By Patsy Isenberg
The Flint Youth Theatre (FYT), for more than 60 years a haven in the Flint Cultural Center for young local actors, playwrights and theater production buffs, is changing. Theater executives unveiled a new name, a new look and a new emphasis at an announcement event Aug. 22. Defenders of the transformation, which has elicited some protests, say the changes will add to, not subtract from, the theatre’s traditions, opportunities, and community access.
The FYT has become the “Flint Repertory Theatre,” or “The Rep.” It will feature five productions in the upcoming season including two musicals, with the hope that adults will see the theater as providing entertainment for them as well as for a youthful audience.
Michael Lluberes, FYT Producing Artistic Director, described the changes and offered a preview of the upcoming season.
But the first thing guests saw on entering the parking lot were about a half dozen young people standing on Kearsley Street carrying homemade signs of protest and handing out flyers explaining their aim.
They said they were protesting the word “youth” being removed from the name of the theater company. But it goes further than that. For most of the summer, since word leaked out that the FYT was “rebranding” and changing its focus, the young thespians, many of whom have performed in productions at FYT for years, said they began to wonder what all the change meant for them and why they were not given a voice.
One protester, Jewel Brown, 19, a little older than the rest of the protesters, said she had been involved in many FYT productions through the years. She was there to support the younger kids.
She said, “I just want it noted that people have been asking…about their opportunities…but they [The FYT staff] have kind of been beating around the bush and haven’t been flat out with their answers,” Brown said.
Edith Pendell, 12, who had a major role in this year’s FYT production “The Geranium on the Windowsill Died But Teacher You Went Right On,” had attended one of the town hall meetings at McCree Theatre last month before the arts millage vote, hoping to find out what the proposed changes meant for her and her peers and to voice her concerns.
She knew Rodney Lontine, Flint Institute of Music president and CEO, who oversees the FYT, would be on the panel. Lontine assured her that youth would still be a big part of the new organization, especially in the area of education.
But Pendell said she felt she still didn’t get an answer to her most pressing question, which was whether there would still be roles in the company for youth. Pendell had to leave the protest early to make it to rehearsal for her role in “Gypsy” which is being put on by Flint Community Players.
The protestors have been supported and joined online and off by some parents and Flint Youth Theatre alums, who say the FIM leadership did little to reach out to the community about the proposed changes—especially before the Aug. 7 arts millage vote at which $8.7 million/year in taxpayer money for the Flint Cultural Center and other Genesee County arts organizations–including $1.8 million/year for the Flint Institute of Music alone–was at stake.
Lontine, approached several times by East Village Magazine before the arts millage vote, declined to be interviewed about the specifics of the transition until after the formal announcement, which occurred two weeks after the millage vote. He has said there was no connection between the two.
In an interview with EVM after the formal announcement, he said there was “just too much going on until now, when we’ve finally gotten all our ducks in a row.”
The millage passed by about 3,000 votes, but a vocal block of opponents, say they continue to resent and bemoan the process and content of the change, fearing that the particular and conscious emphasis on youth theater—especially for local young actors– would be lost in the theater’s attempt to expand its appeal to adult audiences.
“Saddened” by “a huge mistake”
Bryanna McGarry, now of Lansing, a longtime Flint resident who now works for Michigan State Senator Jim Ananich, and who was involved with FYT while growing up, posted a page about the change on Facebook.
“They [The FYT staff through the years] provided…a creative and safe space to learn, strengthen their abilities as young artists, and feel comfortable in their own skin,” she wrote. “It saddens me that the young people in Flint won’t be able to experience FYT… restructuring FYT into an adult-focused Repertory Theatre is a huge mistake and ultimately robs the young people in Flint from an enriching, life-changing artistic experience that they do not have access to in school,” McGarry said. She emphasized her views were her own and not a statement from Ananich or his office.
Changes are additions, not subtractions, FIM president states
“Nothing that the youth theatre was doing is being eliminated. We’re adding,” Lontine stated. He said the aim is to include more people in the community through the expansion.
Lontine came to Flint from Colorado two years ago and said he has witnessed “repertory” theatre in many big cities. He said he thinks the theatre in Flint is worthy of the designation, as “an incredible facility,” and…”for a community this size it has all the bells and whistles.”
