Theater of the Young, For the Young

I. The Perfect Audience

Let's you and I build the perfect audience for our new play. While we may differ on a few details, I'll bet that our ideal audience would share some of these traits:

They would be Eager—they'd rush to their seats, they'd want to sit up close, they would not want to leave when it was over.

They would be Engaged—leaning forward, hungry for action and image and story and surprise. They would not sit with their arms folded across their chests.

They would be Open—open to experimentation, to newness, to things they have never seen before in a play.

They would be Demanding—they'd bust us when our play got boring or maudlin or vague or preachy or pretentious.

They would be Vocal—they'd hoot at the good jokes and gasp at the surprising stuff. They'd cheer when it was over, and then ask the hardest and truest questions imaginable.

And they would be Committed—they'd likely want to come back the next day and see the play again.

There's a name for this ideal audience. They are called kids. If only we got to write for them. How amazing that would be.

The fact is we don't write for kids. We write for their gatekeepers. Of course we have kids in mind when we write.  But we don't write our plays for them. Not directly.

I would respectfully ask my fantastic playwright peers to consider what percentage of our creative time is spent really (really) thinking about what kids want from our plays ... and what percentage is spent thinking about the needs of their gatekeepers: parents, teachers, school administrators, the artistic and financial leaders of theaters, the publishers and licensors and booking agents.  "What kind of plays are you looking for?" is something we regularly ask our gatekeepers—but seldom, I'm afraid, ask our kids.

As theatergoers, young people are an occupied country.  They depend on the benevolence of empirical leaders. They do not vote. They are not the "deciders." They are fed what we believe they should eat, whether we know what they're hungry for or not.

I write you as one of these gatekeepers. I'm the parent of two kids—and though I like to "present" as a Democracy, I probably parent as a Dictatorship. I have strong views on what I think my children should experience in the theater.  With the best of intentions—and with what I assume (don't we all?) is my admirable and blisteringly enlightened sense of taste—I lead them toward some plays and discourage them from others.

But here's the thing: I don't really know what kind of plays they want to see. I just know the kind of plays I have taken them to. And of course at some point the kind of plays they want to see are simply the kind of plays I've been taking them to. This allows me to think I've made them into "theatergoers,” when perhaps I've just made them into me—saddling them with my own tastes, prejudices, and opinions.

Earlier this year, I heard a mom in a theater lobby tell her young son about an upcoming play. She said the title of the play. He asked: "Do I like that?" She said, beaming:  "You love that." That young boy's question continues to haunt me.

But let's please admit this: we don't dumb things down for our kids—we dumb things down for us. To mollify our own fears. We don't make upbeat endings or "easy morals" for our kids—we make them for us. To avoid what might be the harder discussion. We don't censor (and please let's drop the euphemisms and use the word) plays for our kids—we censor them for ourselves.

 

a man looking at the camera
Steven Dietz. Photo by Playbill. 

II. The Double Audience

I also write you as a friend and colleague of many artistic leaders in the field of young audiences. I admire and respect these women and men beyond measure. And in case running an American professional theater in 2012 was not hard enough, they must program their seasons for a double audience. These leaders always seek to astonish and inspire their young audiences—but make no mistake: they must cater to the parents. And the schools. And the funders and the marketers and the board. They must constantly assuage the well-intentioned gatekeepers like me.

On the whole, we gatekeepers are a pretty benevolent bunch. We (mostly) root for newness, and we (sort of) champion risk, and we take comfort in the fact that "our hearts are in the right place." But we also allow things to be dumbed down in our plays. We ladle out buckets of self-esteem and we pass only the most incontrovertible of judgments—no matter what the scenario, character, topic or event. We oh-so-naturally default to the happy, the heartwarming and the upbeat, and we do so with the most ironclad rationale:  it's for the good of the kids.

