On Aug. 13, 2018, Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) of Flint, Mich. announced that it was changing its name to Flint Repertory Theatre, or “The Rep” for short. This was more than just a change of signage, as it would also mark a major transition in programming for the 60-plus-year-old theatre. Flint Youth Theatre, which had offered a wide variety of youth-centered programs since 1957, was changing its mission and expanding to include more adult-focused programming. New youth initiatives and long-standing FYT programs for young audiences would continue as a part of the Rep’s education department, though the number of mainstage shows for young audiences would be reduced.
At a season announcement party the Rep held one week later, not everyone was celebrating. A group of students protested the event, angry about the rebranding and concerned about what the implications would mean for their participation at the Rep. “It’s kind of like watching your youth home get torn down while you’re still in it,” said one 14-year-old protestor.
From the theatre’s perspective, these changes are additions rather than subtractions, and will ultimately help the Rep better serve kids as well as other audiences. But for a contingent of students, parents, and alumni, the rebranding means that one of the few spaces local kids could call their own is now gone. With a city-wide poverty rate higher than 40 percent, a teacher shortage in the Flint School District, and an ongoing water crisis, it’s no wonder that the stakes seem so high when it comes to kids’ relationship with the Rep.
The theatre’s programming changes are multi-pronged. The 2018-19 season has offered a Signature Series of five productions geared toward adult and teen audiences, including the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, The Wolves by Pulitzer finalist Sarah DeLappe, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and two world premieres. The season also offers a Theatre for Young Audiences Series of two productions: an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince and the world premiere of the CollaborationTown’s Riddle of the Trilobites, while last season offered five productions for young audiences. New programs for youth include a writer’s group, an improv group, a school tour, and a Young Playwrights Festival. The theatre is also adding college apprenticeships, artistic fellowships, and adult classes, while maintaining weekday performances for school groups and year-round theatre classes for grades Pre-K through 12.
According to producing artistic director Michael Lluberes, who’s led the theatre since 2017, these changes allow the Rep to serve a wider community and create richer opportunities for young people.
“We wanted to be in dialogue with the entire community and to create more opportunities for a broader range of artists and audiences,” Lluberes says. “We’re not taking anything away from anybody. I’m so passionate about theatre for young people…We’re offering more free workshops, more tuition assistance for classes, more opportunities for young people. We truly believe that a professional, thriving theatre can do wonderful things for the entire community.”
For the opponents of the rebranding, however, these new opportunities don’t replace what they believe has been lost. “Flint has numerous adult-oriented theatres: the New McCree, the Flint Community Players, Clio Cast and Crew…FYT was unique in that all of their programming, including five-or-so signature series productions (staged by the theatre) and touring productions, was youth-oriented,” says Connor Coyne, a Flint resident whose affiliation with the theatre includes participating as a student in the 1990s, working on three past shows as a guest artist consultant, and sending his daughter to classes at the theatre since 2010. “The theatre was a safe and stable home to friends of mine who lived in abusive homes, or were even homeless…I am not exaggerating when I say that I know people whose lives were saved by Flint Youth Theatre. And that life-or-death difference was only possible because the staff and faculty were proud to serve in an organization entirely devoted to Flint and Genesee [County] youth.”
Sarah Sullivan, an alum from the 2000s and co-founder and artistic director of Rising Youth Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., believes that the move from specifically serving kids to serving “everyone” can leave kids without the resources they need. “They’re saying that these changes are a natural step forward, but that assumes an equitable world where young people are valued at an equal level, and spaces that center them are a given, and that’s not our world,” Sullivan says. “It’s reallocating funding, rehearsal space, and all of those other logistical things.”
For his part Lluberes cites the new initiatives the Rep is offering young people, including the opportunity to create student-driven work. Through the writer’s group and school tour, kids will write and direct their own plays, which will tour to schools and have performances at the Rep. Students will also be able to audition for mainstage productions at the Rep that call for young actors.
“If we’re expanding the professional side and adding things for adults, what can we do to give kids a really valuable experience? I think it’s not just acting opportunities, but really developing young theatre artists, giving them more comprehensive opportunities so that they can do more things in the theatre,” he says.
