Call for Submissions!

The Youth Theatre Journal is now accepting submissions for 26.1, a special issues
volume that will examine ways that youth theatre practitioners, researchers and
educators engage in critical and innovative directions in research, methodology,
publication and presentation. We are interested in articles that explore ways our
field is collecting, articulating and presenting inquiry both at conferences and in
print. Submissions may be reflections or critiques of innovative research practices
in theatre classrooms, or in applied theatre settings. We welcome both theoretical
explorations of the subject and papers that address youth theatre’s concerns with
these innovative approaches.
• Papers might address, but are not limited to, the following topics:
• The use of performative inquiry, performance ethnography, ethnotheatre
• and/or research based theatre to collect/analyze data and share research
• findings.
• Issues, ethics around performing findings.
• Non-traditional written presentation of data, such as the use of hyperlinks,
• photos and or sound bites.
• The relationship between artists and researchers who engage in research-
• based theatre projects.
• Ways of assessing and/or evaluating innovative, non-traditional approaches
• to research.
Please submit all pieces through ScholarOne, http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/uytj
Submission deadline is October 18th, 2011.
Please direct all question to either;
Dr. Gustave Weltsek, gweltsek@indiana.edu or
Dr. George Belliveau , george.belliveau@ubc.ca

I see EDGE OF PEACE in 48 hours

In 1990, at 12 years old, I played Girl in Hartford Children’s Theatre’s production of Mother Hicks. For the uninitiated who won’t be scoring big in TYA Trivia Night this weekend, it is the first in a trilogy of plays by Susan Zeder. The second, a prequel, Taste of Sunrise, is my very favorite TYA play, and the first on my dream list of plays I want to direct one day. The Edge of Peace is the final play in the trilogy. The first time I ever saw the phrase American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) was because of the golden Best Play of the Decade Award sticker on my script. Tomorrow I get on a plane to get myself to conference in Chicago, for an AATE conference chaired by my friends Leigh and Talleri, with whom I shared first-time attendee joy in Minneapolis in what seems to be not so very long ago. Saturday morning I present about the Safe Theatre Project, an idea that I’ve been talking about at conference and working on for several years now. And then Saturday night I see. this. play. So yeah. This weekend wins.

It’s hard to explain to those who’ve never heard of Susan Zeder or this trilogy why this warms me so. I’ve been thinking about the why of it a lot lately. Just recently I’ve become friends with some diehard Harry Potter fans, who have shared with me their Leaky Con antics and written in their blogs and chat windows– in loving, heartfelt detail– their experiences this month attending the final Harry Potter movie. It’s been interesting, getting a glimpse into a fandom that I really didn’t know a lot about and getting to know these incredible, quality people at just this moment when something they love so much has come to a head such a powerful way. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking this week that this trilogy is my Harry Potter. Girl was a huge role to play at an age when I was flirting between childhood and adolescence– and honestly holding on to the childhood as hard as I could. It was a time when so much of who I was to become was coming in snapshots, in and out of focus, every day. I had just re-discovered a little bit of comfort in my own skin after a traumatic move from my beloved Ohio and a difficult sixth grade year. This was the production that ultimately led me to Wethersfield Teen Theater Company, to what was then called the Greater Hartford Academy of Performing Arts, to my first paying job (as a performer for  Looking In Theater), and to so many people that became such an important part of my growing up, many of whom are just as dear to me today.

Mother Hicks was the event in my life that, ultimately, put me on a path of hopeless devotion to theatre for young audiences, and I am so especially thrilled to know I will be seeing it with my colleagues and partners in crime at AATE. I’ve always said that my favorite thing about AATE conferences is just hanging out with amazing people who all know who’ve heard of  Nellie McCaslin (and completely understand when I share that I burst into tears when I met her). It is there, and at least until recently, only there, really– that I’ve felt like a fangirl in the best sense of the word. I’m such a fan of the work of the amazing members of AATE, who advocate for theatre and education all year long and have invited me along to play.

Question for the World: What’s the production that changed your life?