But let's please admit this: we don't dumb things down for our kids—we dumb things down for us. To mollify our own fears. We don't make upbeat endings or "easy morals" for our kids—we make them for us. To avoid what might be the harder discussion. We don't censor (and please let's drop the euphemisms and use the word) plays for our kids—we censor them for ourselves. And why? Because we get "outraged"—or, more commonly, we live in fear that someone else will get "outraged." And god forbid we do a play that not everyone in our community is one-hundred percent behind.  The squeaky wheel is always ready to pick the season.

Gatekeepers tend get outraged about words, bodies, "issues" and "themes"—especially those that bespeak a less-than-sunlit world. Kids get outraged, too—but in my experience their outrage is not about nouns, verbs, butts, boobs, dark thoughts or moral complexity.

Kids get outraged by stories that are stupid. Plays that have crappy endings. They get outraged about characters that do really obvious and dumb things, speeches that are boring, and stagecraft that looks fakey or dopey. Kids get outraged about being talked to like "kids."  Kids get outraged at the theater's bright, earnest, pleasant, upbeat and relentless inability to astonish them.

I believe kids want stories and not "titles.” I believe they want adventure and conflict and hard truths and cool stuff and fear and death and history and magic and some more cool stuff and maybe some kissing or blood or a guy like their weird Uncle Dan or a bike that flies or turns into an elk. Unlike their gatekeepers, I am fully convinced that kids do not want "excellent role models," compulsory "understanding," and a seventy-minute run time.

III.  We Are All The Young

So how can we make "youth theater" for the young—and not for their gatekeepers? I respectfully submit here one possible way to start:

Let us remember that no matter what theater we enter, there is a child in every seat. An audience made up of Toddlers, Teens and Parents is in fact an audience filled with the Young, the Recently Young, and the Previously Young.

Age is not a horizontal marker, but a vertical one. Our youth is never behind us, it is beneath us; it is never surrendered, only sublimated or surmounted.

And thus a "children's play" is not a play about "children" any more than an "adult play" is about "adults." These are plays about our Youth. These are not plays that move faster or play brighter or end better—these are plays that dig deeper, that reach back farther. These are plays that do not settle for the facile adult surface of a man, but instead burrow to his core, his past, his youth. A "children's play" can surely be about five young girls having a grand adventure—but it can also be about five women in their eighties who gather to rekindle the girls that still reside inside them. All of our ages conspire within us and continue to underscore our days. We are all the young.

And what's more: our youth is the very oldest part of us.  We have carried it longer, had the chance to know it more fully, than any self we have concocted in the interim.  When we write for "children,” we are writing for our most fundamental selves.

I have learned that young audiences demand a profound and ruthless interrogation of my own Youth: What became of the child in me? What did I know back then—in my heart and gut and bones—before the world began to teach me everything else?

To make plays for young audiences asks a playwright to wrestle with essences—a challenge often just impossible enough to summon our very best work. It has the feel of trying to grab at fireflies in an endless field at night.  But if we catch one—if our craft proves worthy of our story and we connect with the oldest and deepest parts of ourselves—I can promise you this: the perfect audience awaits.

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Don, as funny as the anecdote is; one sentence at the end there really sums up the situation most TYA faces: "It got to the point that the teachers (who stand in the aisles to make sure the kids are paying attention) were trying to calm them down - I heard one of them saying "it's not funny! it's not funny!" "

I see this every time we book a student group for one of our productions. Teachers urging their students to be quiet, take it seriously, and generally stifling natural reactions. If the teachers responsible for bringing these students to the theatre don't understand that audience reaction is an integral aspect of the live performance... how can we expect the students to learn it?

Taking a break from non stop writing on a children's story and saw Don's response. I had stark raving funny visuals of your giant fighting bunny's. I'm set for bubbling over with laughter throughout the day...not to belittle your more serious points...but my laughter makes your point as well. Thank you Don Zolidis for this smart tickle. I'm good!

