'Chupacabras and Risk in TYA' (Gabriel Jason Dean, USA)

(Originally published by HowlRound on May 22, 2012)

There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
-Anais Nin

I have an imaginary goat named Valencia who loves Payday candy bars, speaks Spanish, English (and goat) and is terrified of chupacabras. Just in case you don’t know, a chupacabra is a maybe mythical / maybe-not-so mythical creature known for sucking the blood of goats. Yes, a goat vampire. They were one of the discoveries I made at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices Festival while work-shopping my play The Transition of Doodle Pequeño alongside director, Wendy Bable from People’s Light & Theatre.

Doodle takes place on Halloween and tells the story of two fifth grade boys who become friends because of their differences. With the help of Valencia, the play examines a few complex subjects; among them gender-identity, homophobic bullying and immigration. Doodle marks my first original TYA script. Coming to New Visions/New Voices, I was terrified at the prospect of showing my sassy little goat and her human friends to scholars and the gatekeepers of TYA theaters across the country. Why? Though it pains me to say it, given its subject matter, with Doodle, I feared that I might be called out for writing a play that was “inappropriate” for children.

To be clear, I’ve personally never believed that the subject matter of Doodle is inappropriate. But despite my personal convictions, I almost shelved the play several times during the process because #1: writing TYA is hard and #2: I thought it would be a futile effort. I thought no theater would ever touch a play that seeks to create a conversation about the word “gay” with eight to twelve year olds. To borrow from George Carlin, we live in a time of “child worship…which is a sophisticated form of child abuse.” We’re more protective of children than ever. We sanitize the “child” out of children, fearing they can’t handle deeper, darker, grittier half-truths and grey areas. Our child worship coupled with deeply embedded religious beliefs paralyze discussions about gender and sexuality with kids in our country. The closet is still a very dark place for most American kids. Thus, we have rampant homophobic bullying, intolerance and denial of identity.  So, isn’t it up to us, the adults, to begin the conversation with our children? To unpack the complex and colorful world we live in from every angle? To deeply examine language and its ability to free or destroy another human being? Or do we shortsightedly think that kids are incapable of handling the truth? Generally, I don’t believe kids have problems wrestling with complexity. Adults do.

However, I’m happy to report that was not the case with most of the adults in the room at New Visions/New Voices this year. Not only was Doodle met with enthusiasm by the majority, but more importantly, I found an international community of playwrights and theater-makers who are wholeheartedly taking the risk to tell challenging, gritty, revolutionary, spiritually stirring stories for children. I was introduced to fearless TYA voices like Australian writer, Finegan Kruckemeyer, whose play The Boy at the Edge of Everything brimmed with stunning and intricate language and massive philosophical ideas about the expansion of the universe and our place within it. I was moved to tears by German writer Martin Baltscheit’s Only a Day, which through the single-day life cycle of a Mayfly is a piece that simply, elegantly and comically examined death and living in spite of it.

Despite shrinking arts budgets and the trend to shield children from complicated truths, to my delight, I found that risk is alive and well in the field of TYA. On several occasions, during feedback sessions, teams were even encouraged to push their material further. But, there were also a few disheartening conversations and remarks from producers that demonstrated a fear of challenging material for children. Their worries, like many theaters across our country, were based on simple economics and backlash from boards. While risk was embraced and encouraged during this development conference, the sad reality is that risky, dark, complicated material is problematic for TYA producers. Is it too naïve to suggest that it is indeed the risk that makes it important?

At New Visions/New Voices, my goat and I felt like the new kids being welcomed to the neighborhood. TYA is an arena where I can write plays that question American norms, stories that deeply examine otherness. I hope to be a long-term resident of this neighborhood and to continue to write plays that scare me, that always move toward what I do not know. As an audience member and as a writer, I seek transformative theater. I crave work that gets under my skin and gnaws at my bones, pieces that ache and astonish me long after I’ve left the theater. In many ways, I believe theater is a forum for debate. I believe theater’s a place we go to experience catharsis, to practice our humanity and to question our identity. Fundamentally, I believe we all want to be moved, to be shaken to our core, to be reminded of who we were, who we are and who we might turn out to be. Whether we’re five or ninety-five.