Theatre conferences haven’t always been friendly places for people like David Saar. When the founder of Tempe, Ariz.’s Childsplay, Inc. attended his first Theatre Communications Group meetings 20 years ago, for example, he felt as popular as Quasimodo. “People would come up to me, and they’d do that ‘chest check’ thing,” Saar recalls, pointing at an imaginary nametag. “When they saw I was from a children’s theatre, they’d always remember some other place they had to be.”
Back then, theatre for young audiences was regarded as the poor stepchild of the theatre world. It was generally seen as the province of amateurs: of schoolmarm playwrights, Junior League directors and actors who couldn’t get work on “real” stages. What’s worse, many of these stereotypes were true. “Before the 1980s, theatre for young audiences in the United States wasn’t very good,” admits Linda Hartzell, who became the artistic director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1985. “Back then, it was starter theatre for people who were only doing it until they stepped up to what they thought was legitimate.”
But around two decades ago, a handful of artists began to advance the concept (a commonplace in European theatre circles for generations) that theatre for young people could be done professionally, intelligently and with high artistic values. Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company led the charge in the 1970s, and within a few years, artists had carried the flame to other cities, including Seattle and Tempe and eventually Dallas, where in 1984, Robyn Flatt founded the Dallas Children’s Theater. “There was a generation of us who had been successful in adult theatre, but who decided that working in children’s theatre would be exciting,” Flatt says. “We saw it as one of the last frontiers of theatre in America.”
Twenty years on, American children’s theatre has grown up, thanks to people like Flatt, Saar, Hartzell and their colleague Peter Brosius, who served for many years as artistic director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth and since 1997 has run the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. In cities like these, theatre for young people is now one of the best and biggest shows in town. The Children’s Theatre Company boasts the second-largest budget of any theatre in Minnesota, after the Guthrie. Seattle Children’s Theatre recently completed a major addition to its already large complex of offices and stages. And Dallas Children’s Theater plays to more than 225,000 people each year, a number that is by no means unusual.
Professional children’s theatre is alive and well in other cities as well. Louisville, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Kansas City all have excellent theatres for young people, and just about every town in the country sees at least some top quality work thanks to the tours that these companies run.
Children’s theatre has become so interesting and varied that even presenters of innovative works such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music are programming pieces for children. And hundreds of artists will descend on the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this month for a conference of ASSITEJ-USA, the American chapter of the largest international youth-theatre organization.
Today just about everybody knows that children’s theatre has transformed itself from frog to prince. “The attitude has really changed,” says Linda Hartzell. “Now when I go to conferences, everyone wants to talk to me. And when I want something, I get my calls returned right away.”But that doesn’t mean all is forgiven. “I keep a list of everybody who used to ignore me,” Hartzell adds, with a twinkle in her eye.
At the beginning, when these pioneers were starting to revolutionize the field, their first priority was to establish an atmosphere of professionalism. “I had heard the phrase all the time—‘It’s only for children,’” Hartzell recalls. “But I said, ‘I don’t want to work on anything that’s not interesting, nor do I think anyone should watch that.’”
Hartzell set some ground rules for her new vision of the Seattle Children’s Theatre: “No blue or pink plaid on our stage,” she says. “No bad synthesizer music. No fake furry animal costumes. Nothing that people thought children’s theatre was.”
She also established a policy that SCT would hire exclusively union actors, directors and technicians. It’s a standard that SCT has kept till today. “It’s more expensive and sometimes a headache,” Hartzell admits, “but I wanted to establish that we were professionals.” Although the other top youth theatres haven’t been as strict on this point, they all set high standards for their artists. Both the Children’s Theatre Company and Childsplay employ full-time companies of actors, directors and designers.
The second step for the pioneers was to develop challenging scripts that were more intelligent than what had been offered before. This generation of children’s theatre artists began doing scripts that reflected the difficult reality of a child’s world—plays that acknowledged the poverty, violence, prejudice and disease that many kids live with. “These are people who are going through perhaps the most wrenchingly emotional stage of their lives,” Peter Brosius says of his audience. Even if a child comes from a happy home, Brosius suggests, he or she still must cope with the horrors of peer pressure, not to mention the colossal unfairness of being a child in an adult’s world.
