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A TYA Artist Turned Gatekeeper, or Perspectives of A TYA Artist Turned Gatekeeper

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I was recently looking for a TYA play to produce for the 2013 Tennessee Theatre Association Theatre for Youth Festival when I realized that I was a gatekeeper. I was rereading The Stones by Australian playwrights Tom Likos and Stefo Nantsou. The play deals with teenage delinquency and the consequences two boys face because of their actions. It was just what I was looking for. A TYA play that is nice and juicy. That’s right, juicy. Nothing against happily ever after fairy tales, but I wanted a play with substance. 

However, my excitement was short lived. When I reached page four and one of the characters says, “Shut up you dickhead”, the spark extinguished. The first thought I had was, “I can’t do this, not if I want to work in this area again.” Sad as it may be, that is a true statement and a real concern for many theater artists in the south (the Bible Belt), and all over the United States.

It doesn’t stop there. Consider current events in our world and issues that are getting a lot of media attention—gun violence and gun control, and same-sex marriage, to name a few. In 2012 the Austin school district cancelled performances of And Then Came Tango, a play written by then UT Austin graduate student Emily Freeman, chronicling the lives of two male penguins that raise a baby penguin together at the New York City’s Central Park Zoo (find her HowlRound post about this here). If challenging the idea of the “traditional” family is on the chopping block for kids, what are the implications for TYA companies?      

So here is my challenge: Think outside the box on how you can expose the youth (and adults) in your community to theater that is educational and socially relevant. Reach out to universities, community centers, libraries, and other arts/humanities based organizations that are dedicated to the mission of bringing relevant work to the youth and families of your community.

As theater artists we should strive to expose youth to something more than the happily ever after of fairy tales. We should attempt to deliver thought provoking theater that challenges the status quo and forces them to think critically about the world they live in and the issues they face. As romantic as that sounds, is this really an option in our world at this moment? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is.

Many TYA companies pay their bills by hosting school day performances. Scot Copeland, Producing Artistic Director for Nashville Children’s Theatre, reminded me of the imperative TYA companies have to protect the people (teachers) who buy their products. When TYA companies produce controversial shows, they may face some backlash, but there is a high probability that the company survives. It can be a different story for the teacher who brings their students to see one of these shows.

Imagine that a TYA company in the south produced Burgess Clark’s adaptation of Aaron Fricke’s autobiographical book, Reflections of a Rock Lobster. The play is based on the true story of a seventeen year-old gay student from Cumberland, Rhode Island who sued his high school in 1980 for the right to escort his boyfriend to his high school prom. It deals with bulling and prejudice and provides a message of acceptance and tolerance.

Let’s assume that the educator(s) bringing their students to see this play have done their research and that the theater company producing the play has fully disclosed the content and themes explored in the production. Let's examine the following sequence of events:

  1. Students see the play. Both the educators and students appear to be having a positive experience at the theater.
  2. Students go home and tell their parents that they enjoyed the play that they saw at the children’s theater. Parents ask what the play was about and their child says it was about a gay kid going to court so he can take his boyfriend to his high school prom.
  3. Backlash begins.
  4. Outraged parent activates the proverbial phone tree to gauge the reaction of other parents.
  5. Parent (or parents at this point) places a call(s) to school principal citing various reasons that the play was inappropriate and why he or she should have never approved the field trip.
  6. Outraged parent(s) escalate their concerns to their local school board and demand answers.
  7. Conservative individual or group (typically with no direct tie to the school or any student in attendance) reaches out to various media outlets as a way of raising awareness of the travesty that has occurred and label this play and its message as an attack on the traditional family and continue to purport that supporters are promoting the gay agenda.
  8. The school board vows to take care of the situation and turns to the principal.
  9. The principal apologizes and passes the blame to the educator.
  10. The educator, who had the best of intentions, takes the heat.

