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Youtheatre’s world premiere a frightfully clever twist on classic horror theme

Morgan and Todd agree that this amazing opportunity will open up a whole new world for their talented young actors.
Courtesy/Fort Wayne Youtheatre
Morgan and Todd agree that this amazing opportunity will open up a whole new world for their talented young actors.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre is presenting a spooktacular world premiere of the play, “The House,” this Friday.

Written by Lindsay Price of Theatrefolk Publishing, the story line links together several classic literary haunted house tales like Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," all told from a modern, tech savvy perspective.

Theatrefolk is a company that specializes in licensing interesting and challenging scripts to schools and youth theatre groups.

Aseparate, 30-minute adaptation with nine actors, is being produced as Youtheatre's on-the-go show, which will be performed as "Stories from the Stacks" down in the bowels of the downtown Allen County Public Library and be for broadcast on WBOI.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses just what twists and turns are in store with the group’s executive director, Todd Espeland and play director, Morgan Montgomery.

Event Information:

Youtheatre’s “The House”
@ First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne
7 p.m. Friday
2:00 p.m. Saturday
4:40 p.m. (Sensory-Friendly Performance) Saturday

2:00 p.m. Sunday

For ticket prices and reservations visit the Fort Wayne Youtheatre website.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Todd Espeland, Morgan Montgomery, welcome.

 Todd Espeland: Hi.

Morgan Montgomery: Hi there.

Julia Meek: So it's time for something Youtheatre spooktacular and you are not going to disappoint. Morgan, we like to hear a one sentence rundown about what's happening. Could you give us one?

Morgan Montgomery: Yeah. Three teens enter a local haunted house looking for some inspiration for a school project. And they very soon feel like something is strange about the house.

Julia Meek: Uh-oh-oh! Now before we discuss the shock points , Todd, this is a world premiere. And you are friends with the playwright connected with the publishing house Theatrefolk. What makes this all the more special of a production to have that connection?

Todd Espeland: Oh my gosh, there's so much. First of all, the publisher and playwright Lindsay Price and her husband, Craig Mason have been friends of mine for many, many years.

But Theatrefolk Publishing is one of the biggest and best publishing houses for plays for the junior high school/high school market that are age appropriate, but not schmaltzy. So they really specialize in producing really quality work for kids that they want to do.

And then the thing that makes it special is our kids are going to get to meet Lindsay and Craig, talk to them, meet these professionals who sell work that gets performed all over the world. And the best part is when this script is eventually published, they will get credit as the original cast of the show.

You know, they published my adaptation of "Treasure Island" and "Wind in the Willows." And these plays get not just performed all over the United States, but Canada, in Europe, one of my productions is going on right now in Australia. So they're really going to make an impact across the world.

Julia Meek: Morgan that has to make you feel good to be part of this production. Have you ever had the opportunity to do something like that before?
Morgan Montgomery: I have actually, this is my second world premiere I've ever worked on. The last one I did was a world premiere musical. So of course, this being a play, it's a very different format.

Julia Meek: And a spooky play!

Morgan Montgomery: Yes, very spooky play. Yes.

Julia Meek: Yes. And getting back to just how frightfully exciting this is, how are you bringing the story to life or near death or whatever you intend to do with this haunted house story, Morgan? (all chuckle)

Morgan Montgomery: As it is a spooky story, it is all in the sound and the lights I'd say, (chuckles) plus some staging. So we have the most spooky lights, all the haze, lots of sound effects all the creaking doors and slamming doors and footsteps where they shouldn't be.

Julia Meek: How exciting. And what kind of a cast are you working with?

Morgan Montgomery: We have 28 actors in the main stage show. And then we are also doing an On the Go show that has eight actors.

Julia Meek: Did you have trouble getting that many young actors to come in that could fit into this play?

Morgan Montgomery: We saw about 60 or so in our audition, so we saw a really good turnout for this.

Julia Meek: Great, great.

Morgan Montgomery: Yeah, I think all the kids were really excited about the idea of this being a spooky story, of course at Halloween time and they wanted to be part, they want to scare people. So...

Julia Meek: Great. (chuckles) We're all looking forward to it, and the fact that this isn't only a premiere, it's a final finesse in progress, maybe is a way to say that. With no comparison to other performances, obviously, there's lots of freedom there. Does that make for just total fun? Or is it ever too much to have no frame of reference?

Morgan Montgomery: Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's a huge challenge. Sometimes we find that the things that Lindsay already has in the script for us make it easier for us to tell the story. She's got lots of notes about sound effects and some staging things.

But mostly we're making it up as we go along. Which also means we get to play in rehearsal and discover and try new things and eventually find what we think is good.

Julia Meek: That is wildly exciting. And Todd, I'll ask you as not only a seasoned director, but also as a playwright, how does it feel when it's your piece and it's in the works just at about this stage of the game? Is it comfortable? Or is it scary all in itself to know how it's going to turn out?

