Ceci n’est-pas le théâtre pour l'enfance

Performing the Borders of TFY

This is the third 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 last two posts, I made a modest proposal: There Are No Children, by which I mean that a deeper respect for children comes from the refusal of the constructed categories of child and adult.

Of course, the fact that a category is a social construct does not mean that it does not exist. If I argued that race is a construct, brown bodies would still feel the material effects of racism. Childhood works the same way. Implementing the theoretical premise that there are no children presents a whole world of practical problems. How do you sell tickets for not-children’s-theatre? What might children’s theatre be, in a world with no children? Later in this series, I will discuss what it might practically look like to refuse the categories of child and adult. For now, I’d like to examine the limits as to which performances are considered “children’s theatre.”

When children’s performances are explicitly or overtly ideological, the performance is generally not coded as “children’s theatre.”

While it is common practice for children’s theatres to include child actors in some or all of the roles, we do not consider the whole range of children’s performance “theatre.” I take a performance studies approach, considering a broad spectrum of activities as performance. From this perspective, there is a whole range of performances that include children but are not defined as children’s theatre: scouting, pageantry, sports, religious rituals, social performances. Because children are seen as sponge-like vessels for ideology, there is a certain degree of politicization of children’s performances. Children’s bodies carry for all sorts of messages. When children’s performances are explicitly or overtly ideological, the performance is generally not coded as “children’s theatre.”

This is Not Children’s Theatre: Nationalist Performance
Among many ideological performances not coded as “children’s theatre,” nationalist performances/ performances of nation-ness are my personal obsession. Countless examples easily come to mind, such as being required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school or to stand for the National Anthem at sporting events. If you grew up on a military base (as I did), you probably had to stand at attention for “Colors.” If you were a Scout (as I was), you might have arisen to “Reveille” and gone to sleep after “Taps,” like a young soldier. If you were a graceful, prepossessing child (as I was not), perhaps you dreamed of becoming Miss Teen America. None of these are “children’s theatre,” yet all rely on young performing bodies. We come to Why I Hate Children’s Theatre reason Number Five: it removes significant arenas of performance from examination. To fully understand how childhood is a performative construct, we must re-adjust our scope of inquiry.

If we comprehend the ways that children constitute and reconstitute ideological processes performatively, we might wish for significant overhaul of educational systems. Of course, significant overhaul of educational systems is also a turning course of ideology. One example: in 1999, China implemented a well-rounded educational approach known as suzhi. Suzhi, or “quality,” education reform emphasized a more holistic and less overtly “political” education. Less emphasis was placed on exams and party doctrine, and more emphasis placed on physical education, critical thinking, and culture. Dr. Susan Brownell has written about a series of mock Olympics held in Chinese schools, part of the new Chinese approach to education. In one of these re-enactments, children performed nationhood by wearing symbols of different nations. To perform the US, of course, the children wore jeans, bandanas, and cowboy hats (our ethnic garb). On a small scale, across the surfaces of children’s bodies, this parallels the performance of nationhood seen in the 2008 opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing, which used children’s bodies to perform “China” on a global scale.

children marching with flags
Chinese children from Yangfangdian Primary School perform US Nationality at 2005 mock Olympics. Photo courtesy Dr. Susan Brownell. 

A series of the mini Olympic re-enactments was held in Sichuan province immediately following the Great Sichuan Earthquake, an event which killed more than sixty-eight thousand and left about 4.8 million people homeless. These Olympic reenactments were seen as a post-disaster “psychological intervention” in schools, a push to go “swifter, higher, stronger” in the face of great trauma. Thousands of children re-enacted the passing of the torch, meant to symbolize the Olympic spirit of mutual respect, understanding, and peace between nations. While one could construe this type of suzhi education as “less political” than the overtly socialist/communist doctrines of the past, I see the children’s performances of nationhood as equally ideological, reflecting the new Chinese nation—a China that is no longer isolated but a global player.

Of course, these overtly ideological performances of nation are not “children’s theatre.

students protesting
Students perform a Chicano US nation, protesting ethnic studies ban in Arizona. Source: www.beinglatino.us

Seven thousand miles from Sichuan province, Tucson high school students created an entirely different performance of nationhood. After Governor Jan Bruja placed a ban on ethnic studies that prohibited schools from teaching Mexican-American studies, more than three hundred middle and high school students walked out of class in protest. As State Superintendent Tom Horne, who spearheaded the attack on Chicano studies, stating that it promoted “destructive ethnic chauvinism,” attempted to visit Tucson Unified School District students formed a human chain around the building, preventing his access, forcing the meeting to be cancelled. This was only one of a string of ongoing performative disruptions, initiated by youth, that have forced a discussion about what the education system has tried to suppress: the simple fact that Chicano History is American History. Redefining American History to include the history of its indigenous and mestizo people is redefining Nationhood. The youth who protest the ethnic studies ban are performing a different nationalism than the one promoted by the ideological state apparatchik, Ms. Bruja. This is, of course, not “children’s theatre,” so we come to Why I Hate Children’s Theatre Number Six: the most interesting children’s theatre does not happen in theatres.

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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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