The Shifting Landscape of TYA: Searching for (and Creating) New Maps by Kim Peter Kovac

Originally published on

In the world of theater for young audiences, the ground is shifting under our feet: unstable and unfamiliar, far less funding, and the zeitgeist is way different than just a few years ago. As we look ahead, we have little idea what the future will look like. This is very scary.

And very exciting.

There are changes afoot in all the corners of our field, both in the United States and internationally. New paradigms of work are being driven by individuals, by theaters, and by service organizations; some are reactive, some proactive. Some stem very directly from the ongoing worldwide economic situation, but certainly not all, as some have been bubbling up for years. Since change precedes insight, and pattern recognition is an inexact science, we can’t even recognize all the changes that are emerging. Here are a few that we can.

Organizational Tectonics/USA
The three major organizations dedicated to performances for young audiences and theater education in North America are slowly but surely creaking their way together toward more mutual acceptance and cooperation.

These are the American Alliance for Theater and Education (AATE, primarily, as you might imagine, theater educators at all levels); International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY, primarily presenters at performing arts centers, agents, and touring types) and Theater for Young Audiences/USA (primarily producers and others from the TYA regionals). While some individuals and theaters are part of two of the organizations, probably few are in all three.

A few years back, the three organizations operated individually, in their own silos, and even people not influenced by long-standing feuds or misperceptions tended to operate within fairly narrow rails. It’s way different now—the leaders of the three organizations are communicating regularly and making a point of attending each others’ major events. Across the map, we are moving toward open collaboration on significant projects, and ongoing exploration of future collaborations.

Organizational Tectonics/International
It’s not news that the world is changing and becoming far more interconnected, and it’s heartening to see how much our TYA theaters—all over the world—are embracing and collaborating with work from other countries and cultures.

The major international service organization for TYA companies is ASSITEJ (a French acronym), the international association of theaters for children and young people, with national centers in eighty-plus countries. Ten years ago, this organization, founded during the Cold War, had a strong undercurrent of national politics and elitism, the feeling that that the gold standard was European text-based theater, performed by adults for young audiences. Something not always clear to people in the United States is how, in some countries, being affiliated with ASSITEJ is way more significant than affiliation with the theater service organizations in this country.

Much of that has changed, some organically: there’s an openness to diversity of art forms and cultures and a realization of the importance of arts education and youth theater (performed by young people for young people). Additionally, recent constitutional changes have broken the cycle of exclusion caused by participation in the organization being limited to only those who are members of sometimes restrictive national centers. Now, participation is far more open, an artist or a theater can be an individual member of the international association, or you can participate through networks of researchers or playwrights. In the future, people will have far greater choice in their national and international networking, and artistic maps are being drawn. Practitioners may choose to network by country, region, profession, or interest, such as theater for the very young or theater for social change.

New Ways of Creating New Work
Not too long ago, touring performances for young audiences and presenters lived, for the most part, in a straightforward transactional model. Presenters, working through agents, bought shows that producers created. A few of the producing TYA theaters did some touring, and almost none of them presented work.

There are new models taking shape now.

In addition to more coproductions (happening in all the pockets of theater in the United States), a number of our TYA producing theaters are beginning to present touring work and realize it’s a way to enhance offerings, save money, and not dilute their own artistic product. Additionally some producing theaters are exploring what might be called run-outs or sit-downs, where an in-house production would not tour in the traditional sense but have an extended run at one or two presenting houses.

Major presenting houses, including the New Victory Theater in New York and PlayhouseSquare Center in Cleveland, have created terrific programs to help develop new work. IPAY has just launched a major program toward the same end.

Any of a number of theaters whose audiences are primarily adults are now commissioning and producing work specifically for young audiences of families, more and more each year. One example: last year the Barrymore for outstanding production of a musical was won by the Arden Theatre for its commissioned version of Hans Christian Andersen’s little-known story, The Flea and the Professor. Another: Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was commissioned by Steppenwolf for Young Adults and transferred to the New Victory Theater in New York City.

Increased Inclusion of Art Forms and Artists
Our colleagues in Australia use the acronym TYP, or theater for young people, to include pretty much any performance for young audiences—including but not limited to theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus, physical theater, and others—essentially any performance that occurs in a theater. The TYA world in the United States is becoming more and more open to both using other art forms as part of our ongoing theater work, as well as not being so strict in defining what “theater” is.

There’s a part of live performance that might be called “theater by, for, with, and about persons who are Deaf or with disabilities” (try saying that quickly three times). It’s often called “disability arts” internationally, is now being called “inclusive arts” by some our colleagues in the United Kingdom. Whatever you call it, there’s more and more focus on this part of our field, and our ways of defining it are being broadened. A recent international convening in Washington around this subject has begun to open new connections.

Leadership Transitions
There’s been talk for a number of years around the (sadly clichéd) phrase “the greying of the field.” Two recent transitions, though, strike a particularly resonant chord: Roger Bedard has retired from the terrific Child Drama program at Arizona State University and Onny Huisink and Saskia Janse have stepped back from artistic leadership of the exemplary Speeltheater Holland.

Buckle your seat belts, because it’s likely a lot of folk who have been essential to the growth of the field will be stepping back soon. It’s not appropriate to name them (the evidence is anecdotal and speculative), but trust me on this one. The chatter used to be about how it didn’t seem we were seeing the next generation of artists, managers, and educators. They’re out there though, and in some ways better equipped to move the field forward than when those of my generation were twenty and thirty-somethings—the training and mentoring exist at much higher levels and the field is far more accepted than back in the day.

In a just a few years, though, the names of the leadership will be very different, and we know they’ll be taking the field down exciting new roads

The Emerging Emergence
A quick and dirty (and somewhat broad) definition of emergence is that it’s the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions, where the group is smarter than any one individual, where the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts. There are any number of examples of emergence we can point to in the US theater world, including, the rise of the regional theaters in the fifties, embracing nontraditional/colorblind casting in the seventies, renewed focus on playwrights, and new work in the nineties.

Reading the tea leaves, it seems clear we’re presently in the midst of another great emergence in theater for young audiences, all over the world. As with all emergences, there are some key players but really, it’s led by no one and everyone.

One way to look at these winds of change is to remember that at the start of a voyage, prudent sailors write in their log books “From A toward B.” Think about that for a moment—not “From A to B,” but “From A toward B.” It’s breathtaking in its simplicity and wisdom, all the more so since it should be obvious. During a sea journey conditions may well change, forcing sailors to reconsider not only the course, but even the destination.

We’re in this soup (read: voyage) together and need to recognize that while it can be scary that we can’t control everything swirling around us, we can control more than we think. Our old ways of mapping our practice may not be viable, but we’re creating new ones. It’s a great adventure with a bright and exciting future, just over the horizon.