Brave Little Company in Houston, Dare to Dream Theatre in Sheboygan, Wisc., Off The Page in Brooklyn, and Trike Theatre in Bentonville, Ark., came together recently to create the following statement opposing book bans, which overwhelmingly target historically marginalized groups, and encouraging our theatre peers to examine their own practices to ensure they are as inclusive as possible. You can read and sign the statement at NoBookBans.com, or follow us on major social media platforms @nobookbans.
In the past few weeks, we in the United States have seen the rollback of our human rights and assaults on the foundations of our democracy. We have seen the forces that wish to destroy people and our world become more empowered to do so. In particular, we have seen efforts to undermine public education and to limit the ways in which children can access the truth about history and others’ experiences—while placing them at greater risk of injury or death.
With each attack, the goal is the same: to consolidate power for a small, uniform group of people; to elevate only the voices that reinforce this power; and to silence opponents through intimidation, disenfranchisement, and removal from the public square.
These attacks have seemed so relentless, permanent, and thorough that it is hard to know where to find a foothold to begin meaningful opposition.
However, as theatre professionals, we have access to a vital tool for amplifying voices and truths that are being deliberately excised from public life. Namely, we have a platform that we can all use without overstepping the agreements we have undertaken as nonprofits. We can partner with the artists whose voices are most in danger of being silenced and employ our platform to elevate and celebrate the stories most in danger of being erased. In particular, producers of theatre for young audiences can restore some of their audience members’ access to history, empathy, and understanding that is under threat.
In order to encourage theatres to do this, the authors of this opinion piece have come together to craft No Book Bans—All Youth Should Be Seen and Heard, a statement opposing book bans and highlighting the importance of celebrating all stories on our stages.
The statement is a response to a metastasizing of incidents in which books for young readers have been challenged, banned, or even burned across the country. Based on disingenuous claims about “appropriate content,” these challenges actually are part of an effort to dehumanize people with marginalized identities or from marginalized communities by erasing their stories.
To link just a few examples, the campaign to discourage the platforming of diverse stories and voices is connected to the campaigns to erase the role of people of color and Indigenous peoples in American history; to falsely associate immigration and certain ethnic groups with disease; to challenge the existence of trans youth; and to dehumanize people with disabilities by blaming disability for violent acts. As theatres, we all know what our values are. We must teach them. We must practice them.
As theatremakers, if we are committed to creating art that tells the truth, our truth has to be the whole truth, not excluding anyone. The relationship between writers of books for young readers and producers of theatre for young audiences is already a close one, with many a popular book adapted into a sold-out show or musical. We should already be aware that these adaptations do not fully reflect the diversity of our communities. At a moment when those communities are being further marginalized, we must address this disparity. Furthermore, we are asking our peers in the theatre community to stand up with us now against challenges to books and bans on books in school libraries and public libraries, because these challenges will also come to our stages.
As creators of theatre for young people, we and our peers bear the huge and amazing responsibility of creating the very first work of art that many children experience. We must create that art with the same care, creativity, and high artistic standards that “grown-up” theatres have. Additionally, we know that the moments we are creating onstage are the first and most important opportunity to invite kids to see themselves in art and as artists. This impacts not only the reaction of the young people in the audience—it impacts the future of our art form. Creating art that moves, inspires, and informs our audiences depends on us building experiences for and by all communities—being as inclusive as possible on our stages and behind the scenes.
No theatre should be intimidated from creating and producing inclusive stories of joy, regardless of our audience members’ age. We must powerfully, unequivocally, and joyfully declare that all stories have value on our stages. We must state boldly that we believe representation and equity benefit all people. We must proclaim, in our actions, in our season selections, and in our internal processes, that we are constantly striving to better represent the totality of our stories and experiences. A world where we celebrate every aspect of our community is a world where we celebrate the most noble ideas of American experience, and ultimately the human experience.
Our work of telling the stories of our communities and the children who live in them is a vital part of resisting the efforts to shut them out and silence them. We must oppose this narrow-minded and narrow-souled narrative in order to create a more empathetic, inclusive, and just society. We must do that through the authentic telling of these stories, through adding context to and challenging the narrative being pushed by the powerful, and through ensuring that all peoples are represented.
We in the TYA world cannot assume we are insulated from the attacks our peers in schools, libraries, and in publishing are feeling. We already see examples of performances for children being disrupted by white supremacist protestors.
We will not avoid these disingenuous, cynical attacks by giving in to them. “Playing it safe” will not keep us “safe”; and furthermore, closing our eyes to important stories from all of our communities will harm our audience members, and our art form, and the very fabric of our communities. When stories and the right to tell them are attacked anywhere, that is also an attack on theatre, and an attack on our democratic society.
Our statement opposing book bans is not a passive statement. Rather, we are encouraging our theatre peers to examine their own practices to ensure they are as inclusive as possible. We ask you to join us in taking action to make our rehearsal rooms, creative team meetings, camps, classrooms, and stages places of welcome and celebration, spaces of inclusion and reflection, and theatres that are so loud and affirming that there is no way to ban the stories we tell in them.
To sign the statement and see the action items to consider for your institution and your own artistic practice, please visit www.NoBookBans.com or follow us on major social media platforms @nobookbans.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!