This may sound outlandish but it is not. Educators take a risk when they bring their students to see a play. They place their trust in the hands of theater artists to provide quality theater that is both educational and socially, morally, and in some cases, culturally acceptable. Homosexuality, while gaining more and more acceptance throughout the United States and world, is still considered morally, socially, and culturally unacceptable to many in the conservative south.

Gay rights and gun control are just the tip of the iceberg. There will be issues in every community that are off limits for one reason or another.

So here is my challenge: Think outside the box on how you can expose the youth (and adults) in your community to theater that is educational and socially relevant. Reach out to universities, community centers, libraries, and other arts/humanities based organizations that are dedicated to the mission of bringing relevant work to the youth and families of your community.

The Stones did not make it into this year’s theater for youth festival. Instead, in conjunction with a local university library’s banned book celebration, I am launching a Banned Play Reading Program. The program is designed to challenge the status quo and serve to stimulate dialogue between theater artists, university students, and community members. Our first reading will be of Freeman’s And Then Came Tango. The Stones will follow shortly behind. 

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Ultimately, it's about taking small steps...slowly, but continuously expanding your audience's view of what is possible/acceptable.

Issues like homosexuality are very highly charged topics right now....so instead, perhaps push the boundaries with other difficult topics that may be less sensational and less likely to prompt knee-jerk reactions.....and THEN move to the more controversial stuff once the audience has gained a tolerance for more highly charged topics.

The important thing is to HAVE the conversation with your community in the first place.

Too many theatres and artists censor themselves without even engaging the community about what they would like to do.

Hi Riley,

While I support your concern about protecting teachers from unintentional harm, I disagreedeeply with much of your overall article. For that reason I apologize inadvance if the tone following is harsher – but the step you are taking is, inmy opinion, backward. To me, I see this article as voicing support for theideal but shying away from the need. We can’t do that.

The idea that an informed educator is somehow not responsible for their choice to bring theirclassroom to see difficult, political, eye opening or even radical work or thatwe should not commission, produce and robustly program such work in places thatare most in need of these conversations is antithetical to my belief in TYA asa movement. Rather we are required, as artists, to push these very boundaries ashard as we can and defend the educators/ gate keepers/ parents choice to bringtheir young people to it and offer them active support when they are taken totask.

Teachers, in my experience, use these more provocative works as a way toleverage and open conversations that they cannot easily start in a classroomfor all of the reasons you state and because they feel personally under preparedfor the discussion . I would hazard very few teachers who are properly informedof the content of the work are unknowing of the potential politics of the presentation.School boards and educators have requirements on them within the educational Actsthey lie under that can be very helpful to them in defending such choices. Moresubtle work that offers similar insight is the baseline of our whole industry. Weneed not look hard for that. Frankly –what decent TYA play or piece of children’sliterature doesn’t offer an underlying message of some kind?

Considering a play like Stones or And Then Came Tango as part of a “banned play” reading series is disingenuous and dangerous to my mind. Neither is a banned play. Neither is even radical inits presentation of the ideas within it. Hundreds of works on difficult themeshave been done across the southern US for young audiences – I’ve even commissioned,produced and toured a few. Was it hard ? yes. Was it necessary? Absolutely.

The language issue you write about as a starting point for your concern about producing The Stonesis far from intrinsic to the overall theme and context of the play and thedifficulty of the subject matter is not in the word ‘dickhead’ but in the repercussionsof an act of unintentional homicide . The playwright’s use of a few words inthe play that add reality to the situation for its location is a given if it iswell written. If that context doesn’t work for your audience, ask to edit itwith that clarity of understanding.

TYA is, and should be IMHO, the most political, most forthright and most generative theatre. Itshould push boundaries, create and reproduce hard conversations, let us walk besidepeople whose lives we would rather not have as our own and model our hope forthe generation ahead. If we step back from creating and cultivating theseconversations as part of our DNA then we lose the social opportunity to havethis discourse with young people before they have developed their own prejudicesand barriers. We resign ourselves to fighting the same civil rights battlesagain and again. Not so very long ago these discussions you call out as hardwere about race and integration -and parents had teacher’s fired over the choiceto discuss those ideas with their students…

We must not shy from our responsibility to be the provocateurs of conversation and, moreimportantly, of social change.

