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Young Actors Theatre Welcomes Tallahassee Audiences, Says Goodbye To Founder

Men and women in comfortable clothing dancing on a checkerboard stage. Piano in the foreground.
Gina Jordan
The Pink Ladies and T-Birds work on staging during early rehearsals for Grease. They’ll don pink satin jackets and leather jackets for the show that opens this Friday.

It’s the 46th season of Young Actors Theatre. YAT, as it’s known, has been a Tallahassee institution since 1975. Now, the founder is taking the helm for her final show as executive director.

If you’ve been down Glenview Drive in midtown, you’ve likely noticed the big pink building. We wanted to build a little New York theater; a little off Broadway house was our thought, and that's what we did,” says founder Tina Williams. “We ended up having 215 seats, and it's perfect for youth theater because everyone is close.”

What began as Tallahassee Children’s Theatre - with classes in the director’s home and only word of mouth advertising – soon morphed into a full blown school and theatre for hundreds of students enrolled annually.

Audiences are returning this summer after a pandemic-forced hiatus. The theatre was one week away from the opening of Matilda when everything stopped. In lieu of going onstage, the cast produced a video remotely that went viral.

Now, the excitement of having live theatre again is being tempered by Williams’ pending departure. She’s ready to pass the baton for “new energy, new ideas.”

Hundreds of kids have grown up at YAT, like Jordan Hiltz. She just graduated from Leon High School. “I have been at Young Actors ever since I was two going on three. So I'm 18 now. So I've been here for roughly about 16 years, which is pretty crazy,” Hiltz says. “It's really hard to kind of imagine what my life would have looked like without YAT."

Hiltz is ending her time at YAT – she calls it her home away from home – with a starring role in Grease.

"Grease is a special event in Young Actors’ history for two reasons,” says Sarah Doolin Roy. She’s training to take over Williams' duties in August. “One, it's the first live performance we are putting on our stage and opening our doors to audiences since the pandemic began; and second - because it's the last show my aunt, Tina Williams, is directing as executive director.”

Actor and YAT alum Tony Hale gave YAT founder Tina Williams the real red carpet treatment at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 21, 2018.
Young Actors Theatre
Actor and YAT alum Tony Hale gave YAT founder Tina Williams the real red carpet treatment at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 21, 2018.

Roy is part of the next generation of staff members who will nurture the close friendships that have been forged over decades. Williams’ legacy includes many successful alums who stay in touch, including Emmy-award winning actor Tony Hale.

“It is really tough to put into words what Tina and Young Actors have meant to me,” Hale says. “The risk that Tina took in starting Young Actors so many years ago, I mean, pretty much sparked my love of acting and was a huge part in setting the course for the rest of my life. It was just, it was my safe space. So I am incredibly thankful.”

So thankful was Hale that he called out Williams and YAT musical director Alison Grimes by name when he won the first of his two Emmy awards in 2013. Accepting the supporting actor Emmy for his role in HBO’s Veep, he said, “I’m from Tallahassee, Florida, and there’s a little theatre called Young Actors Theatre that made a huge difference in my life. Tina Williams and Alison Grimes, thank you for your commitment.”

“What I love the most are my alumni, and they have always been really special to me,” Williams says. “I think keeping up with alumni, inviting them, having them be in shows is what keeps them in touch. I think that's very important for the organization, and for me personally, that's what I love the most.”

Many alums have been back in some capacity at YAT. Several are working behind the scenes on Grease, and many have returned as guest performers over the years.

Williams managed to keep the theatre afloat through half a dozen economic downturns – think 9/11 and the 2008 housing bubble. But the pandemic was a doozy. YAT received two loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and the staff found creative ways to keep students engaged remotely.

“My staff figured, ‘how can we serve these children?’ So we did these Zoom classes, we learned all sorts of different ways to meet them,” Williams says, “and I think that this maybe was our most important year ever because the kids needed it more.”

Now that live shows are returning, Williams can focus on her swan song as executive director. She says Grease is her favorite show.

Tina Williams is getting help with the show from longtime YAT student and 2020 graduate Nate Jones, now a student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Natalie Futrell
Tina Williams with 'Grease' assistant director Nate Jones. Jones was a longtime YAT student and 2020 graduate who now attends the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

For Hiltz, it’s bittersweet that Williams is stepping away from her daily duties, but her years at YAT are the tie that binds.

“Coming back from college, from when I have (a) family and when I'm old, coming back and seeing these shows - I'm just still gonna absolutely love it,” Hiltz says. “I think that's something that is more than a show, more than the lights, more than everything that's coming together that people just see. I think that's something that is backstage and internal and personal, and I just love it here.”

Grease opens Friday, June 25th. It runs on various dates for the next two weeks. Two performances are already sold out. Fewer tickets are being sold due to social distancing efforts. The show’s run culminates with a fundraiser on July 10. Click here for ticket information.

NOTE: Young Actors Theatre is an underwriter of WFSU, and the reporter is a former student.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.