COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Youth and Theater – An Interview with Young Stars Theatre’s Jack Bennett

The multi-talented Jack J. Bennett has tried his hand at nearly every aspect of show business, including stand-up comedy, live theater, and directing. Jack is also the veteran of over 100 television commercials, as well as film and television appearances in shows like Desperate Housewives, House, and The Bold and the Beautiful. In 2000, he and his wife Gloria co-founded Young Stars Theatre, specializing in live theater for youth, where he is the artistic director. Jack took time from his schedule to interview in April 2020. 

Corwin Daley, Rowan Farley, Augie Matsuura, and Victoria Field in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr. – Photo by Jack J. Bennett

When did your theater first begin? What led to its creation? What is your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?

Jack J. Bennett:  I met my wife Gloria doing Equity theater in 1996 at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. We became friends, and then I went to work for her as the office manager of her music studio. In 1997, we got hired to run a youth summer drama camp. We noticed that there were some issues working with a few of the staff, but we learned something too. We took away the idea that we could do this ourselves. We did a yearly summer drama camp for several years and started noticing how sad the kids would be at the end. They became tearful because it might not be until the next summer that they got another chance to do theater. That’s how we came up with the idea of year-round youth community theater for kids 18 and under. The Young Stars Theatre (YST) was born in 2000.  Gloria produces and directs the music, and I direct and design/build sets and handle marketing materials. Up until the summer of 2005, we continued doing summer camps in Jacksonville – even after we had moved to the LA area.

We literally knocked down a wall in Gloria’s music studio to create a small theatre space with a tiny stage that was 13.5′ wide x 8′ deep that could seat about 40. We started doing regular productions there; for a couple of years, we did around six a year. The building in Florida was sold, and the new landlords asked for debilitating rent increases. We were forced to shut the Florida program in 2002 (except for the summer camps). After moving to the LA area in 2005, we reopened YST. Starting in 2016, we moved into our permanent space at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. Although we still mostly do eight youth productions a year, we do at least one show a year with adult performers. We almost always have a youth cast for those productions as well.

Kurt Koehler, Tara Cox, Aidan Martin, and Eadan Franklynn in “Bye Bye Birdie” – Photo by Jack J. Bennett

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

JJB: We made the decision on March 11 and closed on March 12, right after hearing that the NBA was shutting down. We were right in the middle of our run of Seussical Jr. We had already performed for two weekends and had two more weekends (eight shows) to go. Audiences were already very low, as the coronavirus news was already making people wary.  A big moment was when one of our actors commented, “I’m not worried about the virus, but I don’t want to catch it and take it home to my grandma.” That was a real wake-up call.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JJB: As with any small theater, our margin is razor thin. Losing two weeks, which was really four weeks since the first two weekends were not well attended, meant that the loss of ticket sales was financially crushing. Largely thanks to some donations and purchases of gift certificates, we were able to pay our lease for April.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditions? Fundraising? 

JJB: We were in the middle of rehearsals for our next show, The Wizard of Oz.  My wife has been using ZOOM for years, both for virtual lessons (she is a voice teacher) and for meetings for a side business. Because of that, we translated almost immediately to ZOOM rehearsals. Virtual rehearsals have actually gone quite well. Of course, there are challenges trying to communicate movement and spatial relationship in a virtual environment. Besides, having everyone sing a group song is impossible in the traditional sense. But I think we have come up with some viable workarounds for the time being. We are also continuing our improv classes online for our youth membership company.

Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett in “Sweeney Todd” – Photo by Marie Lafranque

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

JJB: I truly hope we can get back to business more or less as usual; but right now, it’s impossible to see. Even when theaters reopen, some questions remain. Will audiences be okay with coming back? Will they have income to spend on theater? I’m actually more concerned about the economic effects going forward than anything else. We were somewhat fortunate to have recently come off a very successful run, so we had a tiny buffer – but not everyone does. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid there are going to be a lot of theaters that close permanently because of this. That really makes me sad.

Brayden Nguyen, Ella Dan, and Carolyn Mottern in “Elf Jr.” – Photo by Terre Marriott

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JJB: It’s pretty simple: money. Bills are not susceptible to the virus. We’ve applied for different programs and loans, but we have no idea whether we’ll see a dollar of that. If you have a favorite theater where you love to go, you need to support them financially right now. Donate, buy gift cards, help with fundraisers, anything you can do that helps them keep paying their bills when they have almost no income right now. If you don’t, they might not be around later.

What are some of your future plans?

JJB: We are still planning to complete the run of Seussical Jr, put The Wizard of Oz on stage right after that, and then start our summer camps. Fingers crossed.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.