What do we say to our students today?
A beloved former teacher of mine posted this question on Facebook the day after the election. I’ve been asking myself something similar over the past few weeks, wondering how the coming years will shape the role that theatre plays in the lives of children. In President Trump’s America, what do we say to our young audiences? It’s a question that’s always relevant but feels more urgent: What is the responsibility of theatre for young audiences (TYA) in uncertain, even scary times?
My answers to these questions echo some of the thoughts that other theatre artists have shared recently: Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations, celebrate difference, and take care of one another. These are things we should be saying to audiences of all ages regardless who our leaders are, but conveying these messages to the next generation seems especially important now.
As co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theater, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the theatre community can best reach kids and teens. In 2017 and beyond, the TYA world will face new challenges when it comes to making itself heard, and will have to adapt new strategies and refine old ones to break through all the political noise.
The following calls to action are ways that the TYA community might build on the outreach and advocacy work it’s already doing so that when we speak to young audiences in the future, our voices are as loud and as strong as possible.
We need to get “adult” theatres in on the act.
Many theatres that don’t primarily produce TYA have “children’s series” programming in addition to their mainstage seasons. According to the 2015 TCG Theatre Facts survey, almost half a million theatregoers attended a children’s series production at a non-TYA theatre last year. These series are crucial in introducing young people to the arts and to local cultural venues, and artistic standards are always high. But shows in these series often receive smaller productions, fewer performances, and a secondary place in marketing materials.
What if more theatres gave shows for young people the same resources they gave to their mainstage shows? Soho Rep‘s site-specific production Washeteria in a Brooklyn laundromat last year was as ambitious as any of their “adult” work. I believe the special place the show was given in their season contributed both to the quality of the performance and to the attention New York critics deservedly gave it.
The oldest millennials are having kids of their own now, and theatre spaces that produce work for kids and adults will be well positioned to connect with the most populous generation since the baby boomers. Giving a TYA piece a mainstage slot also has the potential to combat stereotypes about elitism in the theatre. It’s hard to call a place exclusionary if it’s giving children a seat at the grown-ups’ table.
We need more established playwrights writing for TYA.
When a noteworthy artist creates something that’s specifically for children, it grants kids a respect and a legitimacy that they don’t often get. It can also result in a work of art that’s even more innovative than some work for adults. Playwright Karen Zacarías has said that writing for young audiences has pushed her “to be more imaginative, more playful, and more sophisticated in my storytelling,” adding that it has influenced how she writes for adults.
I’ve written before about the challenges and rewards that “adult” playwrights have experienced writing for young audiences for the first time. If more of these playwrights tried their hand at TYA, their plays would reach more theatregoers, and they’d be cultivating future audiences for their “adult” work. More non-TYA playwrights writing for TYA could be good for career TYA writers as well. Rather than infringe on their niche, more non-TYA playwrights writing for kids would help raise the profile of the genre overall, which could mean more opportunities for everyone and a more robust canon of work.
We need more theatre training programs to include TYA.
Many college theatre departments in the U.S. have distinct courses of study for TYA and educational theatre, separate from the rest of the department. Some extraordinary programs exist, including University of Texas at Austin’s MFA in drama and theatre for youth and communities, and New York University’s B.S. and M.A. in educational theatre. But TYA needs generalists as well as specialists. If TYA were better integrated into more traditional acting, directing, and playwriting curricula, more emerging artists would begin their careers thinking about what role—however small—young people might play in their work.
We need better data.
According to the Broadway League, more than 10 percent of Broadway audiences last season (1.45 million people) were under the age of 18. Income from children’s series at TCG member theatres has increased 24 percent in the last five years. What’s missing from the field is more data on theatres that primarily produce TYA in the U.S. Numbers on annual TYA theatregoers, ticket revenue, productions, and performances would help the field quantify its impact.
We need more diverse staffs, artists, audiences, and stories.
By 2065, there will no longer be a single racial or ethnic majority in the U.S. Still, many kids in this country rarely see positive representations in the media of people who look like them. Every kid should believe that their story belongs onstage, and TYA has a chance to lead this charge.
Members of the new administration in Washington have expressed open hostility toward Muslim and Latinx people. ArtEquity and Enrich Chicago are just two organizations working toward racial equity in the arts, and are great resources for learning what it really means for an arts institution to have a commitment to diversity. (Hint: It starts with doing away with euphemisms like “diversity” and tackling discussions about racism and privilege head on.)
TYA can be the place where parents initiate tough conversations with their kids, where kids who feel vulnerable find camaraderie, and where an adult might reevaluate a firmly held belief. Let’s take this opportunity and run with it.
We need to give young audiences strength without sugarcoating the truth.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said: “The mission that I feel like I have is to figure out how you can tell the truth about how tragic and unfair life actually is without destroying hope.” To a degree, this is what the best TYA has always done, and what it must continue to do: Show young audiences the problems of the world, and empower them to solve them.