“Touring is a young person’s game,” says Sally Fiorello, producing director of national tours for Dallas Children’s Theater. She’s referring to the toll that touring can take on the company’s actors, who can be on the road for up to seven months, but she could just as easily be referring to the 150,000 students across the country who see a DCT show every year. Her observation also suggests the challenges that come with touring theatre for young audiences (TYA) in general, which are daunting regardless of age. Financial constraints, curriculum tie-ins, presenter tastes, and parent-teacher approval all come into play in TYA touring, making it even more challenging for companies to create high-quality work.
Fortunately there are presenters around the country who are eager to book and support work that upends expectations about what TYA can be, whether that’s through innovative form, thought-provoking content, rich production values, or all of the above. International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY), the service organization for TYA presenters and producers, has approximately 500 people attend its annual booking conference each year. The New Victory Theater in New York is one of the few institutions that exclusively presents work for young audiences, and now its LabWorks program is helping artists to develop bold new work for young audiences. Most presenters must program their TYA offerings within a larger season for general audiences, which places additional restrictions on what they’re able to book. But in all these cases, producers and presenters are finding ways to work with local schools and communities to bring high-quality work to young audiences, even in the face of increasing financial, logistic, and educational demands.
For presenters looking for excellence in TYA touring productions, the work must adhere to the same artistic standards as their programming for adults.
“Our first-base criteria is putting the best artists onstage as possible,” says Anthea Scouffas, engagement and education director at the Lied Center of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. Carolyn Elliott, IPAY board member and director of programming at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif., notes that valuing quality is a long-term investment in cultivating stakeholders. “We’ve done TYA shows that have sold out, but if the show wasn’t great, audiences didn’t come back. So we’ve put more towards art with a capital A now,” she says. “If it’s not good enough for the mainstage, it’s not good enough for children. You can’t show them sub-par work.”
Unsurprisingly, touring even excellent TYA can have a steep financial toll, both for producers and for presenters. “I believe that budgetary restraints are greater for TYA companies, especially for large-scale TYA tours,” says Fiorello. “Until patrons and presenters both start to value theatre for young audiences as much as they do theatre for the general population, TYA companies will continue to be paid much smaller fees and touring budgets will be extremely difficult to manage.”
Elliott points out that travel costs have kept her from bringing some of her favorite TYA artists to Broad Stage. “There’s some really beautiful work for babies out of Australia, but I can’t justify the cost of flying people in and getting visas to my organization,” she says. “If more American artists were doing this kind of work, I would present it in a heartbeat.”
Curriculum connections are another major concern when booking TYA tours. “About 80 percent of these performances are for schooltime audiences,” says Theresa Holden, co-founder and co-chair of the booking agency Holden & Arts Associates. “Those ticket buyers are teachers and principals, and they have a specific knowledge and appetite for what they want their children to see, for the educational needs that have to be met.”
Dallas Children’s Theater, whom Holden represents, responds to this need by touring large-scale adaptations of well-known children’s literature, which they can book for 20-30 week runs, even as TYA tours with similar production values have become a rarity. “We’ve grown over time, and people’s expectations of what they want from us has grown,” says Fiorello. “Touring these kinds of productions is more difficult, but you have to listen to your audience if you want to remain relevant.”
The appetite for familiar content often makes touring difficult for TYA shows that aren’t based on well-known books, even if those shows have great educational value. Holden observes that clients with work that’s more offbeat, including some international companies, generally have shorter tours that are more difficult to sell.
“You can have presenters dotted across the country who believe in a specific piece, but if there are vast distances between them, and there aren’t other presenters who can tie into it too, you can lose the tour,” she says. “These tours have to be somewhat self-supporting, and the fees are very small for the highly produced pieces that these companies are doing. If they can only go to a few places it just doesn’t work.”
Still, Holden successfully books tours for companies like 24th Street Theatre of Los Angeles and Cahoots NI of Northern Ireland that tour work without well-known source material. “There are those presenters that have developed the knowledge and appetite of their audiences, both the school district and the general public, and those people trust them, no matter what they put on their stages,” she says. “Even if it’s not a well-known title, or if they don’t know the name of a company, they are going to come to that presenter because they’ve had good experiences there.”
