What does “Cutting Edge” Mean in Theatre for Young Audiences?

I was very happy with this year’s AATE conference overall, and learned something in just about every session I went to.  Like a lot of people I belong to AATE because I want to contribute, but as we were discussing at the Professional Theatre Network meetings this week, there is a need for our involvement with this organization to have some benefits– whether professional or personal. The Professional Theatre Network has long grappled with the question of what brings professional theatre artists into AATE, what makes them stay, and what makes them either go silent or choose not to renew their memberships. I was co-chair of the PTN for 3 years and, 2 years since, it seems the same issues continue to arise. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s clear that the professional theatre artists that belong to AATE need to be active in promoting our projects and recruiting others. We need to get better at telling our stories, letting others know why we belong to AATE and how they could also be a part of something so valuable.

There are many reasons why professional theatre artists disappear but I think a major one is a perception that they’re not going to find high level sessions. Part of what makes AATE special is the diversity of it’s membership in that it includes high school teachers, university professors, professional directors, playwrights… a whole range of professionals committed to theatre and education. But I do often hear grumbling from the professional theatre types sometimes that they do not feel there is enough professional development offered at conference that would be uniquely helpful to them. My attitude to this complaint has always been to ask “Well what do we want to see next year?”

So the question becomes– what IS the current conversation in our field about? Certainly the PTN is focusing its efforts (as it should) on practical tools for professional theatres and freelance artists– possible sessions/projects dealing with fundraising, marketing, safety, etc.  But perhaps even more than that I look forward to opportunities for dialogue and debate about the limits of Theatre for Young Audiences that have barely been explored. With one exception I was pleased to be hearing “cutting edge” dialogue about TYA at the conference sessions I attended. My favorites were “Risking Theatre for the Very Young– Art, Education, or Experimentation” led by Manon van de Water of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the papers shared in “International Children’s Theatre: Sites of Intervention and Dialogue.” The latter was coordinated by Kristin Leahey of the University of Texas at Austin with input from Stephen Colella of the Lorraine Kisma Theatre for Young People, Fulbright Scholar Amy Jensen, Scholar/Dramaturg Karen Jean Martinson, and Matt Omasta and YiRen Tsai of Arizona State University. While I’m sure there were a variety of “high-level” conversations going on throughout conference, these were the ones I attended that I felt most personally challenged by.

These are a few of the “high level” questions about TYA that I saw being asked at conference:

  • What does Theatre for the Very Young look like? What should it look like? How young should we go? And how do we assess whether such an endeavor has succeeded?
  • How does Theatre for the Very Young impact conceptual development in our audiences? And, once we know, how should we as theatre artists respond to this information?
  • What role should ethics play in Theatre for Young Audiences?
  • Does innovation with new forms threaten the more traditional ones? Will entire cultures be lost as a result?
  • How can TYA theatres better serve audience members with special needs, especially those with may challenges that threaten conventions and expectations of audience response, such as children with autism?

Okay, your turn.

Question for the World: If you attended the AATE/ATHE conference last week, what sessions or conversations challenged you? And even if you didn’t attend this summer– what are the burning questions you want to see explored in TYA and Arts Education in general?

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