and I found this website Ultimate Paper Mache Patterns when we were doing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and cut a pattern and blew it up 200% and did that with the other animals. It was a great source. I like to use headpieces because we’re honoring the animals without putting kids in a onesie and saying ‘Look, I’m a bear!’”

The result of all these efforts is a poignant story which covers a time in history which predates the birth of any of the show’s cast members. In addition to three primary performances – Friday night and Saturday and Sunday afternoons – there is a sensory-friendly performance Saturday afternoon and a school performance Monday morning. For more information visit For tickets, visit

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