Why I Hate Children’s Theatre

a Modest Proposal for Theatre for Youth

This is the first 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 US/Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.” 

I started my career in children’s theatre at age eight, when I began putting on plays with/for the neighborhood kids. We hung a sheet from a branch on a tree in my backyard, and voilà! A stage! I remember the first play I wrote (with my best friend from across the street). It was a melodrama: Poor Jessica runs away from her tyrannical parents who do not love her. Jessica is swept away by a gale, and her parents suffer the most painful remorse.

At twenty-one, I helped co-found a nonprofit youth arts group called Las SinFronteras. Las SinFronteras put on a huge spectacular: Menstru-Rama 2000!, featuring performance art all about, you guessed it… periods! Yay! I fondly remember a clothesline of panties strung across the gallery, with prominent bloodstains on the crotches. Even more fondly, I remember a “beet juice yoni print” by Tucson artist Donna Dove, which—I swear—looked exactly like the Madonna. We devised performances for WTO protests and with bands like Le Tigre and Fugazi. Around that time, I founded a gender performance group called Boys’R’Us. We performed in bars on Saturday nights, a nouveau vaudeville mishmash of burlesque, drag, whatever.

At twenty-four, I became one of the first members of Stories That Soar, a nonprofit theatre that makes plays out of stories children write. Children’s stories, I discovered, are amazing. Some were hilarious, like “Armpit Rapunzel” (just visualize). Others were heartbreaking, like: “Visiting My Dad in Jail.” Others completely changed my perspective, like “Pancakes,” a story written by a deaf and blind boy using only fingerspelling. I worked for Stories That Soar for ten years, eventually becoming their first Education Director.

silhouettes in a jail cell
“Dad in Jail.” Best of Stories That Soar!, Dir. T. Simone.

I have worked in youth theatre all of my life. Only one of these experiences, however, would be categorized as “children’s theatre.” Can you guess which one?

That is reason number one on my list of Why I Hate Children’s Theatre: “children’s theatre” is a very limiting concept. I am finishing a very respectable MFA program in Theatre for Youth, and (as utterly disillusioned as only a grad student can be) have come to this very unwelcome, impolitic conclusion: I don’t like “children’s theatre.”

The limits of ‘children’s theatre’ are blatantly discriminatory.

A Modest Proposal:
When I suggest the following unacceptable theory to my colleagues, I might as well be suggesting (as Jonathan Swift once did) that poverty might be abolished by feeding poor children to rich folks. If that’s difficult to swallow, take a breath, because here’s a big bite of theory to chew on:

The categories of “childhood” and “youth” are constructed, yet have lasting material effects directly on the surfaces of young bodies. Childhood/adulthood do not exist. I acknowledge broad developmental phases, but these are also social and discursive constructs. As Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler have suggested, the most anti-oppressive framework for viewing the category of sex is to assert, materially, on the surfaces of bodies, that there are no women. Paralleling my materialist feminist luminaries, I brashly, performatively state: there are no children. (I will write more about this in my next post.)

painting of a cannibal
Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823).

The most progressive theatres are not for children. They are for people. The most anti-oppressive theatre methodologies (benefitting children, youth, AND adults), will, quite simply, consider and include children as “persons;” members of civic society. Reason number two on my list of Why I Hate Children’s Theatre: The limits of “children’s theatre” are blatantly discriminatory. Working in theatre, this has been my experience, over and over again.

Recently, I was involved in a site-specific devised piece. In a development meeting, we came to a split vote on how to structure the plot, essentially fractured on whether or not to include children. One designer said (I’m paraphrasing), “If we include children as characters our plot options will be limited. And we might run into problems with having children as audience.” How offensive. What a blatantly discriminatory sentiment. Imagine if I had said to a lighting designer, “If we include lighting, then we might run into problems with lighting.”

