The Shifting Landscape of Theatre for Young Audiences

Searching for (and Creating) New Maps

In the world of theatre for young audiences, the ground is shifting under our feet: unstable and unfamiliar, far less funding, and the zeitgeist is way different than just a few years ago. As we look ahead, we have little idea what the future will look like. This is very scary. And very exciting. There are changes afoot in all the corners of our field, both in the United States and internationally. New paradigms of work are being driven by individuals, by theatres, and by service organizations; some are reactive, some proactive. Some stem very directly from the ongoing worldwide economic situation, but certainly not all, as some have been bubbling up for years. Since change precedes insight, and pattern recognition is an inexact science, we can’t even recognize all the changes that are emerging. Here are a few that we can.

In the world of theatre for young audiences, the ground is shifting under our feet: unstable and unfamiliar, far less funding, and the zeitgeist is way different than just a few years ago.

Cast of The Bluest Eye on Stage.
The cast of Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye at the Guthrie Theater in April 2017. Photo by Dan Norman.

Organizational Tectonics: USA

The three major organizations dedicated to performances for young audiences and theatre education in North America are slowly but surely creaking their way together toward more mutual acceptance and cooperation. These are the American Alliance for Theater and Education (AATE, primarily, as you might imagine, theatre educators at all levels); International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY, primarily presenters at performing arts centers, agents, and touring types) and Theater for Young Audiences/USA (primarily producers and others from the TYA regionals). While some individuals and theatres are part of two of the organizations, probably few are in all three. A few years back, the three organizations operated individually, in their own silos, and even people not influenced by long-standing feuds or misperceptions tended to operate within fairly narrow rails. It’s way different now—the leaders of the three organizations are communicating regularly and making a point of attending each others’ major events. Across the map, we are moving toward open collaboration on significant projects, and ongoing exploration of future collaborations.

Organizational Tectonics: International

It’s not news that the world is changing and becoming far more interconnected, and it’s heartening to see how much our TYA theatres—all over the world—are embracing and collaborating with work from other countries and cultures. The major international service organization for TYA companies is ASSITEJ (a French acronym), the international association of theatres for children and young people, with national centers in eighty-plus countries. Ten years ago, this organization, founded during the Cold War, had a strong undercurrent of national politics and elitism, the feeling that that the gold standard was European text-based theatre, performed by adults for young audiences. Something not always clear to people in the United States is how, in some countries, being affiliated with ASSITEJ is way more significant than affiliation with the theatre service organizations in this country. Much of that has changed, some organically: there’s an openness to diversity of art forms and cultures and a realization of the importance of arts education and youth theatre (performed by young people for young people). Additionally, recent constitutional changes have broken the cycle of exclusion caused by participation in the organization being limited to only those who are members of sometimes restrictive national centers. Now, participation is far more open, an artist or a theatre can be an individual member of the international association, or you can participate through networks of researchers or playwrights. In the future, people will have far greater choice in their national and international networking, and artistic maps are being drawn. Practitioners may choose to network by country, region, profession, or interest, such as theatre for the very young or theatre for social change.

New Ways of Creating New Work

Not too long ago, touring performances for young audiences and presenters lived, for the most part, in a straightforward transactional model. Presenters, working through agents, bought shows that producers created. A few of the producing TYA theatres did some touring, and almost none of them presented work. There are new models taking shape now. In addition to more coproductions (happening in all the pockets of theatre in the United States), a number of our TYA producing theatres are beginning to present touring work and realize it’s a way to enhance offerings, save money, and not dilute their own artistic product. Additionally some producing theatres are exploring what might be called run-outs or sit-downs, where an in-house production would not tour in the traditional sense but have an extended run at one or two presenting houses. Major presenting houses, including the New Victory Theater in New York and PlayhouseSquare Center in Cleveland, have created terrific programs to help develop new work. IPAY has just launched a major program toward the same end. Any of a number of theatres whose audiences are primarily adults are now commissioning and producing work specifically for young audiences of families, more and more each year. One example: last year the Barrymore for outstanding production of a musical was won by the Arden Theatre for its commissioned version of Hans Christian Andersen’s little-known story, The Flea and the Professor. Another: Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was commissioned by Steppenwolf for Young Adults and transferred to the New Victory Theater in New York City.

