Arts | Eastside

Eco-Cool Theater for All: Bellevue Youth Theatre's Grand Reopening

25-year-old program is free, disability friendly and green as can be

Go green! Bellevue Youth Theatre's new space

Innovative, green, friendly to people of all abilities and from all walks of life: Bellevue Youth Theatre's new theater space, which opens with a celebration on Saturday, March 14, is a perfect new home for the 25-year-old theater, which runs affordable, high-quality programs for Bellevue's youth and senior citizens.

The facility is located adjacent to the Crossroads Community Center and is an innovative space not just because of its technology and green energy, but also because of how it furthers the theater’s inclusive mission.

James McClain, Program Director for Bellevue Youth Theatre (BYT), walked me through the theater as he explained the evolution of this unique theater group. BYT is a city program that started out as an outreach for disenfranchised youth in 1990, performing in the gym at Crossroads Community Center with a cast of 12.

The program quickly grew and performances were eventually moved into the Ivanhoe School. More rapid expansion of the theater group necessitated the construction of the current facility. Although the Ivanhoe site is still used for day camps, rehearsals and set building, all performances will now be held in the new building.

A theater that welcomes everyone

The new theater has earned a LEED rating, the second-highest rating for green buildings. Features include light trumpets in most of the ceilings, allowing natural light in and therefore decreasing electricity costs. Heating and cooling is accomplished via a geothermal field located behind the building, automatically keeping the interior a comfortable 69 degrees. A large vent in the ceiling of the theater space itself opens when needed to pull hot air up and out when the lights give off heat. Materials used in flooring and other building supplies are low VOC, making for less indoor pollution.

The structure is built into the hillside, and features a "green" roof topped with earth and grass.
The main performance area is a black-box-style theater, which means that the floor, walls and ceiling are all black to prevent light reflection. The theater is circular, with 150 moveable seats, and an almost 360-degree catwalk adds to the space.

“There isn’t a bad seat in the house,” McClain said. McClain explained that the number of seats is small because fewer seats equals more performance time for the kids. (Because of the small size, more shows are scheduled, meaning that each actor can perform multiple times.)

Behind the main stage, an automatic garage-type door opens to reveal an outdoor amphitheater that seats up to 250 people. Because of the position of the building in the hill, acoustics are improved because the noise from nearby traffic is diverted over the amphitheater. A concrete podium in the middle of the grass is fully connected to the sound and light system.

Another unique aspect is a unisex dressing room, with lighted mirrors in the center for hair and makeup while the periphery of the space is lined with dressing-room stalls. “This eliminates the question of where does a transgendered person go to change,” McClain explained.

Not only is the new building wired for safety, it is handicap accessible. The only exception is the catwalk where the sound and lights boards are located. But someone in a wheelchair can perform stage crew tasks via a remote, iPad-driven system.

The BYT staff receives regular training on how to work with people with a range of disabilities from autism to physical challenges. About 12 percent of the cast has some kind of a disability. Teens represent about 20–30 percent of the cast, while the rest are older elementary to middle school and senior citizens.

“We have people from every walk of life in the program,” McClain said. “Every cultural element of this community is reflected in our theater.”

Highlights of the upcoming season

The BYT season is year-round, with four fall, four spring and three summer performances. Auditions are held for each season, and then performers choose their show. The program is free to Bellevue residents; every person that auditions gets a part. Once each show is cast, the director of that show takes the script and rewrites it to fit the performers, allowing for any disabilities.

Shows are short, never over one and a half hours. “The shorter the show, McClain said, “the more time we have to develop the kids.”

The opening show for the season is Oblio and the Pointless Forest (running March 20–29), a story about inclusion that is based on original music and story by Harry Nilsson. Oblio will be performed by a cast of 43 young people, ranging in age from 5 to 15, and eight adults, three living with disabilities.

This cast is a part of a group of 188 kids and adults who will be taking part in the spring season, which also includes the shows Rapunzel, Once Upon a Mattress and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Every show is rated G, so parents can feel comfortable bringing in the whole family.

Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 if purchased during the week of the show. Each play has at least one $5-per-seat performance and tickets are not required for lap children.

Find out more and buy tickets at the BYT website. You can also find out about day camps and other programs.

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