Pennsylvania Youth Theatre

Pennsylvania Youth Theatre

The phrase “Pennsylvania Youth Theatre” might prompt mental images of ramshackle sets, homemade costumes, and a cast of awkward kids stumbling around on stage.

But you’d be absolutely wrong on all counts.

PYT is actually a regional performing-arts school. Thousands of children have studied drama, music and dance during its 30-year history and – with help from professional actors, directors, costumers and other technicians – showcased their skills in live performances.

The school traces its roots to the efforts of 11-year-old Madeleine Ramsey. Already trained in dance, drama and piano, Ramsey began sharing her knowledge with other neighborhood children. And the adult Ramsey incorporated theatrical elements into her English lessons at East Hills middle school. But in 1985, she left that post to found PYT.

“The first classes were held in church basements,” recalled artistic director Jill Dunn Jones. “Eventually, the school relocated to a building on Broad Street, and settled into leased studio and office space at the Banana Factory in 1997.”

“We want our students to have a positive experience, and to become positive members of their communities. I think that’s the best gift you can give a child.” – Valerie Reinhardt

It started small, with about 75 students. But PYT grew quickly; in 1988 (when Jones herself attended) enrollment was around 200. Typically, there are now between 350-400 students in a year. Most enrollees come from Lehigh and Northampton counties, but some also come from Carbon, Berks, Schuylkill and other counties, even from New Jersey.



PYT has four full-time and three part-time staffers, and has 11 faculty members. Its funding sources range from local/national grants, scholarships to support from local companies and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Managing director Valerie Reinhardt stressed that the Youth Theater is an independent organization. “Many people think we’re part of ArtsQuest, and receive funding from them. We don’t. We just lease space in the Banana Factory,” she said.



“Parents often ask us ‘how many of you’ students became stars?’, but that’s not what we’re about. We want our students to have a positive experience, and to become positive members of their communities. I think that’s the best gift you can give a child,” Reinhardt said.

PYT’s welcoming attitude helps forge long-lasting bonds. Graduates often stay in touch with each other long after they leave the school. “Many students call it ‘the family,’ because they find a home there,” added Dunn. “They can be their authentic selves in our space, and feel valued and important.”



The school’s three divisions – drama, dance and voice – mix instruction with action; after learning a principle, students immediately put it into practice.

Beginning drama students focus on voice, body movement and the use of imagination for two hours per session. High school students hone their existing skills through two hours of acting instruction.

Voice students spend an hour developing techniques for breathing, projection, enunciation and more. A new, but very popular, option provides 30 minutes of vocal studies and 30 minutes of piano.

Dancers combine general techniques, choreography and physical conditioning, with separate classes in jazz, tap, hip-hop and other genres.



Many PYT productions are literature-based, and the school welcomes entire scholastic classes to attend. In fact, “Our outreach program for schools is called ‘Curtain’s Up on Reading,’ and we use a lot of creativity in telling the stories,” said Dunn. “We might use puppets, play charades, even come up with a new beginning or ending!”

PYT’s outreach coordinator enriches the experience with study guides, as well as worksheets, coloring pages, activities and other materials for those teachers, all based on the
performance’s content.

As an alternative, PYT sometimes presents an abbreviated production, followed by an audience Q&A session with the director or cast members; on-site after-school programs (sort of like “mini classes”) are also available.

“Places, everyone! Places!”

Theater productions don’t just spring up like mushrooms; there’s a lot of grueling work before the curtain rises. And Pennsylvania Youth Theater is no different.

“This is not an after-school club,” Reinhardt said. “We spend hundreds of hours on rehearsals – at least three hours per day, six days a week, for three months.”

She added that every show is “double-cast,” so one troupe can sit in the audience and watch as the other cast performs. The child actors are granted some creative freedom, so a performance by cast “A” will not be exactly the same as that of cast “B.”

PYT brings in professional adults for certain roles, as well as to oversee designs, costumes, lighting, music and other technical aspects.

Community volunteers do much of the pre-production work and they are key assets. “I can’t say enough about our volunteers,” Reinhart added. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them!”



If you’d like to see the Pennsylvania Youth Theater in action, two outstanding Mainstage opportunities are in the wings.

“A Christmas Carol: the Musical” runs from December 4 through December 13 at the ICE HOUSE in Bethlehem. The classic Dickens story is retold through songs composed by multiple-Oscar winner Alan Menken and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Mike Ockrent and Ahrens.

And PYT will recall its first-ever production by restaging L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” featuring the original songs by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. This edition, adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, runs May 13-22, 2016 at Zoellner’s Diamond Theater – a new venue for the school.

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