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Youtheatre presents remarkable story of five young “Heroes of Conscience”

Espeland & Stieber believe that now, more than ever, we need to teach our children to be kind and courageous.
Julia Meek/WBOI
Espeland & Stieber believe that now, more than ever, we need to teach our children to be kind and courageous.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre is gearing up for its production of Baghdad Zoo, part of the Young Heroes of Conscience series which opens next Friday, March 3 at First Presbyterian Theater.

Written by Kevin Dyer, the story takes place as coalition forces invade Iraq in the hunt for Saddam Hussein, and centers around five children taking refuge at the Baghdad Zoo. Based on true events, this is a story of remarkable courage and endurance as the children make the animals’ survival as important as their own.

“Given what is happening in the world today, this story is incredibly important to tell,” says Executive Artistic Director, Todd Espeland.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the show’s fine points with Todd Espeland and guest director, Gregory Stieber, as well as Youtheatre’s mission and the momentum this series is building.

Event Information:

Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s Baghdad Zoo
@ First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne
Friday, March 3

7:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, March 4-5
2:00 p.m.

For tickets & more information, visit the Fort Wayne Youtheatre website.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Todd Espeland, Gregory Stieber, welcome.

Todd Espeland: Hi.

Gregory Stieber: Hi Julia.

Julia Meek: So Fort Wayne Youtheatre is bringing a whole new impact to its Young Heroes of Conscience series with the latest production. Now before we explore the depth and richness this experience carries with it, Todd, would you give us a one sentence synopsis of the story?

Todd Espeland: So during the invasion of Baghdad and unite Coalition Forces in Baghdad, a group of children have gone to the Baghdad Zoo because it seems the safest place for them to sort of escape to and they discover that all of the animals in the zoo have been abandoned, and so they take it upon themselves to care for those animals.

Julia Meek: Okay, Gregory, this Young Heroes of Conscience series is your brainchild, and Baghdad Zoo is number nine in the series; two very big firsts: This true story focuses on heroes plural, who are not already acclaimed legends, how does this work with the premise and the mission of your whole project?

Gregory Stieber: So heroism is the key word. Yes, past subjects of the Young Heroes have been people as famous as Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, but heroism is heroism. And what I love is that all of our past young heroes, you know, they weren't born into their status, they did something exceptional to be people of note, and this script is just resonant with that from start to finish.

Julia Meek: Now, also, this is the first play in the series that's not written by you. What does that feel like? What does that mean to you?

Gregory Stieber: Well, you know, the cool thing is, is I thought we were just this kind of like, exceptional little nugget, just right here in Fort Wayne thinking, Okay, we've taken this series, we created it on our own and we've been exploring these themes.

And Todd woke me up to the fact that there's a lot of great scripts out there aimed toward a young audience, for young audiences and by young artists that celebrate these themes of social injustice and heroism within that context. So that's great.

I feel like it made me view the world of children's theatre as larger at the same time, very accessible, like we're all holding hands in some odd way.

Julia Meek: Indeed! And are you all excited about it?

Gregory Stieber: There you go.There's just nothing more exciting than being able to take this arena of children's theatre and explore subjects there aren't the common fare of a children's theatre, you know, Snow White's--any of those classic fairy tales? No, we're looking at actual moments in history that have been tough. But then exceptional things can come out of that toughness

Julia Meek: All larger than life as well.

Gregory Stieber: Yes.

Julia Meek: Yes.Yes. So timeframe now; it's the most contemporary story you've ever tackled in the most faraway setting, as a matter of fact, culturally, as well as geographically. Is this part of what grabbed you?

Gregory Stieber: It really was because we did go to Europe in the young heroes series for Anne Frank in Amsterdam. But beyond that, they were all stories that were based in the United States.

And to look at a completely different culture is Iraq and look at children in that society, because the common link is that they are children and all these stories have been children in really difficult situations who persevere through their heroism. Again, it makes the world a little smaller, in a great way.

