Over the past half century, Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) has grown immensely, both in the number of institutions presenting such work and in the variety of programming within the genre. As TYA audiences have diversified, theatres are making an effort to produce work inclusive of all children. The repertoire has expanded beyond fairy tales and book adaptations, and TYA works are now grappling with subjects from segregation to living with autism. With arts education being cut from school programs, TYA theatres and theatres that program TYA works have taken it upon themselves to fill this void. Below is a list of a select 20 theatres across the country that, combined, provide theatre for anyone ages 0 to 102.
24th Street Theatre, Los Angeles
The 24th Street Theatre reaches youth across borders. In 2008, the company traveled to El Salvador to serve as a cultural envoy and teach workshops with El Salvador’s Symphony for Youth. The theatre returned in 2010 for follow-up workshops with the symphony, as well as to teach workshops at an English-language school for teens. The company also provides education and mentorship programs for children and teens in Los Angeles.
Adventure Stage Chicago
Adventure Stage Chicago is funded by the Northwestern Settlement House, which helps young children and families overcome poverty. “We really believe that by portraying young people [onstage] as heroes, we are inspiring them to be active, positive contributors to their community,” said Tom Arvetis, the company’s producing director. The 12-year-old theatre provides education and community programs for children ages 9–14 that emphasize critical literacy and storytelling.
Alliance Theatre, Atlanta
Serving children age 0–18, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre is in the process of expanding its Theatre for the Very Young department. In addition to producing big names such as James and the Giant Peach and The Hobbit, the company also produces new plays. Alliance is in the process of collaborating with middle schoolers to create Slur, a play about a young Muslim girl who finds a racial slur written on her locker. “To invest in something personally, they need ownership of it,” said Rosemary Newcott, the theatre’s artistic director of theatre for youth and families.
Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta
Also in Georgia is the Center for Puppetry Arts. The center has adapted many books into puppet-based productions, including its 2012 production of Ruth and the Green Book, based on the book by local author Calvin Alexander Ramsey. The musical told the true story about a book that helped non-white readers learn where to go in segregated areas. “We could step out of the story and talk about the history of segregation,” associate artistic director Jon Ludwig said of using puppets to teach tough lessons. “It was something that the kid audiences, a lot of them have never heard of it, didn’t know it, [or] understand the segregation.”
Boston Children’s Theatre
Originally founded as a way for women and children to pass the time while the men served in World War I, Boston Children’s Theatre encourages children to participate in any aspect of the theatre that interests them. “We’ve fostered just as many future directors and designers and puppeteers—and all kinds of things—as opposed to just the narrow view of becoming an actor in the arts,” said Burgess Clark, executive artistic director. Serving youth ages 4–19, the theatre also provides master classes, workshops, summer programs, and live performances. It is the theatre’s policy not to turn away children based on their economic status. “We have kids that are from the projects that are working right next to kids that are from some of the most privileged neighborhoods and families in the area,” Clark said.
Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis
Willie Reale’s A Year with Frog and Toad may be on the docket of several TYA theatres this season, but it premiered at Children’s Theatre Company. Artistic director Peter Brosius said that the company typically has 10–15 new projects in development at any given time. “We are committed to developing work that mirrors the diversity of our nation,” Brosius said. In addition to its regular programming, more than 1,000 children are enrolled in the company’s theatre school. The company’s productions, which are for anyone ages 2–102, have traveled to Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo, England, and New York City.
Childsplay, Tempe, Ariz.
Childsplay is an ensemble-based theatre company that considers the entire organization—from the board to the actors—part of the ensemble. The theatre serves ages 3–13, as well as high school audiences. “Every day our world gets more complicated, and in the 21st century, kids are dealing with situations and information that we used to think we had to hide from kids,” said Dwayne Hartford, associate artist and playwright-in-residence. “So they need a way of helping to process this information.” Childsplay is currently in transition, as Hartford will succeed founding artistic director David Saar after he retires in the summer. Young people “are our chosen audience,” said Saar, reflecting on his 29-year term, “and that’s because they are some of the most discriminated and certainly some of the most honest audiences that exist.”
Dallas Children’s Theater
Dallas Children’s Theater strives to create programming that matches the city’s changing demographics. Dallas has a large Hispanic population, and the theatre’s recent production of Roxanne Schroeder-Arce’s Mariachi Girl was geared toward Hispanic audiences. The theatre also adjusts the majority of productions to feature a sensory-friendly version for autistic audiences. The company is expanding beyond elementary school audiences to create shows for teenagers, tackling subjects such as bullying and dating violence. The theatre recently commissioned a play which will explore the effect screen time has on young minds. “If we’re going to continue to have strong, vital theatre, we have to start with young people,” said Robyn Flatt, cofounder and executive artistic director.
Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Hawaii
Honolulu Theatre for Youth does the bus-and-truck business model one better. Founded in 1955, the theatre tours shows via plane to five neighboring islands. While the company initially created shows aimed at pre-school through high school audiences, it recently expanded to include multigenerational programming. The theatre produces work devised by a professional ensemble and also commissions original work about Hawaiian culture. The theatre is joining with 10 community partners to produce H2O: The Story of Water and Hawaii, a play about fresh and salt water in the state. “We’ve done a lot of these community engagement pieces where we create a play out of it,” said artistic director Eric Johnson. “That’s a big thing that we think about a lot: How do we, as an advocate, make sure that young voices are at the table and are speaking to the professional artists in the community?”
Seattle Children’s Theatre
Seattle Children’s Theatre also targets multigenerational audiences. “Everything we do is meant to be ageless,” said artistic director Linda Hartzell. Targeting ages 3–90, the theatre was founded in 1992 and has commissioned 116 new plays. The theatre educates more than 10,000 students each year and ensures that all children can attend their productions regardless of their income. “We work really hard to make sure there is no child in this area, regardless of income, [who] cannot attend this theatre,” said Hartzell, who retires this year.
Metro Theater Company, St. Louis
Founded in 1973, Metro Theater Company, also targets all ages. The company recently wrapped up And in this corner…Cassius Clay, by Idris Goodwin, while launching the Cassius Project in conjunction with the production. “In the wake of the events in our own community of Ferguson and around the country, this project has provided a platform for discussion and activities around social justice, racial equity, and community building that goes way beyond the play itself,” said artistic director Julia Flood.
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
The Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences program commissions new work, tours its productions, and presents tours from companies nationally and internationally. Each season the program features three to four commissions produced in-house and sends two tours across the U.S. for up to eight months at a time. The theatre’s biennial program, New Visions/New Voices, also helps other TYA theatres develop new work.
Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md.
Imagination Stage also targets multigenerational audiences. Led by executive director and founder Bonnie Fogel, the company serves more than 110,000 children and their families each year year.
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Founded in 1963, South Coast Repertory programs a TYA lineup each season, which targets children ages 4 and up. Audience members are given the opportunity to engage with the programming by meeting the actors after each show.
Lexington Children’s Theatre, Lexington, Ky.
Lexington Children’s Theatre produces mainstage and touring productions that travel to schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the state. The theatre also has an on-site theatre school, a satellite education program, and a discovery series, which exposes children to all areas of artistic and technical production.
Main Street Theater, Houston
Main Street Theater’s Theater for Youth program is enjoying its first season in a new facility in Houston’s Midtown Arts and Theater Center. Most of the company’s audiences come from school bookings—the theatre produces three shows a day, six days a week. A TYA favorite, Junie B. Jones the Musical, will be produced by the company from March 1–April 2. “There’s a pretty rich literature right now to pick from,” founding artistic director Rebecca Udden said of the TYA canon.
MainStreet Theatre Company, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Not to be confused with the above company, MainStreet Theatre Company is the resident TYA theatre at the Lewis Family Playhouse. The company is currently producing Mirette, which runs April 23–May 8, about a young girl in Paris in the 1890s who teaches a retired high-wire artist to overcome his fears.
Omaha Theater Company, Omaha, Neb.
Omaha Theater Company, also known as the Rose Theater, programs for families from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. The company targets children ages 2–13, with a majority of attendees falling between the ages of 4 and 9. “We work very hard to make sure that everything we do—from an educational standpoint as well as from a mainstage programming standpoint—is speaking to students at eye level, which is to say respecting their immense intelligence,” said artistic director Matt Gutschick. Last year, the company premiered Palette of Possibility, a production tailored to audience members with autism.
Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland, Ore.
Oregon Children’s Theatre emphasizes both theatrical programming and community outreach. “There’s this whole field out there that is working together to try to promote the field and do mutually beneficial sort of stuff,” said artistic director Stan Foote. The company co-commissions and collaborates with other TYA theatres, and the theatre programs for ages 4—18. In 2006, the company commissioned an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which has gone on to be produced 250 times nationally and internationally.
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