Excellent article, Steven! I have so many thougths about this that it's hard to put them all down. A few observations:

Re: Claudia, and writing for middle schools. I taught middle school theatre for many years and I've written many, many plays for my kids. The theatre, because it is live, has an added power and potency than most of the other art that young people consume - the material that middle schoolers read, see in movies, listen to in music, is far, far more "adult" than what can be performed on stage. Why is this? One major reason is that the middle schoolers themselves are the performers. This is the heart of the power of theatre - the empathy that we are able to feel for imaginary characters. Consider this: Who will be the audience for this performance? Their peers and their families. Imagine asking a 13-year old, a person most likely in the first stages of figuring out who they are, what their sexuality is, etc... to portray a gay character on stage in a serious (non-comedic) context. Imagine the incredible risk that child (because they are most certainly children) would be taking. I'm not saying difficult themes should be excised from this age group, because Steven is absolutely right that theatre for young people should reflect their experiences, but it is a dangerous and nervy endeavour at that age to perform in even the lightest of comedies.

Again, I'm not saying it's impossible, or that it shouldn't be done, but we must consider the performers and the fact that the stakes are so much higher for them than for older, even high school, actors.

Second point: I find that many professional "teen" programs become obsessed with "issue" plays - exactly the sort of plays that were banned in middle school. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I love the fact that we are addressing real concerns - often high school theatres trot out the old standards that were written in the 40s and 50s and can't fathom doing a modern play - as a result students think of theatre as a fossilized art form without relevance to their lives. Total shame. On the other hand, imagine if a professional theatre for adults scheduled their season around "issue" plays - (here's our alcoholism play, and here's our domestic violence play, and here's our erectile dysfunction play) - although all of those "issues" relate to adults lives, they tend to make deathly boring theatre. My point is this: For the most part, we don't go to the theatre to see ourselves. We go to the theatre to be entertained. And perhaps inspired. And provoked. Learning something new is maybe fifth on that list. So, first and foremost, going to the theatre should be a rocking good time. For kids. For teens. For adults. Then they'll come back.

One story to illustrate my point: I wrote a play for my middle school students called Snappy's Happy Half-Hour - the basic idea is a live children's TV show where all the actors quit and the techies are forced to do all the parts (kind of a midsummer night's dream act 5 meets Barney) - the play ends with a climactic battle between two kids in giant bunny suits who batter each other senseless while destroying the cardboard set painted with happy happy smiles while an audience of captive children looks on in horror and forced smiles (one child actor is threatened that if he ever stops smiling his grandma will be shot in the face)

Anyway, we performed this play for an audience of about 400 7th and 8th graders. And again, this is an audience that will tell you immediately if your play is not working. The show was going great, and the fight broke out between the bunnies - and the audience began screaming. Literally screaming. It's probably been the most exhilirating moment I've ever had in the theatre. I'm sure some of the audience members believed that an actual fight had broken out between the actors and they were intentionally destroying the play, but pandemonium erupted in the audience. It got to the point that the teachers (who stand in the aisles to make sure the kids are paying attention) were trying to calm them down - I heard one of them saying "it's not funny! it's not funny!" -

I don't think there's ever been a time where I've been absolutely certain that I had the full and complete involvement of every soul in the audience. They were with me 100% and they were reacting from their gut. It's a great feeling in any theatre.

Anyway, long response. I'm just saying that "making it fun" is a worthy goal in and of itself that we sometimes lose sight of.

The theatre is a reflective art. The past, nostalgia for what was, lost opportunity, a buried act, ghosts-- these grease the cylinders of many an "adult" play engine. But what of someone who's past is more recent? Someone who has the bulk of their life way ahead of them. Does that mean the art changes? I would argue no, loudly-- because while the LENGTH of a child's past is not necessarily remarkable, the SIZE of that past, it's immediacy, is infinitely more imposing and real. Such opportunity! What Steven so succinctly points out is that what resonates for a child reverberates in all of us; our size doesn't matter. A well-crafted play for youth simply invites a larger audience to the table. Thanks for eloquently reminding me why I love to write for kids, Steven.

