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.

Three "Transition" actors on stage in front of boxes
Reno (Treyvon Thomas) in Northwestern's production of The Transition of Doodle Pequeño. Photo by Lindsay Amer.

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.

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Thanks for your thoughtful and well-written piece, Sarah, which I found through the Twitter link published by the UT Department of Theatre and Dance. I've excerpted the opening paragraphs and linked them to the full article, publilshing them at www.austinlivetheatre.com and at the blog (www.austinlivetheatre.blogs...). And I'd be delighted to read any other reviews or opinion pieces you might care to submit to austinlivetheatre@gmail.com !!regards,Michael Meigs

What a great piece! I work with young people in theater, and I am constantly reminded of the emotional growth that happens when a kid sees or performs in a play. Let's tell those naysayers that theater helps young people develop their capacity for empathy and understanding. As this article puts it: "Theater is like a gym for empathy." http://www.huffingtonpost.c...

Sarah-

Wonderful article. The disdainful AD you talked to is dismissive at his own peril. The most progressive, interesting theater professionals I know have an abiding respect for TYA, community work, and the vulnerability and change that is known as childhood. Writing a compelling play for adults or for young people is the same process.

All theatre should seek to understand its audience well enough to communicate ideas and perspectives from outside that audience's perspective in a way that makes sense to it. Unfortunately, when we narrow our focus; we can exclude audience members who are not within our target demographic. This may be such a case.

Just as an avid fan of Clancy novels might find a Melodrama emotionally excessive (over the top) and far too black and white simple, an adult who is too inhibited by their responsibilities and adherence to societal norms may find a play targeted for children to be sweet or cute. In labeling it that way, they're saying (in a way that bypasses the "it's bad to act that way" standards) that if they had been able to view the piece with child-like eyes and spirit; it would have been wonderful. And maybe it's a bit of a blow to them that they cannot be child-like enough to be a part of it anymore. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether the fault lies with our understanding of our audience, with our means of communicating with that audience, or in our expectation for how successful that communication will be.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not saying that its right for anyone to be dismissive of someone's work; but it can help to remember that we can bring it on ourselves when we exclude people who want to be a part of our audience by doing things they do not understand. That's true all over the theatre business. Sometimes that is a failure on the part of the viewer... but far more often, it's because we don't understand well enough to communicate with them. Or worse... because we didn't try to.

Right on, right on. My work gets the cute moniker, often by those who don't read it, or work on it, just because it's for student performers. Or by someone who just doesn't understand the impact that being in a play, any play can have on youth and dismisses the work outright. I know what I do, I know who's it for and I strive to make it better, make it reach farther, to treat the work with respect - so that when that cute word comes flying my way, I know how to duck.

Thank you for this! I think the dismissiveness is sexist, basically (whether it's coming from men or women). Working with children is just not seen as "real" work. Bizarre attitude, really--we were ALL children, and I remember being a real person before I turned 18. But since having a child, I notice people sometimes say odd things such as, "Oh, this is a great age--they're almost like real people." My daughter has been a real person since birth--she even has her own passport. Too bad more theaters don't get that, but I have a lot of hope that more and more will.

Thank you for this piece! When I was studying for a semester in Moscow, I saw a children's play, The Little Humpbacked Horse, at MXAT. Cute? Try exciting, thrilling, and utterly beautiful. I was blown away. It was 3 hours of an epic fairy tale with some of the company's finest actors, and both the 5-through-10-year olds and adults were riveted straight up to the end. It made me wonder why I don't see more theatre like that in the states. Of course, there's a pretty big state funding resource that makes MXAT able to devote months of rehearsals and lavish production values on their work. But it was amazing to see that they devoted the same care, time, and resources to children's theatre that they do for adult theatre. Good to hear another voice saying that we should be doing the same! Young audience members are equally important audience members.

Exactly. But the burden to change this negative perception of TYA lies within the TYA community itself. Every time a zany childish TYA production hits the boards, it diminishes TYA in the eyes of parents in the audience as well as theatre artists who make "adult" theatre, from whom we crave respect. We TYA artists in the U.S. need to learn from our counterparts in Europe, who have taken the field seriously for half a century, and thus create more rigorous TYA, in my opinion. So let us, in the TYA community, take up Sarah's charge to help generate the respect of others by creating world-class work always! Brava, Sarah, and UT Austin.Jay McAdamsExecutive Director, 24th STreet Theatre, Los Angeles

Sarah, you've got me thinking. This raises some great questions around university programs that focus on training students to work with/for young audiences. How might this shift (in attitude, work created, vocabulary etc) play out in our courses and production work related to youth? Should we strive to create theatre for young audiences that is the "same" as theatre for adults? Are there instances where it is/should be different--a field of its own? Are there times we may want folks working with/for young people to have specialized knowledge around the target audience/population? Or might this kind of specialization, or separation, continue to marginalize TYA and young people in the greater theatre community?

Well done. I don't agree though that we find the worst offenders in the field of TFY. Those trained professional who specialize in this form and population generally understand the remarkable aesthetic sophistication of youth.

In the last few years I have made a concerted effort to write plays that cannot be deemed "cute." The word still abounds. Maybe because I write also for young performers - and they are "cute?" I gave up worrying about the brand. If anything, sometimes the work is more nuanced and more difficult because we are writing for people who are growing in stages. Does that make sense? I think of the life experience of a six year-old, a ten year-old and a 13 year-old. All such different sensibilities.

I'll second that, with regards to Katy. She does great work for young people that is both intelligent and intuitive. She rocks!

You need to meet Katy Brown, the Artistic Director of The Barter Players, the TYA branch of Barter Theatre (Abingdon, VA). She would change your world. God knows she and her amazing actors have changed the lives of tens of thousands of children living in Appalachia. It is a privilege to write for them.

Yes! I sometimes joked that I lived a double life....making theatre for youth by day and experimental work for adults by night. A couple of years ago I made a shift into combining those worlds as our youth deserve and desire rigorous and challenging, formally inventive work. Your essay is most encouraging as I think we often find our worst enemies within the world of TYA, where antiquated notions and ageism conspire to keep the work saccharine and false and so entirely uninteresting to young audiences. Thank you!

Yes, yes, and yes!!! Thank you for this article! I had the privilege of doing AMAZING TYA productions at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia for almost two and a half years. It is a job I would still be doing if I could afford it. If you are ever in the area, check out one of the shows by the Barter Players.