The Borders of Theatre for Youth

This is the fifth of seven posts that proposes a new theory of theatre for youth. Teresa Simone suggests that a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the US/Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

In my blog series, I have suggested a new theory of Theatre for Youth based on the modest proposal that There Are No Children. Childhood is a construct that enforces certain inequities. Theatres that produce what is conventionally referred to as “children’s theatre” or “theatre for youth” may have laudable goals, but they reinforce essentialist views of what childhood is, and can be. This is, of course, the impolitic conclusion of a parvenu, arriving unwelcomed. Others take a more polite, more institutional approach, choosing to change TFY from within, stretching its epistemological boundaries like a knit sweater, finding holes, unravelling seams. From this position, some imagine TFY’s potential in new spaces, new contexts, new forms.

As we write the annals of TFY history, more meaning can be found in what is excluded. I am only concerned with what is not in the archive; what is undocumented.

The sweater can stretch. The limits of childhood/adulthood are mutable, have shifted drastically historically, and are extremely informed by one’s class and geopolitical positioning. This is not an unfamiliar concept, and TFY historians such as Roger Bedard and Manon van de Water have done an excellent job of documenting this. Although I appreciate the work of historians and archivists, I am not interested in stretching the sweater. There is a calcification inherent in the naming of things: the same disciplinary walls that establish Theatre for Youth as a valid specialization deaden the field’s possibilities for change. The words we call things point to the limits of their own meanings (what is not a child?); there is a benefit to being unnamed. As we write the annals of TFY history, more meaning can be found in what is excluded. I am only concerned with what is not in the archive; what is undocumented.

What are the borders of TFY? What are the territories that remain untraversed, unexplored, undocumented? These questions arise in the interstices of my mind, heart, and my geopolitical place. I live in Arizona. Here, politicians such as Sheriff Joe Arpayaso and Governor Jan Bruja grandstand by laws allowing for the search of anyone who “looks” undocumented, and prohibiting Mexican-American students from learning their own history. The criminalization of the “illegal” renders the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers invisible. Here, the US-Mexico border is the backdrop for spectacles of death. The Sonoran desert, beautiful and cruel, sprawls carelessly over national divides, the terrain Arizona’s indigenous peoples crossed long before the line was drawn. Now, the border is a remote, sparsely inhabited, non-place where no one is supposed to be, where anyone who appears is already suspect. What performances, by and for youth, inhabit the no-place territories? What acts disrupt the borders?

Recently, youth have begun a series of acts that make the undocumented visible. These acts, theatrical and performative in nature, support my opinion that the most interesting children’s theatre does not happen in theatres. There has been political resistance by groups such as No More Deaths, who have chained themselves to deportation buses. Youth supporting the DREAM Act have been arrested in multiple instances of civil disobedience. Other youth have formed human chains, protesting Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies. What does it mean, then, to perform TFY on the borderlands?

First, There Are No Children in the borderlands. Youth who cross the border are often providers of income for their families. They may be one of the half million children who pick US crops. They may be alone, or abandoned, like Josseline Hernandez Quintero. Can these people, utterly deprived of innocence and play, be said to be children?

Second, borderlands not-TFY must acknowledge death. In my last post, I discussed how death is a mostly-taboo topic in TFY. There are some children’s plays that deal with an individual’s exceptionalized death (Charlotte’s Web). There are some plays that deal with mass death on the scale of the Holocaust (Korczak’s Children, The Diary of Anne Frank). However, these plays do not imagine the frank possibility that each and every one of us in currently in the process of dying, all part and parcel of living. In my last post, I highlighted Zarco Guerrero as an example of borderlands not-TFY artist whose work deals with death. Events such as the Phoenix Día de los Muertos festival include children, as artists and participants, across many platforms, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

young boy with face painted
Boy dancing folklorico at All Souls Procession, Tucson. Photo by Isaac Flater.

Flam Chen is another performance group successfully produces borderlands not-TFY. Like Zarco, much of their work takes place outdoors at free events; their work incorporates children as participants and producers; their work acknowledges their place on the border; their work acknowledges death. In Tucson, the All Souls Procession is held roughly on the same days as Día de los Muertos. There is an ancillary event, the Procession of the Little Angels, targeted especially for children, who can make ofrendas for dead pets or relatives. Some of the participants at Little Angels are there to mourn the passing of their own children. While the Little Angels event is intended especially for youth, children are also an integral part of the main parade. This parade draws tens of thousands of Tucsonans of all ages annually, featuring homemade floats, puppets, stilt walkers, and, of course, thousands of people made up as skeletons. The parade ends in a spectacle featuring Flam Chen, and including fire spinning, stilt dancers, circus arts, drumming, and aerialists suspended hundreds of feet above the crowd. Many of the performers in the spectacle are children/youth.

a woman painting a boy's face
Boy getting his face painted for the Procession. Photo courtesy Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Flam Chen creates an aesthetic where children are integral, not exceptional. One way they successfully create this aesthetic is by following the circus tradition of incorporating children as performers. In the old-school model, children are apprentices learning a trade, and their labor is seen as valuable and contributing to the community. Flam Chen’s founders, Nadia Hagen and Paul Weir, have not only raised their own children in a community of artists, but they have also opened the Tucson Circus Arts school and operate a summer camp where kids can learn how to do aerial gymnastics, spin fire, or walk on stilts. Because of Flam Chen’s nonstop work in community cultural development, the All Souls Procession has become a massively popular community ritual, a quintessentially “Tucson” event. While “children’s theatres” attract a highly privileged audience, events like All Souls, free and open to the public, serve a leveling function. They are not children’s theatre. 

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Teresa Simone suggests a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the US/Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.” 

Why I Hate Children's Theatre

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