He said he’s heard from people who have lived in Flint their whole lives who have never been to the Cultural Center. Lontine said the FIM wants to help open up the theater to more participation.
He offered an example of the way having the word “youth” in the theatre’s name limits interest. He said the billboard advertising “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which he says was an “incredible” production, didn’t draw as many as it should have. He said saying a show is put on by The Flint Youth Theatre is “right off the top, taking your audience, and making it less than half.” Lontine said he thinks people immediately assume those shows are for kids.
He emphasized the youth theatre will remain part of “The Rep” through the shows it produces and its educational offerings. He said local youth still can audition for roles whenever they are offered.
Lontine noted the FYT has been nominated for several awards. EncoreMichigan.com nominated FYT productions and performances for 2018 Wilde Awards presented on Aug. 27. Among the nominations are two for Dalton Hartwell for “The Geranium on The Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On,” and one each for Janet Haley and Rico Bruce Wade for “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” “The Geranium on The Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On” was also nominated for Best Theater for Young Audiences.
What “The Rep” Will Bring to Flint
The new logo was quite evident at the entrance and inside the theatre at the Aug. 22 announcement. After a reception in the lobby with music, food, and drinks along with a lot of mingling and animated conversation, the diverse group went into the theatre for a presentation.
Before anything, Alina Trionne Oliver, stepped on stage to sing “I am Changing,” the Jennifer Hudson hit from the show “Dreamgirls.” She was accompanied on keyboards by Frank Pitts III.
Artistic Director Lluberes then took the mic to describe the upcoming season and explain the organization of the various divisions that make up reconstituted theatre.
First Lluberes summed up the aims of the transition. “There’s changes everywhere,” he said. “You may have noticed our new look, our new name. We’re expanding the depth and breadth of our new programming and mission in transforming to The Flint Repertory Theatre.
“The season…is all about transformation,” he said. “It’s filled with extraordinary variety. The season reflects our commitment, our new commitment, to provide Flint and surrounding communities with highly-imaginative, thought-provoking theatre that’s challenging, entertaining, and inspiring for all ages.”
Five productions are in the works, including two musicals, in what is being called The Signature Series. There will be a world premier play, “The Boatman,” “Assassins” (a musical), “The Wolves,” “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Songs About Stuff: The Music of Wally Pleasant.”
In his introduction to “Assassins” Lluberes told the audience the show running Nov. 9 through Nov. 18, is Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “brilliant, outrageous, Tony-award-winning” musical. Mary Paige Rieffel who plays Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme and Gage Webster who plays John Hinkley Jr. were there to perform the song.
The other musical, “Songs About Stuff: The Music of Wally Pleasant” is described as “an offbeat celebration of his (Pleasant’s) music, humor, and quirky way of looking at the world.” Wally Pleasant, from East Lansing, was present to sing a song from his world premier show.
Theatre for Young Audiences, New Works Festival
A separate designation for young people, Theatre for Young Audiences, includes two musicals. These are “The Little Prince” and an experimental, “underwater” production involving creatures, “Riddle of the Trilobites,” its world premier. Young actor Joey Urgino did a reading that night from “The Little Prince.”
Another division Lluberes introduced is the 2019 New Works Festival, described in the catalog as “staged readings of new plays and musicals” scheduled for January, 2019.
Lluberes also announced a 30 percent discount to Genesee County residents—a spinoff benefit of the arts millage approved by voters Aug. 7. That means the full package of seven shows, normally $70, will be $49. Other packages of tickets are available as well.
Coming: Young Playwrights’ Festival
A few days after the presentation, Lluberes reiterated, with Lontine, that the changes are about adding, not subtracting, elements of the theater. He said the new season will add programs specifically for young people, including a school tour where teens will create and perform their own plays and tour them to schools and community centers.
“We will also be presenting our first Young Playwrights’ Festival where children and teens will be mentored by theatre professionals and create a festival of original student-generated work…our goal is to continue to provide that space here for youth while expanding to provide new opportunities for adults, college students and senior citizens to participate as well,” he said.
The protesters, who weren’t allowed to go any closer than the turn-in to the parking lot with their signs, stayed outside. They were told they could have gone in without the signs, but said they chose to stay on the corner spreading their message. Drivers could be heard honking their horns in support as they drove by.
EVM staff writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.