Increased Inclusion of Art Forms and Artists

Our colleagues in Australia use the acronym TYP, or theatre for young people, to include pretty much any performance for young audiences—including but not limited to theatre, dance, music, puppetry, circus, physical theatre, and others—essentially any performance that occurs in a theatre. The TYA world in the United States is becoming more and more open to both using other art forms as part of our ongoing theatre work, as well as not being so strict in defining what “theatre” is. There’s a part of live performance that might be called “theatre by, for, with, and about persons who are Deaf or with disabilities” (try saying that quickly three times). It’s often called “disability arts” internationally, is now being called “inclusive arts” by some our colleagues in the United Kingdom. Whatever you call it, there’s more and more focus on this part of our field, and our ways of defining it are being broadened. A recent international convening in Washington around this subject has begun to open new connections.

Leadership Transitions

There’s been talk for a number of years around the (sadly clichéd) phrase “the greying of the field.” Two recent transitions, though, strike a particularly resonant chord: Roger Bedard has retired from the terrific Child Drama program at Arizona State University and Onny Huisink and Saskia Janse have stepped back from artistic leadership of the exemplary Speeltheater Holland. Buckle your seat belts, because it’s likely a lot of folk who have been essential to the growth of the field will be stepping back soon. It’s not appropriate to name them (the evidence is anecdotal and speculative), but trust me on this one. The chatter used to be about how it didn’t seem we were seeing the next generation of artists, managers, and educators. They’re out there though, and in some ways better equipped to move the field forward than when those of my generation were twenty and thirty-somethings—the training and mentoring exist at much higher levels and the field is far more accepted than back in the day. In a just a few years, though, the names of the leadership will be very different, and we know they’ll be taking the field down exciting new roads

The Emerging Emergence

A quick and dirty (and somewhat broad) definition of emergence is that it’s the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions, where the group is smarter than any one individual, where the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts. There are any number of examples of emergence we can point to in the US theatre world, including, the rise of the regional theatres in the fifties, embracing nontraditional/colorblind casting in the seventies, renewed focus on playwrights, and new work in the nineties. Reading the tea leaves, it seems clear we’re presently in the midst of another great emergence in theatre for young audiences, all over the world. As with all emergences, there are some key players but really, it’s led by no one and everyone. One way to look at these winds of change is to remember that at the start of a voyage, prudent sailors write in their log books “From A toward B.” Think about that for a moment—not “From A to B,” but “From A toward B.” It’s breathtaking in its simplicity and wisdom, all the more so since it should be obvious. During a sea journey conditions may well change, forcing sailors to reconsider not only the course, but even the destination. We’re in this soup (read: voyage) together and need to recognize that while it can be scary that we can’t control everything swirling around us, we can control more than we think. Our old ways of mapping our practice may not be viable, but we’re creating new ones. It’s a great adventure with a bright and exciting future, just over the horizon.        

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Kim, your optimism in the backdrop of emerging challenges, shows that TYA is trying to stand on its own feet. It shows geographical, cultural, artistic spread in so many different ways--partly planned partly organic. There is a need to systematically map the trends--globally, regionally and country-wise. But definitely it is happening.I must admit my ignorance on two fronts. I have felt the need to have a comprehensive history of TYA (starting prior to the emergence of the term) and conceptual parameters of TYA. I would be happy if you can suggest some material. This will help me to map the efforts in India, and put it in a perspective provided by you. We have our own challenges which must be faced, and at the same time share global developments.

KP, I don't think you are overly optimistic. You are just more optimistic than I am in the month of January. I'll be better come spring, but in January, the skies are grey, the trees are dead, the compromises that must be made for next season are made, the world has shrunken to just a little less than it was last year, but I'll balk, nonetheless, at the descriptor of "pessimism." I have no doubt that something quite exciting will eventually emerge from the swamps that we are slogging through, but, at age 59, I am accepting the fact that the swamp will stretch on for longer than my capacity to wield a machete. I am hopeful that I shall live to see what emerges, and quite curious as to whether I will recognize it when it does.

