The Journal Gazette
Friday, October 04, 2019 1:00 am

Youtheatre leans into humor, kindness in 'Wind in the Willows'

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Kindness will be a theme this season as Fort Wayne Youtheatre first heads to the Wild Wood this weekend.

“Wind in the Willows” was adapted by Youtheatre executive and artistic director Todd Espeland, who says it was chosen because it has really good characters and meaty roles for the cast to work with and learn from.

“I thought the great characters and dramatic action, coupled with that message of being good to others, was a nice way to begin the season,” says Espeland, who is also directing the production.

At its heart, “Willows” is about a group of friends trying to save one of their own. It is based on the 1908 Kenneth Grahame novel, which focuses on Rat, Mole, Badger and the self-destructive Toad. Though they fall apart, the friends eventually come back together to reclaim Toad Hall from the Wild Wood weasels who have taken it over.

The adaptation is close to the novel, Espeland says. One of the biggest changes is giving the weasels a leader, Fox, who becomes the unreliable narrator of the story.

Youtheatre is leaning into the comic elements of the story, with the cast playing up the satire in it. All the performers are wearing clown-style noses painted to reflect the animal they are playing.

The cast of 19 ranges in age from ages 8 to 18. It includes Abby Spoltman as Toad, Kayden Ptak as rat, Violet Park as Mole, Emma Humbarger as Badger and Amaela Bruce as Fox.

A handful of youths have also been involved behind the scenes in pre-production to prepare sets and costumes, and a couple will be running light and sound during the performances.

Youtheatre's season will follow the thread of the power and healing of kindness. Espeland says he was inspired by The Kindness Project at Charlotte Children's Theatre, which focused several of its recent shows on the power in a simple act of kindness.

Youtheatre this season will produce “Frozen Jr.” in December, “Building the Dream: MLK Jr.” in February and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in May. In addition to championing kindness, Espeland says he wanted to pick shows this season with strong literary value that would challenge the staff and give the youth the experience of playing strong characters.

Like last season, Youtheatre participants also have the opportunity to be a part of the creation of a published work.

“Willows” will be published by Theatrefolk, which also published Espeland's “Treasure Island” adaptation. That piece already has five booked performances as far away as Shanghai, China, Espeland says. The script includes a page recognizing Youtheatre, Arts United, the Indiana Arts Commission and the cast and crew from last season.

As Youtheatre works on “Willows,” Espeland says it's nice to have the opportunity to workshop the script with the cast and crew, taking input from the youth as they find things that do and don't work.

“I really believe our youth need to have a say in the process – not just be puppets – and learn to embrace their own artistic sensibilities,” he says. “When it gets published, it's not just something they were in, it's something they had a hand in creating.”

If you go

What: “Wind in the Willows”

When: 7 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. Sunday; sensory-friendly show, 4:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Arts Lab, 300 E. Main St.

Admission: $18 adults, $12 seniors and ages 18 and younger; ArtsTix Community Box Office in the Arts United Center, 424-5220 or

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