Beating my “eating bodies” metaphor to death: Imagine if you went to a fancy, expensive restaurant with a friend who was five feet tall. What would happen if the maître d' ushered your friend out, explaining that only people whose bodies are at least 5’6” were welcome? If you were reluctantly seated, what if you overheard other diners complain that short bodies should be left at home, that their presence ruined their fine dining experience? What if you wanted to eat with a friend who was, say, Diné or O’odham? Would you be happy to go to a restaurant with bland options and plastic-covered booths, a restaurant that marketed itself as “Native American friendly?”

Yet this is the equivalent of what we—in the US, at least—do with “children’s theatre.” We limit, we delimit, we include, we exclude. I can only conclude that the most interesting, innovative works of “children’s theatre” are…not. In this blog series, I theorize that a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from my geopolitical position on the U.S./Mexico Border, I hypothesize a borderlands performance aesthetic that includes children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Teresa Simone suggests a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the US/Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.” 

Why I Hate Children's Theatre

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Thanks for your provocative article. It reminded me of one of my most interesting experiences as a New York-based actor. I was in a production of "Othello" that toured around NYC area schools, mostly public schools, and we performed for kids as young as fourth grade. As you probably know, "Othello" is quite a brutal play, with very little relief of the sort you can find in other Shakespeare tragedies (such as the "Porter scene" in Macbeth). One might think this is about the last thing we want to present to our young audiences. But one would be wrong. We didn't water down the play or change any of the language. We had to cut lots of lines due to time constraints, but we kept all the fighting and killing, including the harrowing scene where the hero strangles his young wife. And the kids absolutely loved it. At every performance they were with us from start to finish, and they came up with some pretty fascinating questions in the post-show discussions. I had never performed for young audiences before, and it was a real eye-opener for me. I still remember those auditoriums full of some of the most involved and enthusiastic audiences I've ever had the good luck to perform for.

Teresa, terms aside (though, as Kim Peter stated, "Children's Theatre" is considered outdated and Theatre for Young Audiences is what's acceptable today) I think you're talking about knocking down the binary of Theatre for Young Audiences and "Adult Theatre," right? Steven Dietz talks about this a lot, he believes in the idea of Theatre for All. That is, if theatre is GOOD, it's good for all audiences.

On a related note, I'm wondering if you've read "Children in the Global Sex Trade" by Julia O'Connell Davidson? She's a scholar based in the UK and really deconstructs the Adult/Child binary. I highly recommend reading this book to further develop your point of view.

Well, Teresa, I look forward to seeing your later posts, in order to see if you have a point, and what it might be. In the meantime, congratulations on getting our attention.

But let me (as gently as I can) point out that specific definitions of the term "children's theatre" are going to vary from company to company, artist to artist, community to community, and that any academic definition is but that . . . academic.

I might not like my company to be associated with some other efforts labelled "children's theatre," any more than Steppenwolf Theatre might wish to be defined as the same thing as the Ozark Hillbilly Dinner Theatre (and vice-versa), just because they are both theatre companies. Whoever is doing the defining is doing so within their own framework of experiences and perspectives, which is always going to be limited, limiting and to a greater or lesser degree, exclusionary of some one or some thing.

So what? As an artist, producer, and activist in this field for 42 years, I don't really care how "children's theatre" is defined, except by my particular audience -- and the work of my company is going to be the most important factor in defining the term to them.

I agree, however, with your most intentionally provocative statement that the term "children's theatre" is discriminatory. Yes. Absolutely. Embrace it. A couple of decades ago, here at NCT, we used a cutline on our marketing materials, from brochures to billboards, … "because children are more important." My board chair, an attorney at a local law firm, was confronted by a young colleague, who found the statement offensive. "More important than what?" he demanded. My board chair told him, "at NCT, they think that children are more important than an opening night cocktail reception, more important than a sponsorship deal with a corporation, more important, even, than their own artistic egos and ambitions." "But it sounds like they are saying that children are more important than me!" protested his friend. "Yeah," said my board chair, "they think that, too."

