Theatres that serve young audiences are up against several challenges—limited press coverage, school system bureaucracy, and heavy competition for a family’s money and time, just to name a few. These issues become even more problematic when you take geography into account. Even areas with vibrant theatre scenes are rarely home to more than one Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) company. This makes cross-organizational exchange especially difficult, and hampers TYA companies’ ability to collectively solve problems and move the field forward together.
For these reasons, TYA/USA, the national organization for theatres for young audiences, is working to connect TYA companies and theatre artists across the country.
“With such large geographic ground to cover, and with such diversity in audience, mission, and needs of the organizations and individuals in the field, I think it’s vital to have a central organization to bring everyone closer together,” says TYA/USA executive director Michael Van Kerckhove.
Founded in 1965, TYA/USA is the U.S. branch of ASSITEJ (a French acronym whose full title translates to International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People), an international TYA organization that began as an effort to bring artists together during the Cold War. TYA/USA provides resources that help bridge the distance between members, giving them much-needed opportunities to examine trends, best practices, and innovations, while also working to promote the field as a whole.
TYA/USA’s programming includes professional development webinars; a semi-annual trade magazine, TYA Today; a database of each member’s season, Marquee; a middle-school playwriting competition, Young Playwrights for Change; and the One Theatre World conference.
“We heard from our members, ‘We want to gather, we want to have more in-person discussions,’” says Karen Sharp, managing director of Seattle Children’s Theatre and TYA/USA board president. “We’ve really worked hard to codify those opportunities for members.”
Developing programming that addresses the concerns of all members is a priority for the organization, and considering the group’s diverse constituents (more than 600 individuals and more than 100 organizations), is also a complicated undertaking.
“You’ve got professional theatre companies, academics, and people who are bringing theatre into community settings, and they all have different agendas,” explains Andrew Frank, executive director of New York City Children’s Theater, who’ll be succeeding Sharp as board president when her term ends next month. “TYA/USA is trying to bring a certain level of quality and professionalism to all three agendas. There’s an interest in the art being high quality, and a huge interest in diversity.”
Sharp notes that despite the varied makeup of TYA/USA’s membership, there are several areas—such as fundraising, board engagement, and audience development—where members can find common ground. “We serve young people and families, and the tools that we use to do that may vary, but what doesn’t vary is our passion for our audience,” she says.
Van Kerckhove agrees that TYA’s unique demographic is key for members. “Everyone is thinking about how to represent their audience onstage,” he says. He also sees a shared member experience in the artistic decision-making process. “‘How do we represent diversity onstage? Do we rely on adaptations of familiar stories or include new work? A more traditional approach or devised work? I think everybody asks themselves those same questions.”
The 2015 One Theatre World conference in Chicago in the Empire Ballroom at the Palmer House Hotel. (Photo by Johnny Knight Photo)
The One Theatre World conference is TYA/USA’s flagship event and the organization’s primary opportunity for members to approach these issues together. Van Kerckhove is in the midst of planning next year’s convening, which will take place in the Bay Area in May 2017. “You want to make sure there’s something there for everybody—things that connect with the artistic side and the education side,” he explains.
In addition to addressing members’ current needs with performances and breakout sessions, the conference also encourages new ways of thinking about TYA.
“For the last several years, the hot topic in the U.S. has been, How do we make sure that we’re doing work that is accessible to all children?” says Sharp. “I don’t think it was the conference that made it happen, but it was the right moment. In the years that followed, the dialogue around that topic really unified and has gone further than I could have imagined at the time.”
TYA/USA publications TYA Today and Marquee give members additional insight into the future of the field. “It’s so valuable for theatres to be able to see what else is being produced,” says Sharp. “For them to see how their organization can add to the canon, how they can observe what’s happening in other parts of the country or internationally, and see how it might work in their community.”
The organization is also giving members an opportunity to help young artists connect nationally with the Young Playwrights for Change competition. A collaboration with the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, Young Playwrights for Change is a middle school playwriting competition that utilizes TYA/USA members as regional hosts. Middle school students compete in their respective regions, and the winning plays are submitted to the national competition. The national winner is given a staged reading at One Theatre World.
Van Kerckhove is excited that the organization is helping to foster a new generation of artists with the competition. “We serve those who serve the kids, but Young Playwrights for Change nudges TYA/USA a little closer to directly serving the kids,” he says.
Most conversations about the field inevitably touch on TYA’s place in the larger theatre community. “Everybody is concerned in the general theatre world about diminishing audiences, and the audiences of tomorrow are kids today,” says Frank. “What’s the group of professional theatres that reaches those kids first? How are we supporting those theatres? If they’re not being supported and doing well, what chance do we have of getting kids interested in theatre later on?”
Sharp believes more advocacy is necessary, as the TYA world sometimes feels marginalized by the larger community. “In my perfect world, TYA is not a separate conversation,” she says. “Although we have topics that are unique to our practice and the audience we serve, I am excited about a future where we’re part of the larger theatre conversation.”
But she acknowledges that the impetus to join that conversation must come from TYA practitioners themselves. “We need to see ourselves and our work as important as any other work that is being done,” she explains. “When we’re all in the same room and we all feel like we’re a part of the theatre community—not just the TYA community—that’s when we’re all stronger and better.”
Frank agrees that there’s more the field can do to demonstrate its relevance and suggests conducting surveys to accumulate statistics. “The other challenge is the art itself,” he adds. “The field has to be healthy enough to do more original work. There’s just not enough original work, and we’re having a hard time generating interest from adults. As a field, we need to get more involved in the adults enjoying the work too so that they bring their kids. And then the adults will see it in the same realm as other theatre.”
Ultimately, TYA/USA is working to unify the field and help TYA distinguish itself as an important endeavor, both to the theatre world and beyond, while also honoring the diverse values of member companies and artists. “TYA means a lot of different things,” says Sharp. “Our objective is that, whatever your mission is, you’re doing it at 100 percent. If you’re focused on that, then you could and should be part of a larger conversation.”