 

Children’s Literature Pt 1

One of the projects I’ve taken on this summer is to finally get a cross-endorsement to teach English grades 7-12, something that I was 2 classes short of for several years. The short version of that story is that I started out thinking I needed English certification to teach theatre in Connecticut, but when Connecticut finally added a “unique special endorsement” in theatre I jumped to add that instead. But I DID spend all that money on Praxis tests in English and a course in the History of the English Language (mind numbingly dull, if you were wondering), so I’ve always wanted to get it done. I took an Advanced Composition class in the spring, which was doubly beneficial because it got me finally getting into a draft phase of TWO articles I think I could eventually develop for publication– hopefully I’ll be posting more on those later on.

So now I’m well into my final course, on a subject I adore, Children’s Literature. I’ve tried to use the course to get acquainted with more books that I could use in my teaching work, and also to get a better sense of what works in children’s books and whether and how that connects to children’s dramatic literature. I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that draws me to theatre for young audiences and I know it’s roots are in my experiences with books as a child. Great children’s literature, whether it’s dramatic, poetic, fiction, or nonfiction, is great literature, first and foremost. Maybe it is the simplicity of the vocabulary or the limited length most picture books work within, but I’m taken lately with the realization that so much good children’s literature is so close to poetry. Story stripped to its most essential parts somehow catches the heart more often.

I’ve read quite a stack of children’s books for this course but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is being exposed to so many outstanding children’s literature websites. It’s great to see what others recommend, and it occurs to me that there’s room for book recommendations on this blog. So,  for your reading enjoyment, here are a few of the best children’s books I’ve read this month, maybe for a later post I’ll brainstorm some lessons around them:

Questions for the World: What great children’s books have you read recently? Or not so recently? What do you think makes for an exceptional story for children?

Commissioning Plays for Young Audiences!

The last session I went to at the AATE/ATHE conference this year was Innovative Approaches to Commissioning and Developing Plays For and With Youth.  Special thanks to Julie Gale, Jim DeVivo, Sandra Fenichel Asher, Gina Kaufmann, Leigh Kennicot, Kristen Leahey, and Carlos Manuel for making this session happen. Since I’m currently exploring ways to commission a new work I was very interested in this session. A lot was said about devising plays with young people, but since my focus right now is on plays for a youth audience that may have all adult actors or incorporate age appropriate casting, I was most interested in the commentary on issues unique to that situation. I thought Sandy Asher’s statement, about a wonderful experience she had developing a new work, was a powerful call for a new model of commissioning that deserved a broader audience. Thanks Sandy for sharing it and for passing along the text!

NEW MODELS FOR COMMISSIONING PLAYS

My Experience

By Sandy Asher

Once upon a time, when I was working with his troupe on a new adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, Tom Ballmer, Artistic Director of Stebbens Children’s Theatre in Mason City, Iowa, shared with me a dream he had for commissioning new scripts for youth theaters like his own.  It seemed to me a great idea at the time, and an even better one now, a model suited to youth theaters, professional theaters, community theaters, university theaters and secondary school groups as well.

Tom’s plan is simple.  Any three theater groups of similar make-up and interests get together and decide

1)  What they need in a new script, in terms of topic, length, cast size, etc.;

2)  Which playwright they will contact about writing the script;

3) How much each theater will contribute toward the commissioning fee and playwright’s travel expenses;

4) When each theater will produce the play and bring in the playwright.

The benefits to theater groups and playwrights are clear and huge:  The theaters get the kinds of scripts they can and will produce.  They participate in the developmental process with the playwright at one-third the commissioning cost plus expenses.  They enjoy the added excitement and PR buzz of having the playwright on hand during some or all of the rehearsals and/or performances.

The playwright, in turn, earns a commission for writing a play with three developmental productions already lined up, has the opportunity to attend rehearsals and/or performances, and forges new creative alliances with the participating theater groups.

Our field of theater for young audiences as a whole benefits by the addition of new scripts developed through three productions at the very kinds of theaters most likely to continue to produce them.

Tom’s hopes for a new play included the following:

    1. A title that would bring in audiences,
    2. A large, flexible cast with plenty of female roles and roles for teenagers,
    3. Full length; non-musical.

At the time, he had no particular title in mind and no collaborators for a commission.

Just the dream.  Having enjoyed my work with Stebbens Youth Theatre, I left Mason City with a promise to think about a project that might fit the bill.  It was important to both of us that the project be as interesting and challenging to me as a playwright as it was artistically and financially beneficial to the theater.

