'The Global Play Project: Shifting Perspectives of International TYA at a US University' by Jenny Anne Koppera

The journey to create the Global Play Project (GPP) began after I returned inspired and rejuvenated artistically from my experience as an intern at the ASSITEJ World Congress and Festival in May 2011.  I was bubbling over with ideas and new friends from across the world, and my goal was to bring this feeling and energy back to Michigan.

At ASSITEJ, I had the opportunity to work on the international playwright slams held in both Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmoe, Sweden, the two host cities.  These slams, which introduced me to 20+ international plays, along with some in-depth conversations with a few playwrights really sparked my interest in international work.   My interest piqued, I was then quite eager to foster dialogue around international TYA and create some cross-cultural relationships.

I proposed the Global Play Project to the Drama and Applied Theatre for Young Audiences Graduate Program at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and it was then paired with a graduate level course entitled, “The Playwright and The Young Audience,” taught by faculty member Patricia Zimmer.  This class/project interface allowed ten graduate students to partner with me in a variety of roles such as directors, actors and designers to move this Global Play Project from dream to reality!

To find these plays, I reconnected with playwrights from the ASSITEJ slams, as well as, read a variety of plays from the field recommended to me.  In the end, these plays were selected to include a variety of topics, cultures, age ranges, and stages of play development.  After having connected with the playwrights to receive permission to both use the scripts in class and to perform excerpts of their work, our GPP began to take shape! 

The excerpts were taken from the following plays:  The Bomb by Kevin Dyer from the UK, The Cat Who Ran based on the story by Nayoko Kudo and adapted by Toyoko Nishida from Japan, Bonganyi by Sophia Mempuh Kwachuh of Cameroun, This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing by Finegan Kruckemeyer from Australia, and HOTT by Nkosinathi Gaar of South Africa.  

Once selected, the graduate class and I shaped the pieces and sought out essential questions.  We centered our work around the idea of ‘Transformations’ because it gave us a unique lens to approach each script, as well as, the event as a whole.  Each play revealed transformations differently and yet distinctly whether through language, character, movement, etc.  This lens helped us to navigate the similarities and differences that we hoped to highlight across these 5 scripts.  The idea of transformation also fueled our shaping of the event since we were, indeed, seeking to transform opinions and perceptions of international TYA for our audience.

Coupled with this overriding frame of transformations for our project, we also had the wonderful opportunity to communicate directly with one of the playwrights, Sophia Mempuh Kwachuh, as she continued to develop her script.  In a sense, we had another direct connection to transformation through this dialogue.  It was a unique cross-cultural learning experience as we shared with her the strengths we found in her script, as well as, elements that were less clear for a US audience. 

Since the goal of the Global Play Project was to entertain while also introducing our audience to many of the current ideas and trends active in the field of TYA, I acted as MC for the evening and invited the audience to consider many questions both prior to and after the excerpt performances.  These ideas and questions included among others:

1. How young is young when thinking about Theatre for Young Audiences, and does it include the often over looked 18-25 year olds unused to frequenting theatre?

2.  Can and should themes of violence and death be included in TYA, and does this relate at all to the trends currently acceptable in children’s literature?

3.  And can culturally diverse plays still intrigue and engage young and/or family audiences, and what stands in the way of these plays being produced in the US?

The finalized Global Play Project selections ranged from staged readings to memorized performances and included over 25 actors, undergraduate and graduate, from EMU.  We had a total of 200 in our audience on March 28, 2012, and it was such a joy to introduce an audience of this size to international TYA!  The talkback between the audience, actors, and directors after the performance was also particularly fruitful and helped to engender even more dialogue around some of the questions and themes highlighted throughout the evening. 

Some of the highlights of the Global Play Project experience included:

The Bomb: The darker potency of this piece really allowed our audience to think about the depth and breadth of what TYA can be.  Even with simple staging, the explosion moment was haunting and powerful.

The Cat Who Ran: How sweetly the audience immediately related to the cat and fish! They were charmed by the growth and warmth of their friendship, as well as, by physicality of the actors. 

Bonganyi:  The joyful dance and firey characters included in the piece completely pulled the audience in!  It was also amazing to have interaction between Sophia, the playwright, and the US cast. 

This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing:  The chemistry of the 3 actresses playing sisters was magical to watch.  Each brought to life their sisterly bond and sisterly differences.

HOTT: It was fantastic to feel the material of this piece engaging the 18+ year olds in the audience.  It stretched our audience’s capacity for what ages can be included in TYA.

Some other reactions to the Global Play Project:

“I found the GPP to be amazing and really beneficial to the children's literature students who were there. I hope that you were thrilled to see the results of your brainchild and that you feel like all of your hard work was worth it.”  Ramona Camponegra, EMU Children’s Literature Faculty

“It was fascinating to see how different cultures deal with young people and their discussion of heavy topics. They seem to have a great respect for the intelligence and emotional strength of their youth. I hope to see more and more of this happening in our country.”  Tori Tomalia, EMU graduate student

“The Global Play Project at EMU was an inspired event, providing a unique opportunity to witness and engage multiple diverse voices and performance conventions.  It's a rare event that casts such a wide net enabling an audience to acknowledge the differences all living beings hold in common.” Lee Stille, EMU Theatre Arts Faculty

“When I gathered my actors here (in Cameroun) and told them some excerpts of the play were to be put on a stage in the US, they were amazed . . . EVERYTHING YOU DO IN LIFE...LET IT BE AN IMPACT FOR ANOTHER PERSON'S LIFE.  By performing this play, you have made an impact in my own life, and I will never ever forget it.” Sophia Mempuh Kwachah, Playwright from Cameroun

In the end, I feel completely grateful for what we achieved in our first Global Play Project.  It felt incredible that I was able to bring back the rich experience of the ASSITEJ World Congress and begin to share it with my US university community.  It was also exceedingly exciting to build bridges between my US home base and other countries and artistic collaborators.  From here, the hope is to bring this Global Play Project to life annually as a means to provide both access for my community to new TYA plays but also to provide an artistic laboratory for international TYA plays and playwrights within the US. 

Thank you to all those friends, both from the US and abroad, that helped this Global Play Project into creation!