Summertime is when I most feel like a teenager. Each adolescent summer of my own has included: love, journey, music, friendship, sensitivity, power, body exploration, heartbreak, and unworldly experiences.
Homemade theatre, to me, is reminiscent of summertime. There are many specific sense memories that come with it. But despite all the bumps that are encountered on the way to building and rebuilding your own company, the strongest sense memories have the utmost positive connotations.
Everytime I enter our little space on University, it’s suddenly summer time. It’s what my boss at Berkeley Playhouse calls sparkly and it’s what I call – as my own boss in my own company – magic.
It was magic during the summer of 2014, when my house was transformed into a theatre company. The backyard suddenly became a dance studio, the living room became an actor’s workshop, the dining room became the break room, the kitchen itself, the bedroom a consulting and counseling office, and of course, the attic – the headquarters.
This theatre company is Bay Area Zeta Players — a company I originally conceived and co-founded at the age of fourteen. We began as ¨Nerdology Musical Theatre¨, a company that produced one summer musical that followed a geeky theme. Our first show was a great accomplishment: full sets, thrift chic costumes, a live band, and a family-bound cast and crew. But as I and my badass, power-blazing team members grew, the company grew too. Geeky adolescents did not define us. We enjoyed comic books, zombies, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer the same, but now we had passed through our most youthful phases and discovered what we truly loved so much about making homemade theatre — the impact it had on us and our community. Creating dynamic theatre seasons and influential programs presented itself in the foreground. We were ready to expand and become more accessible to any theatre-loving teenager.
Now we are a fully rebranded company with three exciting programs. The first program is our original, Nerdology. We continue to put on summer musicals with a pop-culture theme rather than a solely geeky theme. BAZP still thrives to put on shows rarely seen before, so as to maintain and build up the energy that comes from a crew and audience who have been waiting to participate in such a show. The second program is our 10 Minute Play Festival. The majority of our leadership team has found this our proudest accomplishment. It is the thrill of cultivating new, unknown, and vulnerable ideas ourselves rather than interpreting the work of adults. Our third program is to be implemented in our next season: a straight play. It has been something we have wanted to try for a while but were not sure we´d be ready for until we pulled off our 10 Minute Play Festival.
Our foundation is to create theatre by the next generation for the next generation. There are many platforms that provide performance training and opportunities for teens but there don’t seem to be a lot that let those teens take complete control. Why do we want that control at BAZP? We want to share our own stories. We want to be present in our community. We want to learn the hard way. We want to break barriers.
At BAZP’s core is our Board of Directors, our leadership team. With these ten hard-working theatre champions, we all take on different roles to split the power, work, and focus. This has proven very successful. Our first two seasons, we’re not super defined in terms of leadership teams (we had a group of producers) but once we jumped on a company charter and an efficient role divide we were able to manage ourselves effectively and focus on specific tracks of theatre we may set on in later life. We don’t want our company to die out once our current Board has graduated so we’ve designed a mentorship program to have younger teens and tweens, learn the ropes by attending board meetings and meeting one on one with their designated mentors.
It’s a lot of work. I can tell you that. But it’s magical work. Super f—ing magical.
This summer, I directed Heathers: the Musical, our third musical, — a show so perfect for us because it embodied the pressure and weight that teenagehood carries. My goal was to create a tight-knit ensemble to feel comfortable with each other when dealing with such heavy subject matter. Never have I seen a tighter group of people. We brought in a representative from the Alameda County Crisis Hotline to talk to us about sensitivity and suicide awareness and how respectful, open, and honest this cast was left me shaking.
The actors were so in tune with one another and found jaw-dropping chemistry through many physical and emotional exercises but sometimes just even the fact that they had grown to love one another. As a crew, we decided to speak to our own audience. We took a more West Coast take on costumes, props, and set so our audience could feel connected to the story. We made sure our cast was diverse by all meanings to represent that anyone and everyone goes through experiences like the one Heathers takes you on. We sold out four performances and had to add another because it was so popular (that sold out within two days). We had actual fan girls and recieved fan art. Audiences gave standing ovations to musical numbers alone, wept, and cheered when the excitement was too overwhelming. This was our company’s proudest moment. We worked harder than ever these past years to make a difference and here it was tangible. This was my proudest moment.
