'Writing for Children: Getting past the Gatekeepers' (Cheryl L. West, USA)

(originally published on HowlRound.com- May 23, 2012)

When I first met with Seattle Children's Theatre a few years go to pitch adapting one of the American Girl stories, the artistic director seemed momentarily stunned by my choice. She expected me to pitch something that would be, as she said, more “contemporary, edgy, dark even, all traits with which my work has been closely identified. For more than two decades I have been known in theater circles as an issue-oriented, contemporary African-American female playwright, one who’s occasionally a tad “racy” and more than a tad controversial. I’m sure there have been other adjectives, some flattering, some not as much. But the point is that none of the adjectives would convince anyone that I would have enough interest or ability to write for children.

But I have for almost a decade. This new, added direction in my playwriting career was spurred by my need to fulfill my volunteer hours at my children’s elementary school, no easy feat when I’m one of those parents whose use of a glue stick would never earn the title of “best crafty mom!” And the idea of doing recess duty conjured up every childhood horror I ever experienced on a playground (and there were many). So, in the end, I did what I knew best and what might earn me a few brownie points with my kids who, up to then, had only showed a passing interest in my work and that was only when they happened upon me dramatically punishing my keyboard for being in collusion with a case of ongoing writer’s block.

Thus, I set out writing plays for my daughters’ classes that would encompass twenty-five (or so) vainglorious speaking parts, speaking parts that would elicit nothing but high praise from their adoring parents and school peers. After I wrote the play, I would then direct it between math and lunchtime, and during the evenings, I would go about hunting through bins at Goodwill to costume it.

Until my kids graduated elementary school, I wrote and directed a play for their classes each year, plays about the suffragette movement, Little Rock Nine, slavery, beauty and body issues, Rosa Parks, a zany Christmas play, etcetera.

Of course facilitating theater for kids went far beyond the required volunteer hours but along the way I learned many invaluable lessons that I have continued to apply when writing for professional children’s theater. They include:

  • It’s important to know your audience and what is appropriate for your target age range.
  • Children can accept tough, edgy, contemporary material and can be equally accepting of historical material with lessons that lend themselves to contemporary situations.
  • It’s possible to honor the innocence of children while still respecting their ability to understand mature and sophisticated subject manner.
  • Listen to children’s feedback, which is often immediate and brutally honest.  My personal favorite, “maybe they said that back in your day but nobody says that now.”
  • Less is more. When they have to, children will take a lecture from parents and “endure” their sermons at church. They prefer not to watch either on stage.
  • Children have taste and are savvier than we credit them. They expect and demand quality, engagement and excitement in the writing.

None of these lessons veer that far from writing for adults. Quality, respecting your audience, being economical in the writing, and bringing excitement to what you write are linchpins for any playwright.

I did end up adapting, Addie, the American Girl Story for Seattle Children’s Theatre (which went on to a 21-city tour) and more recently Lizzie Bright and Buckminster Boy for Minneapolis Children's Theatre.  Both plays address racism and that is the one subject (sadly) that always lands me in the writer’s swampland of controversy. In Lizzie Bright, some parents objected to my use of the word “monkey” that one character uses to describe another. Frankly, the term did give me pause and yet, “monkey” was used in the book, the year was 1912 and the term was historically accurate. But one night, once the monkey word was uttered, a small group in attendance weighed in on the issue by dramatically exiting with their children. They were deeply hurt and offended by the term and later contacted the theater to voice their displeasure.

I ran into the same issue with my adaptation of Addie and another school play I did on slavery. Parents, as well as some teachers objected to me writing a play about slavery during the year Mr. Obama was campaigning for president. Perhaps I was sending the wrong message to children at a time when there should be attention paid only to hope for the future. The mother of my daughter’s best friend refused to have her child take part in the play and was rather chilly toward me from that forward. My turn to be deeply hurt.

My response to it all was a righteous indignation as a writer but an understanding and sensitivity as a parent, a parent who believes every parent or guardian has a right to filter content for his or her child. However, as a writer I could not help but ask that if we are going to use theater to teach children about history, is not slavery a part of this country’s history and a part, albeit a painful part, of the American story?

Is it not the job of any playwright writing for children or adults or both to write was is authentic, true, and makes for a compelling dramatic story. Is it not our mandate to write stories that potentially and hopefully ignite passion and ultimately discussion, particularly with our children?

Children, I believe, are available and more than ready for lively discussion and engagement. Perhaps it’s us well meaning gatekeepers who, dare I say, create the barriers.