Over the next few months, we tossed a few ideas back and forth, but nothing excited either one of us enough to proceed.   One day, while I was in my local library browsing the Young Adult collection, a title of one of Avi’s novels all but leaped off the shelf at me:  ROMEO AND JULIET – TOGETHER (AND ALIVE!) AT LAST.   I sat down with the book and began reading.  It was a middle-school story – lots of teenagers – with a hilarious premise and a wealth of comical characters and dialogue.  Its farcical plot grew naturally out of the collision between its modern school setting and the original Shakespearean play, and much of the action took place on a stage.

Granted, it wasn’t a “title” in the “Cinderella” sense of unbeatable familiarity, but it had a title sure to arouse a potential audience’s curiosity.  It had certainly piqued mine!

I knew I had a story I wanted to adapt for the stage and believed it could be the play Tom was hoping for. Tom read the book and agreed.

Could the dream of a joint commission and three developmental productions come true?  As it turned out, Tom was not able to commit to a commissioning fee at that time, but he could manage a full production and travel expenses.

Joe Lauderdale, then at Laguna Playhouse, read the book and offered to share the commission and bring me in for rehearsals and opening week.  Thanks to an introduction from John Newman, David Dynak and Amy Oakeson signed on for the University of Utah’s Youth Theatre at the U as co-commissioner.  Tom would do the third production at Stebbens Youth Theatre.

What followed next was a dream-come-true scenario for all concerned.  Encouraged by the interest of three producing companies, Gayle Sergel, of Dramatic Publishing Company, made arrangements with Avi to acquire the underlying rights to the novel.  I wrote knowing I had three eager and capable directors and an editor ready to read the script and offer comments and encouragement.   Joe scheduled the first production in October of that year with two trips to Laguna Beach for me – one early in the rehearsal process and one during opening week.  Amy and Tom followed with two productions of the continually revised script in February, with me in residence for late rehearsals and early performances.

I should mention here the terrific cooperative spirit among the three groups.  Many theaters commission with a “world premiere” in mind and jealously guard that distinction, even against a production halfway across the continent.  These three organizations were in the game for the development of a play worthy of their young casts and staged their productions in the best interests of the script’s growth.  Nothing that happened in Laguna Beach, Salt Lake City, or Mason City detracted in any way from local excitement about developing a new script and bringing the playwright to the community to work with the company, visit schools, run workshops, and meet with the young people and adults who support each group.

From my vantage point as playwright, this was a heavenly experience.  What normally takes forever – the scheduling and presentation of three developmental productions – took only about a year.  I saw three casts who differed in age and experience; tested the script against production values that reflected budgets large, medium, and small; and revised with insights provided by professional, university, and youth theater experts.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The new script at the center of all of this activity has enjoyed many productions since, but it’s not for all groups or all tastes.  That’s why I am offering this experience as a model and encouraging other kinds of theater groups to come together in a joint commission.  What kinds of plays do you need?  Which playwrights would you like to work with?  Can you find two other theater organizations to dream with you?  Can the three of you work with a playwright (preferably an AATE or ATHE member playwright, of course!) to make your dream come true?

Together we can do more and better than any one of us can do alone.

QUESTION FOR THE WORLD: Does this seem like a workable model you could participate in? Have you had other experiences with new play development that went very well– or very badly? What would have to change for more new works for young audiences to be developed and ultimately published?

What Makes Children Children?

I find the title of this article, Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think, to be counter-productive, but perhaps in a time when newspapers appear to be on their way out the author is merely shrewd in composing a title that will get attention. (The fact that it is currently the number 1 emailed article on the New York Times website would seem to support this argument. What do I know.) The article itself is quite interesting though. There’s something about the study of children that in essence becomes a study of humanity. I find educational research of the very young to be really fascinating.

One of the (many) issues I’m exploring for possible article writing as I come down from my Conference High is this question of what is it that makes children children, and how should (if at all) our understanding of children impact the direction of Theatre for Young Audiences. My undergraduate thesis focused somewhat on this issue but I’m in a different place now and I think it may be time to have another look at that 9 year old manuscript and see where those ideas can go next.

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?

Posted in AATE, TYA. 1 Comment »

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?