Back in the old days, the philosophy seemed to be that kids should be protected from the ugly side of life. But contemporary artists disagree. “Kids have to face death, divorce and bullies,” says Linda Daugherty, a playwright and actress who works regularly with the Dallas Children’s Theater. “But if you can show them people on stage who deal with these things and come out okay, it’s helpful.”
With that in mind, theatres began staging serious works like Israel Horovitz’s The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion, which Hartzell directed at SCT in 1985, in a production starring the former Boston Celtics all-pro Bill Russell. Horovitz’s play is a rough look at inner-city life, about an aging basketball player and the young boy who befriends him. At one point, Bill Russell’s character gets so discouraged that he pulls a gun and holds it to his forehead. Eventually, there’s a hopeful ending, but not before the children in the audience get a far greater dose of gritty reality than was possible in the youth theatre of the 1950s and ’60s.
Productions like this paved the way for the most triumphant children’s theatre of the ’90s—plays like 1993’s The Yellow Boat, which David Saar wrote for his son, Benjamin, a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS and died when he was only seven years old. Though it wasn’t the first tragedy for young people, The Yellow Boat broke new ground because the main character dies during the course of the play. It’s an emotionally wrenching, but ultimately uplifting script that has become legendary since its premiere at Childsplay.
Nowadays, almost any topic is on the table for children’s theatres. Among other challenging subjects, these theatres have produced plays about the Holocaust (James Still’s And Then They Came for Me, which premiered at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse in 1997); racism (E. Shockley’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which premiered at Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1992); and homosexuality (Laurie Brooks Gollobin’s The Wrestling Season, which Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre will present at the ASSITEJ-USA conference this month).
Among the many realistic dramas that have been produced at children’s theatres in the 1990s, one of the most beautiful is Y York’s adaptation of the Janet Taylor Lisle novel Afternoon of the Elves, which premiered at Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1993 and was performed in 1998 at Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company. It’s a touching story about young Sarah Kate, who not only is impoverished but must also take care of her single mother, who is mentally ill.
Although the cards are stacked against her, Sarah Kate is a survivor. She makes friends with the girl next door and preserves a scrap of childhood through her active fantasy life. She believes that a village of elves has moved into her backyard, which they like because it’s overgrown and messy.
In many ways, Afternoon of the Elves is a perfect example of how children’s theatre has changed. Rather than fairy tales, youth theatres now produce poignant meditations on why children need fairy tales. It’s a big difference, and it speaks to the respect that the modern children’s theatre artists have for their audience.
“Children have a lot that they can teach us,” says Saar, who, like most artists in youth theatre, places a tremendous amount of faith in young people. It’s a habit he learned not only on the job but during his son’s illness, when he and his wife were inspired by Benjamin’s strength. “Benjamin was certainly a unique person,” Saar says, with tears pooling in his eyes, “but not in that respect. All young people have things to teach us, but we don’t often recognize that as a society.”
For the most part, parents and teachers agree that children should be respected and treated as intelligent beings. “We in the theatre aren’t the only ones who’ve changed,” explains Graham Whitehead, who works with Saar as the associate director of Childsplay. “The mindset of teachers and parents has expanded, too.”
Nevertheless, some adults don’t appreciate the new fashion for gritty children’s dramas. There are always a few who say that The Yellow Boat is too depressing or that Roll of Thunder is immoral because it contains the word “nigger.”
Of course, mainstream adult theatres face similar objections when they produce challenging work, but children’s theatres probably have it worse—there’s nothing like the wrath of a parent who believes his or her child has been wronged. When Seattle Children’s Theatre premiered Lawrence Yep’s play about Chinese-Americans called Dragonwing, for example, one of its Asian board members threatened to resign her post. “She flipped out because the words ‘ching-chong Chinaman’ were in it,” Hartzell recalls. “She said that term was dead, and insisted that if kids heard that, they’d start saying it again. I told her that I think it’s very dangerous to underestimate our audience and their ability to understand right and wrong.”