Julia Meek: Was it difficult for either of you to wrap your heads around it? Obviously, you wanted to bring it here. What did it take to get ready to do it?

Todd Espeland: Well, I've been looking at the script for a number of years when I was at the Kalamazoo Civic. Of the 13th show season, they have three of them are youth focused, and I had been wanting to get that show on the season there, and there were some other scripts ahead of it when we were constructing the season.

So I just sat on this, because I knew that the themes of this show of heroism and empathy were really strong and were really important to put forth in front of an audience. So when the opportunity came to kind of throw some different scripts at Greg, number one, I was really pleased that he jumped at it.

And number two, you know, getting ready for itm we did a little cultural research, you know, we did a little bit of research on how we can truthfully tell this story in a respectful way, and still honor the bravery of the youth in the story.

Julia Meek: What about your amazing troop, then? How did all the youth react to such an exciting setup that the two of you presented to them?

Gregory Stieber: I think one of the key things is that animals are the star of this show as well. So they don't have to think about, you know, what they don't know about Iraq and about that culture in the Mideast. What is universal is a kid's love of animals, their fascination with them, their protection of them and their bonding with animals. That made it really easy.

Julia Meek: And really pertinent, contemporary subject?

Gregory Stieber: Of course. Because what ultimately happens in the story itself, which is just so moving, is these kids are deprived of almost everything themselves because of a war situation. And what little they have left they make a choice to give it to the animals.

And to know that was based on fact? Every time I do one of these shows, I look at what these children did and I always have to ask myself, "you know, Greg, would you do that?" And a lot of times I want to think. yeah, I would like to say I would--but would I?

Julia Meek: (chuckles) That's an incredibly good point. And that's something that a child would have no reservations about having the emotions that you're talking about.

Gregory Stieber: That's the magic.

Julia Meek: Yeah, that's the magic happening. Now you've got a cast of 32! (chuckles) Was it difficult to fill that many parts, or difficult to only have that many parts to fill?

Gregory Stieber: The latter, that's always the case with Youtheatre, you know, it's a shining jewel in Fort Wayne and everyone knows it. And definitely the kids know it. So our average audition for the Young Heroes is at least 50 plus.

And because the script was already written, and it wasn't written by me, Youtheatre was very lucky this year, because when I've written them myself, I would just keep on adding characters because of the audition turnout. (chuckles) Because you never want to say no to a kid, especially to talent.

But that made this really easy. So much of it by Todd bringing the script to me this year, it changed the face of the series a little bit. And in the biggest way, it became less and less about me and back to why the series was developed to celebrate kids in hard times and coming out on the other side, shining.

Julia Meek:   

How do you feel about that, Todd?

Todd Espeland: I just...I think it's great. It's really wonderful. And because we're dipping into all of the really great scripts now that exist out there in children's theater and Youth Theater, we're able to find the best work possible to put in front of our audiences.

And to challenge our youth with it. It always makes me happy to see how many youth we have come out and audition for these shows, especially this particular series. Kids were as cool as we were when we were in school. And so this gives them an opportunity to really work as actors and not just be animals and puppets on stage.

We get to explore their inner emotional lives, and we get to have them ask difficult questions about people's inner emotional lives. I think that's an important thing for us to explore with kids. And I think it's an important thing for us to present in front of the Fort Wayne community, which is looking at these kids not just being what we think of as kids, but they are complex beings that we share the world with, and they have complex inner lives.

Julia Meek:  And a word on that seasoned crew, how quickly did that group of 32 devour the whole story and start making it their own?

Gregory Stieber: Our first read through, and then the first blocking rehearsal, which means when we put them on stage, and start telling them where to go. The script is very varied. There are animals, and then there's the kids, but there's almost a Greek Chorus representation of what's called the "Lost People" and they represent the citizens that were immediately affected by the bombings and the power outages and no access to food and water.

And so, like past Youtheatre Young Heroes shows, those characters can do the heavier lifting of those factoids, while our five young heroes are in the moment. It's just, the script is beautifully balanced that way. So there's just lots of challenges in the script, and the kids have just latched on to it and just eat it up.