Anyway, enjoyed your essay, and -- as always -- your point of view. Am just a visitor here at Howlround, drawn here by a colleague's note that you'd written, so I came to check it out. Left my original comment because I was a bit curious as to whether you and I were capable of stimulating a wider debate without utilizing even the slightest dirty metaphor, but apparently, no. Hope to speak to you through our more usual channels another time, but in the meantime, those kids with their long hair and their rock and roll music are on my damned lawn again! Gotta go.

Well, Scot, perhaps I'm overly optimistic, and if your pessimism is warranted, I would suggest that part of our job is to do whatever we can to keep a primary place for the artist in our field.

I would also contend that a literature-adaptive field is not one bereft of the highest art. Two examples. 1) One of the best TYA piece i've ever seen is a version of the Jason and the Argonauts story from the wonderful Scottish company Visible Fictions - director Dougie Irvine, a playwright, two actors, a cart, and action figures - and a show that played right in the wheelhouse of curriculum and title and was as good as you could ever want. 2) We at KCTYA are booking a co-commission from the Marionetas de la Esquina in Mexico, where playwright Amaranta Leyva asked for guidance on the curriculum/title versus art two-step. I suggested she read some fairy tales till she found one that spoke to her, and after tackling all of Grimm, all of Anderson, and some odd Perrault and Arabian Nights, she found a few that truly spoke to her, and the we're presenting the US premiere of her puppet play 'Sleeping Beauty Dreams' in a couple of weeks. (I mention this also as an example of one of the new paradigms of making new work - we are functioning as the presenter, not producer, and are a creative partner helping -we hope - the company following their own aesthetic.

Professionally, I'm happy to see youngsters playing on the lawn, and am doing what I can to encourage them to play there -- and working very hard every day to keep a lawn for them to play on. Problem is, I don't see too many ARTISTS (as opposed to managers and educators) actually planting the grass, and I have concerns as to how strong artistic directors emerge in an art form that -- currently and for the forseeable cycle -- holds limited attraction for the life career artist.

My irritation with the damned kids on my lawn was not a professional metaphor. I'm actually irritated at the actual kids who won't get off my actual lawn. Which, although not intended as a metaphor for my concern for the field, may indicate that I am actually too grey-bald to be objective.

I think we've always been cognitive that we're functioning subtextually in a repressive environment, but as the economy requires us to bend further to the market environment -- in order to keep and sustain a lawn for the youngsters to play on -- and become more and more literature-adaptive, we are also adopting the limitations of the contemporary market-driven juvenile literature matrix. Celebrity ghost-penned picture books and juvenile novels aimed squarely at gender-specific readers. The world of children's lit has narrowed itself to a place that bores the adolescent boy in me to death. And we in the field of TYA, are not so far behind.

Thanks for your comments, Scot. No, I don't think it's only your greying perspective on the unfortunate rise of the dominance of the gatekeepers - whom my colleague Deirdre refers to as the 'wardens'. I think there is a place for artists in our field in the future, and you and i and others of our generation have to continue to fight to make sure that place is there. Maybe we just have to think of it like we're in some politically repressive regime and we have to reach our children obliquely, subtly. Infiltration. I often say that it's our job to do art and then spin it so that the gatekeepers think it's safer and more tied to the curriculum than it really is. I think the twin hammers of the economic crunch and the rise of the wardens have battered us all, made some of us discouraged, some of us frozen. But, you know, in the mid-70s in a theater in DC, we practiced what we then called 'non-racial' casting, which, as you know, was controversial for many years and is now part of the DNA of our field. The kids won't get off my lawn either, and i'm glad they won't - i want to make the best possible plays that i can for them, and I prefer to take the long view. Just a phase.

KPK, I admire your optimism. I see perfectly capable managers and educators emerging as upcoming leaders for the field, and I have no doubt that they will establish new paradigms and practices to move forward. I am worried, however, for the place the committed artist will have in that future field. As a young artist, I was attracted by the wider landscape of artistic possibilities that were inherent in the field. Today, our potential subject matter (that our gatekeepers will support) has become so narrow that I don't think I'd be attracted to an artistic career in theatre for young audiences if I were on the front end of it. Not that artists won't be involved in all jobbed-in aspects, but I fear that future TYA is becoming a nice place for artists to want to visit, but I'm not so sure one would want to live here. Of course, I'm also irritated at those damned kids who won't get the hell off my lawn, so perhaps it just goes with my greying (actually, balding) perspective.