In many situations, the debate boils down to this same old argument: Should we shield children from harsh things? Or should we find a way to discuss them? For modern children’s theatre artists, the answer is obvious. They want the kids to learn something. “I love when children say, ‘That’s not right,’” says Robyn Flatt, in reference to her theatre’s 1999 production of Most Valuable Player, about Jackie Robinson. “You hear them after the performance saying ‘They should never have treated Jackie Robinson that way! That was wrong! That was mean!’”
At the same time, the artists do understand the other side of the argument. Many are parents themselves, and they sympathize with the impulse to protect. “The most precious things people have are their children,” says Linda Daugherty. “The world is a scary place, and I understand that when you bring your kids to a children’s theatre, you want it to be a safe place where you don’t have to put your hands over their ears.”
None of these artists is out to shove children’s noses into the trash heap of life. “We’re serious people,” Brosius says. “It’s never about shock value or a moment of profanity. There’s always a bigger game.”
And not all theatrical effects are equally appropriate for adults and children, as Brosius discovered while directing David Holman’s play Whale in 1999. The show begins with an Inuit creation story about how the first whale was born, and Brosius hired a shadow-puppet artist and composer to create the scene. “Like any birth, it wasn’t a cuddly thing,” Brosius recalls. “It was very violent, and the way we staged it disturbed a lot of people.” After the first preview, Brosius restaged the scene to make the birth more suggestive rather than literal. “You have to choose these moments very carefully,” he says.
Even worse than frightening children would be to leave them without a sense of hope, say many artists. “The main difference between children and adults is that children aren’t cynical,” explains Hartzell. “So even in the roughest play, you have to leave them with at least one character who’s hopeful. After all, why should an 11-year-old just cash it in and say, ‘The world is an awful place.’ At 28 or 45, you can choose to say, ‘The world’s just screwed,’ but children don’t deserve that.”
Saar realized this as he was workshopping an early version of The Yellow Boat. “It left the wrong message,” Saar recalls of that draft, which ended with Benjamin’s death and final monologues by the parents. “The audience went out remembering that the kid had died, and I wanted them to remember that he lived.”
After the workshop, Saar went through two months of rewrites. Among other changes, he reworked the ending so that Benjamin, despite his death, still gets the final word. “That helped the audience realize that the play was a celebration, not a requiem,” Saar says.
Although dramas like The Yellow Boat and Afternoon of the Elves are among the most exciting works coming out of today’s children’s theatres, they make up only about half (or less) of what these companies do. The rest of the season is composed of more traditional fare, including adaptations of classic children’s literature and even fairy tales.
To a certain extent, there’s a practical reason for this: A lot more people come to see Cinderella than Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and none of these theatres would survive if they stuck exclusively to dramas and original work. “There’s a real power to the familiar,” admits Flatt. “You have to do things like Miracle on 34th Street to pay for productions like The Yellow Boat.”
But money isn’t the only reason to produce Winnie the Pooh or Green Eggs and Ham. Like any other audience, children deserve comedies. “They need fairy tales,” says Daugherty. “They need beauty and poetry and language. They need castles and dragons. They need to dream.”
Behind the scenes, children’s theatre artists sometimes grouse about the old warhorses. “We tend to apologize for that sort of thing,” says Saar. “We do The Velveteen Rabbit every year, and backstage we call it Velveeta Bunny.” But when pressed, they all admit to a fondness for the classics. “I’m sorry, but I want my kids to see Jack and the Beanstalk,” says Daugherty. “Those fairy stories are around for a reason, and I want my kids to know real children’s literature.”
Plus, now that these envelope-pushing artists have established their credibility, they feel more comfortable pulling traditional stories out of mothballs. “There was a time when we had to get away from fairy tales,” says Graham Whitehead. “But I think a company that has done The Yellow Boat doesn’t have to apologize if it does Rapunzel or Pinocchio. We do them because we want to, not because we can’t think of anything else.”
