Pixar movies. Harry Potter books. “Let it Go.”
In almost every arts discipline, there’s work being done for young audiences that adults acknowledge as extraordinary. While these movies, books, and songs are primarily targeted at kids, they’re also regarded as legitimate works of art in their own right. For whatever reason, though, theatre for young audiences (TYA) hasn’t quite reached that same level of recognition (at least in the U.S.). Few TYA productions get the same funding, press coverage, or awards recognition as counterparts in other mediums. While one could argue that stage juggernauts like The Lion King and Matilda get the same respect as Toy Story 3, there’s some debate as to whether those shows are truly TYA.
Jonathan Shmidt Chapman has dedicated his career as a theatre artist, educator, and advocate to pushing the boundaries of TYA and bringing more visibility to the field. His résumé includes helping TYA artists develop new work and experiment with form as the associate director of artistic programming at the New Victory Theater; working as the founding artistic director of Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, where he championed an interactive, devising-based model over the course of five years and 10 original productions; and becoming Lincoln Center Education’s first producer of family programming.
Now Chapman’s in an even better position to move the field forward: He’s the new executive director at TYA/USA, a national membership organization that provides advocacy and resources to TYA companies across the country.
I recently spoke to Chapman about his career, the complexities and challenges of the field, and his thoughts on getting both the larger theatre community and the country in general to better understand the impact that TYA can have on young audiences.
EMMA HALPERN: What were your goals as a TYA professional when you began your career? How have they changed?
JONATHAN SHMIDT CHAPMAN: TYA was very much a part of my childhood. My parents took me to see a ton of children’s theatre growing up, but I didn’t really think about it as a career until I moved to New York. I fell into it by way of arts education. I was driven by the intersection of education, art, and social justice, and found my way to TYA by working at the New Victory Theater. Being exposed to the range of international work there really opened my eyes to the field, and the possibilities there—the fact that in so many ways, kids are the most experimental audience you can create for. They have no preconceptions of what theatre is supposed to be.
At first I was most focused on how we can expand the landscape of TYA, and how we can use TYA as a vehicle to experiment with theatre as a form itself: nontraditional spaces, the ways that audiences interact with performers, and how audiences can be part of a story. Since then I’ve shifted my focus to the way the national field is shaped, TYA’s place in the theatre community as a whole, the international TYA community, and the way we develop new work as a field.
I think a lot of young artists don’t necessarily see TYA as a career option, which is one of the issues in this country around training. It’s viewed so much sometimes as an “other” in training programs that young artists don’t realize it’s a viable path to create new and experimental work.
Walk us through your time at New Victory, Trusty Sidekick, and Lincoln Center.
I’ve had the opportunity to create new TYA experiences with big arts institutions and with smaller independent companies. A real turning point for me occurred when I was working in the education department of the New Victory when they produced a festival of Scottish work in 2009. Tony Reekie, who at the time was the head of Imaginate (the national organization in Scotland that promotes and developes theatre and dance for young people), spoke to an audience of American TYA practitioners, and basically said, “In a theatre town that’s so well-known for innovation, I don’t see a lot of TYA happening.” The lightbulb really went off for me to combine my artistic aesthetic, which was devising-based and ensemble-driven, with TYA. That’s what pushed me to create Trusty Sidekick: my wanting to create work with an ensemble of artists and to fill a place in the TYA landscape that I didn’t see being filled.
My time at the New Victory as associate director of artistic programming became about new work development, as I helped to develop the New Victory LabWorks Artist Residency Program. At the same time I was building a canon of work as an artist myself with Trusty Sidekick and experimenting with theatrical form and non-traditional spaces.
That led to my work at Lincoln Center Education and Trusty Sidekick’s commission to create Up and Away. In 2013, Lincoln Center approached Trusty Sidekick with the idea of creating a show for kids on the autism spectrum, which was a new frontier for us at the time. We spent two years developing Up and Away, and in that time I got to know Lincoln Center and see the potential there for family programming as it was just starting to grow. That’s what led me to take a role there as producer of family programming, to help build a new series for kids and families. It’s an organization that’s so well-known for excellence in artistry, but really hasn’t dipped its toes into the family audience world in a big way until now.
What led you to a position with TYA/USA?
I’d been craving the ability to be part of a national conversation in TYA without being tied to an organization. I kept hearing from TYA professionals who wanted to see change and move the field forward, and that got me very excited about shifting my career from being bound to one institution to helping to promote and drive the field forward without any other agenda.
TYA can mean a lot of different things: adults performing for kids, young artists, arts education, and more. How do you reconcile all of the identities and needs of people and organizations who fall under the TYA umbrella?
It’s a really complicated question. The definitions are so blurry, and that’s what creates a wider network. One the one hand, there’s a sharing of resources and a shared ethos of the importance of performance for young people. The negative of muddying those definitions is that we’re missing opportunities to specialize.
For the purposes of TYA/USA, we define TYA as live performance created for a young or family audience. There are some theatres that have youth onstage both in a professional context and in an educational context, but I think the crux of TYA is about young people as audience members experiencing the art form, and everything else can ripple out from there. That is different from educational theatre, or programs that are built around training young artists, even though there’s crossover in the reason people are engaged in those fields.
There’s room for all of it in the ecosystem. Each has its own set of needs, though, and while we can learn from each other, there is, I think, benefit to specialization. I do think that definitions are important, and the more we clarify these different genres, which really are different in terms of mission and style of work, the further we professionalize the field.
