Don't Call it Sweet
Recently, I told a well-respected artistic leader in the theatre community about the MFA graduate program I am currently enrolled in—Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). He responded in a dismissive tone, "that is sweet." A few weeks later, I sat in the lobby after The Transition of Doodle Pequeño—a play for all ages produced by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance—and listened in as fellow theatre students praised, “that show was so cute!” I don’t think that a play with themes of gender identity and bullying is cute, I think it is critical. I don’t think theatre with and for young people is sweet, I think it is essential.
Two months later, these moments are still rattling around in my head. Why are we compelled to use such words when describing theatre with and for youth? What is the lasting impact of these descriptions on our perception of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), theatre education and applied theatre?
Let’s start here. What is theatre with and for youth? It is theatre education—programming and curriculum that introduces, teaches and trains young people in the art and craft of theatre. It is applied theatre, where theatre is used as a form of communication and storytelling in non-theatrical spaces from classrooms to prisons. It is Theatre for Young Audiences—a genre of theatre created specifically for young people.
What is implied when theatre with and for youth is consistently (and dismissively) referred to as sweet or cute? It insinuates that we do not think theatre with and for youth is “real” theatre, that TYA is less rigorous and a less important form in comparison to “professional” theatre. Theatre for youth is rarely considered artistically equal with theatre for adults. Maybe this has its roots in the lower pay of an Actor’s Equity contract for TYA productions. Or maybe it is because adults do not view young people as individuals who need or desire challenging or innovative art. Or maybe both. In the Victorian era, childhood became defined as a time of innocence when young people were purposely sheltered from the reality of adulthood. These sentiments are still very present in how we view childhood and youth. What results is an assumption and attitude that someone under the age of eighteen does not really know what she wants, likes or needs. This posturing translates to a belief that theatre for youth must teach a lesson or focus on a theme crucial to child or adolescent development. And, for whatever reason, that constraint suggests artists cannot create “real” theatre like they can for adults. Aren’t themes in adult plays actually lessons from a playwright? Isn’t that what art provides, a chance to share an opinion or perspective? Why do we trust that adults want plays with shades of gray, and assume that TYA needs to have a binary, a clear right and wrong? Why aren’t we challenging youth with theatre created with and for them? Why are we not taking on the task of engaging youth in conversations about aesthetics and art? This dialogue has value to all artists, educators and the present and future theatre community in which we belong. Every touch between a young person and theatre demonstrates an opportunity to engage a future theatre artist, audience member, advocate and supporter.
What is implied when theatre with and for youth is consistently (and dismissively) referred to as sweet or cute? It insinuates that we do not think theatre with and for youth is “real” theatre, that TYA is less rigorous and a less important form in comparison to “professional” theatre.
All this thinking has led me to a wish: a deeper awareness and respect for the field of theatre with and for young people. I’d like to stop advocating for quality TYA, theatre education and applied theatre programming amongst theatre folks. (I am by no means the first person to advocate for this, I humbly write in the footsteps of Helen Nicholson, Manon van de Water, and Suzan Zeder, among others.) So, here is my challenge: When you see a TYA production, engage in it at the level of the ideas and artistry that it presents, not according to the age of the audience. Let’s raise the bar for what quality TYA can and should be. When you meet youth who have watched, created or performed theatre, engage in a conversation with them as you would with a fellow artist. As theatre practitioners, we understand that it is hard to work in a field that society is often dismissive of. Please, let’s not be guilty of repeating this within our own community.
There are a lot of bad TYA productions out there (just like there is a lot of bad theatre for adults). There are a lot of condescending and antiquated pedagogical approaches to how we teach and facilitate theatre with young people. I task myself to better create, teach, question and advocate for theatre with and for youth. I promise not to be defensive or angry, but also not to be silent on behalf of these youth or the art.
I would venture to guess that many of you reading this found your way into theatre through a moment in your childhood. I would also speculate that moment is still important in your life; holding a tremendous amount of value for you, and for all members of the theatre community in which you make now make art. Is it important that such moments exist for current and future generations of young people—for the youth in your lives? How can we continue to make those potential encounters relevant and high quality experiences?
I believe each and every one of us in the theatre community is working towards the same goals—to create better, brighter and more insightful theatre and to expand the community of artists and audiences to be more inclusive and more diverse. The success of these goals is rooted in the way that we, as theatre artists, inspire new generations to hear and see theatre. And, the first chance for such moments is through theatre with and for young people.
Sarah Coleman graduates this year from the Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities MFA program at UT Austin where she researches playbuilding with middle school English Language Learners. As a producer and dramaturg, she is vested in developing and supporting new work for all ages. Prior to returning to graduate school she made theatre in Washington, DC and the great state of Maine.