And, by the way, here's the cutline my children's theatre will not let me use:

Children, like life, are too f***ing short for bad theatre,

I agree that the difference between how academics discuss children's theatre (theory), and how it is produced (practice), creates a rift that makes it hard to have a discussion that encompasses both worlds. One of the things that has troubled me greatly as an MFA student is that there is a huge emphasis on theatre education, but there seems to be very little grounding in actual theatre production. I agree that the work of any given company is probably not going to fit the stereotype or definition of "children's theatre." And, for producing companies, that doesn't mean that the term isn't still useful, whatever form their productions might take. I like that cutline. At 5'2", I'm also too effing short for bad theatre.

Related to this conversation, I've done some seminars and thesis advising with the MFA in TYA program at U Central Florida, which has a long-standing relationship with the Orlando Rep, a professional TYA theater - so the MFA in TYA students have coursework on campus and do a number of practicums at the REP - from my POV, this is the best kind of training for our field, combining both academics and practice - graduates of this program are in key positions at the Coterie, Nashville Children's, First Stage Milwaukee, Kennedy Center TYA and other theaters. The Rose Bruford College in London has an MA in TYA and I'm pretty sure they are connected with the Unicorn Theatre, one of the best TYA theaters in England and an important one internationally.

Also, when the MFA in TYA program at UCF was looking to reimagine the program and hire a new TYA faculty member, they held two days of brainstorming, conversations which included three of the UCF faculty, the Artistic Director, Managing Director, and Education director of the REP, and myself. I made the point, and I still do, that a few years back there was, as it were, a divide between practioners and theater educators - you were sort of one or the other. Now I make the case that you practitioners need to be 1/3 educators and educators need to be 1/3 practitioners.

As far as the hard-core academics go, I'm not an academic, a scholar, nor a researcher (though inordinately proud of being a 'Graduate Faculty Scholar' at UCF) and I have many dear friends who are academics/researchers/scholars and very important contributors to the growth and future of our field. And I have enthusiastically supported adding ITYARN, the international theater for young audiences research network to the world of ASSITEJ.

That being said, I have often expressed the concern that some research seems geared only for other researchers/scholars, not practitioners - if I, (with a good MFA and decades in the field and being, I hope, reasonably bright and well-read) can't even understand what's being said in a paper/book (often because it's written in 'academese'), then I wonder what good it's doing for the practitioners.

Only my opinion, happy to have some of my academic-scholar-researchers weigh in and tell me that I'm misguided.... :-)

I think people object to "academese" in pretty much any field. I admit freely that, while I have an extensive practical background in production, the idea I'm proposing here is *purely* theoretical. But I think that forums like HowlRound are a good place to try to translate ideas into practice. I might fail, but, as they say at Dell'Arte, "When you fail, fail GRANDLY."

Also, Beckett said - "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

A question - with theories and practice, which comes first, which influences the other in what ways. For example, for me, lots of Brecht's theoretical writings contradict both other parts of his own writings as well as the plays.

Gosh, I have no idea how to answer that chicken and egg question! But I do know that Brecht had no problem contradicting himself. For me, this idea came somewhat instinctively, after observing some work that included children but was not children's theatre. I started compiling all of my favorite performances, and realized that there were patterns. Then I thought about theory, and started layering that in.

I don't wish to get too much into the weeds about the post or ensuing discussion at this time, and my opinions and thoughts are personal - they will hopefully add to the conversation.

They are, however, based on 32 years working in theater for young audiences in the US, and 13 years working internationally, most of those as a member of the executive committee, or governing board, of ASSITEJ (the international association of theaters for children and young people, for those who don't know).

There is no common definition of what I call Theater for Young Audiences, either in the US or internationally, for the field that others call children's theater, theater for youth, youth theater, etc, and, as Kathryn said, the struggles over definitions, excellence, and appropriateness have been going on for a long time.

What's really exciting, from where I sit, is that the field is growing, improving, and changing, becoming more daring, innovative, and inclusive. Though it's two years old, a previous HowlRound post I wrote is still relevant to our changing field http://howlround.com/the-sh...

