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How Firebird Youth Theater is really taking off this season
At 13, most adolescents are busy starting social media accounts. Not Leo Lion: He was busy starting his own theatre company. Now 16-years old, the homeschooled Renaissance man (actor, filmmaker, playwright, and artist) founded the all-teen Firebird Youth Theater in 2013 so he could hone his directing skills while offering his multi-talented peers an opportunity to get involved in professional-grade productions. Though Lion chooses his words carefully (unsurprisingly, he's articulate beyond his years), he makes it clear that Firebird's annual shows are not "school plays." They're original, full-length pieces mounted in a legit off-Off Broadway house, with children ages 11 to 18 taking care of almost all duties, both onstage (performing, directing, designing) and off (stage managing, fundraising, publicizing).
Firebird's 2015 adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the Roy Arias Theatre Stage II earned the company a trio of National Youth Arts awards and inspired Lion and his cohorts to take their work to the next level. This week (May 5-8), the troupe premieres its rollicking take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure Treasure Island in the much-larger Roy Arias 777 Theatre (150 seats as opposed to 55). In addition, it's the first of two planned productions this year (an as-yet-to-be-determined fall show is in the works).
If the pressure is getting to Lion, he doesn't let it show. In fact, when we chatted about Firebird's soaring trajectory, he sounded positively giddy, especially at the prospect of getting a new crop of young people involved with the troupe.
TDF Stages: What inspired you to start Firebird?
Leo Lion: I found that there was a vacuum in my community of theatre work for young people. For a long time I had wanted to try my hand at directing, but I didn't have the right access and resources to do it. I had been working on other projects. I started a small movie studio for kids when I was 10. And I had been working with a community theatre called Different Directions, which had just closed down. [For the record, Different Directions still offers acting and many other creative classes for kids, but no longer mounts shows.] The founder, Rita-Jo Houston, said to all of us teens that she hoped we would continue creating projects for ourselves, to do the work that she'd been doing for us. That's why we're called Firebird: We're like a phoenix rising from the ashes of our previous work. It was a great experience getting it all together, pulling together these connections I had formed over the past couple of years.TDF Stages: While there's plenty of theatre for young audiences in NYC (like the New Victory Theater, Trusty Sidekick, and Atlantic for Kids, to name some favorites), there really don't seem to be many opportunities for kids and teens to actually do theatre as opposed to see it, save for audition-only programs like TADA! Youth Theater and Kidz Theater.
Lion: Yes, I think there's definitely a lack of access for kids who don't go to specialized performing arts schools. A lot of schools don't have theatre departments at all. In a city that has such a rich theatre culture, it's such a shame that it's very difficult to find good opportunities for young people to work in it.
TDF Stages: Treasure Island is your second literary adaptation in a row after Alice. I assume part of the attraction is being able to adapt public domain work, so no need to license a script. However, I'm sure there are artistic reasons, too?
Lion: It's important to me to have the roots of a production be in something that's established, so we can aim to find something new in it. Treasure Island is so much a youth story: coming-of-age, loss of innocence, and working through the struggles of adolescence, all against the backdrop of this crazy adventure. It's just something that resonates very strongly for young people. After looking over the book, I knew what I would need to tell the story, so I called upon the people I needed in order to put it together, to make sure they were available. Then it was just a matter of putting words on paper [Lion both adapted the book and directs], and getting everyone in the room.
TDF Stages: Although Firebird is solely made up of tweens and teens, your shows wouldn't necessarily be categorized as children's theatre. What kind of audience are you hoping to attract to Treasure Island?
Lion: All ages! It's two hours including one intermission, and our official age advisory is 7 and up, but that's open to interpretation. If you have young kids who are okay with watching people fight, they'll love it. It's a timeless story and the talented young people working on this project blow me away. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. We're working in the Theatre District, which is an amazing place to be at our age. It's important to us that we think of ourselves as professional theatre makers. Not to discredit the work other people are doing, but it's not just a "school play" production. That's not what we're going for. We want to be where the adults who are rehearsing a few blocks away from us are.
TDF Stages: Does Firebird have a set company of participants, or can any NYC kids or teens get involved? And is there a fee like some other youth theatre programs?
Lion: A lot of the people are vets who've been with us since the beginning, with a few people we've met along the way. Essentially, all the kids we've worked with have been homeschooled. The hope is that we will open it up to others and try to make it more accessible to kids who aren't homeschooled with rehearsals that are outside of normal school hours. We don't pay our actors and designers, but we don't charge tuition, either. Basically our rehearsal studio and theatre rentals are paid from the box office of the previous production, online fundraising campaigns, and special events. Like we recently did a Pirate Dance Party to raise money for Treasure Island. Everyone is involved in some capacity in the fundraising process.
TDF Stages: I hate to point out the obvious but, at some point in the not-too-distant future, you and your collaborators will be full-fledged grown-ups. Since Firebird is, by its own definition, a theatre company for teens, what happens then?
Lion: That's always been a big question for me. I know I want to keep working in theatre with young people because I think it's one of the greatest things you can do for the world. I think it's important to give young people this outlet. But as I get older, it's possible that I will end up passing on the company to one of these miraculous young people I've been working with…but for now, that's a weird fever dream for me. I don't know quite where it goes from there.
If you're a kid or teen who's interested in getting involved with Firebird Youth Theater, the troupe encourages you to come see Treasure Island this week, and then send an email to email@example.com detailing your previous theatre experience and whether you're interested in an onstage or behind-the-scenes role.
Photos by Katherine Bourbeau. Top image: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
TDF MEMBERS: Tickets to Treasure Island are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program.