The Christian Youth Theater needs a miracle
By Taylor Shillam
Photo by Amanda Uribe
The Christian Youth Theater of North Idaho spent their last months of 2020 fighting for a solution, and the battle is far from over.
Since its doors opened in 2007, the theater has touched the lives of many blossoming students, dedicated family members and community partners. The decade has seen the North Idaho CYT grow significantly and emerge as a joyful, safe space within the community.
In 2020, with the arts community taking a hard hit from the pandemic, CYT North Idaho was no exception. Facing financial distress without the necessary support of funds from their ticketed productions, the Christian Youth Theater is fighting for the ability to keep their doors open and hang on until they can resume performances once again.
Jessica Belisle, CYT North Idaho's artistic director, emphasized the scope of the theater’s influence in community member’s lives.
“CYT is not just about theater,” shared Belisle. “CYT uses theater as a vehicle to develop character. CYT isn’t just for the kid who dreams of being on Broadway; it’s for the kid whose dad is battling cancer; the kid who struggles with mental health and positive self-worth; the kid who is bullied at school; and for the kid who struggles to find joy and community anywhere in this increasingly dark world.”
Three times a year, CYT North Idaho offers 10-week courses for kids aged 6 through 18. Small in capacity, the classes cover a variety of theater skills including drama, voice and dance. At the end of each session, students present what they’ve learned in a high-energy showcase, and have the opportunity to audition for the theater’s current Broadway-style production.
With up to four Broadway-style shows produced annually, the North Idaho CYT has put on more than 30 productions over the last decade, held onstage at the Salvation Army KROC Center. Productions like the Wizard of Oz, Seussical the Musical, Peter Pan, and more, have each featured 80 student cast members and, before the pandemic, drew hundreds of audience members.
Being a nonprofit organization, the popularity of its productions and the resulting revenue in ticket sales have been essential to sustaining the North Idaho CYT through the past 13 years.
In 2020, the theater was able to continue operating with reduced class sizes to maintain safe distancing but ceased all rehearsals and productions. Now, with the loss of income from ticket sales and very little change to the organization’s overhead costs, the program can no longer sustain.
In determination to stay afloat for as long as possible, CYT North Idaho looks to the community for support in an unpredictable, unimaginable time.
“We are very likely going to be shutting our doors,” Belisle said. “We are looking for donors amidst our community who are willing to partner with us in this last push to stay alive.”
For many, involvement in CYT has been far more than a hobby; it’s been a place of invaluable growth and connection. There is no doubt a premature end to the program would be grieved.
Nationally, Christian Youth Theater is a theater arts education program that began nearly 40 years ago in San Diego, California. With more than 38 locations in 25 cities, and 18,000 students enrolled each year, CYT has grown to be the largest children’s theater organization in the country—an organization that has been loved and welcomed by the North Idaho community.
As a whole, the CYT's mission is to “develop character and creativity in kids of all ages through quality theater arts training that brings families and communities together while reflecting the Creator.” Its core values include boosting self-esteem, encouraging academic success and supporting the family unit through the direct involvement of each family member’s talents and abilities.
“Our families are one of the best parts of our community,” Belisle said of CYT families, who cherish the theater as a vibrant space to work side by side to accomplish each production.
As a nonprofit, CYT has relied heavily on parent volunteers to donate their time and creativity to bring each theater experience to life. Each family with a child participating in CYT productions provides 20 hours to one of the theater’s various committees. Parent volunteers build sets, assemble props and create costumes. They help to publicize each production and run the concessions stands.
“The parent volunteers make the magic happen,” Belisle said.
A long-time parent and volunteer, Melissa Cleveland has been involved with CYT for five years. Her daughter Ashley was immediately hooked after attending CYT’s production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at just 4 years old.
“From the very beginning, it was such a wonderful experience for her,” Cleveland said of Ashley’s experience with CYT. “It was amazing to see her make friends, be brave on stage, and learn from the older kids.”
Cleveland fondly recalled the kindness shown to the younger children by older members of CYT, with so many stepping up as welcoming role models.
“CYT is such a safe place for kids of all abilities,” Cleveland said. “I love how inclusive and positive it is. I’ve seen kids who are painfully shy blossom on stage. I’ve seen kids who have trouble making friends at school find a place where they belong.”
Now, the Christian Youth Theater, its staff and its families are focused on keeping that safe space alive. Since the announcement of CYT’s potential closure, families have banded together to form the fundraising campaign #savecytni in a last attempt to keep the program afloat.
With testimonies flooding in and fundraising efforts at an all-time high, community awareness and support are Christian Youth Theater North Idaho’s last hope at survival.
“We have now realized how fragile a nonprofit like ours is, and we would love to find people and businesses within the community that believe in our mission,” Belisle said. “There aren’t enough reserves to survive the pandemic without holding shows. CYT needs enough to limp along until it’s safe to have live theater again.”
To help save CYT North Idaho, community members who are able are encouraged to make a donation through their website at CYTNorthIdaho.com or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fundraising progress and testimonials are regularly shared on the CYT North Idaho Facebook page; every additional post and share can make a major difference in raising awareness for the cause.
With the hard hit taken by so many in 2020, every piece of community connection counts in helping the places we love continue to flourish—and while it’s impossible to know just when theater productions will be able to safely return, it’s clear that many rely on CYT North Idaho being here when they do.
Much more than a theater program, CYT North Idaho has influenced the confidence, character and pure joy of participants, staff members, parents and theatergoers alike. Members of CYT have, time and time again, called it a positive place to shine and a huge light for families in the area. To keep that light on, the theater needs every piece of support the community can offer.