The Art of Backstage Storytelling

Feature about the STARFISH PROJECT, a program by the Intiman Theatre.

Written by Triona Suiter, during TeenTix’s Beyond the Review Press Corps Intensive.

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The world of theatre is slowly getting more diverse. Actors of color are finding more jobs, female directors are gradually gaining recognition, and most shows are providing more representation as a whole. But the backstage world is still ruled by straight white men. Technical theatre is an extremely important aspect of stagecraft that is often overlooked. People prefer the flashy and glamorous onstage action to the quiet and stealthy work backstage. Because of that, technical theatre training is almost nonexistent. The STARFISH PROJECT is looking to rectify that.

Through a partnership with Sawhorse Revolution, the Intiman Theatre launched the STARFISH PROJECT in 2017. The project’s goal is to provide accessible training in all aspects of technical theatre to teens in the Seattle area, especially in high schools that have underfunded or nonexistent arts programs. Already, it has had a powerful impact on students’ lives.

The program is a 3-hour after school class, starting at 3 days a week, for about 6 weeks. In that time, students learn basic technical theatre skills from professional mentors before selecting a specialization and working with the school’s drama program to put on a show. (In schools without a drama program, STARFISH students do the onstage work as well.)

Said Faith Balajadia, “When we work with the mentors they're always open to your ideas instead of pushing their ideas onto you, and that’s what I really like, ‘cause teachers usually kinda shove their ideas down your throat. It was really nice at STARFISH because they always put your ideas before theirs, and it was really nice to have your ideas heard first.”

Currently, the STARFISH PROJECT is at three schools: Chief Sealth, Rainier Beach, and Franklin High School. There is no plan as of now to expand to more schools (the exception being Cleveland High School, which is currently in the process of determining whether or not to introduce the program). However, the programs are not limited to the students at the schools where they are located. Any high school student can join the program, and are also not required to stop after they graduate.

The goal is to make the STARFISH PROJECT as accessible as possible. One of the many ways this is done is through a check given to each student at the end of the program. Kyle Hartmann, the program’s manager, explains.

“It’s not necessarily that they’re getting paid, it’s more like an introduction to a stipend. It’s $20 a day for attendance in the program, which basically averages out to your commitment, what you’re able to do. It’s for incidentals, for food, transportation, etcetera, and it allows students to take part in the program without having to worry about a second job at the time.”

Hartmann’s belief is that “storytelling is the most powerful way to invoke positive change in our society.” When asked how his job with the STARFISH PROJECT aligns with those values he responded, “Storytelling is powerful. And storytelling in theatre doesn't just take place on stage. STARFISH is providing access and opportunities to enter into the art of backstage storytelling.”

The students, too, feel that the program is incredibly impactful.

“STARFISH always makes your contributions feel valuable,” says Samantha Lee, a student at Franklin High School. “When I was a part of the program, I was also an actor, and they would be working on tech at the same time that we had rehearsal, so I would be working through the lines, singing and dancing, and then I would only be able to do the tech part for the last hour. Even though I wasn’t doing as much as everyone else, they still made me feel like what I was doing was contributing to something.”

One powerful story comes from Adem Hayyu. “It was because of STARFISH that I wanted to go to college at all in the first place. I wasn’t really considering college, but thanks to STARFISH I decided I wanted to go to Cornish and I wanted to pursue a career in lighting design.”

The program continues to develop and to change lives as it moves into its third year. “No one should be denied access to the arts,” says Hartmann. “Especially access to a career pathway in the arts that actually pays.”

Students who are interested in participating in the program can learn more at intiman.org/starfishproject/ or contact Kyle Hartmann at [email protected]

Lead photo credit: STARFISH PROJECT participants being interviewed by TeenTix Press Corps writers during the Beyond the Review Press Corps Intensive.


Triona Suiter is an 8th grader at Hazel Wolf K-8.

This article was written as part of the Beyond the Review Press Corps Intensive.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about other Press Corps programs including the Teen Editorial Staff or the TeenTix Newsroom, see HERE.

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