On Saturday June 8, TYA professionals from across the country gathered at the National YoungArts Foundation in Miami to share strategies and discuss the future of the TYA field. The day-long gathering was scheduled on the tail-end of the Theatre Communications Group’s National Conference. The National Endowment of the Arts, TCG, and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA hosted the post-conference at YoungArts’ beautiful stained-glass building, a colorful jewel box in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood.
TYA/USA executive director Jonathan Shmidt Chapman gave an overview of the current state of the TYA field. Matthew Omasta, associate professor and associate head of the Department of Theatre Arts at Utah State University, presented research from a national TYA data survey that he conducted this past year, one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. Lindsey Buller Maliekel, director of education/public engagement at the New Victory Theater in New York City, presented a study on the ways in which theatregoing impacts both personal growth and social development of young people. Attendees shared best practices around funding strategies, leadership models, representation, new work, audience development models, and organizational partnerships. A cadre of theatre professionals—including artistic leaders, composers, and playwrights—presented their dreams for the future of the TYA field.
Associate editor Allison Considine and Emma Halpern, co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theater and longtime TYA columnist for American Theatre (who will also file her own report on the gathering with the NEA’s support in September), got together to discuss their post-conference experience.
ALLISON CONSIDINE: I appreciated that the program started with the question, “What theatre performance do you remember from your childhood?” For me it was a performance of Winnie-the-Pooh when I was three years old. I caught the bug then! Sharing that with the other attendees, and recognizing the impact the show had on me on such a young age, was a great start to the day. What was that for you, Emma?
EMMA HALPERN: I remember seeing a production of Singin’ in the Rain when I was very little and getting to go backstage to see how they made it rain onstage. That backstage experience felt so special and gave me a better understanding and appreciation of what happened onstage. I think that goes back to this idea that pre- and post-show experiences are so important, which was a big part of Lindsey Buller Malikel’s presentation about the New Victory Theater’s research study.
CONSIDINE: The results from that study were striking. Nina Meehan from Bay Area Children’s Theatre summed it up best: “When was the last time you looked at data and had teary eyes?” The survey asked students if they think they will graduate high school, if they think they’ll be happy when they grow up. And the students who had experienced in-classroom workshops, behind-the-scenes peeks at the shows, and post-show debriefs more often pointed to high school graduation and happier futures. Of course everyone knows that theatre is important for children—but to read how it affects a child’s outlook on life, and to have the data for those findings, is powerful.
HALPERN: I think impact was a huge takeaway for me, especially thinking about the New Victory’s research. Their data hasn’t been published yet, but their outcomes suggest that there’s quantifiable evidence that when kids see theatre, they can better understand and express their feelings, can empathize more with other people, and are more optimistic about their futures. When kids are in bad situations—when they’re food-insecure, when they’re living in poverty, when they have bad family situations—they spend so much time dealing with reality that it can be hard for them to play and imagine and think about how the future might be able to be different. But when you see yourself reflected onstage, or are invited to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it activates your imagination and gives you the ability to see yourself in other situations.
I think this notion that theatre can give kids hope and help them to imagine a better future for themselves is really compelling, and hopefully will help funders and the rest of the theatre world see how relevant TYA can be.
CONSIDINE: There was another statistic in the New Vic study about the very small window of time theatres have to make that impact on young people—I think they’ve narrowed it down to, what, age 8?
HALPERN: Yeah, that if you haven’t seen a show by the time you turn 8, your interest in theatre, or your belief that theatre could be “for you,” starts to go down, and that can affect whether or not you’ll ever want to go to the theatre as an adult. That was surprising to me—that even if you’re taken to the theatre as a teenager, if you haven’t had access as a kid, we may have already lost you as an audience member.
CONSIDINE: Another thing that stood out to me was the discussion about how many performers think of TYA work as just a stepping stone to lead to regional theatres, and how that hierarchy of work affects the funding.
HALPERN: Yeah, that TYA is a place where artist might like to stay, where they can do really innovative, important work, but that as their careers take off, they start to get more lucrative job offers that they can’t turn down.
CONSIDINE: That also ties into representation, because almost everyone who spoke talked about equity, diversity, and inclusion and wanting a greater representation of voices in TYA theatre. But it came back to the fact that a lot of TYA theatres don’t have the funding to house artists and bring them in from other cities, and so they have a very small pool of artists they’re working with in their own communities.
HALPERN: Yes, equity, diversity, and inclusion were a huge part of this conference. One of the big takeaways for me was that the TYA community is framing these issues as being crucial to the survival of the field. We’re reaching a really diverse group of kids right now—racially diverse, economically diverse—but if they don’t see themselves reflected onstage, they’re not going to think that theatre is relevant to their lives and they won’t be excited to come back.
CONSIDINE: I was inspired to hear about some of the partnerships that the larger regional theatres are doing in commissioning shows, like Steven Dietz’s pair of shows The Ghost of Splinter Cove and The Great Beyond, presented at Actors Theater of Charlotte and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. I think these collaborations point to a new direction for the field.
