'Reviving a Teenage Audience in a New Way: The “Schoolyard Stories” Project of Iberoamerica' (Maria Ines Falconi, Argentina)

The last 30 years brought a flourishing and vibrant Theatre for Young Audiences scene to Iberoamerica, the region of the Americas from Mexico to Argentina as well as Spain and Portugal. However, for most theatres, the target audience remains narrow: young children between the ages of three and eight.

What scares companies away from creating plays for preteen and teenage audiences? For starters, they have not been successful. Teenagers, who have more social freedom than their younger counterparts, will likely not be taken to the theatre on a weekend family outing, nor do they tend to go on their own accord. And their educators, who are bogged down with testing and college prep, are not driven by educational or cultural field trip opportunities (specifically theatre). In the rare event that a preteen or teenager seeks out theatre, options with any appeal will be few and far between since companies are not producing plays for this demographic, thus creating a vicious cycle of low demand and even lower supply. Ergo, they don’t go.

Colombian Playwright Martha Vazquez is aware of the negative repercussions of this downward spiral. “Throughout my own personal research of spaces where theatre was certainly needed, I came out with a deep thought about theatre for teenagers,” Vazquez says. “I realized there was not a variety of options for them, and this stage of life is full of questions most of these young people don’t share and instead, try to solve in silence, and not always in a healthy way.”

Attempts at creating theatre for this age group have tended to have one of two results: in rare cases, high quality works that are short-lived due to low attendance; or commercialized adaptations specifically for schools, which do not take into account the interests of teenagers. The latter pieces, while they may meet curricular standards, only drive teenagers further away from theatre and may be the only exposure to the art form that teenagers receive. So the cycle continues: adolescents think theatre is boring and solely for education, and on rare occasions when they do attend, their thoughts are confirmed with less than vibrant and exciting productions. Younger children, which Iberoamerican TYA artists capture so well, are lost by the time they reach adolescence, and with that, artists lose the ability to help these young adults find catharsis, establish an identity, and develop a joy for live performing arts.

A Model for Innovation

Many Iberoamerican TYA artists recognize that the way to change this current trend is to surge forward and include adolescents in their audiences, even though doing so might run the risk of failure. In response to this need, Iberoamerica introduced an extension of what was originally a European project called “Schoolyard Stories.”

Developed in 1999, Schoolyard Stories creates new works for teenagers based on themes that are relevant and current to their lives. The European Economic Community funded this initiative for seven companies from different countries. Using research and dialogue with adolescents as a way of generating new materials, teams of playwrights, directors, actors, and teachers developed almost 20 new works for this age group.

ATINA (ASSITEJ Argentina) learned of this project through Marcelo Díaz, an Argentine director residing in Europe who was involved in the European Schoolyard Stories project. ATINA immediately saw its potential to address the needs of teenagers in Spanish-speaking nations and proposed the project to the countries of Iberoamerica.

Díaz believed the Schoolyard Stories would appeal to the adolescents of Iberoamerica by reflecting their social lives, family lives, hopes, and dreams. “In the Schoolyard Stories project, there are many different subjects, and they represent a metaphor that could be applied to other situations in life, beyond school,” Díaz explains. “A schoolyard is a place where teenagers live daily. Their first approaches with the other sex, their first failure, exclusion, violence, racism, fantasies, and seduction are only some of the subjects that students find there.”

Launched in 2008, “Schoolyard Stories in Iberoamerica” is organized by ATINA with the participation of Iberoamerican countries. In addition to bringing relevant and engaging material to adolescents that reflects their social lives, family lives, hopes and dreams, a primary focus of the project is to provide a deep exchange among TYA practitioners across multiple disciplines and multiple countries. The project keeps in close communication with the European division (now expanded to 13 countries and renamed “Project 11+”), providing a constant intercultural exchange of ideas. Scheduled through 2011, the project will take place in three segments: a playwriting competition to develop new works; a director’s workshop to provide theatre artists with professional development; and a festival to showcase the finished pieces.