Dear Steven,

Thank you so much for reminding us of these critically important truths!

Since I moved from theater production to multi-arts presenting in higher ed 10 years ago, where I have worked with two terrific K - 12 programs, I am always thrilled to see these young audiences running into and sitting inside our theaters!

Every time I seem them, I wonder how these perfect audiences turn into the adult spectators we encounter most evenings. And what our role and responsibility is in this transformation?

On a more personal note, I have often thought about you since I left agenting almost 20 years ago. So pleased to see you are as passionate and persuasive a truthteller as ever!

Huge congratulations!

Very best wishes,Wiley

Initially, children go to the theater because an adult takes them...but they become engaged with the performance when something strikes a cord of emotion and imagination (simultaneously). Well meaning adults and gatekeepers want to select the emotions and the course of imagination. That's difficult. As an example, some children may have lived through a "cultural" tsunami and their emotions and imaginations are formed by that experience. What assumptions are we making about them when we create art for them? For that matter, what assumptions are we making about children who have yet to experience a disruptive, life altering event; but may experience a measurable one, sooner than we think...through a divorce? Who is the gatekeeper's audience?

Just spent a week working on Kevin Fry's new play, and I'd like to commend him for killing off a character (the hero's fault) because "that's life".

Once again, I am reminded of how lucky I am to create theatre and train up-and-coming theatre artists with the likes of Steven Dietz. As always, you have given us food for thought, Steven.

Recently, when I mentioned to someone that the new musical being workshopped this summer at the Texas Musical Theatre Workshop is a hip, urban re-telling of "Jack and the Beanstalk," they remarked, "Oh, so it's a kid's play." I bristled a little at that, and thought, "Why does it have to be categorized? Why can't it be for everybody? For the 'young' AND the 'young at heart'?"

thanks, to HowlRound for 'TYA Week' and to all the authors. thanks, steven, for many well-said things in your article, not the least of which is noting yourself as a parent in the mix. thanks, mark, for bringing up that it's also form, not only content that we need to think about in our work.

In the late 80s, many of us were whining about how we didn't get respect from the so-called adult theater. truth be told, a lot of the work wasn't very good, and it seemed like all of us at once, without talking, decided that the way to get respect was by doing better work - and we did, and as a field have not looked back.

how, we're all feeling the crunch of the economy and the conservatism of the gatekeepers. so be it. let's not devolve, we of the tya world, into another world of whine as in the past. all artists have limitations, all the time. too many of us (and i'm as guilty as anyone) focus too much on what we cannot do, and not on what we can do. we need to write/create good stories for the children and young people in our audience, and separately bifurcate our brains to market them - to the schools and parents.

Well naturally you have articulated this better than most of us could; you always do that Steven, Thank you.Some points:In thinking about the young and the previously-young, I think we need to consider that adults remember and re-experience their youth through a lens. Kids can be driven a little nuts by adults "remembering" their childhood.We also must remember that this is not ONLY an issue of content and language. It is about creating theatre for young people that is sophisticated in form. Kids are just as capable of inferring meaning as adults; they do not need omniscient narrators or characters who speak their subtext anymore than adults do. Probably less.ON THE OTHER HAND: Kids have different interests and universes at different stages of development. That is not arbitrary. A child of 5 has a world that is expanding from the family & the self to the playground. A child of 9 sees a world expanding to include the entire school and neighborhood and beyond. Irony is not the same thing as humor. Let's allow kids to experience stories first-hand before forcing them into referential mocking of things that they do not yet know. Wink-wink plays with double entendre jokes for the adults are not the same thing as true family theatre.The gatekeepers are there. The limitations are there. Let's produce the great work that can work within that.thanks again Steven

Equally applicable to all creators for children. I've shared this with fellow writers and illustrators in the children's market. I'm using it as a reminder to be brave in my writing, and to enjoy the process in case the gatekeepers keep my work from its true audience.