A few other specifics:

ASSITEJ's French acronym means the international association of theater for children and young people, children being, more or less, through 8th grade and young people being high school. However, 'theater for young audiences' is more and more accepted internationally. (though, internationally, 'youth theatre' tends to be theatre performed by young people.

Speaking of changing (or differing) definitions, the MFA program in Theater for Youth at Arizona State U used to be called, I believe, 'Child Drama'. At U Texas Austin, they call it Drama and Theater for Youth and Communities. At the University of Central Florida, they call it Theater
for Young Audiences. Eastern Michigan U calls it Drama/Theater for the Young. Northwestern calls its (undergrad only, i think) program theater for young audiences. All more or less the same field, all with different names. (and all fine progams, training more and more committed practitioners.

In Australia, what they call 'theater for young people' includes any performance for an audience up through age 25, including dance, theater, music, puppetry, circus, music.

I've often quipped that the reason Australia has such daring 'theater for young people' is that they descended from convicts, while we in the US descended from Puritans. Many other countries do not have such restrictive 'gatekeepers' (teachers and parents) as we do. That being said, I've been fortunate enough to attend over two dozen international festivals, including five ASSITEJ Congresses, and seen excellence/innovation/daring of the highest order, as well as pieces that were jaw-droppingly dull, indulgent, and incomprehensible.

I'm all for NOT returning to the bad old days of colored-tennis-shoes-dull-fairytale-adaptions 'children's theater. However, two of our largest, most important, and most innovative TYA
theaters are the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis and Seattle Children's Theatre, so the term is obviously still relevant. For me, it's all about what we do and what we can learn from each other all over the world, and how we best serve our young audiences not what we call it.

Thank you for this thoughtful post. You have given a really great background on the usage of terms, and how they have overlapped and shifted. I lacked the ability to clarify this given the limited number of words allotted for this blog, but I really appreciate you pointing this out. I very much admire the work of ASSITEJ, and, as I said, have been blown away by the work I saw at the ASSITEJ World Congress 2014. For me, my point is less about semantics and what we call things. I'm trying to present a new way of thinking about the construct of childhood/adulthood. I don't think it is necessarily out of line with how ASSITEJ or any of the excellent (for expediency) TFY programs might frame their work. I just think it's a philosophical point of view that I haven't heard articulated yet.

Thanks, Teresa - I tried to be, as it were, thoughtful. Related, the mission statement of the Coterie in Kansas City includes "we seek to open lines of communication between races, sexes, and
generations by redefining children’s theatre to include families and
diverse audiences." There's lots of chatter in the field about plays for families, as opposed to just for children/young people of a certain age. There's a whole movement about what is often called 'sensory-friendly', or 'relaxed' performances, for those on the Autism spectrum.

I am not a theater for youth playwright. And admit that I have written only one theater for youth piece; CENICIENTA, For the sake of accuracy, it was a devised piece so my playwright skills were limited to recording, polishing,and adding a bit of spice here and there. We approached it from a very clear direction. We were writing a play that would communicate with students in the age range of 5-10 years of age. We were also very aware that people in the ages of 5-10 don't drive, own cars, have a job, or are on the look out in the media for plays to attend. We wanted the parents, adults to also enjoy the play. I can say we did it. The children laughed and participated, the adults cried though most of the play. The impact was that powerful. I remember as a child watching Rocky and Bullwinkle (I'll let y'all look it up.) As a 7 year old I head a phrase in reference to Army Intelligence. Rocky replied, "Sounds like a contradiction of terms." As a child, I was watching a cartoon. As I grew older, my reading and research skills allowed my imagination and curiosity to look up what "contradiction" meant. And then, several years after hearing this line. I laughed. This was the same effect we hope that CENICIENTA has on our audience. The adults already got it. I also find it interesting that in an institution of higher learning, the term Children's theater is still in use. I agree with the marketing aspects for productions, but as academics, haven't you agreed to a specific term?

