'At Play in the Fields of TYA' (Elissa Adams, USA)
(originally published in HowlRound)
When I arrived, in 1998, to work at Children’s Theatre Company, the largest children’s theater in the United States, I knew very little about the field of Theater for Young Audiences. I arrived, a nurturer of playwrights and developer of new work, with a head and heart full of playwrights whose work I loved and a hope that, by aligning myself with a large, regional theater helmed by an Artistic Director with a proven track record of producing new plays, I could get the work of the writers I loved produced. This has turned out to be true. In the fifteen years I have been Director of New Play Development, Children’s Theatre Company has commissioned and produced over thirty-five new plays by writers including Nilo Cruz, Kia Corthron, Lisa D’Amour, Melissa James Gibson, Jeffrey Hatcher, Naomi Iizuka, Will Power and Taylor Mac. I have been able to reach out to writers and theater makers whose work thrills me, put money in their pockets and their plays up in gloriously large-scale, professional productions. As a champion of living playwrights, this has been deeply fulfilling. And it’s not because I’m some producorial, dramaturgical genius. It’s because, if you’re a playwright looking for a home for your work and an audience to share it with, the field of Theater for Young Audiences rocks."
I am billing this article as a Guide for the Uninitiated, because, as I talk with playwrights at festivals, MFA programs, at places like The Playwrights’ Center and New Dramatists, the majority of them doesn’t know much about the field of TYA and aren’t actively considering how writing for TYA can be artistically challenging and financially lucrative. For those of you in the TYA community, the places, people, trends, discussed here will probably be familiar to you. I ask you, the citizens of the TYA world, to use this week to communicate, through responses and postings, what you’re working on and what you find fulfilling about the field. Shout out to the TYA practitioners whose work you love and help me guide the uninitiated to the best TYA has to offer.
The canon of plays for young audiences is still relatively new and relatively small. Artists, at least in America, have really only written plays specifically with young audiences in mind during the last fifty years. Therefore in TYA, living playwrights and theater makers are not fighting for a place in a tradition that goes back a thousand years or more. They don’t have to climb the mountain of extant work. The field is still fallow and needing to be planted.
As your TYA Field Guide, I will tell you that the canon that is being created (or at least programmed by most of the professional theaters in this country) is frustratingly reliant on adaptations of extant children’s literature. The same market-forces of familiarity that drive adult theaters to program the umpteen thousandth production of Death of a Salesman or Hamlet drive children’s theater’s to program plays based on children’s books or classic tales. This doesn’t stop playwrights from making true, vibrant works of theater (witness Cheryl West, whose post about having adapted two TYA plays from existing literature, will appear this week), but it is certainly an aspect of the field to be aware of.
So, okay, you say, TYA needs me. They might even put my play up in a full production and pay me royalties. But what if I don’t want to write about birthday parties or princesses or even the first day of school (although as I write that, I think about Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Lady Anne, about Laura’s agonized monologue in The Glass Menagerie about the first day of typing school—even the heaviest hitters tackle birthday parties, princesses and the first day of school sometimes)? What if my voice as a writer is not brightly-colored and funny? What if I want to spend my time writing about contemporary society, hidden history, war, famine, greed, art, sex, poverty, fucked-up relationships? Well, what I can bear witness to in my experience of developing plays for young people, is that there is no story that cannot be told, no subject matter that is off the table, when writing for young audiences.
Here’s an abstracted, but very real, list of the subjects that have graced TYA stages around the country in recent years: child slavery in Pakistani rug factories, the Polish ghetto in World War Two, the genius of Buster Keaton, Hurricane Katrina, political ambition in West Africa, surrealism, parental dementia, homosexuality, aging, urine tests at the prom, suicide on family farms, tensions between African-Americans and Somali refugees, and the war in Sudan (a list of the plays referred to can be found at the end of this article). It’s not a matter of which stories can be told, it’s a matter of from whose point of view you choose to tell them. In all of the plays referenced above, the playwrights have succeeded in bringing the glorious, difficult complexities of their subject matter to life for children because they presented it from the point of view of young protagonists.
