"Playwriting and Specific Audiences: Strategies for Understanding and Reaching Those Audiences", by Suzanne Lebeau (Canada)

On May 29, 2014, two days of the ASSITEJ Congress and Festival in Warsaw were dedicated to playwriting, coordinated and curated by Zbigniew Rudzinski of the Children’s Art Center in Poznan. 

The playwriting platform began with a talk by Suzanne Lebeau from Montreal addressing the topic of Playwriting and specific audiences: strategies for understanding and reaching these audiences.  Can authors who write for children escape the double authority of the author over the audience and the adult over the child?

Summary of the talk:

Traditionally, and with few historical exceptions – Marti in Cuba, Andersen in Denmark, Montessori in Italy, Freinet in France, Korczack in Poland, and several others – the child has always been considered a human being in the making, who must learn from adults in order to grow up. Our current ideas about children and childhood were born in the twentieth century, with the development of cognitive science. Among the best-known advances in this area were Piaget’s decisive research on the formation of intelligence from psychomotility to complex thought, and the uncovering of the child’s powerful, avid, and hyperactive unconscious by Klein, Anna Freud, Miller, Dolto, and others. Then, there’s been research on the development of the symbolic function among children starting at age two (Piaget, Wallon) and on their stunning aptitude for symbolic interpretation of the world, which led Jung to propose that they come into the world with a genetic heritage of the sum of all human knowledge. In Jung’s view, a newborn child already has the ability and a yearning for relationships with others. Finally, I should mention Cyrulnik’s demonstration of children’s fascinating capacity for resiliency. Children are complex human beings, and a balanced society should not treat them as unformed beings or dumb consumers. Children exist, demanding and complete, in every aspect of social, intellectual, cultural and economic life as both subjects and objects.

I encountered young audiences as an actor forty years ago in the euphoria of cognitive theories and new teaching methods. I stayed with young audiences for the questions that arose at each word, each contact. The first question was, Where is the boundary between fiction and reality in a child’s mind, and does it move as he grows? When a child talks in sign language to a mute character after a performance, is she respecting the codes of theatre in real life or does she believe that what she saw on stage was real life? Does the spectator’s age influence his comprehension, impact, pleasure? Although I didn’t know about Jacques Rancière, I became the “ignorant schoolmaster” who learned the trade of author from spectators of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures. The questions kept coming ... the paradoxes, both constraining and stimulating, became obvious. Theatre for young audiences, which now has repertoires, performance networks, and institutional infrastructure, raises ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical issues that must be central to the debates among artists, teachers, and presenters.

In the twenty-first century, neuroscience is uncovering incredible paradigm reversals in our knowledge of perception and comprehension of the other and the world. In light of these discoveries, I’ve revisited my plays, from Ti-Jean voudrait ben s’marier, mais… to Gretel et Hansel, to analyze forty years of writing for specific and captive audiences, and to put words and concepts to the tools for reaching audiences formulated instinctively for each of these plays (animation, experimental performances, consultations, readings, and so on) and the stylistic tools for a true relationship with audiences (decanting, founding metaphor, use of stories, structures for producing context, and so on) developed to circumvent censorship and self-censorship. The concept of empathy developed by Alain Berthoz strangely resembles how I situate myself with regard to childhood and in my relationships with children to reduce, counter, soften, or radically confront, depending on the play or the project, the insidious and perverse self-censorship (that comes from intransigent censorship by adult guardians) that adult artists experience in the double position of authority over an audience that is, I repeat, not only specific but captive. This concept of empathy allows me to imagine that it is possible to see and describe the world through an other’s point of view (in this case, the child that I want to touch) without forgetting that I am an adult, a woman, and an artist with convictions, existential questions, and concerns that arise at a particular moment in my life and work.

A second concept, which I’ve called “founding metaphor,” enables me to evade the obligations of fantasy or humour (in contemporary vocabulary, the word “humour” is used to talk about theatre for young audiences, as the term “fantasy” is too closely linked with the sterile Walt Disney vision of the world), but both words require the same playful or light-hearted approach to the reality of the concrete or philosophical world. With its power to organize contradictions, the founding metaphor gives access to all approaches, even the most painful ones, to a multiple, contradictory, and destabilizing reality, and thus to emotion. It is this metaphor that organized, often without my knowing, the thousands of details I recorded, that let me forget the children, the data gathered, the obligations of the appropriate, the lines not to be crossed. I carried the children within me and could undertake a vertical exploration of the discourse and the how of this discourse with a firm grasp of the emotions aroused by texts that many have called difficult.

In conclusion, can authors who write for children escape the double authority of the author over the audience and the adult over the child?

I’m fully aware of why I chose childhood, and I’ve worked relentlessly to reverse the traditional relationship of children’s didactic subordination to adults. I have learned from children. There is no vanity in the profession of faith but a real passion for the world of children who have not yet learned to conform. Children are on the margin, both rebellious and helplessly poetic. “The child’s flaws make his genius,” wrote Henri Michaux in “Essais d’enfant, dessins d’enfant.” This new, unprejudiced gaze at the world has also forced me to be inventive in my residencies with children, and I have made my exploratory work with them into a vast playground in which empathy, without knowing either the word or the concept, has become methodology. With this presence inhabiting me, once I had finished the case-by-case review of the workshops I could forget the children. Forget them once and for all when I began to write, when the metaphor resolved the doubts, paradoxes, and contradictions and brought them alive in a creative synergy.

The founding metaphor for each play marked the end of one step (research) and the beginning of another (writing). If empathy enabled me to draw closer to the world of childhood and understand its vocabularies and syntax, metaphor returned to me the author’s margin of manoeuvre and the right to follow an inner urgency, to speak out loud a point of view both contestable and unique. I claim thus the right not to create the mushy consensuses that adults adore when they talk about childhood. I claim a “social” responsibility to speak of the world as it is. I claim the right to my language, sometimes radical, strong and hard, non-complacent, uncompromising, to speak of an imperfect world, the one in which we all – children and adults – live. And I never forget that although art has a representative function, as Stuart Mills said, it also has a constitutive function, and we become what we absorb.