Melanee Wyatt carefully checked each young actor’s makeup and costume before a recent photo shoot to advance the new YES Company musical. Seated, she smiled at each fully costumed youth, told them how great they looked, added a little powder here, a little glitter there and fluffed a few curly locks.
Finishing her inspections one-by-one, she placed her hands on their faces to offer a kiss on each cheek, along with a reminder: “I love you.”
“This,” Wyatt said after the final actor had walked away with her affirmation, “is what I’ll miss.”
After nearly three decades establishing, leading and breathing the Youth Entertainment Stage Company, Wyatt will retire at the end of the troupe’s summer 2018 production — “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” opening on Friday, July 20, at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
“It’s very bittersweet,” she said of her decision to retire. “But it’s been 27 years and I’m grateful for the opportunity to create the YES Company program. We started with three schools involved and one summer production at the King-Kennedy Center, so it’s been just glorious to be able to build it.”
What Wyatt, 63, has built is a legacy with YES Company, which she was tapped to establish in 1992 by then-Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Martin Peterson. He asked Wyatt — who had been a child performer herself — to create an arts program through the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) that would keep children busy in the summer and off the streets.
The program since has expanded its reach from Peterson’s initial target of at-risk youths and multiplied to include YES Kidettes, YES Kids, YES Ambassadors and other offshoots.
“The arts can touch a person when nothing else can and what I’ve found through the years is that participation in a program like this, this is a place where the children find success,” Wyatt said. “They may not find success anywhere else in school or other areas, but they find success and they find camaraderie, they learn to work together as a team. The performance is the icing on the cake. It’s the process and the friendships that are developed that are so vital.”
Beyer High School senior Daniel Vermeulen, cast as Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” and part of YES Company since second grade, pointed to one of those friendships while talking during the photo shoot about Wyatt and the program. As fellow cast member David Torres walked up, Vermeulen pointed toward him, saying, “And this guy has become one of my best friends.”
Watching Wyatt depart will be “pretty difficult,” said Torres, who just graduated from Downey High and plays Lumiere in the upcoming production; he’s also been with YES Company since second grade. “Mel is the heart of this company. To reflect on how many generations have passed through, so many people that she’s touched through this program, it won’t be the same without her.”
Students to administrators agree that Wyatt leaves big shoes to fill. Stepping into them will be a team of people at the Gallo Center, which has entered into a 10-year agreement with SCOE to assume management and artistic direction for YES Company. Cortney Hurst Betschart will head the project as director of arts education and Tiffany Davis will manage the program with “boots on the ground in Melanee’s role,” Gallo Center CEO Lynn Dickerson said.
“Melanee is a force of nature and this is her baby and she did it for 27 years,” Dickerson said. “Those are big shoes to fill and we hope to be able to take what she’s built and carry on with it.”
Davis knows what she’s getting into — she was a YES Company member herself in the early 2000s, from eighth grade through high school. “I don’t think anybody could ever fill Mel’s shoes,” Davis said. But she feels being an alumna will help her ease into her new role. “I have first-hand experience and understand what it’s like.”
YES Company will be absorbed into the Gallo Center’s already established arts education program. Dickerson hopes to see YES expand to also offer technical instruction — sound, lighting and stage design — by tapping existing staff members trained and proficient in those areas. It will give “kids who don’t necessarily sing and dance and act a way to be involved in a meaningful way.”
What won’t change is the core principle. “There will be changes for sure, but at the end of the day it will still serve the same purpose ... it will be a wonderful theater opportunity for lots of kids,” Dickerson said.
Different but the same is how Deborah Rowe, SCOE’s Director of Educational Options who oversees the program, also described the transition. “I definitely see that it’s going to grow into something that is different but still YES Company,” she said. And with more people at the Gallo Center helping to guide it, she believes they may be able to reach even more students.
Rowe said Wyatt’s theater skills are a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. “That’s a gift she was given from her childhood ... all of us, especially at the Gallo Center, everybody wants to do justice to YES Company.”
A key to the company’s success, Wyatt said, is the close-knit, familial atmosphere that some youths need more than others.
“What they get out of YES Company, more than anything, what we want to give to them is a safe and nurturing environment so that they can express themselves and be themselves and I really emphasize the sense of family,” Wyatt said. “Some people have a wonderful home life, some people don’t so much, but they have a YES family that they can communicate with anytime, and it crosses age barriers.”
Retiring doesn’t necessarily mean she’s calling it a career. “I still have it in me to work creatively with children and to direct,” she said. But for now she’s going to take the advice of a friend: “To just sit in retirement for a moment and then decide what direction I’m going to go.”
Still, “I’m sure I’m not finished working in the arts and working with young people,” she said. “What we achieve is just too valuable.”