'Crossing the Border: Writing for Kids and Adults' (Karen Zacarias, USA)


Unofficially, I started writing plays for children when I was ten years old. I grew up in Mexico, one of the oldest of 18 cousins. During a long rainy summer I determined, in that responsible (i.e bossy) fashion of all first-borns, that I should write, direct, and star in my own epic play. Like many playwrights before me, I was inspired by the Greeks. The original Clash of the Titans (starring Harry Hamlin and Laurence Olivier) had a deep effect.

My first play, I realize now, was also my first adaptation.

Medusa on Vacation was an action-filled freeze-tag for the stage as well as a poignant, heartbreaking family drama. I wore a mop on my head and Bat-Girl bathing suit and bellowed “Beware the wrath of Medusa!” while a dozen cousins writhed and turned into stone.

It was delicious, riveting stuff.

At the end, Medusa’s conflicted sister Nemesis, portrayed by my real sister in a brilliant piece of type casting, used a broom to “chop off” my mop.

And that was the fabulous end of my first children’s play.

Officially, I wrote my first children’s play because I received my first commission from Ernie Joselovitz of the Playwrights Forum and Artistic Director Janet Stanford and Associate Artistic Director Kathryn Chase Bryer of Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD. I was in my mid-twenties, had graduated with a Masters in Playwriting from Boston University, and had professional productions of my plays for adults: the Buick in my Driveway (about platonic infidelity in a marriage) and The Sins of Sor Juana (written in the baroque style of a 17th century play). I had started a small organization called Young Playwrights’ Theater to work with public school kids, teaching them to write their own plays. Janet, Kathryn, and Ernie asked me to write a play for kids, using 4 - 5 actors. A composer, Debbie Wicks La Puma, called to ask if I wanted to make my first children’s play a musical. I didn’t know her, but we had graduated from the same college in the same year. At that point I figured, why not try it all? I didn’t know it at the time, but this decision would begin a very long and fruitful collaboration for all of us – and one that would have a tremendous effect on my writing for both children and adults.

Fifteen years later, I have written more than eight plays for adult audiences and eight musical plays for children. I have been fortunate to work with some of the finest regional theatres in the nation; my most recent adult play Legacy of Light premiered at Arena Stage, won the ACTA/Steinberg commendation as one of the best plays of 2009 and will be produced at six regional theatres next season. I am the playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage for the next three years. And none of this would be happening if I did not write for kids.

Writing plays for children (and the adults who love them) is hard work. It is very rewarding, but it is very challenging. It is rigorously demanding of the craft, and emotionally demanding in content. Plays for children must have all the qualities of a good adult play and then … something more. These are my three reasons why:

1) In Theatre for Young Audiences, there is nowhere to hide. Children are very constructive critics. If the plot is weak, if the dialogue rambles, if the point is vague, if something does not ring true, a young audience protests instantly. An adult audience might excuse a weak structure because you have some snazzy dialogue … but kids will fidget if there is no real story. Kids are not snobs. They will laugh if it’s funny; cry if they think it’s sad. They don’t judge their own reactions as they are having them, they just have them. In short, kids will not politely allow themselves to be bored. Ever. They deliver brutal honestly in its best and purest form and provide the most constructive reaction a writer can get. At the same time, kids are the ideal audience. They understand sophisticated storytelling and inherently understand theatrics so that a doorway can infer a house and a broom can become a tree. Kids can deal with complicated emotions. Kids crave conflict and choices in their stories. Their rapture is the best evidence that a playwright got it right.

2) People in Theatre for Young Audiences are on a mission. In many regional theatres, artistic directors won’t sit in on a rehearsal of an adult play they are not directing; in children’s theatre, everyone on staff is invested in the outcome of the play.

TYA artists maintain very high, demanding standards even when under tremendous pressure to deliver high quality accessible art from parents, teachers, boards, or their broader organizations. I have had the good fortune to work with extremely committed artists and directors who are a fabulous, complex combination of artistic risk takers and diplomatic masters walking a very fine line that draws a border around TYA for this art form to flourish. The commitment to integrity raises the artistic stakes and the passion raises the personal stakes – and stress.

3) In the end, the stakes in Theatre for Young Audiences are much higher, not in terms of royalities or reviews, but in the impact on the audience. A great TYA play can change a young person’s life by offering an inspiration, insight, or perspective he or she never had before. It can affect their hopes and dreams with abstract aspirations, it can deliver practical advice on how to deal with a bully, or it may simply inspire them to become a lifelong theatre-goer. My adult plays are performed for an audience of adults who have consented to attend by paying for their ticket or subscription; they come and go as they wish. In TYA, the kids are usually present in the audience because someone has brought them, and I feel a deep responsibility to honor their time and their limitations of choice by creating a play that is hopefully relevant to their lives. Now that I have three children of my own, my commitment is even deeper.

In short, the opportunity to write plays for young audiences has rooted and grounded me in the importance of my craft. It has also pushed me to be more imaginative, more playful, and more sophisticated in my storytelling, something that now influences my plays for adults as well. 

I am no longer afraid to be theatrical when writing for adults. In my comedy, Legacy of Light, a 17th century Voltaire ends up in an apple tree talking to a modern-day surrogate mother from New Jersey. The adult audience was so surprised and relieved by this “fresh” flight of fancy. TYA naturally lends itself to a magical conceit that translates in original and poetic ways in adult plays.

Additionally, I came to realize through writing for TYA that I am a character-driven playwright. The greatest divide between my plays for adults and my plays for young people is the age and point of view of the protagonist. In my TYA plays, I generally write from the perspective of a 9-year-old kid – (more specifically, an 8-year-old Frida Kahlo or a 12-year-old Einstein.) The starting point of plot in these plays is the complex conflicts and choices that face a child. When I started writing my plays for adults in the same way, from inside the adult character, a more relevant and more original story revealed itself. Interestingly, both children and adults want the same big things: love, recognition, and revenge. It is only the journey that is seasoned by the age, experience, and particular details of the character.

One day, I must revisit Medusa on Vacation and decide if it is a play for adults or a TYA play. Or maybe it’s a play that resides on the border of both great lands.

By Karen Zacarías

[This essay originally appeared in TYA Today, the publication of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA in the Fall of 2010]

For Karen's bio, click here.

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