(Note: For work that might bring you closer to really underpinning your concern on languages issues I would look at Fleeto by Paddy Cunneen –which incorporates the violence of Glasgow street violence with the use of highly difficult but artfully constructed and intrinsic language to both connect andrepel the audience. The play is a must for anyone looking at difficult language material for youth - recently seen produced at both the Imaginate theatre festival for young people and in prisons around Britain)

Tim Jennings, Managing DirectorChildren's Theatre CompanyMinneapolis, MN

"relevant work to the youth and families of your community" is what should be at the heart of play selection in TYA, or any area of theatre. If the play is not for the community then why do it? And what I particularly like is that word, "relevant" as it provides some room for interpretation.

What you have described so eloquently is the "chilling effect" that occurs when the rules and laws are vague and the consequences severe. In order to stay on the safe side of the rule, we often go too far. "Shut up, you muthafucka," might more clearly be language too extreme for many middle school productions. "Shut up, you dickhead," might squeak by as edgy, though acceptable language. Your post makes me think of many issues surrounding play selection in schools. Presumably, play choice is an intentional decision that fits in with the curriculum goals and pedagogy. If you are at a place where you, as the teacher, are given free choice regarding your play selections, there is an added layer of not wanting to rock the boat. I am reminded of the title of one of the stories in a childhood book of fables that I had -- "Please All, Please None." Making choices and choosing our battles are tough decisions!

"We should attempt to deliver thought provoking theater that challenges the status quo and forces them to think critically about the world they live in and the issues they face. As romantic as that sounds, is this really an option in our world at this moment? Unfortunately, I don’t think it is."

I am very disheartened that you believe this. Especially when you are actually involved in the TYA world. There are so many bold, socially relevant plays being done for families that are entirely producible anywhere. Yes, there are some limitations, but as Kim said, many of us are doing very challenging work in a way that will not get a teacher fired, even in the mid-West, where I am from. If you are only talking about gay issues, I think you should write this specifically from that POV, instead of making broad statements like this.

Also, Stones is a wonderful play. Did you contact the authors and ask if they would change the offensive-to-your-audience line? Many TYA writers are very sensitive to your needs and may change a line if asked. Especially when crossing cultures. TYA plays in Europe are full of "fuck" but the writers I have spoken to would gladly adjust the lines to fit an American audience. They may say no, but it's worth asking before letting the spark die.

Larissa,

Thanks for your thoughts. At this time in my community I do not think that it is possible to do many things. There are a lot of limitations. It is not just from a gay perspective either. There are many things that are off limits in my community. Anything that would promote a non-christian religion (Islam, Buddhism, and other eastern Traditions), things that have foul language (I don't believe in asking playwrights to change the words that they have written. They selected those words for a reason), and things that can be considered "too violent".

I know that there are great things being done in the TYA world in other areas of the United States, it is my community that I am speaking of and small communities of the like. I want to do so many plays that I could never fully produce (at least at this time) and that is why I am launching the banned play program to stimulate conversation in MY community. I do think things will change over time but when you are pushing the envelope you must know how far you can go in your community. For me, the compromise as an artist is to launch this program until I have enough support to push the envelope further.

-Riley

Riley,
It may be possible to do more things than you think in your community, though I don't know it. I suggest that many TYA playwrights WOULD indeed make small changes if it was the difference between having their play done and vs. done in a particular community.
You're not alone. MANY of us in the field, even in the most liberal of areas, want to push the boundaries further. A performing arts center once booked our tour of Steinbeck's the Pearl for 5 year olds (go figure), but what upset them most was not that the baby is shot in the head but that the husband beat the wife. You never know what will ring someone's chime.

Nice, Riley. About a dozen years ago, The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City did an entire season of adaptations of Banned Books, calling it, not unexpectedly, the Banned Book Season. Still a milestone in our field......

The other part of this is being subversive and indirect....