Julia Meek: Story and script then both, itsounds quite sophisticated. Did it take much directing to get them up to speed on what was happening within all of that and how to convey it on the stage?

Gregory Stieber: Fortunately, not in any way, of course not. But you know, with the situation in Ukraine, they are looking at things on the news right now, where it's incredibly similar in the fact that warfare means loss, warfare means depletion.

So they do have that frame of context right now, even though this happened in 2003 when most of them, I don't think any of our cast members were born yet, there is that direct access. I mean, they can turn on the news every night and see what's happening.

Julia Meek: That might not have been a conscious thing for you, Todd, as you noted, you followed this play for a long time, and wanted to bring it here. But the fact that it is within the whole Russia and Ukraine issue...

Gregory Stieber 

I think he already had this show on the schedule?

Todd Espeland: The war in Ukraine, it's going to be the year anniversary next week of the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Right now we are at probably the year anniversary that I presented Greg the script and said, think about this, Greg lit up when I showed it to him, and he got excited about it.

And then all of this stuff's happened in the world. And I just thought, wow, this is really significant that we've we're able to sort of have people look at the impact of war, we're not commenting on war. We're not making a comment good or bad on it. But we are looking at the effects that were has on people. And it really came together.

Gregory Stieber: And, wow! When I was thinking about how am I going to talk to them about this, because again, what's very important to us in this series is not to impart any politics in this or to even talk about how people felt about the war at the time, we just look at what was going on and how kids were affected by it.

And so having that immediate reference and I'm not saying in any way it was a blessing. Of course not! But was it relevant? Sure.

Julia Meek: The timing was certainly amazing.

Todd Espeland: And there's a lot of reports out there, you can easily Google and look at. There are zoos in the Ukraine that are having to go through these same issues and make difficult decisions about what do we do with these creatures that we are tasked with taking care of while this war rages?

There's a lot of similarities, so this has really I think, given away to shine a spotlight and make the historical context of what's happening now really resonate with our youth.

Gregory Stieber: Yes.

Julia Meek: Yes. Now with a new play like this, topic like this, timing like this, from an outside author, what would you say the biggest challenge putting this all together actually was, Gregory?

Gregory Stieber: Well I can't cheat and rewrite anything. I got to experiment the past years, if a scene didn't work, I would say, Well, you know what, I'll retool it a little bit because it was my own work. I see that as a real plus, too, because what I was taught in college is that your first job as a director is you honor the playwright, and you do your very best to interpret what their intent was when they wrote it.

This script is really fantastic, though. So that hasn't been a challenge. But one of the things is just guiding a kid and how to be an animal without having it comical, or like, you know, they're in a big costume from Stoners, because they're not. We have a very dynamic costume designer, and then a big plus in his production too, another reason to come see it is you get to see the mask work of Todd Espeland, which is fantastic.

And he's rolling his eyes, I'm sure right next to me, but I don't care. (chuckles) It's just really, really fantastic. It gives you the essence of the animal and yet the most of the animal interpretation comes from the actor. And so a giraffe for instance, our first day we just said, Okay, give me three attributes of a giraffe. Now walk across the stage with that in mind. And it was just so cool to watch them turn into these animals.

But no one's on all fours, the monkey's not scratching its underarms, but they're capturing they're feeling the essence of that animal. That alone is real selling point to come see the show. It's just stunning. And it comes from them--from the actor, the kids in the show.

Julia Meek: Amazing. And also the Director.

Gregory Stieber: Yeah, you know, you know, I give them a springboard and then they jump right off it and there, then its magic.

Julia Meek: Now, meanwhile, was there anything that you were worried about that was well, completely unnecessary?

Gregory Stieber: There are four soldiers in this production that represent the American soldiers. And the play, of course, is written in English, but the playwright decided to do was to show how foreign the soldiers were and the soldiers speak to the children, he chose to have that foreign to the main characters by having the soldier speak backwards in English.

Julia Meek: Wow.

