The first set of essays draws from robustly diverse sources: the work of Frank Wedekind in nineteenth-century Germany, Peter Pan’s several stage incarnations, Evgeny Shvarts’s antitotalitarian plays in Soviet Russia, and Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, whose depictions of childhood comment on both the classical period as well as Marlowe’s own Elizabethan age.
The second part of the collection explores and illustrates how youth participate in theatre, the cognitive benefits youth reap from theatre practice, and the ameliorating power of theatre to help at-risk youth. These essays show fascinating and valuable case studies of, for example, theatre employed in geography curricula to strengthen spatial thinking, theatre as an antidote to youth delinquency, and theatre teaching Latinos in the south strategies for coping in a multilingual world.
Rounding out this exemplary collection are a pair of essays that survey the state of the art, the significance of theatre-for-youth programming choices, and the shifting attitudes young Americans are bringing to the discipline. Eclectic and vital, this expertly curated collection will be of interest to educators and theatre professionals alike.
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A Publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference: Theatre and Youth
By David S. Thompson
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Theatre and Youth
It's All in the Prepositions: A Keynote Reflection
For three magical days in April 2014 we gathered on the beautiful campus of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, a collection of scholars, practitioners, artists, and educators to discuss the past, explore the present, and imagine future confluences of theatre and youth. I was honored to be the keynote speaker for Theatre Symposium 23: Theatre and Youth, a conference that would truly live up to its intentions as a forum for promoting the exchange of ideas and insights, experiences, and inspirations.
I was fascinated by the symposium's scope and structure, with a range of papers and panels that reached back to the history of Elizabethan boyhood as revealed in Christopher Marlowe's Dido Queen of Carthage; forward to cyber-children on the virtual stage of Second Life; inward to plays featuring child characters ranging from Peter Pan to vicious Mary in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour; and outward to real children and adults using theatre to combat juvenile delinquency, to deal with bullying, to question assumptions about gender identity, and to imagine new ways of conceiving geography and shaping space. In three days we traveled from the streets of Kolkata, India, to a post-traumatic Ireland, to the repression of Stalinist Russia, and to a coming-of-age ritual at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon.
It was a conference unlike any I had ever attended, perfectly summed up in the seemingly simple title Theatre and Youth: the most important word being the operant "and." In those three little letters are nestled all the prepositions that describe the many dimensions of work for, of, about, and with young people and the fields of inquiry where they are theorized and practiced. These include professional theatre for children, plays with child characters, theatre for social change, historical and ethnographic studies dealing with children and youth, and practical hands-on work involving young people in schools, communities, detention facilities, and the like.
My duties as keynote speaker included delivering some opening remarks to chart a course for the weekend, listening to presentations of twenty-three fascinating papers and participating in the discussions that followed, and finally offering a "response" or "conference reaction" highlighting emergent themes made manifest during our time together. Not unlike Alice in Alice in Wonderland, who was told, "Sentence First! Verdict Afterward!", I decided to invert the prescribed paradigm offering my response first, hearing the papers second, and finally putting forth a keynote call to action to all participants, challenging them to make a commitment to change one thing in their scholarship, artistry, teaching, or practice that would place theatre and youth in the center of some aspect of their ongoing work. It could be an idea, an image, an awareness, or a shift in perception that would lead to a tangible manifestation, something they would actually do to turn reflection into activism.
Using the abstracts kindly sent to me by conference organizer David Thompson, I framed my opening remarks around the topics in the hearts and on the minds of the conference participants. My resulting "speech" was an attempt to stitch together a conceptual path through their research and to offer my own experience as a playwright and educator to contextualize their inquiries. In this article I hope to capture the essence of that "keynote," threading my observations about the papers into my own experiences and ruminations about the field in general. The articles in this journal represent a cross section of the papers presented in the symposium. Just as I sounded a clarion call to the symposium participants, I offer the same challenge to each of you: to be inspired by what you find here and to change one thing in your scholarship, artistry, teaching, or practice to include theatre and youth in a way that changes your work and, perhaps, your life.
As adults working in various disciplines involving children, we tend to put ourselves in an "us and them" binary. We ask: what can we as adults do for, to, about, or with them as children? We can teach them, entertain them, model, mentor, support, encourage, protect, and defend them! Much more rarely do we invert this paradigm and ask: what can they do for, to, with, and about us? How can a child's view and voice help us see or hear our world differently? How does a child's point of view inform our own perspective in ways that might radically shift not only a balance of power in our society, but inspire a new way of seeing, a shift in perception that might shake the foundations of our assumptions about our lives, our scholarship, and our art?
The historical foundations of professional and educational theatre for young people in the United States are deeply rooted in the "us and them" binary. Unlike theatre for youth in Central Europe and Scandinavia, where professional companies have a long history of government subsidy of the arts and where theatre for children has always been driven by experimental and aesthetic motivations, children's theatre in the United States sprang from settlement houses, educational institutions, and social service organizations. The Henry Street Settlement (1893) and The Children's Educational Theatre (1903), both in New York City, the famous and still fabulous Karamu House founded in 1915 in Cleveland, and many others grew from neighborhood associations concerned with providing immigrant children a safe and creative place to tell stories, make plays, and find a sense of community.
