Not just for kids

Oct 27, 2004 at 12:00 am

Are you dying to rip your kid from behind that video game screen? Do you wish he wanted to be in Cats instead of on a football field? Do you hope that her desire to be Brittney Spears morphs into a dedication to follow in the footsteps of Meryl Streep?

Southfield Youtheatre might be your salvation.

Many think the Youtheatre closed down after it moved in 2000 from its home at downtown Detroit’s Music Hall to Southfield’s Millennium Centre. But the children’s theater is alive and well.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Youtheatre is Michigan’s largest nonprofit center for live professional entertainment geared toward children and families. Mounting productions that range from Charlotte’s Web to The Phantom of the Opera, the organization provides not only entertainment but educational opportunities to kids in 11 metro Detroit counties.

This season there are more than 100 productions scheduled, including The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on Oct. 30; the show coincides with the theater’s 40th anniversary party (open to the public). The theater also is staging performances at the Macomb Center in Clinton Township, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and the Music Hall in Detroit.

Youtheatre’s productions feature professional, national touring companies to give kids, especially those with little to no arts education and programs in their schools, a taste of the performing arts.

The group has inspired young performers for a generation. Jason Wrobel, Youtheatre’s spokesman, worked with Second City in Chicago; director of development Ron Seykell performed on Broadway in New York in the productions Les Miserables and Cats. Both were first exposed to the performing arts as kids at what was then called Detroit Youtheatre at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Today, both Wrobel and Seykell are instructors, along with Youtheatre executive director Paul Berg (who’s worked in film and television), in Youtheatre’s Conservatory Program. The series of classes exposes kids to acting, singing, comedy, storytelling, improvisation and more.

The goal of the conservatory is to teach acting, but instructors are hoping to stimulate interest in the arts.

“Everything we try to do with our children is only going to empower them to go into the community and take part in other art, cultural and educational experiences,” Seykell says.

The theater also sponsors a field trip to Broadway for public schools, and a program for physically, emotionally and economically disadvantaged kids. The theater was founded in 1964 by the late Mickey Miners (a 1989 Detroit News Michiganian of the Year) as a DIA program.

With such a long track record, it seems recognition should be the least of the theater’s worries. But awareness has been an issue, Wrobel says.

The theater began to change in 1991, when Republican Gov. John Engler slashed arts funding statewide, lopping off support to the DIA at the knees. DIA cut funding for the Youtheatre that year, and the group became an independent nonprofit organization and moved into Music Hall.

The theater is a group effort; every member of the staff of five is involved in all Youtheatre productions. The troupe has had a major impact on local teachers and kids, who might not have experience or access to traditional theater groups.

“We usher the shows. We help the kids in wheelchairs. We introduce the kids to the cast,” Seykell says. “It is amazing, [especially] when you hear teachers say things like, ‘Thank you. We don’t even have musical instruments this year.’”

And the family series, this year, is geared toward adults and kids alike.

“The general misconception is that all we do is put on shows for kids. These aren’t like Barney shows,” Wrobel says. “They are shows adults can enjoy.”

Youtheatre is located in the Millennium Centre, 15600 J. L. Hudson Dr., in Southfield. For tickets and information to the 40th anniversary party and performance of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”on Oct. 30, or for a schedule of classes and performances, call 248-557-PLAY (7529) or check

Ellen Piligian is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]