Why Theatre for Young Audiences?

Another issue that came up in the International Children’s Theatre session was the sense of marginalization practitioners of Theatre for Young Audiences often feel, even in countries that are far more supportive of the arts and of TYA in general. Perhaps part of why I belong to AATE and TYA/USA is because I find a bit of comfort in spending time with others who are passionate about this work. As I said to David Saar once, “Sometimes it’s just nice to talk to someone from the small group of people who’ve heard of Nellie McCaslin.”

Being a (relatively) small field has it’s advantages– for instance, I would imagine it’s easier to “get noticed” as a theatre educator than as a fifth grade teacher, or a U.S. History Professor, or as a banker. I have been pleasantly surprised to find out how accessible and generous people I perceive as leaders in the field have been throughout my early career. But I think sometimes the smallness of the field makes a sense of competitiveness a little more intense somehow, and perhaps in a field of people sensitive to our work being dismissed as “not art,” “not scholarly,” etc.– at conference sessions sometimes I feel a jealously in the air, that some are doing the work they feel called to do, and others feel they have made too many concessions professionally. There are comments after sessions sometimes– “Well that may work for YOU in a school with such a supportive administration,” or “My students only want to do High School Musical,” or  “Our theatre just could never afford to commission a new work.” I hear resignation too  many voices, and I wonder how we could all better support and encourage each other to think outside the box.

I don’t know exactly what would inspire others to join us in this work, and I often wonder if it’s an advisable passion under the current economic circumstances. But I know why I got interested in Theatre for Young Audiences, and I think that locating our passion would be a good way to find our way out of places of discouragement that arise. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I attended a symposium in Austin five years ago,  held in honor of Coleman Jennings’ forty years of teaching. It was a wonderful event, with leaders in the field examining TYA’s past, present, and future. Several people remininsced about events and leaders past from decades before. I remember it was my turn to speak and I said, “Well I wasn’t around forty years ago. But fourteen years ago I was Girl in Hartford Children’s Theatre’s production of Mother Hicks, and I was in the world premiere of Max Bush’s The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, and had one of my first directing opportunities with Madge Miller’s OPQRS, ETC. And perhaps even more importantly I had the opportunity to be an audience member for productions of Aurand Harris’ Arkansaw Bear, Wendy Kessleman’s Becca, and Laurie Brooks’ Selkie.”

There definitely was a renaissance of sorts in TYA, when new plays for children were being produced  and lauded in the United States on a level that really had not happened before. I feel that I am lucky to have been among the first generation to inherit this work, to have seen performances for which the “ideal audience member” was a 12 year old like me. I’m passionate about Theatre for Young Audiences because I think too few people are even aware of this work, and fewer are producing it. I know of no current subscribers to regional theatre who never attended a play as a child. If there is no quality Theatre for Young Audiences I think there is serious reason to fear as to whether there can be  sophisticated adult audiences in the future. I was lucky to have access to high quality productions as a child, and to have been able to attend an arts magnet high school, to have performed in dozens of plays, and to have seen theatre through varying lenses of artistry, entertainment, social justice, and education at a relatively young age. I’m in this field to give what I can, in honor of all that it gave me.

Question for the World: What got you involved in Theatre for Young Audiences and/or Arts Education? What keeps you here?

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Posted in AATE, TYA. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Why Theatre for Young Audiences?”

  1. Brianna Stapleton Welch Says:

    Just stumbled upon your blog today, and wanted to respond to the question you posed. As a child, I was lucky enough to live in a community that had an excellent TYA program that produced new works by Laurie Brooks, Cherie Bennett, etc. As a sheltered child in rural WI I took this for granted and assumed that every small community had a program like that. As I entered adulthood I slowly discovered the field of TYA and realized that there were professional and academic opportunities, and I quickly learned that not all young people had the opportunities to work with high quality plays like I did. That was what launched me into the field. It was also an internal struggle about my life direction – I loved teaching, but I did not want to become trapped by the school system and limited by the many issues I see there. And then I discovered teaching artistry and found my place. What keeps me here? I’m still very new to the field, but so far I am constantly delighted by the many layers of TYA and arts education. It’s a small field, but a dynamic one – there are always new ideas and fresh discussions, and I plan to stick around to hear more.


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