Presenters committed to bringing high-quality TYA tours to their audiences have a variety of strategies to pull it off, starting with cultivating support from board and community leadership.
“We got our board chair, who has a grandson, keenly interested in theatre for young people,” says Elliott. “His grandson has since grown out of that kind of work, but now we have his support to present it.”
The Lied Center in Lawrence, Kans., is able to bring school groups to the theatre free of charge, and has created a network of “school ambassadors” at every school in the district. “That foundation is really important, because it allows me to look for work without worrying about selling tickets, and we have a long history of trust,” says Scouffas. “I don’t have to worry about bringing in a piece that is a title that everyone knows. That doesn’t mean we don’t do that, but I don’t have to, and that helps us lead and guide the entire experience from pre-school to 12th grade, and see it holistically.”
For some presenters, curricular connections and the need to forge educational links can actually help create opportunities for presenting work that might otherwise seem too difficult to sell. McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, Calif., runs an in-depth aesthetic education program for 25 school partners that offers professional development for teachers and allows students to deeply engage with the themes of a play before they see it. “When students come, they already have a language and a vocabulary for how to talk about the show,” says Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, McCallum’s director of education. “It gives us room to be a little more daring in our programming.”
The aesthetic education program allowed Thuresson-Frary to facilitate a conversation with teachers around 24th Street Theatre’s production of Walking the Tightrope long before their students saw the show. A dreamy play by British writer Mike Kenny, Walking the Tightrope tells the story of a girl helping her grandfather deal with the loss of his wife.
“At first, there were some teachers who thought it was too much,” Thuresson-Frary concedes. “But there were others who said, ‘I had a student this year who lost not a grandparent, but a parent. Don’t our students need productive, creative channels where they can process their experiences?’ The vehicle of our aesthetic education program really helps us to prepare teachers as well as students.”
Scouffas had a similar experience when preparing middle school educators for Paige in Full, writer/performer Paige Hernandez’s hip-hop coming-of-age show. She reached out to her principals and school ambassadors beforehand and explained her reasoning behind presenting the piece. “Lawrence is not terribly diverse, and our kids never get to see or experience young people that have grown up in other settings and some of the challenges around that, and we had a variety of responses,” she says, “One principal told me, ‘This is exactly what our kids need to see, and they need to see it now,’ and there were others who felt it was a little too mature for 6th graders. Some of the schools that felt nervous about it had some really intense conversations with their students following it, which is exactly what we want to have happen. We don’t want you to just go back to school, say ‘that was fun’ and move on through the day.”
In addition to stakeholder support and audience engagement, the annual IPAY Conference is another huge resource for presenters looking to book high-quality TYA work. “It’s a great opportunity to see fully produced work,” says Elliott. “As a presenter, it enables to you to say to your organization, ‘I saw this, I know that it’s appropriate for families,’ and there are no surprises when you present it. There’s a mix of age ranges, and they’ve also started highlighting sensory-friendly performances for children with autism.”
Space limitations do remain an issue for presenters looking to book more high-quality TYA, particularly for family audiences as opposed to solely school groups. Thuresson-Frary notes that the McCallum is too big to sustain a family audience. “We only have one theatre and it’s over 1,100 seats,” she says. “If we had a 300-seat theatre at our disposal, we would probably have a lot more family offerings.”
Still, some presenters are starting to solve their space issues by programming outside of their buildings. Says Elliott, “I see this both in TYA and mainstage, because the overhead costs of maintaining a big facility are so expensive, and the buildings themselves can be so imposing. If you branch out and present work outside of your usual space, it’s a way to introduce a new audience to who you are.”
While there will always be challenges to TYA touring that are TYA-specific, they’re worth overcoming so that kids across the country get what may be their only chance to see theatre that speaks directly to them. We could all use more theatre that does that.
Emma Halpern is co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theatre.