The Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, built in 1910, is a rustic theater with 328 old-fashioned seats and high wooden beams. It’s not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to see a spirited performance from a troupe of teens, but that’s what happens there.
Jennifer Boesing is artistic director of the Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC). “There is something about the combination of theater and live music that is really thrilling to young people,” she says. “They’re experiencing what it is to be in a professional production without actually being a professional production.”
Not yet, anyway.
The YMTC is passionate about the learning experience it offers. They demand excellence. They audition students all over the Bay Area and train them as they work with them.
The troupe’s current performance is an epic American story: Ragtime. It’s about an upper-class housewife who yearns for excitement, a Jewish immigrant struggling against poverty, and a Harlem musician wooing the mother of his child.
Some have wondered why the directors at the YMTC chose this particular story. They’ve asked Boesing why she selected such “intense material” for children. The answer, Boesing says, is because the kids say that they are ready for it.
Luna Lewis, a 15-year-old actress from Berkeley, plays Sarah, an African-American washwoman working in a white neighborhood. Lewis says she identifies with this character because she has built-up energy.
For Lewis, as for the other young performers, the company provides a real challenge and real fulfillment. Artistic director Jennifer Boesing says even the mature subject matter resonates with the real world. Many of the young actors say the play reminds them of the present-day Occupy movement.
Luna Lewis says that this show reaches out to all groups: to women, to African Americans, to immigrants, and even to people who don’t necessarily feel like they have a place.
It’s a perspective conveyed in Ragtime, with depth and meaning, by a new generation. It’s part of the purpose of the Youth Musical Theater Company, many of whose graduates go on to study the arts at conservatories around the world, adding to a century old tradition in a little wooden theater in Berkeley.
Ragtime is running from Thursday February 16 to Saturday February 18 at the Julia Morgan Theater.