I’ve told everyone we began in an attic. Every theatre has a creation story, typically something small or endearing. We’ve got that story in the bag. But there’s something else that holds the magic of our creation and our continuing existence all together: we started this company for teenagers, by teenagers.
Every aspect of our theatre seasons – the performance, the direction, the design, and my personal favorite, the management – is done by teens. As we prepare to graduate, we will not adapt the company into the typical theatre company. The company will stay led by hell raising, rock n’ roll blasting, lazy, untrustworthy, rebellious teenagers. And with rebellion comes revolution.
Let’s talk about theatre administration for a moment. This is something foreign to many people, sometimes including those in the theatre community.
If you’re a teenager — like myself — and have been regularly observing the drama-inclined students in your school, you’re bound to notice that the majority of these students consist of girls. But I don’t know, maybe this is not the case for your school but it is definitely the majority for many schools and youth theatre programs around the nation. A possible reason for this is that more girls feel able to express themselves in an open and artistic setting because of the societal gender construct that boys must appear masculine and emotionless. There is a large assumption that all, if not most, boys involved in theatre are gay which can draw many boys away — afraid of encountering this belief. This stereotype has evolved because many LGBTQ community members are artists since creative expression allows individuals to explore their own identity.
However, as girls get older the competition increases. No longer are you attempting to win over your drama teacher for a role in the school play over twenty other auditions, you are now attempting to win over casting directions over millions of girls who graduated from high schools just like your own. With male playwrights dominating the field, many plays (especially classics such as those written in the 40s and 50s) feature mostly male leads. This creates more opportunity (although still highly competitive) for male actors. And on top of this, white actors often score leading roles over actors of color since they are seen as the default option and many young performers of color are discouraged from pursuing a career in theatre as white actors dominate the field.
So after arts education included all types of kids from all types of backgrounds, now cisgendered white male actors are scoring the roles. Up until recently, many major theatre companies did not see it necessary to expand their horizons as mostly older white men administrate theatre.
With older white men running major theatres, it is often (but not always) that they do not see a need to address diversity and ways to break down those barriers because their needs are already being addressed. This creates a cycle of standard and basic theatre seasons. But with more people who are not just diverse by gender or race but by age, perspective, background, and interest – these barriers can be broken.
This is something that the theatre community is currently transitioning into. Yale Repertory and local Bay Area theatre company, Shotgun Players, featured seasons of plays written and directed by women. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton gained instant popularity by utilizing hip hop within musicals and casting non-white actors in the roles of the founding fathers.
By making an effort to hire and create educational resources people who don’t fit the mainstream theatre persona, theatre is bringing in younger audiences, lower income audiences, and an audience of those who before dismissed theatre as stuffy and bourgeois. And in a way, it was.
Theatre can be ridiculously expensive, cater to the a-typical hero, and restrict some audience members’ cathartic moments. At a production of Berkeley Rep’s Party People, one older audience member deemed several younger audience members rude and told them to “shhhh” after they laughed and hollered to a moment in the play. Director Liesl Tommy immediately turned around and told the older woman, “No, you ‘shhhhh’”.
Restricting younger audience members from redefining what theatre is kills theatre. Plain and simple. Being an adolescent in the theatre community, I often note the generational gap. When I attend a production, I am very attune to who’s around me: mostly senior citizens. I am also very aware to what is expected of me in the theatre. Even if I’m in a very “liberal” environment, I am still held to a different standard as a teenager. If I feel the need to laugh at a part of the play in which other audience members do not find funny, I get annoyed glances. If I sit down next to an older couple with a group of friends, I notice the passive aggressive sigh that they believe we will be disruptive throughout the entire production. It seems that many (but of course, not all) older audience members are on constant alert to reprimand a teenager in the theatre. What becomes very clear is that this space does not belong to me.
But what happens when in ten or fifteen or twenty years, these theatre patrons have died and no one is left to continue patronizing these companies? That is why I make it a very clear and loud mission to redefine theatre. Time passes and with that, generations change. This generation wants something new. Something they can move to, sway with, yell at, participate in. After all, theatre was originally created in order to provide a contained environment where people could experience the most extreme of their emotions. So why not let someone laugh when they deem it appropriate? Why not let someone cry when you don’t find it sad? And most controversial, why not let someone respond to the piece? If someone wants to holler like they would in a church or at a concert, let them holler! We need to recognize that theatre is for the people – the whole mass of us.