Of course, these old stories are revitalized with the artist’s own distinctive flair. “We mine the classics not for their familiarity but for their power,” says Brosius. “There’s depth in a 900-year-old fairy tale, and if you serve that, then it’s valid.”
Flatt and Daugherty proved that with their 1988 production of Cinderella, which became known around the theatre as the “Take Charge” Cinderella. “In the original, the prince takes Cinderella away from her bad life, but I don’t think that’s a good message to give our little girls,” says Daugherty, who wrote the script for the production. “I’ve been married for 31 years, so I believe in princes. But it doesn’t always happen that way, and I wanted girls to know that they could be okay all on their own.”
Consequently, Daugherty made her heroine more independent and created a fairy godmother who’s half cheerleader and half therapist—“You can do it!” and “It’s all inside you!” are her favorite phrases. “In the end, Cinderella is about to leave and go off into the world,” Daugherty says. “The prince shows up, and it all works out. But I think the twist is that she’ll be okay no matter what.”
The modern children’s theatre artists also like to mix things up stylistically, even when they’re working on a classic. “We did a minimalist Winnie the Pooh that was very abstract, like something Mabou Mines or the Wooster Group would do,” recalls Linda Hartzell. SCT also staged The Tempest with four people and Romeo and Juliet with five. “Minimal stagings are wonderful because they allow children to use their imagination,” Hartzell explains. “Plus, I don’t have the time or money to be building and flying in all these big, honking transitions. I’d rather put my money to people rather than things.”
Minimalism isn’t the only nontraditional style that children’s theatres play with. They’re also experimenting with nonlinear narrative and multimedia. Rather than confusing children, the artists find, these avant-garde styles often work wonderfully. “Unlike adults, who have for decades been watching television and Hollywood cinema, children aren’t coming in with the blinders of realism,” Brosius explains. “Children understand transformation. They understand that when I put on this hat, I’m a pirate, or if I throw this ball in the air, I’m on another planet.”
In a word, children give artists the license to be as weird as they want to be. Seattle Children’s Theatre took full advantage of this fact with its February premiere of Apple to Grandma, a hilarious fantasy that Hartzell commissioned from the Dutch company Speeltheater. It follows the adventures of a young girl as she journeys to an old-folks’ home to visit her grandmother. At first, the girl draws herself a car with a giant pencil. Then she drives to a gas station for fuel, but as she’s pulling the hose out of the gas pump, it turns into an enormous goose. As the girl fights with the bird, trying to stick its head into the gas tank, she is swept out to sea where she meets St. Nicholas, who’s blue and floating in the water. “It’s really out there,” Hartzell says, “almost the kind of show that you’d see at midnight down in Geenwich Village.”
But even when they’re producing fantasies, modern children’s theatre artists are careful to base the stories in an emotional reality. Take, for example, Steven Dietz’s Still Life with Iris, which premiered at Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1997. Although the original impetus for the play was as a vehicle for the illusions of a Seattle magician, Dietz created a gorgeous piece that stands on its own. It takes place in Nocturno, the land where things are created for our world— where the clouds are loaded with rain, for example, and where flowers are painted.
The rulers of Nocturno, Greta and Grotto Good, are, among other things, collectors. They collect the best of everything, and one day they decide they need a “best daughter,” so they choose Iris, who is kidnapped from her parents and brought to the Goods.
One of the realities of Nocturno is that memory doesn’t exist in your mind. Instead, it resides in a garment called a “memory coat.” When Iris is taken from her parents, she’s given a choice. She can either remove her coat, in which case she’ll have no memory of her past life (and no sorrow at leaving it), or she can keep it and always remember the pain of losing her mother and father. In the end, Iris gives up the coat but keeps one button, which is the memory of her last view of home.
Although the play is a fantasy, there’s no denying the emotional power of this story. Like all the fantasies that are produced in modern children’s theatres, it contains deep feelings that any of us could relate to.