I’ll give you three examples: 1. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, adapted by Nilo Cruz. In Marquez’ story, the point of view is omniscient and focuses on the actions of the father in the story. When Nilo adapted it for CTC, he made one crucial, elegant adjustment—he told it from the point of view of the two children in the story. It’s still a story about the commoditization of faith—we just see it through the eyes of the children. 2. Brooklyn Bridge by Melissa James Gibson. If you are familiar with Melissa’s extraordinary body of work, you know that many of her plays revolve around the problems and possibilities of people living in close, urban quarters. In Brooklyn Bridge, those problems and possibilities, the see-saw of isolation and connection of urban living is still central—it plays out in the life of Sasha, a latch-key kid who must navigate her urban environment in order to write her paper for school and, more deeply, to come to terms with her absent father. 3. Anon(ymous), Naomi Iizuka’s adaptation of the Odyssey casts Homer not as an adult returning home to his wife, but as a teenager in search of his mother. Danger and temptation, violence, yearning, poetic language—all there—just refracted through a different lens.
If you are an artist in search of an audience, TYA has the holy grail of audiences. That responsive, deeply engaged, multi-generational audience professional, non-profit theaters always say they want but rarely actually attract? TYA has it. (Read playwright Steven Dietz’ description of this audience and call to arms to truly serve them in his posting this week). Now, if you’re going to write for children, I think you owe them the respect of making their experience and point of view the dramatic center of your play. But the truth is, when kids come to see your play, adults are going to come with them. A very typical theater-going group at CTC, for instance, consists of a seven-year-old girl, her eleven-year-old brother, their mom and dad and one of their grandparents. Think about that for a moment! Think about the kick-ass, artistic challenge it is to write a play that engages that span of ages! How cool is that? It’s akin to Shakespeare having to write for everyone from the Queen to the groundlings.
And the coolest part of getting to make work for this kind of audience is that it demands that you be at the top of your game. The way to write for a multi-generational audience is not the creaky Hollywood formula of jokes and references put in for the adults. It’s to burrow deeply into theatricality and to challenge yourself to employ a multiplicity of aesthetic vocabularies—music, dance, puppetry, direct address, audience participation, rhythmic language, spectacle and metaphor. Maybe not all of them at once, but they are what provide a multiplicity of levels and experiential access points that allow audiences of all ages to be captivated. I truly believe that if what’s onstage doesn’t hold the attention of a seven-year-old, it means something’s lacking in the moment onstage, not that something’s lacking in the seven-year-old. And, conversely—and this is why having parents and grandparents along for the ride is a gift to the kids in the audience—if a moment onstage is entertaining only to a seven year old and doesn’t hold the attention of his big sister or his dad, then it’s a cheap and infantile moment that needs more depth and rigor.
When we talk about “children” or “young people,” what does that actually mean? Usually, it means people between the ages of five and twelve. While the audience that attends theater for young people is truly multi-generational, most of us program for a core audience of 5 – 12 year olds. That said, there is some thrilling work being made on either side of that spectrum—plays for pre-schoolers (ages 2 – 5) and plays for teens (ages 12 – 18). The exploration of theatrical experiences for 2 – 5 year olds is just beginning in the States, and is truly mind-blowing. Playwright Barry Kornhauser will talk about theater for the very young and his experience creating theater for them as part of this TYA week. As always, Europe tends to be ahead of us theatrically and has a well-established tradition of creating work for this age group. Christer Dahl, Artistic Director of Sweden’s Dockteatern Tittut is a master theater-maker who has thought deeply about how to connect with the very young. In Australia, Patch Theatre and Windmill Theatre are doing wonderful work for the very young. In the US, the Alliance Theatre, Imagination Stage, and CTC have all begun to create bodies of work for the 2 – 5 year-olds.
