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.
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.)
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.”