‘Treasure Island’ first Youtheatre production for new chief

October 5, 2018

A group of children are fighting, and this isn’t your typical schoolyard shoving match.

They team up on a towering figure in black cloak before breaking off into smaller groups to duke it out. In one corner, a young girl grabs an older girl by the head and slams her face into a wood trunk.

This isn’t some underground kiddie fight club. This is Youtheatre’s new production of “Treasure Island” showing off the fight choreography talents of new executive and artistic director Todd Espeland, who also specializes in mask and movement theater.

Stage combat is one of the skills he brings from what he calls “a pretty varied theatrical background.”

Espeland, 49, grew up in Las Vegas and started performing as a jester in hotels including Caesar’s Palace and the Excalibur.

“So that sent me down a kind of usual path,” he says. “While I was working at Shakespeare festivals and going to traditional theater school, I was also kind of getting a background in circus and physical performance.”

After college, he also graduated from Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. And at one time, Espeland and his ex-wife had a stunt show at street festivals.

“Fire eating, aerial circus, bed of nails, that kind of stuff,” he says casually.

Espeland eventually moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was a guest artist in residence teaching master classes at Western Michigan University. After his divorce, he got his masters of fine arts degree in directing from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and returned to Kalamazoo, where he later became artistic director at Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, which puts on 16 shows a year.

But the one thing Kalamazoo didn’t have was his fiancée, local artist Cara Lee Wade, who is an associate professor and graduate studies program director at University of Saint Francis’ School of Creative Arts. They decided the 90-minute drive was too much distance and the position at Youtheatre “sort of fell out of the world and into my lap,” Espeland says. He applied for the job and was hired.

He moved to the city at the end of March and had a two-month hand-off with previous executive director Leslie Hormann before he officially took over Youtheatre at the start of July.

“I totally dig Fort Wayne,” he says. “I’ve been coming here for four years and it’s got a great arts community.”

Espeland is eager to share his background and varied skills with Fort Wayne. Along with the stage combat seen in “Treasure Island,” he will bring mask work and circus skills to Youtheatre. He is also leading mask workshops for Shakespearemachine, the only local theater group regularly using masks in its productions.

“Audiences dig it,” he says about mask work. “I think they really respond to that work because it’s so theatrical and it’s so imaginative and it engages an audience’s brain on an interesting level.”

Espeland has experience working with youth through Starfish Circus, which he founded with his ex-wife and worked as lead coach from 2008 to 2014.

The company would go into a theater or school system and cast up to 100 children from kindergarten through high school, train them in a circus act and produce a show in a couple of weeks.

“Youth respond when you expect a high level out of them,” he says. “But also when you break it down into small, achievable chunks.”

Espeland expects Youtheatre participants to receive a wide range of physical training, regardless of whether they are using it in a local production.

The various forms of mask, movement and combat training will give children who are kinetic learners ways to achieve, and provide a back door to focus on work like text reading that might be a more quiet pursuit, Espeland says. For kids who are already on the quiet side, he explains that the physical work gives them the chance to access a different part of their intelligence.

He says it is important that the children face risks and learn to overcome failure on their own terms.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to succeed and fail within the arts, so I’m hoping that kids can get that, too,” Espeland says.

He is already tapping his network of contacts to give Youtheatre a more regional presence by trying to get some of the company’s shows booked in Kalamazoo and a theater festival in Kentucky.

Espeland has also sent out his script adaptation of “Treasure Island” to a publication company he has known for years in an effort to start getting Youtheatre’s original shows published.

It wouldn’t cost Youtheatre any money to be published, but it would bring in a percentage of royalties any time a script is performed by another group. It would also give bragging rights to say that Youtheatre’s version of “Treasure Island” or one of the Young Heroes of Conscience series plays, for example, has been produced by schools around the world.

As the current season begins, Espeland is already looking to next season, where he would like to see Youtheatre do another title that is an already published script, in part because established stories might bring more people into Youtheatre who aren’t familiar with the group.

“I think it’s a good balance for the youth that we’re training to go through and for audiences that we’re cultivating to go through as well,” he says of including well-tested scripts among original works.

It also helps older students who are looking to enter a higher-education theater program by having established pieces on their résumé as well as being able to have a conversation with prospective schools about what it is like to originate a work.

But first things first: “Treasure Island” opens tonight.

Though Espeland has written original shows, including “Boxhead,” a show directed at youth, “Treasure Island” is the first classic he has adapted for the stage, and he wanted to follow the book closely.

“I wanted this show to be appreciated by a younger audience, but be a pretty true adaptation of the book,” he says.

Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the story follows the adventures of Jim Hawkins and a group of pirates : including one “Long John” Silver : seeking treasure.

The show runs about 70 minutes and has a cast of 38, including Kimmee Gearhart as Silver and Zidon Spradling as Hawkins.

Espeland says he is looking forward to adapting more scripts for Youtheatre and sharing his talents with the students, as well as possibly working with other theater groups once he is more settled.

“I just want to do a good job so that this flourishes so that the youth who come here have a good opportunity,” he says of Youtheatre. “I didn’t discover theater until I was 16, and when I discovered theater, it helped me find a voice and an outlet for myself. So I just want to work to provide that outlet for other kids.”


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