Gregory Stieber: And it was very clever. The first time the four young actors playing the soldiers did it, it took our breaths away, I sent them off, I should go work on this. And then they came back. And even though you can't understand the language itself, their intent is so clear.

And then I realized was so smart of the playwright, because the five young kids looking at them, the reactions are so genuine, because they don't know what they're saying to them; can kind of get an idea of it. But they really don't understand until the end, and the soldiers are trying to understand the children and vice versa.

And they all joined together in this mission to try to save the animals. It's one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking endings that we've had in a series in a while. And almost all of them have been really, really intense. But every adult in the audience last night, our helpers that support Youtheatre, everyone was in tears. It was quite a rehearsal.

Julia Meek: And while we're looking back in a really special melt-your-heart moments that you simply couldn't have anticipated, but will be with you forever?

Gregory Stieber: Yes, because one thing that's also different from the past Young Heroes shows, the leads are the youngest cast members we've had, by the way, it's written. When I've written them in the past I've kind of manipulated enough where the older actors did the heavier lifting.

This one, I didn't have that option. And so to watch these five young actors tackle this really heavy material, because all of them have a significant character arc. Some of the characters, you know, they don't want to give away their food at first and they argue about it. And they think no, we're putting ourselves at risk for things that are not even human.

And to watch them all come to this realization in their own way, especially in these actors are young, our youngest is seven. And she's really the star of the show, and just had us in the palm of her hand last night, too. It was amazing.

Julia Meek: Good for all of you for that. Now, regarding Youtheatres role in elevating productions and young talent on regional and national levels, Todd, where does this Youth Heroes series and this play in particular fit?

Todd Espeland: I think it fits in, especially what we're seeing happening nationally with children's theater and youth theaters, is not just presenting work that is fairy tales, or fables, which there's nothing wrong with that, but really starting to explore work that like I said earlier explores a child's inner life and a youth's inner emotional life, and really giving them a chance to have a voice in the world about who they are and what they're feeling and what their genuine experience is in the world.

The other thing that's happening is Charlotte Children's Theatre started something a number of years ago called The Kindness Project, and all of the shows ind their season revolved around kindness, the acts of kindness that we do to make the world a better place.

And that's where I'm really trying to cull a lot of our material to present to our youth artists and to present to our audiences that really focus on how we are making the world a better place through our actions and through our existence and how we're making the world a better place for the people we share the world with. So that's kind of where we're trying to go with the programming we're doing.

Julia Meek: It's a great place to go. What else do you have to look forward to the season then, production wise?

Todd Espeland: In April we are doing a show part of our Neurodiversity project, Aesop's Fables, it's going to Team neurodivergent youth with neurotypical youth who are creating a show together and then we're closing up the season with a show called Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, and we're going to have giant puppets on stage, the biggest puppet of which has seven operators.

Julia Meek: Well, over achievement (chuckles) reigns supreme in the Youtheatre these days!

Gregory Stieber: Absolutely!

Julia Meek: We're so happy that it does. And collectively, you all are working overtime to share the very best of your craft with actually the world now. What kind of satisfaction does this level of storytelling bring the two of you?

Gregory Stieber: I would say the fortitude of theme is the gift of this. Not only do I get the great opportunity to do what I love most and that's direct, but then directing children, that's the second layer on it. And then the end result is something that's always significant, and resonant and everlasting. It doesn't get any better than that.

Julia Meek: Todd?

Todd Espeland: It's really satisfying to present our young artists with a number of different tools to give them a voice so that they can use those tools to express themselves whether it's emotionally through the text, whether it's through giant puppets, whether it's through exploring, you know, really contemporary ways to present theatrical arts.

We're presenting them with tools to give them a voice and that feels really good.

Julia Meek: Todd Espeland and Gregory Stieber are Fort Wayne Youtheatres’ Executive Artistic and Guest Directors respectively. What a wonderful story of a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing.

Todd Espeland: Thank you for having me.

Gregory Stieber: Thank you, Julia.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.