Setting the Scene

“The break in the schoolyard is an oasis in the middle of the school day’s desert; it takes us out of our bluntness and clears our minds,” writes Alejandro, a sixteen-year-old Argentine student. “It is essential to keep our focus for another hour.  That’s why we defend every minute of it tooth and nail, it always seems to go too fast, and the classes too slow. The break time is precious. We gather with our friends, and we can think about the school without getting depressed.”

With writing such as Alejandro’s as a source of inspiration, the playwriting competition used the locale of a schoolyard as a key defining element. The playwrights were instructed to literally start in the schoolyard – to conduct all of their research before beginning the playwriting process. By using school as a setting for each play, the project hoped to reflect how school is a microcosm for all things young people endure. This distinction embraced the ideas presented by the adolescent participants. The playwrights were intermingled with the youth during the process, and the words of the youth shone through in the final product.

A key component of the competition required playwrights to include source material in the presentation of their works. Thus, the project added new works to the TYA canon while archiving the personal thoughts and emotions of the young people involved. These adolescents’ ideas, presented in the forms of videos, photos, voice recordings, written papers, and drawings, will be showcased at the festival at the conclusion of the project.

A New Message for Adolescent Audiences

While analyzing the source material provided by these students, the Schoolyard Stories participants noticed a trend. Again and again, adolescents wrote positively about their classmates and negatively about the adults who inhibit their freedom and do not understand them. With the rise of violence and drug usage in adolescents, it is becoming clear that teenagers are seeking an outlet to get away from what they perceive as the oppressive tendencies of the education system. This sense of oppression can be worsened by adult-driven initiatives that push morals onto these students, which can include most of the plays written for them.

The dialogue opened with this age group through the Schoolyard Stories made it clear: adolescents do not want moral messages. Rather, the ideas presented in their writings, drawings, and videos seemed to offer a message for the adults in their lives, saying, “Look! This is happening to us – this is our life!”

Gabriel Fernández Chapo, Argentine playwright of I don’t want to be Che Guevara, recognizes how motivated these young people were when contributing to the development of new works. “The possibility that students could express their view on their own representation within these new works served as a good opportunity to express the uniqueness of their voices,” he says. Now, since the ideas reflected in the works of the Schoolyard Stories are based on their voices, adolescents in Iberoamerica will have theatre that truly reflects their own lives.

The first production of the Schoolyard Stories was a collaboration between the Iberoamerica division and the Platform 11+ (European) division. The production contained three of the ten plays developed so far through the Schoolyard Stories initiative. These three plays are collectively titled WC School and were coproduced by Pilot Theatre (York, UK) and the Universidad Popular de Belgrano (Buenos Aires, Argentina), using Argentine playwrights and performers and under the direction of English artist Marcus Romer. WC School performed in both Buenos Aires and York. The following are summaries of the three plays that comprise WC School:

New Commercial Transactions, by Carlos de Urquiza      

Playwright Carlos de Urquiza found his inspiration in the headlines. “When I started looking for news on the Internet on the theme, I discovered, with little to no surprise, that it was a phenomenon that occurs not only in our country, but in many other Latin American countries,” Urquiza explains. The theme is sexual intercourse – more specifically, the exchange of oral sex for anything from beer, a concert ticket, or even simply a homework assignment.

In his play, a boy and girl are answering to the headmistress after the girl offered the boy oral sex in exchange for homework. Some classmates filmed them in the bathroom, and now they face expulsion.

This story may seem shocking, especially when the two central characters are such excellent students. To make matters worse, they feel little remorse – oral sex, they believe, is not technically sex.

“It caught my eye that there was not a register of guilt in the participants about what happened,” Urquiza says. “I believe the students were more surprised, in many cases, with the significance that adults give to the situation.”

To illustrate this idea, Urquiza created a headmistress who presses the students harder and harder. Eventually, their fighting makes way to tears. While the students submit, the young boy shares his confusion in how adults are able to act promiscuously, but it is wrong for adolescents. In the end, he states with resentment, “We are doing the right thing now. You taught us this. We are now ‘adapted.’”      

