It was, I admit, a little difficult to watch Past Curfew, a weekend of one-act plays produced entirely by teenagers, and not think about the failed promise of adulthood.
The weekend transpired in a small, sweaty theater on Capitol Hill where the teens of Young Americans' Theatre Company performed three plays for an audience of their peers and parents: Long Ago and Far Away (a magical-realist short by David Ives about a miserable couple in New York City pretending they're happy), Childhood (a late-career fantasia by Thornton Wilder in which children run away from home—or maybe just pretend to—and reflect on the anomie of family life), and The Love Talker (another fantasia, this one Southern Gothic and written by Deborah Pryor, about the perils of sexual awakening and the literal and figurative monsters that hide in "the woods" off the beaten path).
Even though the company members I talked to over the weekend were nothing but polite and pleasant—almost too polite and pleasant—the whole evening seemed like a robust middle finger to received wisdom about being an adult. Which, for the record, I salute. The previous weekend of the YATC (pronounced "yahtzee") summer festival featured Kenneth Lonergan's visceral lust-and-cocaine play This Is Our Youth, and this weekend brings Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, about how children become adults by collecting physical and emotional scars. As most plays—contemporary ones, anyway—are fond of reminding us, life is a slow-motion disaster. But it's especially eerie to hear that catastrophic wisdom coming from the mouths of the next generation.
Now in its eighth season, the Young Americans' Theatre Company began as an experiment in institutional impermanence, or what cofounder Hattie Claire Andres calls "a recipe for disaster": all teens and high turnover. Once a member heads off to college or a career, she's fired.
It hasn't always worked out that way, of course. Some of the spaces they've worked in have required adult supervision, but for the most part, YATC has been able to do its thing unencumbered by old people who think they know best.
The company was founded back in 2008 by six teenage theater nerds who'd been through the gamut of theater opportunities available to them—high-school shows, Seattle Children's Theater workshops, etc.—and wanted to make something of their own. Two of the six attended University Prep, a private school with a grant program for independent projects. They applied, got the money, and rented Washington Ensemble Theatre to produce Women and Wallace (a comedy written by Jonathan Marc Sherman when he was 18 years old about simultaneously coping with the women in his life as well as his mother's suicide) and On the Edge (by Craig Pospisil about a potentially suicidal teenager).
"It was classic WET," says Andres. "The light board crashed on opening night. We thought, 'Wow! I guess this is how theater is!' But nobody questioned us: 'Oh, you're a bunch of teenagers, I don't know if we trust you.'"
The experience was deeply invigorating, and the company kept going, finding spaces—the old Live Girls! basement space in Ballard and the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill—that would help them hang lights and then back off. Backing off is critical for a project like YATC, even for its founders, who initially promised themselves to walk away. "The company is essentially founded on quick turnover, which is a recipe for disaster for a professional company," Andres says. But even YATC suffered from founder's syndrome as Andres and her peers—from University Prep, Holy Names, Garfield, Overlake, and one home-schooling situation—didn't initially succeed at moving on. "We got a little helicopter-parent on everyone," she laughs. "It was all, 'Yes, please go away to college' and then, 'No, wait, we want to come back and tell you all the rules!' Once it got to the third generation, we realized it's a really solid mission... The past three years have been really strong, been this well-oiled machine."
Analiese Guettinger, who directed this summer's production of This Is Our Youth, says only a few parents have balked at the plays YATC has produced. One actor who auditioned for Youth, for example, was great—but her parents pulled her from the production after they read the synopsis of the play, which involves a 19-year-old stealing $15,000 worth of cocaine from his father, on Wikipedia. Guettinger was nervous about seeing parents in the audience for the show—which includes an extended make-out sequence—but says the parents "loved it and loved to see their kids pushing themselves."
She also says the production inspired some revealing conversations with parents about what they were doing in the 1980s, when the play is set, during what Guettinger calls the "rebel burnout years" of their lives. (Though parents might have some cause to worry about how a teenage-run theater company will affect their kids' lives. During my high-school years, I joined a similar independent theater project—which included former Stranger news editor Dominic Holden—called Anything for a Biscuit. We staged a Tom Stoppard play in a basement black box near Pike Place Market. I played an unethical theater critic.)
The next step, Guettinger says, is finding more participants from other schools, fundraising, and securing the company's nonprofit status. The audiences, she says, have shown up—the final night of Youth was sold out, with plenty of unfamiliar faces. "You hear 'youth-run,' and you think of everything falling apart," she says. "But I think the audiences are pleasantly surprised."
At one point in Wilder's Childhood, Mother (played by Ruby Daniel) complains to Father (Max Koh) about their children's fondness for acting out morbid skits with names like Hospital or Funeral or Orphans. "Listen to me, Fred," she bleats. "Those games are morbid; they're dangerous." Father dismisses her and keeps swinging his imaginary golf club. What he doesn't realize—but Mother intuits—is that his kids are creating a new world for themselves, right under his nose.