The show must go on: Youth Theatre Works opens ‘Mary Poppins’ amid uncertainty

Youth Theatre Works actors (L-R) Anna Sawhill, Shane Sawhill, and Julia Walkenbach, rehearsing “Mary Poppins” Monday at Mudd Theater. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

By Andrew Alonzo |

Providing fine arts education and opportunities for local children has always been the dream for Kathy Kilsby, founder and co-director of Youth Theatre Works, a Claremont nonprofit theater group.

She had realized that dream since 2002, with YTW productions and classes at Claremont United Methodist Church and later at Claremont School of Theology’s Mudd Theater. But now both spaces have become unavailable, and she is scrambling to find a new venue.

Her agreement with the Methodist Church went away after change in leadership in 2019. She continued online throughout the pandemic and in 2021 found a new home at the Mudd Theater after she and fellow director Barbara Durost came to an agreement with CST President Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan. The agreement also saw YTW become a registered nonprofit shortly thereafter and submit a liability policy form to the campus to use the theater Kilsby said.

According to CST Executive Vice President of Operations, Communications and Advancement Steve Horswill-Johnston, YTW is allowed to use Mudd Theater “during this time of transition at no charge.”

The theater had been used as the storage space since 2016, Kilsby said. Unhoused people allegedly set up encampments during the pandemic, leaving the nonprofit with a sizable clean up job before it could use the theater. Kilsby said she also bought new equipment, including lighting, and made electrical upgrades to the facility.

Its first post-Covid in-person courses and production, “Estella Scrooge,” were held in 2021. Now “Mary Poppins” is set to be YTW’s sixth show at the venue. The musical, starring Sophie Sabicer in the title role, premieres at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, November 17, with additional showings at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 18, and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 19. Tickets start at $5 at

Those involved are looking forward to this weekend’s show, but the road ahead for Youth Theatre Works is uncertain. Claremont School of Theology’s planned move to Los Angeles remains in limbo, hinging on negotiations with the Claremont Colleges over a selling price for the property.

“All other questions [about the fate of Mudd Theater] at this time will need to be answered at the completion of our arbitration process, which we hope will be concluded soon,” wrote Horswill-Johnston in an email. “The Seeley G. Mudd Communications Building [Mudd Theater] which is course owned by Claremont School of Theology, has been on our property since the early 1970s as part of a gift to the school by the Seeley G. Mudd Fund. In fact, CST was the first recipient of the Fund’s first grant. The building’s theater has been used by hundreds, if not thousands, of groups over the decades.”

Kilsby said it’s totally possible “Mary Poppins” will be YTW’s final show at Mudd. “We’ve been operating under a lot of question marks, and then we’ve been really developing a tolerance for ambiguity and learning how to perform and produce under a veil of ambiguity,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

Youth Theatre Works actors (L-R) Julia Walkenbach, Anna Sawhill, and Shane Sawhill, rehearsing “Mary Poppins” Monday at Mudd Theater. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

Beth Walkenbach, a parent volunteer with YTW since September 2021, said with its fate up in the air, parents, actors and even the directors at YTW have no idea where the show’s next venue might be and feel like sideline spectators as the situation unfolds.

“I think I would be disappointed that we didn’t tell our story well enough for it to be an easy ‘yes’ for us to continue to do what we do,” Walkenbach said. “Youth Theatre Works is too important to this community to let fail, to let go, to not do everything we can to keep it here. It’s a double meaning: youth theatre works, [and] Youth Theatre Works.”

“This is something that really needs to be here,” Kilsby added of Mudd Theater. “Since Candlelight [Pavilion] left, there are no other theaters in Claremont. Claremont does not have a community theater. We will have nothing if this goes.”

Unlike during the pandemic, Youth Theatre Works is unsure it will continue to exist even when CST is gone and the Mudd Theater is no longer available, Kilsby said.

When “Mary Poppins” closes, YTW will have a break before returning to its usual programming in January, hopefully at Mudd Theater Kilsby said. Parents and volunteers with YTW are hopeful that if this door closes another window opens.

“Maybe there’s someplace else at one of the other colleges that would be open to having a youth theater group in-residence. There are other campuses that have theater groups in-residence. There’s precedent for that,” Walkenbach said.

For now, the YTW team is focused on “Mary Poppins,” which premieres at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 17, at the Mudd Theater.

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