Teaching artist Bret Beaudry, who’s been involved with the theatre since he was 11, also emphasizes the theatre’s continued commitment to education. “As a former student, now instructor and artistic associate, I’ve seen Flint Youth Theatre go through many different phases,” he says. “But I think at its core FYT has always been an educational opportunity for young people to learn many different forms of theatre…Flint Youth Theatre has maintained much of what it was, while providing a wider variety of opportunities.” Beaudry’s family also has close ties to the Rep, as he met his wife there and his daughter takes classes at the theatre. “It’s very much home to us,” he says.
One sticking point for opponents of the theatre’s rebranding is whether kids will have the same opportunities to perform in mainstage productions. “I spent five nights a week [at the theatre] for several hours a night all year long,” says Lani Lerner, an alum from the 2000s. “The professional actors who worked beside us were mentors to me and the other students, but I never felt lesser than them because we were all equally important in achieving a common goal. We took ourselves seriously because the adults took us seriously.” This season’s production of The Little Prince, which had one child in a cast of four, is the only production so far this season to include any young performers, compared to last season, which included several shows with roles for children.
Lluberes notes that since he has been artistic director the theatre has had a mix of all youth casts, half youth/half adult casts, and all adult casts, naming last season’s productions of The Adventures of Robin Hood and Balloonacy, which did not include young performers. “Casting since I’ve been here has been show-dependent, and depended on the director and what their vision was, what they were interested in exploring,” he says. He also points out that while there are other theatres in the area, the Rep is Flint’s only professional theatre, which creates additional challenges when casting kids and adults in shows together. Concerns about mainstage opportunities for young performers have been voiced in prior years as well, before Lluberes’s arrival, suggesting that casting has always been a tricky issue for the theatre.
Opponents of the rebranding are also frustrated by what they perceive as the theatre’s reluctance to engage in community dialogue about the name change. Six days before the rebranding went public, Genesee County voters passed a 10-year arts millage that in its first year alone would provide $1.8 million to Flint Institute of Music (FIM), of which the Rep is a resident organization. “Voters were not made aware of the programming and name changes at the time of the vote,” says Coyne, “The utter lack of community feedback was a betrayal of trust that I don’t see many of us (parents, students, or alumns) getting over for years and years, if at all.” Sullivan says that she tried to reach out to the Rep’s leadership after the rebranding was announced, and didn’t feel that she was taken seriously. “I had sent some emails to the artistic director and to some board members asking about the decision, and I felt that my concerns were very much dismissed as not real concerns,” she says.
The timing notwithstanding, FIM President and CEO Rodney Lontine has said that the the Rep’s roll-out was not connected to the vote, and Lluberes maintains that the decision was not made in a vacuum. “We consulted with experts, artists, community members, and our board and made the decision to take the leap,” he says. Pete Hutchison, the head of the Rep’s advisory board and parent to a former FYT student, points out that the funding from the millage will still go towards youth programming, regardless of the name change. “The countywide millage for the arts provides access to [new youth initiatives] as well as all of our education programs to the youth of Flint and Genesee County regardless of their income level,” he says.
For many, though, Flint Youth Theatre was such a life-changing institution precisely because it was a kid-centered organization. “FYT was a sacred space in a city where at times nothing seemed sacred. It literally saved my life. Both my mental health and my physical safety,” says Lerner. “FYT gave hundreds of teenagers—many like myself, who were high-risk kids—the opportunity to critically think about social justice issues, to carry themselves as professionals and to perform their art as and around professionals.”
Despite the strong feelings that the rebranding has evoked, opponents of the name change are also looking for ways to move forward with the Rep. Current students have started a Change.org petition to encourage the theatre to cast more young people in mainstage productions. It currently has more than 800 signatures, and includes an acknowledgement that some of the changes at the theatre have been positive. Coyne suggests that the theatre could hold public meetings about how their programming could best serve local youth.
“If they held such meetings, and responded affirmatively and proactively to the desires of the community that sustained them for 60-plus years, it would go a long way toward regaining trust,” he says. Adds Sullivan, “If there is a visible way to prioritize young people in the work that they are doing, that could make a difference.”
Regardless of where one falls on the issue of the Rep, one thing is clear: the children of Flint need a place where they can feel safe, find community, and being taken seriously as artists. Hopefully the Rep will continue to serve kids in that capacity as well as Flint Youth Theatre did.