Todd Espeland: Well, there's a cool thing, when you're writing a play, you kind of have the story going in your head, and you have a way that you envision the world of the play.

And it's neat to see someone else take it and put their own spin on it and maybe discover things in the play that you didn't consider or really bring to life, the thing that was right in your imagination, and you have that moment of simpatico where you're both on the same page.

But I always love the part where you see things happen that you've you've never intended to happen in the play and you go, ahh what a great idea. I'm so glad that what I wrote inspired the directors to go in that direction.

Julia Meek: And that would be the mark of a good playwright and also a good director, and it sounds like we got plenty of all of that going on right here in this production, that's for sure.

Now, on to the setting, the scenario. The whole main frame of this is that haunted house. What is it about haunted houses that makes them so irresistible?

Morgan Montgomery: It's two things. It's fear and curiosity. People love discovering something that they don't know enough about and they want to learn more about.

It's as simple as when you're lying in bed at night and it's dark and you see a shadow and you immediately jump up and go turn on the light because you're afraid that there is some thing there, but you don't know.

And I think that's what draws people to haunted house stories especially, is that: Are there ghosts out there? Is it the house? Or is it ghosts? Or is...what is it that's making these noises and turning on lights?

Julia Meek: Timing has to be incredibly exacting here. That's a lot to ask anybody of any age and expertise. Can you do it? Are these young actors responding? Are they stepping up to that?

Morgan Montgomery: Absolutely, yes. If anything, I think because it is theater done by kids, they are fearless in themselves. (chuckles) They know how to scare a person or how to scare their friends just naturally.

So I can give them jump-scare sound effects to use, but otherwise, they're pretty scary on their own, in themselves.

Julia Meek: Fantastic.

Morgan Montgomery: Yeah!

Julia Meek: Just fantastic. Now, I do wonder, do these kids, cool as they are granted, get the literary weight of the story that they're telling, that it's really based on literary classics? And can they have fun, extra fun if they know that that's the case?

Morgan Montgomery: Yeah, I think so. So one of the first things you do in rehearsal is read through the script. And in the script, Lindsay gives you at the back the five stories, the titles and the authors.

And so from that point on, we do our research, we do our reading, then based on whatever character they are, we talk about what that character might have been in those literary classics as they are. And what it looks like now, in this modern retelling of these.

Todd Espeland: Something Lindsay does in the play that I really appreciate is, a lot of these plays were adapted from stories from the 1800s, late 1800s. And one of the things Lindsay does that I love is the storytelling conceit in the 1800s was to write letters back and forth about spooky things that were happening in the house.

And Lindsay turns it on its head and tries to make it contemporary for youth audiences and youth performers by not having them write letters back and forth, but they're FaceTiming. And I love that she's done that.

And I love that she's taken that tack, and it makes the stories a lot more immediate for our young artists,

Julia Meek: We always are interested in hearing how social media factors into, well, including performances, it's usually not literally in the performance, it's about or pushing the performance or something. But how clever? And Morgan, is it really working as well as Todd explains?

Morgan Montgomery: Absolutely. I think if I said, Okay, you're now writing letters back and forth, they would go you're...we're what?

But when I say okay, you're on FaceTime, you're over here, you're over there, just look at the phone, you don't even have to look at each other, they immediately get it.

Julia Meek: They can also turn the table and know that everybody out there in the audience is getting it; that is brilliant. Now, Morgan, you are no stranger to all things Youtheatre creative, that's obvious. What's in your own youthful toolkit that makes you excited to direct these talented kids, which is probably going to be the bottom line on the successes that you do have.

Morgan Montgomery: I am a theater technician at heart. I was never a good actor. But I love the tech side. (chuckles)

And the thing I love more than anything is lighting and sound. And so I can come in and say, All right, if I put the light over here, you guys can sneak off stage. And if I bring the light up really suddenly on you, you're going to scare them.

And so I think the vision I bring to the show specifically is that of, tech will make it better. And tech is going to help us scare. Yes, we need to act, but tech is just going to bring it to that next level.

Julia Meek: That's interesting, too, in the 21st century, because kids are all kinds of tech savvy and special effects savvy.

Morgan Montgomery: And our theatres are so advanced now from LED lighting to movers to hazers. I mean, we can do so much.

Julia Meek: And you intend to it sounds.

Morgan Montgomery: Right? We will.

Julia Meek: That is excellent. Now all of this other-worldly activity will live on past your performance dates this coming week, which leads us directly to Youtheatre's collaboration with WBOI, something we love to have happen, especially with your talented group of young actors.

Would you tell us what you'll be bringing into the studio, meaning our studio, for your special broadcast recording, Todd?

Todd Espeland: Well, Lindsay Price has also written a 30-minute radio show version of "The House," specifically for us and for them to publish. And we're so thrilled to bring you all of the scares and jumps, and bringing a shortened version of this through the world of our imaginations, and the world of radio imagination.

