May 3, 2012

A Note about Theatre for Young Audiences by Tony Graham

From Tony Graham

 

As artistic boundaries are breaking down, bigger questions of aesthetic knowledge arise. We also talked about the shackles imposed by the category of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA). It is low status, under-resourced, and can be beset by bad practice and a poor reputation. At the same time, it has gained in artistic credibility in the last period and has attracted interest because it raises such radical questions about the nature of theatre. Young audiences bring something else to the party. We agreed, I think, that TYA hangs on the issue of ‘a child’s perspective’ and that this therefore requires special attention and expertise in repertoire, method and sensibility. At the same time, it’s theatre. It’s like any other theatre experience except that our audiences are younger. It’s imperative therefore that we employ the best theatre artists.

 

How do adults and children differ as audience members? Do they come to the theatre with different expectations?

Adults choose to go the theatre. Children rarely do. Some are brought there by teachers or parents. This is where our problems often start. I wish that ALL children, as a right, could experience theatre a few times a year, along with live music, art, and dance. Children need opportunities to participate in and experience a high quality cultural life. The United Nations has a charter where it states that all children have a right to culture. Is to deprive children of cultural experience any worse than depriving them of air, food, shelter and security? Without play and aesthetics, children’s inner lives can shrivel up and die. But of course this is invisible, although the effect is often all too visible — lack of empathy, less able to express, watch and listen. Governments should be ashamed for not putting arts education at the top of their agenda. In all seriousness, what is more important to all our futures? But I’m off the question here. Children do bring something fresh to the theatre experience. But this demands a great deal from those who work in this field. If we are to make real, meaningful contact with young audiences we have to be honest - and this can prove to be challenging.

 

Children have a sixth sense when it comes to theatre. They know when you’re moralizing, when you’re trying to ‘teach’ them something, when you’re glossing over things. They recognize deception because this is all too often what they experience in life. On the other hand, offer children a truthful, complex, dark where it needs to be dark, reflection of life, and they will pay more attention than any adult audience I have ever observed. Anyone who thinks children are ‘innocent’ cannot have spent much time with children. Less experienced, certainly. But with a broad and growing emotional intelligence and perception from the moment they are born. Of course, it is important that we present them with hope. Children do not and cannot have the same experience as adults. They cannot distance themselves from the drama in the same way we do. We need to protect them into emotion not away from it.

 

One of the questions you’ll be discussing at the conference next week is how much theatre is driven by ‘ought’ and how much by ‘art.’ Are you on the ‘ought’ or the ‘art’ side?

Who would even own up to being on the ‘ought’ side? But think about it. Teachers and educational authorities will often decree what children should and shouldn’t learn and at what stage of their development. Parents will, understandably, want to protect their children and shield them. These are not problems for adult theatre makers. But anyone who makes theatre for children has to consider the boundaries of taste and the moral dimension. A great Swedish theatre maker, Suzanne Osten, argues that nothing we do on the stage can ever be as hard, complicated, oppressive and challenging as life itself. And our children can experience shocking things: war, civil war, natural disaster and so on. Even or maybe especially in so-called ‘civilized’ societies, millions of our children have to protect themselves from warring and hopeless parenting, poverty, bullying, racial and sexual abuse and discrimination. What right have we to pretend that life is all sunshine and light? Artists have a responsibility to tell it like it is, albeit through metaphor. The key thing is that we consider the child’s perspective, to offer them a way in, to create a safe haven in order to explore the danger and daftness. To try to find a way to be truthful AND hopeful.

 

Children love it when we take them seriously. They often won’t forgive us if we don’t. Sometimes, when we get it right, theatre is the only place where children can see that they are not alone. Not because of some moralizing drivel but because what we portray is what life feels like to them in all its beautiful, complicated, messy, vulnerable, hysterically absurd and funny imperfection. To translate this into a joyous, rich experience for our young audiences requires not moralizers but artists.

 
Michael J. Bobbitt
Producing Artistic Director
Adventure Theatre MTC
301.634.2261 - office
 
Adventure Theatre (Glen Echo) and Musical Theater Center (Rockville) merged. 

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