Lovely article and provocative too. One practice that helps open our plays to audiences of all ages is to avoid profanity, which usually signals a lazy writer, in my humble opinion. Thank you, Steven.

Great article. This bit in particular reminds me of how to approach an any audience, regardless age or demographic. (Change "kids" to what one likes and it still works):

"Kids get outraged by stories that are stupid. Plays that have crappy endings. They get outraged about characters that do really obvious and dumb things, speeches that are boring, and stagecraft that looks fakey or dopey. Kids get outraged about being talked to like “kids”. Kids get outraged at the theater’s bright, earnest, pleasant, upbeat and relentless inability to astonish them."

This is for me a call to arms to make GOOD THEATER—theater that is, above all, honest. Kids are honest. This is their beauty. That as adults we trade in our honesty for "shoulds" and other false expectations and reassurances makes us liars who agree to participate in theater that lies, which is to say a society that lies.

Thank you, Mr. Dietz, for your clarity and for getting to a sharp point.

Fantastic essay, Steve.

My added comment: Despite the great work of many companies, as PLAY's AD I witnessed an increasing level of political and pedagogical weight heaped on artists who created for youth--mostly as a result of the sectors' growing dependence on funding from school districts and PTAs.

Where institutions found a measure of financial independence their work tended to be braver/bolder. And in Europe where the arts sector had its own separate public funding (until recently), the work was far braver and the arts practitioners recognized for their expertise and independence.

For anything substantive to change the sector really has to fight hard for funding to flow without undue strings attached to the content of artists' work. Sadly theatre institutions dependent on the drip feed of funding from PTA school groups threaten to become part of the problem and not the solution.

Thank you for this. I'm working on a play with my company Theatre Novi Most this year for all ages based on a russian play (dark of course and also weird) and we are inspired by your piece very much. My two sons and I want to start a movement of "kid commissioned plays" in which we adults get stories and ideas commissioned by kids and then stage them as a gift to them. I've started bringing kids into rehearsals to tell us what they think and give ideas and they are truly among the most perceptive, honest and creative "dramaturgs" i've worked with. thanks again.

When approached by a middle school a year or so back, I was asked to write a large-cast play for them that would reflect the lives of the middle school students today - something that could absolutely relate to and understand. Then came the last of taboo subjects: sex, homosexuality, drugs, cutting, suicide, etc. Now, I don't write the "teen problem" play - I am all about the story but I was taken aback with a lengthy list of unmentionables. "Gatekeepers" for teen audiences interest me. Because few write for teen audiences and fewer seem to program for them. It seems as if when a child turns 13, they can go see Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman and be done with specific-written works for their time of life.

I heartily recommend Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" as a counter to the notion (particularly American I think) that children need a steady diet of bright and sunny. It's a book every writer should read, not just dramatists writing for youth.

"Our youth is the oldest part of us!" What a sharp aphorism! Like an elder in the community of the self we should turn to our youth for advice. Sharp!

This is a fantastic article and one that should be 'mandatory' reading for all theatre company artistic staff, playwrights and dramaturgical staff; not simply those who work specifically with TYA. It is all too simple to look at a script as a vehicle for performance, pick the right themes and resolution of conflict and your marketshare is guaranteed. Isn't the current life-blood of regional theatre about doing stage versions of classical literature that (conveniently) happens to be on the reading list of every school in the region? Is it any wonder that they reach adulthood considering theatre as an art form that has little relevance in contemporary life? We're not communicating with the audience that is in the seats... but with the school administrations who are footing the bill.

You point out some profound truths. I don't think its as simple however as remembering who we were once though. Unfortunately, individuals tend to believe they were exceptional and all other children lack their own sophistication. In the US we tend to toward nostalgia too, thinking back to utopian childhoods that frankly never existed. Having given this issue some thought, I posit that these tendencies arise from how power accrues in childhood up the age spectrum. Thus, even older children are invested in emptying out younger children's capacities.