So we're getting to do it with all the jumps in the scares and the technical scares on stage. And then we're getting to bring it right into your living room through WBOI. And I have to say thank you WBOI. I'm incredibly appreciative of this opportunity that you have given our young artists to discover various ways and different ways to express themselves theatrically.

Julia Meek: Youtheatre does such good work and we love to broadcast wonderful and diverse entertaining, original format. It's a great, scary great situation (all chuckle) that we have going on here.

And that great performance space. First Presbyterian Theater, in this case, how is it helping you to uh, "slay" the production if I might ask? (chuckles)

 Morgan Montgomery: Well, the First Pres theater IS in the basement. (all laugh) So that only adds to the spooky element, we truly get full darkness.

And we're kind of in this space where screams won't be heard outside the theater! (all laugh)

Julia Meek: We've got the marketing, it sounds like, wrapped up on this already. (chuckles) It is a great space. What in particular do you two feel that stage itself, that space itself just oozes for any age that's performing on it or enjoying a piece at that space,

Todd Espeland: It's such a great stage. It's big enough to perform on as an actor, you feel like you're on a large stage. But the seating area is, and the seating area is really sizable, but it's also designed in such a way that it feels very intimate.

You don't feel like you know, the audience, the back row is million miles away from you, they feel very close to you. And it's able to pack a lot of people in and create that intimacy and yet a size to it. It's a beautiful space.

Julia Meek: And you use it well, yes.

Todd Espeland: Thank you.

Julia Meek: It's really lovely. And this season, you're also offering perks and special performances that do broaden your base and really increase your inclusivity. How does that work?

Todd Espeland: Youtheatre offers what we call sensory friendly productions. And so it's for the neurodiverse community. These productions are free to the community. If you go to, you can get tickets to our sensory friendly productions.

We have them on Saturdays, and they're available for anybody, just sign up for the tickets. We really think it's important to share theatre with everybody in the community. And the beauty of the sensory friendly productions is the production values are adjusted.

So the sound effects aren't as loud, the lighting is not as severe, we keep the house lights up on the audience about halfway so that we can take a community of individuals that don't often get to participate in community arts events, and ease them into enjoying theater and understanding that the arts are for everybody.

We're willing to make those adjustments because the arts are for everyone. We had a youth last year his mom sent us a letter and basically said the biggest complaint he had about it was that it wasn't long enough. (chuckles) That's awesome.

Julia Meek: It's awesome. It's absolutely awesome. So obviously the response has been wonderful--enough to keep you going and maybe increasing these kinds of performances?

Todd Espeland: Absolutely. We used to do only three productions a year, sensory friendly performances, one for three of our shows. And now we have a sensory friendly performance for all four of our productions including our holiday show, which sells out every year.

Julia Meek: And back to Youtheatre's goal to do more, do better make a big name for themselves and their craft. How do projects like this play, like the radio, like the things we're talking about in this conversation directly facilitate goals like that?

Todd Espeland: I constantly want our youth to understand that there are jobs out there that they can't imagine that exist, that they can work as a creative individual.

So bringing Lindsay Price in this playwright, she's a working playwright, her work gets produced all over the world. And this shows our youth that you can be a writer and a playwright for a living, you can do these jobs.

I want our youth to understand that they can have a really wonderful life for themselves working creatively.

 Julia Meek: No better way to do it.

Morgan Montgomery: Yeah, absolutely, than bringing in someone who's actually doing it at that moment.

Julia Meek: And now, this will be a hard act to follow, folks, you're setting yourself up for a challenge. So how are you choosing to end the year?

Todd Espeland: We're going to end the year with that holiday favorite, "Charlie Brown Christmas."

Julia Meek: That's actually a plus. You haven't done that for a while?

Todd Espeland: Ooooh! We haven't done it since 2018.

Julia Meek: And as Christmas miracles all happen, some call him a Grinch and some call him Sana's favorite little elf, but what is that Murphy up to? Is he going to be part of this holiday presentation?

Todd Espeland: Our associate director Christopher Murphy will be the director on Charlie Brown Christmas. Yes,

Julia Meek: That's fantastic--we know we're going to have a happy holidays. And again, this will be at First Pres?

Todd Espeland: First Presbyterian Theater. Yes.

Julia Meek: Wonderful. Meanwhile, and last question, folks, what's the takeaway you are directly looking for from your audience with this wild and crazy production of "The House" whatever frightful way it's enjoyed?

Morgan Montgomery: We're just looking to kick off the Halloween season, the spooky season with something that we really think is going to transport people into a haunted house and scare them in their seats and really just give them an evening of frightful haunts.

Todd Espeland: I couldn't have said it better.

Julia Meek: Todd Espeland is Fort Wayne Youtheatre's Executive Director and Morgan Montgomery, the director of the current play "The House." Thank you for sharing and preparing this spooktacular story folks. Beware!

Todd Espeland & Morgan Montgomery: Oooooooooooooooooohhhh! (all laugh)

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.