Theatrical performances and dramatic activities were seen as ways of instilling "universal values" through theatre and dance. Based in neighborhoods and staffed largely with volunteers, these institutions welcomed children and families of diverse backgrounds and found ways to use the arts to blend their heritages into a new American landscape. Social service organizations such as the Junior League (1901), The Boston League (1912), and the Chicago League (1912) provided outlets for wealthy young women to merge their proclivities for social work and the arts. Many started touring troupes taking performances of classic stories such as Aladdin, The Prince and the Pauper, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Little Princess to schools and community centers.
These emphatically amateur efforts were a far cry from the multimillion dollar professional TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) companies today. Theatres such as Seattle Children's Theatre, The Children's Theatre Company and School of Minneapolis, Childsplay in Tempe, Arizona, and Metro Theatre Company in St. Louis have budgets, facilities, and a level of professionalism in dramaturgy and artistry to rival the best regional theatres for adults. But the field of TYA still bears both the stigma of its amateur roots and the inspirational optimism of its founders' belief in the power of the arts to change lives.
When we are fighting the philistines to justify the presence of the arts in education, government or foundation funding, or any remotely political agenda, we are all fond of proclaiming that the arts have the "power to change lives!" This is our mantra, our core belief, the unassailable truth that we all know anecdotally but are hard pressed to prove in the cribbed criteria of the number crunchers. Melora Cybul, in her paper "Integrating Theatre across the Curriculum," probed this query in the symposium, as did Carol Jordan in her description of a project that brought together college students in the field of social work and young juvenile offenders in "Theatre-in-Diversion: Evaluating an Arts-Based Approach to Combating Juvenile Delinquency." But the only way to speak to the absolute truth of this statement is to look to your own life, to the tipping point of your personal experience where a spark of ignition changed your life. To get in touch with this primal source, I invited the symposium participants to remember the first live theatre experience that touched their lives in ways that were both subtle and profound.
I invite you to do the same: right now, sitting wherever you are, reading this on a computer or the old-fashioned way with paper volume in hand:
Take a moment to clear your mind and take a deep breath.
Think back to the most recent theatre experience you have had as a spectator, creator, critic, or participant.
Hold an image of that experience like a photograph.
Now visualize a book of time where you have stored all the theatrical images of past performances you have created, been in, or attended.
Thumb back through the images until you find one that strikes you as the first, the most powerful, the ignition point that illuminated ... something.
* Where were you?
* How old were you?
* What were you wearing?
* Who were you with?
* What were all the sensory experiences you remember: sight, smell, taste, hearing, texture?
* What were you feeling?
* Where do you hold this memory in your body: head, heart, viscera?
Treasure this memory, because it is the Rosetta Stone that contains the reason why you are here as a scholar, an artist, a practitioner, a human being!
My own life-changing theatre experience happened when I was five years of age and my mother gave me the choice of having a birthday party or going to a Broadway musical. I saw Ethel Merman in a rather forgettable musical, Happy Hunting, but every moment is still etched in a nether region of my brain. I can still sing all the songs, word for word, more than sixty years later.
Chances are that your first theatre memory also takes you back to your childhood. To a time before anyone told you how impractical, impossible, or unrealistic a career in the theatre might be. Your present path into theatre might not be the one you envisioned in the fever dream of first exposure, but in some way that dream did come true, because you are still here. You are reading this. That early memory is your touchstone, your ember, your birthright. You need to nourish it and keep it alive, particularly when things get tough in academic or artistic settings, when you are underpaid, underappreciated, under-everything. The unadulterated white-hot passion of possibility, the velocity of joy that is connected to a seminal theatre experience, resides in your childhood: if not your literal childhood, your metaphoric childhood where innocence is opportunity, not ignorance.
When I first began writing plays, I knew exactly the kind of plays I didn't want to write. My dissertation was an analysis of fifty-two child characters in forty-two of the most frequently produced plays offered by the publishers in the mid-1970s. I wanted to discover what kinds of young characters we were presenting to young audiences, what kinds of values, beliefs, and role models we were offering through plays performed for and by children. What I discovered shocked me.
The field was dominated by adaptations of fairy tales and classic stories. In my study I had five versions of Hansel and Gretel, six of Alice in Wonderland, three of Cinderella, and a number of plays that had obviously been hastily improvised from fables and folktales. Hardly any of the plays were original pieces crafted by playwrights specifically for theatre. This did not surprise me; familiar titles and adaptations are still the mainstay of children's theatre. What did alarm and surprise me was the way child characters were frequently portrayed as passive, inactive, gender-stereotyped caricatures with little internal conflict and virtually no complexity. Rarely did the pattern of decisions and actions taken by young protagonists result in the resolution of the play. Adult characters intervened as rescuers or dei ex machina. Boy characters were resolute, brave, and sturdy. Girls were unfailingly sweet, kind, generous, and invariably pretty. It was as though these young characters had been scrubbed of all their rough edges, their emotions, their dramatic interest.
