It’s Good to Be Here

Written by Nathan Tanner Stout

A clean, white nametag with my name and the Orlando REP’s logo waits on a stack of neatly folded T-shirts, bound together with some plastic ribbon. There are other packs of shirts and tags on the table too; those are for the other five of the incoming master’s class. As newly minted members of the MFA Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) program at the University of Central Florida, we’ve spent the week learning names, shaking hands, and reading syllabi. This morning, though, is our official introduction to the Orlando Family Stage. Each member of the team has something unique to share. And it takes a whole team of designers, teaching artists, and staff to continue the Orlando REP’s work of bringing shows and educational programs to the community. And when you walk around the shops backstage adorned with the relics of shows past, the absolutely gorgeous set being built for Tuck Everlasting, or the LED-lit Florida Blue Lobby, it’s hard not to get excited about that work.

If I’m sounding starstruck and you think I may just be exercising my poetic license, I invite you to take a look for yourself, especially if your last experience at the Orlando Family Stage was before the whole lobby got a makeover. It’s impressive. What’s more impressive to the six of us hoping to hone our craft is that a theatre dedicated to “The Finest in Family Theatre” can really thrive while providing moments that matter for everyone involved. Sage Tokach, fellow MFA candidate writes “I am thrilled to begin working with the REP because it is rare to find a group of artistic minds so devoted to the enrichment of children’s lives…. In many places, theatre for young audiences is a secondary focus, restricted to the smallest budget and performance spaces. That’s not the case here. TYA rules the Orlando REP!” Cory Cotter, also an MFA candidate, echoes Sage’s excitement, writing that “It’s a privilege to be learning and working at a cultural hub for arts and theatre that not only seeks to preserve its long history and purpose but also seeks to improve and sustain the community through arts for future generations.”

As for me, UCF seemed to be the only clear choice to help me turn my undergrad experience into a career. I graduated from Brigham Young University in April 2016 with a BA in Theatre Arts Studies without a clue as to where to go next. For the record, the education I received there was entirely transformative and inspiring, even mind-blowing! Shakespeare’s name certainly came up (whose work I love), but alongside artists whose names I was hearing for the first time: Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Boal, Grotowski, Zimmerman. Those names aren’t as important as what they taught me. I fell in love with theatre’s ability to form deep connections with others, deep awareness of our ourselves, and deep change in the world. Still, I left my program feeling unsure of what to funnel this new-found passion into. It wasn’t until a friend reached out to me and suggested that I take a look at the MFA program at UCF that the path ahead took shape. If I reached backwards, how many youth, when given a spark, would find within themselves the same passion that I had discovered? And, if not that, how many of their lives would improve learning lessons that I did from the theatre about empathy, presence, and community?

UCF is one of a select few that offer an MFA in Theatre for Young Audiences, and the only one who has a partnership with a professional TYA theatre. I’m finding those outlets for my passion in this program. We are partnering with local organizations as teaching artists to take these lessons to the youth they service. We practice teaching, we read work for children, we use performance as research in learning new things, we create theatre. And, in an era where college grads bemoan a lack of the work experiences required for entry-level jobs, the opportunities we receive through our partnership with the Orlando Family Stage to actually teach students, familiarize oneself with the operations of a professional theatre, and lead educational programs such as the annual “Writes of Spring” writing competition cannot be understated.

The hope is that we become part of the future of changing the lives of youth and families through theatre as artistic directors, teaching artists, producers, educational directors, or in some other way that hasn’t even been conceived yet. Working with the Orlando Family Stage gives me the building blocks for a career in any of those positions. But the partnership equally helps the Orlando Family Stage fulfill its mission “to create experiences that enlighten, entertain, and enrich the lives of family and young audiences.” That is what I gathered as we got together Friday morning. This is a place where everyone’s work benefits everyone else, including the thousands of families we are fortunate enough to serve. In that spirit, I took that tag from my bag and pinned it to my chest. It’s good to be here.

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