Katie_SelphThe following blog post was written by Katie Selph, currently the Communications Intern at the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She is a recent graduate from the University of Arizona with a degree in Creative Writing.

Earlier this summer, a daring theatre company delivered their particular brand of youth-centered theatre to the masses in a manner (and a venue) you might not expect.

Rising Youth Theatre debuted their latest project, “View from the Tracks: The Light Rail Plays,” during the weekend of June 6-8 on the light rail trains that run along Phoenix’s Central Avenue and at the light rail stops at Roosevelt and Camelback.

A train arriving at a Light Rail Plays Performance. Photo by MiracleMakingMedia 2014

Co-founded by Sarah Sullivan and Xanthia Walker in 2011, Rising Youth Theatre (RYT) creates original work through collaborations between professional artists and young people. Unlike many youth theatres, RYT invites young people to tell their own stories, rooted in their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. This latest project involved eight young performers, each working with an adult partner to develop and perform a short play. Opening up dialogues between young and old brought greater depth to the plays. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of everyone involved in the project created an environment of discovery and exploration.

The project was one of ten innovative, arts-based ventures pitched to a live audience and an expert panel at the Arizona Art Tank: West event held this past January in Peoria. Against stiff competition, the RYT team received the evening’s top award of $10,000.

Sullivan and Walker have firm goals in mind for the work they do. “We want young people to feel as though they are a part of the conversation and that their voice is relevant in defining the cultural experience in Phoenix,” Sullivan told the Arts Commission in the theatre company’s final report on the project. “We want everyone – whether they are typical theatre goers or not – to feel that theatre is for them.”


A performance of “The Blue String of Destination” by Julie Rada and Bridget Marlowe. Photo by MiracleMakingMedia 2014.

Creating and implementing this event was a complex task with collaboration from many different teams. RYT worked closely with Valley Metro in order to realize the project. Each of the eight partnerships wrote their own pieces with input from designers. Exploring the movement of life in Phoenix, the actors told unique stories from their own perspectives on life as they see and experience it. Carrying this theme forward, the plays were moved to the light rail, which itself moves through Phoenix, carrying people of widely varying backgrounds and experiences. The light rail served as a point of intersection, where those with their own stories to tell were witnessing actors express themselves through plays they created.

No two plays were alike. The pieces represented an array of styles, structures, themes and content, reflecting the diverse partnerships involved.

A performance of "1861" one of the Light Rail Plays by Liz Polen and Monica Essig-Aberg

A performance of “1861” one of the Light Rail Plays by Liz Polen and Monica Essig-Aberg

Around 200 people signed up ahead of time to view the plays, while at least another 600 people ended up being unwitting audience members the moment they boarded the train or walked up to the light rail stop. Signs posted on the light rail made it clear to riders what was happening, minimizing confusion and interference from audience members. The trains were busier than normal, due to First Friday and Phoenix Comicon, so the actors, faced with a larger than expected audience, had to adapt their performances in the moment to accommodate the additional crowding and noise.

Reflecting on their venture, Sullivan and Walker are proud of its outcomes. “We brought all kinds of people together to experience art in a non-traditional art setting. As a public art experience this was successful because people could experience the art intentionally or not, and immediately become a part of something.”

The work of Rising Youth Theatre is bringing an exciting new edge to theatre for youth in Phoenix and with The Light Rail Plays, they have truly embodied the spirit of artistic innovation the Arts Commission hopes to promote through the Arizona Art Tank funding initiative.

We are now accepting applications for Arizona Art Tank 2015. If you’re ready to take make a strategic departure from business as usual, to try something that’s never been attempted, to reach out to a new sector in an innovative fashion, then you might be ready for Arizona Art Tank. Click here to learn more.

To learn more about Rising Youth Theatre, click here to visit their website.