Youth Performance Company (YPC) has set the stage for continuing its mission to empower children and inspire social change through bold theater. The 32-year-old organization recently moved its administrative offices and rehearsal space from University Avenue Southeast in Minneapolis to 641 N. Fairview Ave. in Saint Paul.
With a new 10-year lease, the company for aspiring thespians ages 9-21 is now looking forward to artistic growth along with a return to in-person classes by this summer and to live performances by December, according to founder and artistic director Jacie Knight.
During the COVID-induced intermission from in-person classes and performances, YPC has taken on new film and video projects. Power to the People has nearly a dozen youths performing in sketches about social justice. For “Four By Four/Be Bold,” four young Black women directed four plays by a Black playwright. Meanwhile, YPC’s 15-student Creative Team for Change is designing new digital platforms to help make the Twin Cities a better place, according to Knight.
“We draw our students from all over the metro area—Saint Paul, Minneapolis, the suburbs, even Wisconsin,” Knight said. “We offer classes and workshops throughout the year—in a normal year—and at least a four-play season.” The seasons have always included plays with historical and social significance as well as family favorites.
To prepare for in-person classes this summer, “we’re trying to locate outdoor spaces that have shelter, so when the weather isn’t great we’re sheltered but outside,” Knight said. “Obviously, we’ll have CDC guidelines in place—mask wearing and temperature taking as well as social distancing. Our number-one goal is in-person classes, but we’ll also be doing virtual classes for those who don’t feel comfortable.”
“Having the assurance of a constant is super-important in theatre, and we have a great new constant in our Fairview location,” Knight said. “We’re excited about being in a neighborhood with a lot of kids and families. And we love the space itself. We were able to create the kind of space we wanted.”
YPC is surrounded by other arts organizations at the Fairview Business Center, including Saint Paul Ballet and Young Dance. “There’s a great synergy here,” Knight said. “It’s a really wonderful thing to be with people who are creating and helping young people develop.”
Mitch Frazier, a resident of Saint Paul’s Lowertown who has been with YPC for more than 30 years as an actor, director and lighting and set designer, believes the Fairview space is an ideal location. “It provides easy access for young people and parents who are coming from all over the city and beyond,” he said.
To prepare for in-person classes this summer, Knight said, “we’re trying to locate outdoor spaces that have shelter, so when the weather isn’t great we’re sheltered but outside. Obviously, we’ll have CDC guidelines in place—mask wearing and temperature taking as well as social distancing. Our number-one goal is in-person classes, but we’ll also be doing virtual classes for those who don’t feel comfortable.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, “families, alumni and patrons have all been concerned about YPC keeping our doors open,” Knight said. “Because of that concern, they’ve generously donated what they could to help YPC continue to serve the community. We’ve cut staff and expenses down to the bare necessities. We also received some funds through the federal PPP program. Through all of these efforts, we’ve been able to survive in new and different ways.”
One YPC supporter is Bridget McGreevy of Summit Hill. Her daughter Flannery, a senior at Saint Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, has been in YPC productions since the age of 13. Her son Ronan, a freshman at Minnehaha Academy, has also performed in a YPC play.
Flannery performed in the 2014-15 musical Home on the Mornin’ Train, which tells the story about German children trying to escape the Nazis in 1939 and how they were inspired by the stories of Black children trying to escape slavery in the U.S. in 1839.
“From the beginning, we just fell in love with what Jacie does,” Bridget McGreevy said. “She is driven to benefit the community and to encourage young people to develop into incredible adults. It’s profound theater. The messaging is beyond what you typically see in theater for young people. Jacie is a mentor who treats everyone with respect.”
“When I started at YPC,” Flannery said, “I became part of a community that not only taught me the ropes of powerful and engaging art, but how to be a good person. The friends, mentors and role models I met are still a part of my day-to-day life. When I look back at my teenage years, the memories of YPC will be at the top for experiences that shaped who I am today.”
YPC is a reflection of Knight’s “underlying belief that children have a voice and that voice needs to be heard,” Frazier said. “Young people see the world as it’s going to be, not as it has been. They give hope. Time and again, production after production, YPC nurtures young voices.”
Knight is mindful to teach life skills along with theater, according to Frazier, from ironing costumes to getting along with everyone in the company. “She teaches responsibility as well as respect,” he said. “She teaches how to get along while you’re putting a show together even if you may not ever work together again.” The benefits of that method are apparent at rehearsals when lines are being learned and scene blocking perfected, he added.
“We’re trying to bring together our young artists and give them platforms to create about things that are important to them,” Knight said. “Any time you’re creating you’re performing. And our young people are creating really great stuff.
“Young people are in a tough place now,” Knight said. “So much has been taken away from them, from graduations to companionship. They’ve lost resiliency. They’ve lost their bounce. We want to help them get that back.”
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