Things You Can’t Say in Children’s Theatre
This is the fourth of seven posts that proposes a new theory of theatre for youth. Teresa Simone suggests that a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the U.S./Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”
In my last three posts, I made the modest proposal that There Are No Children, and defined some of the unbreached borders of the discipline. What things are not “children’s theatre?” Taking a broad spectrum performance studies approach, I looked at diverse examples of performance by and for children. These examples were a far-spread range: how children perform sexuality from Shirley Temple to Toddlers in Tiaras; how children perform intelligence and capability from spelling bee champions to Toddlers in Mensa; how children perform nationality from protests of the ethnic studies ban in Arizona to mock Olympics in China. This was an artificial and somewhat arbitrary scope of study, and, I admit, focused heavily on my own obsessions and opinions. Isn’t that what blogs are for?
After two years in a very respectable, very institutional MFA program in Theatre for Youth, I might have approached this blog differently. I could stayed well within the discipline, beginning with my most favorite work of children’s theatre (Peter Pan) and moving to my most hated (Les Miserables, Jr.). I could have begun by lauding groundbreaking children’s theatre playwrights such as Laurie Brooks, Suzan Zeder, or José Cruz González, each of whom created plays that said what was previously unmentionable. I might have looked at exceptional children’s theatre companies producing exceptional work. I leave that work to others. Instead, I began with the inflammatory declaration that I Hate Children’s Theatre. Yet I have, until now, deliberately skirted the edge of performances that most would consider “children’s theatre.” This is because, as I’ve said, the most interesting children’s theatre does not happen in theatres.
Most reviewers of the play expressed some shock that a children’s theatre play would address the taboo subject of death, but comforted readers that the play felt more like a morality tale—a story of right and wrong—and thus was acceptable for children.
As I stated previously, a deeper respect for children stems from the assertion that There Are No Children. Many readers have pointed out that this philosophical pretext presents some obvious practical problems:
- How, exactly, is a company supposed to sell tickets to “not-children’s-theatre?” Personally, I appreciate those who sell “Theatre for All.”
- How can adult audiences enjoy an uninterrupted evening of theatre in a room filled with unruly, childish behavior? I can’t speak for everyone, but as an unruly adult, I wish all theatre were, in fact, less…ruly.
- How could you honor developmental differences without limiting audiences? As one reader quipped, do you take a six-year-old to a production of Equus? What is the objection to Equus? The violence? The sex? The…horses? The most disturbing play I know is a Shakespeare classic. While I would never take a six-year-old to see Titus, I am certain that there were children in the audience in its original context. I remind you that there are still six-year-olds in the world who work in factories, in fields. Children who are sheltered from adult realities are in a very privileged world position. Still, this raises the valid question: what things do US parents expect their children to be sheltered from? What are the things you can’t say in children’s theatre?
In my next few posts, I will look at a few examples of companies and artists who, in my opinion, have risen to the challenge. Each of these artists has defiantly resisted classification as “children’s theatre,” while attracting significant participation from children as audience/producers. Even better, they raise topics traditionally unmentionable in TFY.
Zarco Guerrero is a maskmaker whose work largely deals with death, grief, and loss, as well as renewal, regeneration, recovery, and reclamation. With the Phoenix Cultural Coalition, Zarco has led the Phoenix Día de los Muertos festival for over 30 years. His work stands in contrast to rabid Arizona politicians who, with the ethnic studies ban and SB 1070, a law allowing police to detain anyone they think might be undocumented, wish to erase all memory of indigenous and Mexican history. Zarco’s work resists these colonialist erasures, affirming and celebrating Chicano culture.
Zarco, like his masks and puppets, is a colorful, visible presence in the community, at art fairs, cultural events, and political protests. He works year-round on the Día de los Muertos festival, holding skill-sharing workshops in his mask studio, which in turn allows for extremely large numbers of participants in the festival. His practice is truly embodied, as he quite literally touching the community, sculpting calaca (skull) masks individually designed to fit the faces of children, youth, and adults.
The Día de los Muertos festival is always held in public parks, outside the walls and confines of a theatre. The ritual provides a liminal space, where unruly behavior is the norm, and people can experience a feeling of belonging, of one-ness, of communitas. While some artists have a possessive sense of ownership, Zarco’s approach is regenerative, as he will teach anyone, young and old alike, the skills they need to make their own masks. This creates a sense of efficacy; the ability of anyone—everyone—to make this kind of not-children’s-theatre.
Zarco also has experience making more traditional “children’s theatre.” His play Mascarada de la Vida/Masquerade of Life, commissioned by Childsplay Theatre, dealt with themes of death, grief, and loss. At the time, most reviewers of the play expressed some shock that a children’s theatre play would address the taboo subject of death, but comforted readers that the play felt more like a morality tale—a story of right and wrong—and thus was acceptable for children. I read Mascarada as a story about class (another taboo subject in children’s theatre—more on that later), where death has a leveling effect, dissolving all markers of superiority in life. No matter how rich you are, you can’t take it with you.
While Mascarada received the ultimate legitimation when it was selected to be presented by the Kennedy center in 1991, I prefer Zarco’s more blatantly revolutionary work on José Cruz González’s Sun Serpent. This play, recently revamped by Mixed Blood Theatre, has received far less acclaim, although to me it is much more interesting. Make no bones about it, Sun Serpent tells the story of the conquista through a child’s eyes. While Sheriff Joe Arpayaso believes that brown people have no rights, and Governor Jan Bruja does not believe children should learn their own histories, Zarco speaks the unspeakable: Arizona history is Chicano history, in an ongoing process of decolonization.