HALPERN: Co-commissions and other types of partnerships are happening a lot in the field right now. Sharing resources in that way, both with other TYA theatres and in collaborations with “grown-up” theatres, is one solution to the funding issue. One thing to be careful of, though, is running into the same issues that can happen when small, culturally diverse or culturally specific organizations team up with a larger, predominantly white organizations—issues of who has ownership over the work, who knows more about this community, but who has the money, which can make a collaboration difficult or exploitative.
CONSIDINE: You attended TYA/USA’s 2019 Festival & Conference in May. Was there a lot of crossover with the conversations happening there and at this gathering?
HALPERN: Yes, there have been a lot of conversations in the field around representation and impact lately. But this conference’s focus on interacting with the grown-up theatre world, and on making the case for TYA to the larger theatre community, really made it distinctive. Having a convening like this, produced in association with non-TYA entities like TCG and the NEA, makes it a big moment for the field. There was a lot of talk about the ways in which TYA is marginalized by funders, by awards-granting entities, and by arts journalists, so just the fact that the two of us are having a conversation about TYA and covering it together is a big deal.
I also think that there can be a tendency in the field to focus on what sets TYA apart from grown-up theatre. This conference did get into some of the differences—more frequent audience turnover as kids age out, how the focus on school time performances can affect season planning—but there were also conversations about how we’re all the same. Idris Goodwin talked about how he’s not interested in dichotomies, and wants the field to focus on what we have in common with grown-up theatre, what values we share.
I’m interested in how this gathering fit within the larger TCG conference and your experience at the conference.
CONSIDINE: There was a big focus on education this year at the TCG conference, with a pre-conference gathering of education directors and a separate convening of students and leaders in higher education. The post-conference programming for TYA complemented that. The conference as a whole had three programmatic tracks: arts journalism, climate change, and wellness. The TYA conference touched on a lot of those same topics, with a call for more criticism, trauma-informed learning for students, and the idea that important issues—like climate change—have a place on TYA stages.
All of the information the studies presented at the TYA gathering was new and exciting to me. What were some things that were surprising to you, as someone who is very much immersed in this field?
HALPERN: For me, one of the most surprising things came from Matthew Omasta’s presentation on the TYA data survey. I knew that TYA theatres earned less money in ticketing income than grown-up theatres, but I didn’t know that the disparity was as huge as the research shows. The difference in ticket income really jumped out at me: The average TYA theatre is only making about 39 percent of the ticketing income that a grown-up theatre of comparable size is making. Two theatres could have the same budgets, the same level of production values, the same house size, and sell the same number of tickets, but because TYA theatres are selling their tickets to families—who do not have the kind of disposable income that ticket buyers at non-TYA theatres have—ticket prices just have to be lower. The gap gets even bigger for TYA theatres that sell the majority of their tickets to school groups at reduced rates. I knew there was an earned income gap, but I had no idea how stark the numbers actually were.
CONSIDINE: And ticket buyers are buying multiple tickets for families, and not just two. That’s partly why well-known titles and book adaptations are a bit safer to program. But I was so inspired by Idris Goodwin’s presentation, especially his charge for the field to replace the word “risk” with the word “opportunity.” That idea seemed to be a throughline of the conversations about the vision for the future of TYA.
I was also just really struck by the amount of new work that’s happening in TYA. Hearing everyone share what their own theatre companies were programming, and hearing from some of the playwrights and composers—most of the work that is happening is brand-new work, and a bit more edgy than I had expected.
HALPERN: Yeah. Jacqueline Russell from Chicago Children’s Theatre also talked about how TYA needs to be a place where kids can engage with and process the complicated, scary things that are happening in the world right now, and that TYA artists and producers need to be brave in their work.
CONSIDINE: I really did feel like the that the attendees were all very hopeful about the future, and everyone seemed to be excited to dig in and talk about some of these issues.
HALPERN: I really liked what Mary Rose Lloyd from the New Victory said about how funding issues in TYA go back to the way we treat children in general. I’ve heard other TYA professionals talk about this too. The lack of funding in education, in healthcare—we neglect and screw children over in so many ways. The issue is bigger than just funding and valuing TYA. Our country and our society need to value children more, not just as an investment in future workers or consumers or even as future theatregoers, as human beings who right now, in this moment, have complicated feelings and ideas and are responding to a complicated world.
CONSIDINE: That’s so true. What were some things that you took away from the day that you carry with you now in your own organization?
HALPERN: I like what Idris said about thinking about theatre beyond your own walls. Schools and community centers and places of worship all have theatres in their buildings, and TYA companies should be their natural tenants. We can get hung up on wanting our own beautiful theatre complex, on “competing” with grown-up theatre and living up to the standards of professionalism that those theatres set. But these kinds of community spaces are such a direct way to reach audiences, and engaging communities in those spaces could be so powerful. It’s was a great reminder that success for my company doesn’t have to look the same as success for a non-TYA company.
CONSIDINE: Because this gathering was sort of an introduction to TYA theatre for me, I’m inspired to go and see TYA theatre.
HALPERN: That’s fantastic. One more thing that I hope comes out of this convening is that the TYA continues to bring more people into the tent—that emerging artists and theatre managers will feel like this is a welcoming community that is doing exciting, professional work. Because I think the bigger the field gets, the more diverse the work can be, and the harder it will be for critics and funders to ignore it.
CONSIDINE: Right. The last note I scribbled in my notebook from the day was: “Funders and journalists, show up!”