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.
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.