For more on the current call for increased arts funding, see this story.
“Our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.”
— from “The Hill We Climb” by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman
We are at a turning point in the story of our country, one that our diminished theatre industry and struggling arts workers watch with cautious optimism. There is hope that this new era will bring renewed support for the arts as a national priority at the federal level. There have been many think pieces, proposals, and roadmaps written recently, outlining ways that the new Biden-Harris Administration could both save and strengthen the arts industry.
These proposals leave out a key component that should be strongly championed: the role that the arts, and specifically theatre, should play in the lives of children. A comprehensive arts strategy that centers access to the arts as the right of every child will not only support the future of the creative economy, but will also help to heal the soul of the nation.
Children are facing a crisis of identity, development, and hope. The pandemic has led to intense social isolation and a damaging rise in screen time. The social and political turmoil of the last four years will define a generation that is trying to make sense of the persistent racial injustice, division, protests, and increasingly volatile behavior from the adults around them. In the coming year, as the vaccine hopefully brings a more normal return to social life, children will need the uniquely communal life experience that theatre offers to process the world around them.
Recent research tells us what those of us in the Theatre for Young Audiences industry have known for decades: that arts engagement for children can play a significant role in developing social emotional maturity and cultivating empathy. Theatre can actually help children develop a sense of hope for their future, according to a recent study conducted by New Victory/New 42 and WolfBrown. In the face of so many challenges, what could be more important than ensuring that the next generation can empathize with those around them, understand multiple perspectives, and approach their futures with hope? A new chapter of arts policy, and education reform, must prioritize arts for children as central to the “Build Back Better” roadmap for the Biden-Harris Administration.
There’s precedent for this strategy if we look back to the past, when the last major economic crisis and social upheaval was in full swing. Many arts leaders are encouraging representatives to draw inspiration from the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Theatre Project, which put arts workers back to work and brought theatre to regions across the country during the 1930s under FDR’s New Deal (See Jason Farago’s roadmap in The New York Times, or playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ advocacy).
But did you know that Children’s Theatre was a key initiative of the Federal Theatre Project? The visionaries behind the program rightly identified that the future of the overall arts economy depended on an investment in future audiences, fostering a connection to the arts that would carry from childhood to adulthood. They also recognized that developing well-rounded, civically minded young people was a bipartisan ideal, and that engagement in theatre “will help the child to an awareness of himself and his place in the world about him.”
Children’s Theatre was seen as an antidote to the growing anxieties for the next generation, and the ways that the realities of the world were impacting children during the Depression years. The Children’s Theatre units of the FTP were deployed across the country, in both urban hubs and rural communities, and offered in theatres, community centers, hospitals, schools, and parks. They used theatre as a tool for young people to process the issues of the day, understand the world around them, and feel a part of a communal experience. The FTP Children’s Theatre not only offered entertainment, but many of the productions were actually used as a vehicle to combat the rise of fascism. The echoes across time are remarkably familiar to the world our children inhabit today and the challenges we face as a country.
Today, unlike during the era of the FTP, we can actually invest in a national TYA infrastructure that already exists. We have a thriving professional Theatre for Young Audiences industry across the country that serves millions of children, families, and schools each year, itself largely catalyzed by the Federal Theatre Project and the Junior League movement of the 1930s. These theatres have worked tirelessly to continue to serve their young audiences through the pandemic, offering virtual performances, online drama classes, and digital school residencies.
The current crisis has only exacerbated funding disparities that have existed for far too long, as government and private sector funding rarely devotes a proportional allocation of resources to the TYA sector as compared to the support received by theatres that serve adults. In fact, according to a recent report published by the National Endowment for the Arts, many arts funders exclude work for young people from their philanthropic portfolios entirely on the basis that TYA is classified as education work rather than true “art.”
In this country, art created for children is not seen as important because as a society we don’t respect children as intelligent, complex humans deserving of the highest-quality experiences created expressly for their benefit. Art for children is not considered essential by any of the key stakeholders who have the power to invest in its impact: the funders, the government, the mainstream theatre industry, or the education community. Without the type of relief that has been fiercely advocated for by Be An #ArtsHero and other grassroots movements, the TYA industry is in danger of collapse. Isn’t it time we recognize the holistic role that the arts can play in the lives of children, and proportionately support the organizations and individuals dedicated to serving them?
In a pitch for bringing back the Federal Theatre Project, Jeremy O. Harris called theatre “our only community-based practice of catharsis.” Our children are in desperate need of a way to process the trauma of the last year, understand their agency in the world around them, and see their role in envisioning our future. All children need access to the arts to help them develop their voices, and use them to inspire change in the world around them, as so brilliantly demonstrated by Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet to ever deliver words at an inauguration. A unified and targeted strategy at the national level would allow the impact of live, communal theatrical experience to reach young people in communities where access is most needed. It would build the pipeline of cultural participation for the future, while cultivating a sense of optimism, understanding, and self-awareness across a generation of young people in desperate need of something to believe in.
I can’t think of a time when the development of empathy, hope, and imagination was more important for the future of our children and our nation. It’s time for the entire arts industry, advocates, and elected officials—who are actively creating a comprehensive Biden-Harris arts and culture strategy—to ensure that young audiences are a vital part of the way we build back better.
Jonathan Shmidt Chapman (he/him) is an artist, producer, writer, curator, educator, and the executive director of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA.
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