I find that on the academic side of things, the term "Theatre for Youth" is usually used, with a broad understanding of what "youth" might designate. It's an interesting divide between theory and practice that the terms don't seem to align.I think your point that a piece can appeal to all ages at many different levels is valid. A lot of well-made Theatre for Youth/Children's Theatre accomplishes that goal, and it's a good goal to aim for. If I weren't so hopelessly philosophical, I'd stop at the goal of appealing to all ages and call it a day. Btw, I watched Rocky & Bullwinkle as well... with my parents and grandparents. My personal favorite, the Muppets, have the same all ages appeal :)

I agree with so much of what you are saying. I am a professional costume designer and teacher who had the great privilege to grow up working on and performing in "children's theatre". As an adult, I've worked at theatres that only do "theatre for youth" and yet children's theatre is part of their name. I am currently working at a theatre that separates their main stage series and children's theatre series. Along with the "chilrdren's theatre" shows, we also have an academy program that offers various theatre oriented classes. The motto for those classes has always been "Life skills through stage skills". We recently had a discussion about using the "Theatre for Youth" tag in our advertising instead of "Children's Theatre". We ended up keeping "Children's Theatre" because, for marketing purposes, the general public understands the term better. I get the desire to make a distinction, but I don't think it's needed to achieve your desired goal of inclusiveness. Instead of trying to abolish the term, I would like to attempt to just raise the standards. The public can call it what they want. The theatres can call it what they want. If it's good and interesting and exciting, hopefully the public will come no matter what their age.

I agree - raising the standards is the way to go. I've encountered beautiful, astonishing, impactful work by theaters with the word "Children" in their name. "Children" is a marketing term that is important - it lets parents, most of whom are not mired in the theater world or discussions like this, know that the subject/story is appropriate and intended for their kids. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded – parents want guidelines. They want to know that their money is well spent. Erasing terminology, erasing lines between “adult” and “children” will make it difficult to get parents to buy tickets. Conversely, creating sophisticated art for children will bring them in the doors.

I agree with your point that there is a practical marketing value to keeping the label "children's theatre." Very few consumers of theatre would purchase tickets for events that were not legible, that is, if they couldn't understand what it was they were buying tickets for. Also, from the institutional standpoint of specialist educational programs (such as my MFA), there is a desire to create disciplinary boundaries that reinforce the idea that "children's theatre" (or "Theatre for Youth") is it's own practice. Otherwise, it's hard to argue that your jobs are necessary. Or that your specialization is, in fact, demanding and rigorous. As a theatre teacher, over and over, I encountered people who held the belief that drama and/or children's theatre are something that any damn fool can do. I have had to fight for legitimacy. I've had to defend my curricula from interference by laypeople - for example, a 3rd grade teacher who, without my consent, informed all of the parents that we'd be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream (and the useless administrator who backed her on this). And, I've had to live at poverty wages because people, quite simply, didn't respect that my field requires training and expertise and deserves living wages. So I completely understand the impulse to defend the idea that Theatre for Youth/Children's Theatre is important and necessary.

What I am proposing here is pure theory. I have a few examples of what this theory might look like as applied, but basically, I'm offering an idea. And I am mainly proposing it because I have found, in my field, that it is completely taboo. I was not exaggerating when I said that I've been told this idea is "unacceptable." It's important to explore the ideas that make people uncomfortable. It's important to pry at the edges of disciplines.

Not to overstate my place in the world with this metaphor: If Albert Einstein had been completely satisfied with the fields of mathematics and physics, certain innovative domains of theory (that lead to certain domains of practice, positive and negative, but revolutionary nonetheless) might never have sprung forth. Einstein was dissatisfied with mathematics, and, at the time, mathematics was dissatisfied with him too. I'm no Einstein. I'm a middling would-be academic. But I have an idea here that I can't let go of, and I'd like to talk about it.

I would argue that it's necessary to separate theater education from professional theater. A 3rd grade teacher who does not respect boundaries is part of wider systemic problem of non-experts imposing curricula standards that intrude upon creative thinking (Common Core, standardized tests). Children's Theater on a professional level really has nothing to do with this.

And seriously, anyone who throws around comparisons to Einstein, as well as makes references to Jonathan Swift and Simone de Beauvoir, is kidding themselves if they aren't trying to look important.