Che Guevara, by Gabriel Fernández Chapo

Similarly, Gabriel Fernández Chapo’s play also reflects a world where adults lead by poor example and pave the way for the failure of their youth. Fernández Chapo found his inspiration directly in the source material gathered from the students. “The initiative was made by simple first-person testimonies, poems authored by them, songs that they thought were representative of their views and thoughts,” he explains. “Under these assumptions, creativity appeared, and the voices of the students became meaningful and significant.”

In the play, a popular male student is smoking in the bathroom while his friends push and kick a younger boy. Told through a monologue, we see this teenager’s perspective of school as a jungle where violence and deception are the only means of survival. We then learn who this teenager’s father is: a politician who will pay any amount of money to avoid his son’s expulsion. While none of the adolescents presented in these works are without flaws, the reoccurring trend of looking at the adults that teach them illustrates that the teenagers are aware of how the adults surrounding them impact their own development. 

Stay Here, by Luz Rodríguez Urquiza

Like Fernández Chapo, Playwright Luz Rodríguez Urquiza says the students provided his source of inspiration. “Kids were asked to improvise scenes about different subjects (such as drugs, sex, pregnancy, alcohol, relationship with their parents, violence, relationship with their friends, and their love lives) all of which came up in the conversations with them, he says. Then the play practically wrote itself, using parts of scenes I wrote while I worked with the kids, with a lot of information they gave me in my head, with my own teenage memories and stories from my friends.

Stay Here looks at school grounds as a safe haven for teenagers who have difficult home lives. In the play, a boy and girl seek refuge at the school after hours to escape their negligent families: at one home, a divorced mother with multiple new lovers; at the other, an alcoholic father.

These two discover one another and find solace in each other’s company. Eventually their friendship gives way to romance, and they are discovered and forced to separate. Once again, the adults do not understand the deeper meaning of the teenagers’ actions.


Room for Debate

One of the Buenos Aires performances held a post-show discussion with both the teenagers and adults in the audience. For both parties, the initial response was one of speechlessness. The adolescents could not believe what they had seen, but their initial silence turned into dialogue as the adolescents analyzed the play. Discussions centered on how the themes related to their own experiences with parents and teachers, their feelings of abandonment and suffering, and their beliefs about right and wrong. Above all else, one consensus resounded: the adolescents faced these situations at school every day.

While the adolescents were moved by the relatable themes of the plays, the adults were speechless for different reasons. The adults were astonished by the rough nature of the works, claiming they were not suitable for children. “Is it necessary to talk about this in theatre?” they asked. “Why not?” was the youths’ rebuttal.

Schoolyard Stories: A Work in Progress

This debate illuminates what many TYA practitioners already sensed. Most adults are not ready for the type of theatre for which adolescents hunger. While adults may still want plays that push a “good message” onto teens, the teens responded positively to seeing realistic portrayals of their own lives, even when the truth was painful to see.

This dynamic poses an interesting challenge for directors as they seek ways to share these works with their own communities. While these artists are committed to bringing this new style of theatre to adolescents, they worry about how to confront negative responses from parents and teachers.

As the project continues through 2011 until the final festival, the artists will continue analyzing how both adolescents and adults respond to the work. In the meantime, the artists view the play development workshops, the initial performances of WC School, and the cross-cultural professional development opportunities as successes.

Although measuring the success of these programs may prove difficult, the artists involved are seeing firsthand how the adolescents are benefiting from the experience. When an audience of 13- to 18-year-olds was asked in a post-show discussion if they would see these plays with their parents, one girl answered, “I would see it with my parents and more. I think parents should see this play so they know what is happening to us, and they can begin to believe what we tell them.”

Perhaps this answer alone justifies the whole project.

Maria Inés Falconi is a playwright and teacher, Secretary of ATINA (ASSITEJ Argentina), and a vice president of ASSITEJ.

This article originally appeared in TYA Today, the publication of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA (ASSITEJ/USA)