So here’s where the Theatre Revolution begins. Among the disturbing political climate, theatre is changing for the better. More and more theatres are adopting ideas like the ones above to appeal to younger and larger audiences. New innovative ideas include theatre in unexpected places (such as parking garages, parks, etc), theatre for political change (devised pieces, documentary pieces), unconventional theatre (casting free of traditional gender, racial, age standards or purposely mixing up traditional standards), among many other exciting new game changers.
But how does this come back to my own company?
Bay Area Zeta Players attempts to further break down these barriers by providing teenagers with the resources to redefine theatre for our own. Our name, “Zeta” comes from “Generation Z” and we believe that we are the future of American theatre. By beginning to brand and administer theatre at the average age of fourteen, we’ve now faced fiscal, communal, and managerial challenges that have registered us “unbreakable”. We’ve educated ourselves to allow ourselves an upperhand on making it big in the theatre world. With the skillset we have acquired, we will be able to put ourselves in powerful positions at a younger age than most will be able to. This will give a younger age a voice in management positions be they in theatre or not. This makes for creative problem-solving and accessibility to the consumer market: audience members or whatnot.
Many theatrical educational resources does not account for the administrative side but I find this very important to include. I also find that hands-on learning can be very effective because it forces an independent problem-solving process over a series of challenges. For some, this might be independently working on a math sheet and uncovering the pattern to Pascal’s Triangle. For our company, this means taking over all aspects to theatre administration and problem-solving together as our team and peers will be most affected by the outcome. What many of our company members enjoy the most about a teen-lead company is that we can unadulteratedly (no pun intended) create our own work and bring it back into the community. It allows for a new perspective and holds out a hand to other teens who are interested in exploring their own identity and creative passion.
We recognize that we are not the “it” generation. We will not be the “best” generation. It wasn’t better “back in our day”. So we believe this company should continue to thrive in the hands of teenagers. To sustain this, our company has created a mentorship program to reach out to younger teens and continue redefining theatre in the moment.
Recently, I got a notification on my Facebook account that someone in a theatre group I follow posted about how frustrating it was to see theatre now a days because people “hoot and holler” in the middle of performances. These kinds of people — teenagers. It was pretty evident from her wording.
That’s when I remembered my proudest moment. That’s when I remembered my break down in the middle in a musical number called “Shine A Light”. It wasn’t a sad song, it was comedic. But cast, band, and crew’s energy was so in-sync, so proud that the audience was effortlessly moved. All around me were cheers as the actress leading grew more ridiculous and the ensemble with her grew more enthralled. I sobbed harder than I had in months. This is what we had worked for.
So when I saw that post something in me clicked. I could either move on or I could set this straight. I’ve got a voice. It was time to start using it. Not just with my friends or parents or theatre comrades. It was time to share my voice with complete strangers. A revolution doesn’t come without notice.
Since launching BAZP, we’ve found more and more student-run theatre companies in the Bay Area such as Grab Bag Theater in Redwood City and Upstage Theatre in Palo Alto. We’ve begun sharing costume pieces, advice, and ideas. Suddenly, I don’t feel so small any more. Suddenly, I see a big bright future for American theatre. There’s got to be more of us.
I never imagined how much this company would change my life.
I always knew that I was driven and had a future pointed towards the theatre community but I never knew that I would be taking this power into my own hands fresh out of middle school. By creating this company, I’ve opened myself up and discovered what’s best for me. My favorite definition of success is one uncovered by Arianna Huffington. Instead of measuring success by net worth or public perception, success should be determined by our own well-being, wisdom, wonder, and good giving. I have been able to determine my own success by recognizing the matter that makes me up into a happy, excited, and determined human being. And this company has been, perhaps, the most telling to that. This is not something that I build up to show off. This company is something that makes me feel at peace. Something that gives me hope and enthusiasm for what lies ahead of me. I will not burn out, my flame will just change colors.
Chloe Xtina is the co-founder and resident Artistic Director at Bay Area Zeta Players. She is a playwright, director, poet, journalist, theatre activist, and teaching artist located in Oakland and originally from Boston. She is currently 17 years old.