The curtains rise and actors step onto the stage, ready to begin their performance of ‘Falsettos’ for Upstage Theater. As the actors begin, the audience may not realize that every set change, lighting effect, costume or even the staging of the actors was planned, created and perfected by a group of teenagers; only two adults are involved in day-to-day operations.
Upstage Theater is an independent teen-run theater company open to all teenagers in the Bay Area, with a vision of making every aspect of theater more accessible and relevant to students. The theater company has no participation fees.
Founded in 2015 by Nueva School graduate and University of Michigan Class of 2022 student Julianna Garber, who is now a board member, Upstage is now on its eighth season. After all that time, teenagers are still at the forefront, from pitching and directing shows to costuming and managing sound and lights.
Garber’s parents are the only adults who assist Upstage, with things that minors cannot do — like managing finances and registering as a nonprofit — but everything else is handled by students, said Val Zvinyatskovsky, a junior at the School for Independent Learners and this season’s artistic director. As artistic director, he is at the head of Upstage, choosing productions for each season. Margot Johnsen, a senior at Los Altos High School, said that the freedom she’s found at Upstage is unique.
“[Upstage] really gives us, as young people, a lot of creative control, more so than is found in traditional youth theater,” Johnsen said.
Through Upstage, Johnsen has been able to act in, choreograph, costume design and direct shows. She pitched the show “Lilacs in the Rain” to Zvinyatskovsky, and the show was selected for their season. As director, Johnsen was able to help her vision for the show come to life.
“Upstage makes it very easy to apply to direct your own shows,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “You come in with a vision, … you lay out the basic plans for your vision and then it’s the artistic director’s job to explore that vision more with you.”
Upstage makes a conscious effort to choose shows that teenagers are able to bring a new perspective to.
“We try to put on shows that are about teenagers or deal with topics that are relevant to what we think is important,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen said that this can include venturing into theatrical territory that teenagers don’t usually get to explore.
“Part of our mission is to put on shows that schools or community theater would shy away from, especially with teens,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “We had ‘Heathers’, … ‘Punk Rock’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Dog Sees God’, ‘Spring Awakening.’ These are all incredibly dark, mature titles. That … take[s] a specific group of people to handle correctly.”
Since those topics are not often covered by teens, Zvinyatskovsky said that directors must be attentive to the way students will be perceived. For example, Zvinyatskovsky noted ‘Falsettos,’ a show that centers around gay experiences, gender roles and identity. Upstage performed the show in March 2022.
“Most of the cast of characters are middle aged adults, and we are not,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “Trying to convey those characters meant something completely different. And one of the things we have to accept is we are going to show people these characters and they’re going to view them with a fresh perspective.”
Upstage provides opportunities for bonding among the cast during rehearsals, said Tessa Prodromou, Los Altos High School junior and Upstage actor. Prodromou said the tight-knit nature of the cast makes Upstage a fun, comfortable environment for theater.
“[Upstage] directors tend to be more approachable because they’re … closer to people’s age,” Prodromou said. “I feel a little bit more comfortable trying new things because I’m surrounded by people that I know care about me and trust me and support me.”
This sense of comfort is amplified by Upstage’s relaxed and flexible nature, Prodromou said. The team at Upstage is willing to work around the schedule of everyone involved in a production, Prodromou said.
The company also lacks a defined rehearsal space; in fact, they often rehearse in a cast or crew member’s backyard to make the location convenient for everyone involved. Upstage is self-made, but that’s what makes it special, Johnsen said.
“A lot of [Upstage] comes from people pitching in what they have, people willing to be helpful and it’s sort of that scrappy mentality that can bring together … nearly professional quality theater,” Johnsen said.
Zvinyatskovsky said that Upstage strives to show the world of theater that teenagers are capable of impacting an audience.
“If any of us need anything right now, it’s to be transported somewhere other than the world we currently live in, to find a little window to escape,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “And that is what we do.”
Tuesday, Jan. 17: A previous version of this story attributed incorrect pronouns to a source. That individual’s pronouns have been corrected.