In some respects, developments in children’s theatre seem more positive these days than those in mainstream adult theatre. “We don’t have the problems that everyone’s been whining about for 15 years,” says Hartzell. “Adult theatres talk about diminishing audiences and the fact that they are made up of rich, white people. That’s not a problem for us. We have plenty of people coming to our productions, and they come from across all racial and economic lines.”
To a certain extent, that’s because of the unique relationship that most children’s theatres share with the schools in their communities. Almost all the theatres present about half their productions to groups of grade-school and middle-school students. But even at night and on the weekends, the theatres fill their auditoriums with families from all walks of life. A lot of adults who wouldn’t otherwise go to plays take their kids to children’s theatre. Consequently, many in the audience are experiencing some of the only live theatre they’ll ever see.
That makes children’s theatre exciting for artists. In recent years, many playwrights who have been successful writing for adults have also begun writing for children—the list includes such luminaries as Tina Howe, Kevin Kling, Constance Congdon and Carlyle Brown.
Most children’s theatre artists are welcoming these new faces with open arms, but they’re also quick to point out that hiring an “adult” playwright isn’t necessarily a stamp of respectability. “Sometimes there’s an implication that if we snare somebody who’s written for adult theatre, we’re somehow lucky because this is a ‘real’ playwright and they’ve finally come to work with us,” says Whitehead. “But there are many playwrights, actors and directors who specialize in theatre for young people, and they are no more or less talented than their colleagues in the mainstream.”
The fact is, writing for children’s theatre is different than writing for adults. A children’s playwright needs to remember what kids are interested in (being accepted by their peers, for example). They have to communicate clearly without being simplistic. “Writing a play for children is like writing a haiku,” Whitehead says. “Anybody can write them if you know the rules. But it’s just damn difficult to do well.”
Because of the specialized nature of their work, and because relatively few people do it, children’s theatre artists feel a profound camaraderie with each other. Although they live in different cities, they trade scripts and ideas, and always keep one eye on what the others are developing. That’s why the ASSITEJ conferences are so important. Last summer, many American artists traveled to Norway for an international conference featuring performances by companies from around the world. And at the Kennedy Center this month, they’ll take a look at what’s on the cutting edge in our country, including Iceman, reflection on the Stone Age by St. Louis’s Metro Theatre Company, and Cyrano, a minimalist version of the French classic that Seattle Children’s Theatre developed with a Belgian company called Blauw Vier.
After ASSITEJ, the artists will return home to resume work on their latest projects, such as Mississippi Panorama, an epic meditation on the Big Muddy that Peter Brosius has commissioned from Kevin Kling and puppet artist Michael Sommers. “We don’t want a period piece,” says Brosius about the ambitious play, which will premiere at the Children’s Theatre Company in 2001. “Instead, we want something that looks at the spiritual nature of the river. We want to get the idea that we’re made out of water—that water that starts in Lake Itasca flows to Cuba. So we’re working on how to get that stuff and still tell a story that includes fantastical characters, like crocodiles and bones that come up out of the bottom of the water.”
Down in Tempe, David Saar is excited about Salt and Pepper, a realistic drama by José Cruz Gonzalez that will be workshopped at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions, New Voices series this June and premiere at Childsplay next season. It’s the story of a grandfather who is illiterate but tries hard to hide it from the children in his care. Of course, eventually they find out, and the play deals with how they grow from that experience.
In Dallas, Flatt and Daugherty are working on a draft of Tornarsuk’s Price, a story about Admiral Peary’s mission to discover the North Pole, focusing on the unsung Inuit sled drivers who accompanied them. “What’s with this drive to be the first?” asks Daugherty, who’s writing the play.
In Seattle, Hartzell is bracing for the response to SCT’s presentation of Y York’s new drama based on the medieval Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Hartzell comments that the play’s title, The Mask of the Unicorn Warrior, was picked “so that the 11-year-old boys will want to come.”
Russell Scott Smith is a 1999–2000 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation. He currently works for People magazine.