On the other end of the age spectrum is work for teens. Traditionally, young people have “aged out” of theater for young audiences around the age of twelve and either stopped going to theater entirely or begun to attend theater at adult theaters. But those teen years are so unique that making theater specifically for that age group is totally worthwhile. A couple of theaters in the States have made a real commitment to this audience, commissioning and producing exclusively for teens. They are The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City and Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Adults in Chicago. (Playwright Sarah Gubbins’ play fml: how Carson Mccullers saved my life was commissioned and produced at Steppenwolf this winter. Check out her reflections on the experience in her blog posting this week).
From 2005 – 2008, CTC commissioned and programmed multiple productions each season for a teen audience. What I learned from that experience was that teen audiences were not just interested in plays that reflected back their own experience of being teens, they were also extraordinarily engaged in plays that tackled social justice and political upheaval. We tend to think of the teen years as being solipsistic and inward-looking, but it’s also a time when young people are old enough to understand how the world really works and to begin to contemplate what role they can play and place they will make for themselves in that world,
If this article, or the articles and postings by the wonderful writers who will share their TYA experiences this week, pique your interest, go check out the work at a Theater for Young Audiences near you. While not a comprehensive list, here’s some to put on your radar: Seattle Children’s Theatre; Chicago Children’s Theatre; Child’s Play in Tempe Arizona; Stages in Hopkins, Minnesota; First Stage in Milwaukee; Imagination Stage, Adventure Stage, and the Kennedy Center in the DC area; The Coterie in Kansas City; Dallas Children’s Theatre; The PlayGround Theatre, Miami Shores, FL; Theatre WorksUSA, Steppenwolf’s Plays for Young Adults in Chicago; Trusty Sidekick and The New Victory in New York. There’s also a growing list of adult theaters programming great new work for families including The Arden in Philadelphia, PA; South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California; Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the Bay Area, People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, PA., and HERE Arts Center in New York.
There is so much vital work for young audiences being done outside of the United States as well. In many ways, work that is more intimate but also more aesthetically adventurous. (Read Finegan Kruckemeyer’s posting about his work and the work of European TYA practioners that have inspired him). These include: Theatergroep MAX and Stella den Haag in the Netherlands; Windmill Theatre and Patch Theatre in Australia; Teatret Gruppe 38 in Denmark and TPO in Italy. In the UK, long-standing theaters for young people like the Unicorn and the Polka do consistently lovely work as do smaller ensembles like Travelling Light and Tall Stories.
TYA/USA is the umbrella organization that serves the TYA field. Their website is a great portal into the TYA world and they publish a journal called TYA Today as well.
A great way to continue your initiation is to read plays written for young audiences—certainly the plays by the writers who are part of this HowlRound conversation or are cited in this article—but also the work of Y York, James Still, Jose Cruz Gonzalez, and British playwright Charles Way. Their bodies of work for young people were what revealed to me, early on, the best of what was possible in TYA. Read them, glean from them the depth and range of writing for this audience and then consider planting a few seeds of your own in the fertile soil of this remarkable field.
List of the plays whose subject matter I referenced:
Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo, adapted by Jerome Hairston; Korczack’s Children by Jeffrey Hatcher; Reeling by Barry Kornhauser; Katrina, The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back by Jason Tremblay; The Beggars’ Strike by Aminita Sow Fall, adapted by Carlyle Brown; This is Not a Pipe Dream by Barry Kornhauser; Afternoon of the Elves by Janet Taylor Lisle, adapted by Y York; The Wrestling Season by Laurie Brooks; A Special Trade by Sally Wittman, adapted by Christer Dahl; Prom conceived by Whit MacLaughlin with New Paradise Laboratories and CTC; Amber Waves by James Still; Snapshot Silhouette by Kia Corthron; The Lost Boys of Sudan by Lonnie Carter.