The Playgoer: Taking Kids (and Kids' Theatre) Seriously

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Taking Kids (and Kids' Theatre) Seriously

London's Royal National has apparently been nuturing a quite a mature and innovative theatre for young audiences program, "Connections."

The basic idea seems at once simple and, of course, unheard of in the US: commission really good playwrights to write plays about adolescent characters, without any censorship restrictions whatsoever. (Other than limiting scripts to a 60-minute running time.) The result?

Playwrights are simply asked to write their next play, rather than adapting or censoring their vision.

Thus [Mark] Ravenhill's "Citizenship" handled the decidedly touchy subject of a 15-year-old boy wrestling with sexuality, while [Bryony] Lavery's "More Light," a startling play about creating art, included oral sex, castration and cannibalism in a story of 15 concubines buried alive in a Chinese emperor's tomb.

Now if you went to some education-minded grant organization here in the States and proposed bringing kids to plays by the authors of Shopping and Fucking and the child-molester drama Frozen, I think you might get a...well, frozen response.

Makes you wonder. While there is the reputable Childrens Theatre of Minneapolis, NYC boasts no similarly serious young adult venue. (Sorry, but Theatreworks USA with their "Sarah Plain and Tall" fare may be perfectly fine at what they do, but no one's called them "challenging.")

But given the flourising of a young adult book market in this country (for which even Adam Rapp has written a few) and risquee teen-themed cable tv shows, you would think there would be a payoff to taking kids seriously and and acknowleging how media saturation has already numbed them to the subjects parents (and producers, and funders) are still so afraid to expose them to.

One of those payoffs, of course: fostering a new generation of adult theatre goers one day, by showing them--at a young age--that theatre can sometimes take their side, not just their parents'.

Spring Awakening, alas, is probably the best example in the US right now of how successful this idea can be. But I would argue that's only because someone finally had the balls the put Wedekind on Broadway.

By the way, the article mentions ACT in San Fransisco as one of the many international theatres the National has partnered with in some of these plays. Have any Bay Area playgoers out there seen any of this work?


Anonymous said...

You make an excellent point! As a girl who lives in the NY area, it amazes me to see little to no Theatre for Young Audience companies around here. Children and teens are the future of theater, and why can't there be Broadway shows (for instance) about teenagers and children? Prime examples of the past include Annie, and MAYBE The Sound of Music (if we're talking about the children). Spring Awakening is the only example as you said that involves younger people. It is my hope that in the future more shows will involve future younger generations. In fact, I hope younger generations become innovative playwrights. We need fresh material on Broadway; we need to step away from the familar to create new Broadway history! My college has a Theater for Young Audiences class and our theater company this past semester did a Theater for Young Audiences show: "King Stag" which fared very well when they performed it at a local high school. If young audiences go and see more local plays and get more involved, maybe things will even increase just by this. But for now, I guess we'll all just wait and see what happens. This is an excellent post!


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to give a shout-out to Free Street Theater's MadJoy Theatricals, which is one of the most exciting youth-oriented and youth-created theater programs I've encountered in 15 years of arts journalism.

These are plays that deal with adolescence, written by adolescents, but that never veer into afterschool-special territory and that show tremendous maturity and sophistication in terms of how narrative is structured, the physical work, use of original music and video, etc. They have toured to several European festivals, but they still seem to be a well-kept secret in American theater. I'm an unabashed fan, so wanted to throw them out there for consideration.