The kids are alright

Upstage Theater gives teens creative control

In the words of the old maxim, if you want something done right, do it yourself. Local teens have taken that credo to heart by forming Upstage Theater, an independent company that allows teens to take charge of all aspects of theater production.

Julianna Garber, now a high school junior at The Nueva School in San Mateo, has been involved in theater from a young age, including through Peninsula Youth Theatre (PYT) and at school. As a freshman, she decided she wanted to try her hand at directing and producing.

“I was enjoying the programs but realized I really wanted to branch out to creating a show rather than just being involved with the acting,” she said. Initially planning an in-school project, she and her likeminded peers decided that in order to have complete creative control and managerial responsibility, they’d need to step out of the educational establishment and go fully independent.

“In order to make this concept work and really have a place where students could be the sole creators, we needed to create something all its own, so we decided to go out and stage our own production,” she said. They went to Samuel French, Inc., to obtain the performance rights to the dark comedy “Heathers: The Musical,” booked space at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts and eventually decided to not only mount that production but also form an entire theater company. Thus, Upstage Theater was born.

“Upstage served as the mechanism by which we were able to be taken seriously,” Garber said. “We’ve occasionally been underestimated in our ability because we’re teens. People say, ‘You know how to do that?’ Yeah, yeah I do,” she said. “We’ve gone through an entire entrepreneurial process, creating something we didn’t know could be a thing until we created it.”

The company is founded upon “three main pillars,” she explained. Its productions are put on completely by teenagers; the shows chosen are works that are relevant to teens/about the teenage experience; and anyone can participate in productions without any cost to them.

“We are dedicated to creating safe spaces to examine what it means to be a teenager through material written by or about teens that they would typically be unable to participate in in a school or community theater,” Upstage’s online mission statement reads.

“Heathers,” the initial production, staged in May of this year, was financially supported by an online crowdfunding campaign, which allowed the purchase of the rights. Garber approached the leadership committee of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, with which she was already familiar thanks to her work with PYT, and asked for a fee waiver to rent its black-box second-stage space. The show, which had a cast of 16 and a crew of six, plus two stage managers and and a director, was a success, with most performances sold out.

Proceeds from that first production were enough to fund the next one (with extra money coming in as donations and additional crowdfunding). Upstage’s second production, the play “Punk Rock,” opens in Mountain View at the end of the month.

Written by Simon Stephens, “Punk Rock” tells the story of eight British teenagers in an elite prep school as they prepare to face the end of their childhood, mock A-Level examinations and the uncertainty of the future.

The play resonates strongly with Garber and her Upstage colleagues.

“It’s a vulnerable display of what it’s like at this time of life,” she said. “This show very much displays the realities of high school, the things that everyone goes through and everyone hates going through.”

Garber first read and fell in love with the play in 2014, and seeing it performed in San Francisco convinced her she needed to work on a version of her own. The eight-member cast has been working on its English accents and enjoying learning new slang terms. More importantly, the “stripped down” play says something “real and true about life,” she said. (Next up, in the spring, will be the popular and sometimes-controversial musical “Spring Awakening.”)

Because none of the Upstage team is over 18, legal challenges can arise. Garber’s parent, a lawyer, helps with signing contracts when necessary. Otherwise, though, the teens do it all, from costuming and set design to scheduling auditions and rehearsals.

Most of Upstage’s outreach is through word of mouth and online networking, with participants coming from all over the Bay Area (rehearsals take place in a rented classroom in San Bruno). Auditions are held seasonally, and people interested in working on design or in tech, for example, can fill out an application on Upstage’s website.

“Teens are always on social media. We now have a network of teens who all go to different schools, from Livermore to San Francisco to San Jose, all coming together,” she said.

Jessa Mellea of Los Altos, another Nueva School student, has been involved with Upstage since last autumn, and has worked in a number of theatrical capacities. She’s currently serving as stage manager -- coordinating meetings, taking blocking notes, working with both cast and crew, calling cues and basically running the show -- which she said suits her affinity for working on many aspects of a production.

“I really love seeing all the different parts of the process. They all come together in stage managing,” she said. She’s had experience learning the trade while involved with other youth-theater organizations and at her previously school managed a large middle-school production.

“I’ve been learning as I go,” she said. “I love doing theater so much and it’s fun to be able to help create a space for people to do that.”

Both Garber and Mellea say they plan to study theater in college and hope to work in the field professionally. But they also have plans for Upstage to continue on after them. They’re training other teens as assistant directors and stage managers with the goal of the company expanding and carrying on into the future.

‘We really want to be able to pass it down to kids who have these same ideas and wants that we had,” Garber said. “Part of our program is that we want to train the people coming and learning about these different things so that they can then help younger kids and pass it on to them.”

What: “Punk Rock”

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (second stage), 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Oct. 28-30 at 7:30 p.m., plus Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.

Cost: $17, $22 adults

Info: Go to Upstage Theater

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