I have heard people say, “The big TYA tent is important, it’s what makes us unique.” Do you have a sense of where that argument comes from?
I think it comes from a good place of not wanting to exclude, and not wanting to say, “This is legitimate and this isn’t,” or, “This is professional and this isn’t.” It comes from a place of a lot of people fighting for legitimacy. TYA has to fight to be seen as legitimate theatre. Educational theatre professionals have to fight to keep theatre in schools. I think the feeling is, if we close the tent, then we start to create silos, whereas we can be stronger as a unit. I hear that argument, but I also think the more we can specialize and then help each other as sister fields, the stronger everybody’s work will be. The more general conversations become, the less you can really dig in.
What do you think the field is doing really well right now?
I’m really excited about the partnerships that theatres are creating to co-commission. There’s one model that’s happening right now where seven theatres from across the country are co-commissioning one piece. That kind of collaboration is really exciting, and comes out of the convenings that TYA/USA offers. I’m also excited by the growing field of theatre for the very young and efforts to serve audiences that have previously felt unwelcome in our venues.
What does the field need to work on?
Diversifying, and in all ways that we define diversity: the kinds of stories being told, the artists on our stages, and staff members and leaders at our venues. Also diversity in terms of form, and in terms of the way art is made. We have very traditional models of new work development. That’s not a problem exclusive to TYA, but definitely exists in our field as well.
The field needs to recognize that as TYA practitioners, we are change makers. We create theatre that we hope inspires and offers new perspectives to young people, who will ultimately be responsible for leading us and shaping the next chapter. We need to own that role, and figure out how we participate in the national conversation right now to counteract intolerance and hatred through our work.
I think we also need to find new ways to train our audiences to crave new content in the same way they gravitate toward familiar content. Both are important, but how do we push family audiences to actually crave new stories, new characters, new ideas, in theatre the way they crave that in other media?
How does the field interact with TYA/USA? What are your goals for TYA/USA’s future?
Currently, the organization has nearly every children’s theatre in the country as a member. And as members they gain the ability to connect through the One Theatre World conference, to read about each other’s work through our publications, and to learn through our professional development webinars.
I would like to see us eventually have resources to put towards commissioning new work and finding ways TYA/USA can be a catalyst in the creation of new TYA. I would also like to see us help create leadership opportunities for emerging artists, especially young leaders of color. I’m curious to see how we can harness the power of the national community to change perceptions about TYA in a way that we can’t individually. How can we shift public opinion on TYA and its role in the lives of kids and families? I think as a greater community we have the ability to do that. And I’d like to see us shine a spotlight on innovative practices in the field so that those practices can spread more rapidly.
How do you see TYA in the larger theatre landscape in the U.S.?
It’s a really interesting moment, because I think TYA is growing as a form. We have a network of TYA companies that are branded as such across the country, and there are a number of commercial projects that are making it to Broadway, specifically created for a family audience. They’re not branded as TYA because of marketing decisions, but that audience base is being looked at in a different way in commercial theatre than ever before.
More regional mainstream theatres are asking, What does it look like to put a TYA show in our season? That’s a shift, with theatres like Berkeley Rep and Classic Stage Company in New York starting to think about families as part of their audience base. It will challenge TYA venues to further clarify their need in the field. The TYA companies should be at the vanguard, driving the conversation about what should be made for kids.
I’ve heard TYA professionals say things like, “That play isn’t really a TYA play—it’s a play for adults that’s appropriate for kids.” There seems to be a section of the field that wants to draw a line between what TYA is and what it isn’t.
We kind of want the best of both worlds. We sometimes want TYA to be a siloed community that has its own set of artistry and principles and artists, and then we also want to participate in the mainstream community, be reviewed in the press the same way, and don’t want to be seen as an “other.”
Personally I think if a play is reaching kids and families, we should consider it an extension of our field, whether or not it was generated under the TYA umbrella. We can learn from it and we can apply it to our work. In many ways it’s getting back to what we were talking about earlier, the blurriness of lines. To what extent are definitions important and to what extent do they get in our way of making good work?
I think the notion of the TYA canon is really interesting. Like in mainstream theatre, there’s sometimes a disparity between what companies wish they could produce and what actually gets produced. What is the TYA canon? Is it the shows that get done all the time, or is it the show that gets done at a handful of theatres over 20 years, but is what we all wish we could be doing?
I think there’s room for all of it in the ecosystem. It’s more about how are we balancing these things. The example I use all the time is that there are people whose favorite piece of theatre is Mamma Mia! and there are other people who love to see Robert Wilson at BAM. And there’s room for everybody. We have a rich mainstream theatre landscape with enough options that people can develop a taste. That needs to exist in TYA as well. It’s not about saying, “This is real TYA and this is commercial TYA.” We can’t only offer one kind of theatre as what kids’ theatre looks like.
I think one of the things that complicates our field in an interesting way is that, obviously, parents are the ones purchasing the tickets. And we serve two kinds of parents: parents who are artsgoers themselves and parents who aren’t. Those are two very different ticket buyers. It’s as much about reaching the adults and changing their perceptions as it is about the kids in our audience.
My dream is that parents who aren’t theatregoers take their children to a TYA show, and because of that experience seek out a mainstream production to see for themselves. But the TYA work has to be good for that to happen.
Right. And not just good, it has to engage the parents as well as the kids. It has to be good theatre that challenges them in some way. And really strong TYA does that. It affects everyone in the audience, regardless of whether you’re a kid or an adult.