Hi Jenny, Your comment and mine got posted at the same time, so I actually read yours after mine posted. Which is perhaps why it seemed sidelong to the point you were trying to make. You make an important distinction between theatre pedagogy and theatre production. Quality professional children's theatre IS important. I agree that a lot could be done to change negative perceptions of children's theatre if it met rigorous creative/artistic standards. I myself was astounded at the quality of shows I saw at ASSITEJ 2014, really the best of the best children's theatre produced globally. It gave me a whole new framework for what's possible in professional children's theatre. I wished that I saw shows like that in the US. But I don't, or I haven't yet. Regarding my sense of self-importance, I'd counter that I display the same amount of hubris that anyone who posts a selfie or a blog or publishes in an academic journal does, no more, no less. I truly wasn't trying to liken myself to Einstein, merely trying (perhaps too brashly - point taken) to make a point that unpopular ideas are still ripe for exploration. If I truly were so concerned about my reputation and ranking, I'd probably avoid saying anything impolitic. I'm not. I'm making myself completely vulnerable to critique. Because to me it's the ideas that are interesting, less so than the person behind them.

You might be interested to know that whole bunch of folkshave been kicking around the mile-wide meaning of the words “children’stheatre” since long before you arrived at your “very respectable MFAprogram”. All of us have encounteredthose, like your designer, who denigrate young audiences and “children’stheatre” before they’ve bothered to create a thing. It’s cool to announce to anyone who willlisten that you’re better than those lousy hacks who stoop to “children’stheatre”. But the whole proposition islittle more difficult than simply declaring kids aren’t kids (they’re justpeople with different body surfaces). Hop in, Teresa, and actually make the kind of theatre you’re so excitedabout. I’ll look forward to seeing ifyou actually make a point in your next posts. But I’d really like to see you take time outfrom bashing “children’s theatre” and actually create something meaningful toprove your point.

You seem upset. While I'm aiming for a polemic, it was in the intention of furthering academic discussion, not attacking anyone personally. I'm sorry if I upset you.

I am an artist first and a scholar second, so I *do* actually make theatre. Lots of it.I certainly don't mean to imply that the people who make "children's theatre" are hacks, or lesser artists to any degree. That would mean discounting the majority of the work I did from 2003-2013 as a children's theatre specialist and teaching artist.

My upcoming blog posts will clarify my point a bit better. While I've heard many discussions in my field about broadening what "Theatre for Youth" means (for example, at ASSITEJ 2014, Ben Fletcher-Watson gave a fascinating talk at the ITYARN research forum about theatre for fetuses; I've also heard definitions of youth that span up to age 28) I don't know of anyone who has made the exact theoretical point I'm making, which I don't think is a simple declaration. I think it's a materialist theory of subjectivity that is a difficult concept to grasp, and, yes, anathema to some. All the more reason to engage in the discussion, I'd say. I don't think HowlRound was intended to be a site where everyone stands around nodding their heads in benevolent agreement.

All respect to you, and the work you do. Be well.

I wouldn't - but not necessarily because of the *content.* Young people are capable of grappling with adult themes and topics - not as deeply, or from the same perspective, but with a child you know well, and if prepared appropriately and discussed carefully afterwards, I think you could "go there."

I'm the mother of a three year old. Bright, funny, astonishing. We've had great conversations about the meaning of death, about feelings, about love. But I wouldn't take him to see Equus - or any other "adult" play. You know why? Because at three he doesn't have a good enough grasp of social convention to sit quietly and not kick the chair of the person in front of him. I am not going to risk ruining the experience for other audience members.

As a mom, the "Children's Theatre" label is helpful. It means it will be shorter (easier for my little to sit through) and if he wiggles and hops and wants to dance in the aisle nobody will mind. :)

I do get, and sympathize, with the complaint that a lot of children's theatre is over-simplified, flat, cartoony, whatever. Yes, kids are capable of understanding more, and I'm glad there are folks out there exploring different options.