Youth Shakespeare Society spotlights local high school talent

A+performer+from+Twelfth+Night+onstage+at+a+Youth+Shakespeare+Society+of+Pittsburgh%E2%80%99s+summer+performance.

Image courtesy of John Craig, Youth Shakespeare Society of Pittsburgh

A performer from Twelfth Night onstage at a Youth Shakespeare Society of Pittsburgh’s summer performance.

By Anoushka Parnerkar, Staff Writer

Ella Mizera and Theo Fantozzi, college students who met in high school, are pushing against the narrative that reading William Shakespeare’s writing is boring by helping high schoolers perform his plays.

Mizera, a junior theater arts major at Pitt, and Fantozzi, a sophomore theater major at the University of Rhode Island, started the Youth Shakespeare Society of Pittsburgh in 2019 as high school juniors at Shaler Area High School in Pittsburgh. YSSP is an organization dedicated to youth performing Shakespeare plays.

The duo wanted their high school to branch out from its typical musical theater performances, Mizera said. 

“We just felt like there wasn’t enough opportunity in our high school. We wanted to do something more than what they were putting on, which was mostly musicals,” Mizera said. “And we also had this really deep love of Shakespeare, which not a lot of high schoolers do.”

In order to solve this problem, they created YSSP, according to Fantozzi.

“Our solution was to create what we were looking for ourselves 一 an affordable, equal opportunity for young theatremakers throughout Pittsburgh,” Fantozzi said.

Mizera said YSSP gives high school students in the Pittsburgh area an opportunity to interact with Shakespeare’s text 一 which their English teachers usually force them to read in class 一 in a new way. Since the organization’s founding, they have performed some of Shakespeare’s most notable plays, including “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth” and “Twelfth Night.” 

YSSP will add “Romeo and Juliet” to their repertoire in January, an avant-garde take on the traditional play. Rather than simply retelling the story, Sarah Ake, a junior at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania, said YSSP is doing a fantasy take on the old classic. Ake added that they are excited to perform the play from a new perspective. 

“I think that we’ve come up with such a unique concept for the show that really makes it stand out from the rest,” Ake said. “It’s not just a show, it’s an experience for the audience. If you come you’re really going to feel like you’re in Verona and not just an outside view.”

The company will perform “Romeo and Juliet” from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15 in Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall. Carnegie Music Hall is one of the biggest performance spaces in Pittsburgh, and one of the largest spaces the company has performed in, Mizera said.

In addition to acting in productions, students take leadership roles in directing, stage crew, managing sounds and lights and helping with costumes.

Ake is the assistant director and set designer for “Romeo and Juliet.” Ake said there are plenty of ways that students can get involved in YSSP, as they are still in the process of casting and organizing a stage crew.

Ake added that YSSP creates a supportive and safe environment for budding artists.

“They offer opportunities where everyone feels comfortable making mistakes and learning,” Ake said.

YSSP is completely free for the children who participate, Mizera added.

“One of the things we try and do in YSSP is lower all barriers to entry, including cost. Anyone can come in, everyone who auditions gets cast,” Mizera said. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s not restricted to people whose parents can drop them off or have money to have someone teach them.”

Students at YSSP practice in any space they can get for free, no matter how non-traditional it may seem. Mizera said the cast is currently rehearsing in a photography studio that a relative of a YSSP student owns.

“We love non-traditional rehearsal spaces and performance spaces,” Mizera said. “Right now we’re in a photography studio in the West End. A relative of someone who’s going to be in Romeo and Juliet said, ‘Hey, you could use this for free,’ and we’re like, ‘We love free things!’”

For Fantozzi, YSSP is a community where like-minded individuals can learn and thrive alongside one another.

“YSSP is about igniting passions and connecting to the theater of today through words of the past,” Fantozzi said.