It started out like any normal morning. On September 18, 2018, Dawn Young prepared her five-year-old daughter for school, loaded up the car and headed into Yelm.
They never arrived that day. As they neared the town on Bald Hills Road, a night shift worker returning home fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the center line and plowed head-on into their vehicle. A member of the Washington State Patrol later told Young that her reflexes had likely saved both of their lives.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. The impact from the collision caused deep lacerations and heavy bruising on Young’s legs; her rib cage and stomach were black and blue. The worst part, however, was the head injury. “I was in a wheelchair and then using a walker,” she recalls. “I wasn’t able to remember anything, and I couldn’t even read emails. My husband had to read them to me because I couldn’t see them.”
Prior to the accident, Young had committed to performing the part of Fiona in a production of “Shrek: the Musical” by Standing Room Only, a Yelm theater company she co-founded in 2016. A week after being released from the hospital she arrived at the Triad Theater in a wheelchair to cheer on the cast. With singing and dancing now out of the question she nevertheless supported the show as a producer, a demanding role that absorbed all of the daily three hours of energy she had available.
“I watched Dawn jump right back into Shrek,” says Claudia Simpson-Jones, co-founder and director of Opera Pacifica and musical director on Shrek. “She was on a walker and hobbling. She was so determined. I’m guessing that it helped her to recover, because she has certainly made a miraculous recovery.”
Now – still less than a year after the accident – Young is making her directorial debut with Standing Room Only’s production of award-winning Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which runs through June 23 with Simpson-Jones returning as the musical director. After more than 20 years as an actor, singer and choreographer she is tapping into that experience to get the best out of a cast that ranges from seasoned performers to those who have never been on stage.
Young’s approach to directing involves creating a safe environment where every member of the crew is safe to express ideas and try new things. “I knew I wanted to focus on communication and developing a positive culture,” she says. “It’s a place that anyone can come into and know they will be listened to, valued and respected.”
Each rehearsal begins with a check-in to help the cast and crew get present. Improv exercises are incorporated into the play, which is a little bit different every night. “It’s building a formula of originality when you listen to everyone and co-create a production,” says Young. “Every showing is different, not just because it includes improv but because every member of our team has had input into its creation, brought their own experience in life as humans and as actors into it, which makes it very authentic and genuine in its presentation.”
Cast member Dale Sharp, who has performed in shows both nationally and internationally, finds the approach effective. “Dawn creates an environment that builds trust among the cast and crew,” he says. “Communication was the biggest thing. We all feel safe and that’s important with a show like this. It’s a living thing that changes every night just slightly based on the people involved.”
Simpson-Jones notes that Young allows each performer to find their character. “Her approach is that each character has a transformation somehow in this musical,” she says. “She’s guiding performers but it’s not like, ‘I want you to raise your little finger here and turn your head there.’ It’s a collaborative effort. I also enjoy working with her because she’s very musical. She brings so much to the table.”
Over nearly two decades in Yelm, Young has performed with the now-defunct Drew Harvey Theater, South Puget Sound Community College, and Opera Pacifica, led education programs in local elementary and middle schools, and been an Artist in Residence for Yelm Community Schools. She co-founded Standing Room Only with fellow local performers to unify the performing arts community in Yelm and surrounding areas.
The current show has proved to be the perfect vehicle for expressing creativity while her body continues to heal. Young gives full credit to the cast and crew for their support and willingness to learn. “I’ve been honest with them about my insecurities and where I’m at,” she says. “We’re all working together to be greater. This group is so willing to continue to improve and try things they’ve never done before.”
The show itself centers around an eclectic group of six mid-pubescents vying for spelling bee supremacy. Throughout they play they divulge aspects of their home lives, some poignant, others hilarious. “In some ways this is a risky show for Yelm,” says Young. “It’s not the classic ‘Oklahoma’ that we know can fill the house. It’s about society today, about inclusiveness and being proud of who you are, whomever that is.”
Sharp agrees. “The kids in this show all have unique stories and some are even heartbreaking, but they all have this love of words,” he says. “They get to bond with people who share their interest. Even people who are not word-crazy leave with a big smile on their face.”
For a new director, nothing could be more healing.
Learn more about Standing Room Only at their website.