One play, however, stood out as a shining exception. In its non-musical, non-Disney form, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan features characters of depth and complexity. Peter is brave and resolute but he is also thoughtless, cruel, and selfish. Wendy, despite her genteel veneer and maternal longings, has a nascent, if unrequited, sexuality. She is also brave and clever. In her provocative article, "The 'Boy' Who Wouldn't Grow Up: Peter Pan and the Dangers of Eternal Youth," Sarah McCarroll explicates the gender ambiguities of the play partially due to the fact that Peter is usually played by a cross-dressing female. The primordial freedom of childhood is visually and dramaturgically demonstrated in Peter's refusal to submit to the conventions of Victorian patriarchy by growing up.
Despite or perhaps because of my resistance to overly simplified plots, one-dimensional characters, and themes that reinforce "universal values," I have spent the past forty years writing plays with child characters at their center. I am fond of saying, "I do not write for children, I write about them." This does not come from any contempt for child audiences. Quite the opposite: I respect young spectators enough not to try to second-guess what they will or will not understand, enjoy, or be engaged by. The moment I modulate my writing on the basis of these assumptions, I have automatically condescended. When I am asked what age group a particular play is for I respond, "I write for human beings; some happen to be shorter than others." By treating the whole audience as equals, I can also speak to the adults because the one thing that every adult has in common is that he or she was once a child.
The child characters I have written have taught me everything I know about complexity, paradox, and high stakes. Most of my plays deal with a young person at a time where his or her life changes forever. My "kids" have faced divorce and death and deafness. I have written about teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, discrimination, prejudice, the desperate search for a place to belong, to find a name, to heal a psychic wound. Despite their serious subjects, my plays are laced with humor and hope. Death haunts all my plays as a life-affirming force, the ultimate crucible of character and courage.
In the symposium I found a kindred connection to Anthony Gunn's paper "It's Those Dead Kids: Representations of Children in the Literature and Theatre of Edward Gorey" and John Countryman's "Youth, Trauma and Performance in Christina Reid's Joyriders/Clowns and Edna Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom." Although these articles are not in this volume, I learned a great deal from their presentation.
I find it fascinating that plays dealing with traumatic situations often result in productions with innovative design and directing choices. The explication of psychological dimensions of trauma inspires abstraction in costume, set, lighting, use of puppetry, and non-literal movement. Darkness in theme is often made manifest by color, light, and imagination in production.
My newest play, The Milk Dragon, currently in development at Utah Valley University, is my most unabashedly political play. It also presents the greatest design challenges to potential producers. It takes place in three different worlds, features a character made entirely of light, an antagonist rendered primarily by sound, a pack of wolves, and a herd of elk! I call it my "impossible play" as it requires spectacle based in abstraction and theatrical magic rather than literal special effects. More so than in any other medium, theatre is the place where the impossible becomes possible through the full engagement of the audience's imagination.
The Milk Dragon is a fantasy that has much in common with Seth Wilson's "Fairy Tale or Subversion?: Evgeny Shvarts's The Dragon as Anti-Stalinist Theatre for Youth," an article you will find in this volume. I too was inspired by Shvarts's play many years ago when I was very active in the fight to save the National Endowment for the Arts. I had long wanted to write a play about censorship and what happens to children in a society so dominated by fear that they banish everything "fearful" to deny its existence. I found the perfect vehicle in a Dragon of my own.
Excerpted from Theatre Symposium by David S. Thompson. Copyright © 2015 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. Theatre and Youth: It's All in the Prepositions
2. Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and the Tragedy of Adolescence
3. The "Boy" Who Wouldn't Grow Up: Peter Pana nd the Dangers of Eternal Youth
4. "Then Speak, Aeneas, with Achilles' Tongue": Ethopoeia and Elizabethan Boyhood in Marlowe's Dido Queen of Carthage
5. Fairy Tale or Subversion?: Evgeny Shvarts's The Dragon as Anti-Stalinist Theatre for Youth
6. Integrating Theatre and Geography to Develop Spatial Thinking in Youth
7. Theatre-in-Diversion: Evaluating an Arts-Based Approach to Combating Juvenile Deliquency
8. Voice from Roosevelt: Community-BAsed Devised Theatre as a Youth Rite of Passage
9. TYA Playwriting in the New Latino South: Multilingual, Multimodal Cultural Improvisation in the I-85 Corridor
10. Suzan Zeder versus Pinkalicious: Today's Theatre for Young Audiences
11."I Want to Play Too": Why Today's Youth Are Resisting the Rules of the Theatre