Why you should work in Theater for Young Audiences...and why you shouldn't

First things first--the full length, uncut interview with Arlene Hutton and Mark Lutwak, as promised last week.




This week, I wanted to take a break from the interview series to talk a little bit more on the topic of Theater for Youth--both from an acting and writing point of view.


If you've read my blogs from the beginning, you'll know this is a topic that I am very passionate about, and getting to speak with Mark and Arlene was a real treat. I completely agree with Mark's assertion that writing for young audiences is a "cutting edge of theater". I also think there is often an assumption by people of what theater for youth looks like--fairy tales and narrators spelling out plots and fuzzy animals telling morality stories, what Mark called the "don't smoke" plays. And the thing is, there is a LOT of this sort of youth theater out there. 


Of course, there are also many theaters doing innovative, new, and fresh theater for youth as well--Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Seattle Children's Theatre, Children's Theatre Company in Minnesota, and a company that I had the pleasure of working with, Childsplay in AZ, just to name a few. But even amongst the best youth theaters, the number of new plays being written and produced is surprisingly small. Many seasons are filled with book adaptations. While one reason is most assuredly economics (it's easier to sell tickets and educational field trips when there's a named, branded entity that kids are already familiar with), there is also just not that many playwrights (especially when compared to authors) creating high quality work for young people.


"Okay, that's nice," says the devil's advocate, "but why should I care? I'm a professional actor / writer / director who wants to do serious, important, lasting work. Why is youth theater so important or interesting?"


The reasons are manifold:


1) Economics.

 On a most basic level is the economic reason. From a theater's standpoint, a typical play sells many tickets by 2's. A play for a family sells tickets by 4's. Add in the opportunity of touring shows and educational outreach programs, tying into residency programs, and the economic opportunities become pretty clear. As an actor as well, working in theater for youth oftentimes provides the rare longer term contracts as tours run for several months. 


2) Fewer fish in the pond.

 There are fewer companies, writers, and actors offering quality work in this field, and comparatively speaking, more opportunities to create work that makes a difference and gets you noticed, as well as more chances due to (comparatively) less competition.


3) Kids can be a very selective and sophisticated audience.

In speaking with an actor friend about performing for youth, I was astounded to hear him say, "yes well it can be fun and all, but I want to perform for actual people, that understand things." It boggles my mind how quickly we forget that we were kids once--and I'm pretty sure we thought of ourselves as "people", even "way back then". We had tastes and interests and dramas and concerns just as adults do. My friend is barely out of his teen years yet spoke of children as though they were an alien race; it really is quite funny how we spend so much of growing up distancing ourselves from our youth, yet yearn for it so badly when we're grown up.


Writing and performing for youth does not mean you need to dumb down, simplify or not address serious topics in drama, or that comedies need to be reduced to poop and fart jokes. On the contrary, kids across the age groups react very well to stimulating work, and are sometimes your most sophisticated audiences with fresh perspectives and an uninhibited imagination. The difference lies in understanding the psychology and concerns of each age group--writing for 3-5 year olds IS going to be different than 13-18, and not in the ways you may initially think. See Mark's interview (and his advice on the Cincinnati Playhouse submissions page) for more.


4) You can make a difference.

I know as a writer and actor, one of my hopes is that through the art of storytelling I can truly impact, affect, and change an audience member in a positive manner--to inspire thought and action, open a new perspective, create catharsis and invoke emotional depth. This cannot be more true when working with kids. It is the greatest rush and reward in the world when I see a child light up because they "got" a new idea, or because they saw a character on stage that is a reflection of themselves. When you work as an artist with young people, you are directly affecting their future interest and investment in the arts as adults, and are contributing in a very tangible and significant way to the formation of their world view. That is an amazing honor, and also a boatload of fun. In writing and acting for youth, you directly forge, shape and create the next generation of theater and arts patrons. That's pretty cool.


Of course, just as there are many great reasons to motivate you to work in theater for young audiences, there are also many BAD reasons to get involved. If you are motivated by any one of the following factors, you might want to re-evaluate your choice:


1) Economics.

If you're doing it because you want to sell tickets in 4's instead of 2's, or you want that longer touring acting contract, you're in it for the wrong reason. 


2) Fewer fish in the pond.

If you're writing because you think there's greater chances at grabbing grants and getting noticed and making a living out of it because there's fewer people doing it, you're in it for the wrong reason. (When I spoke with Y York, an established for youth playwright with innumerable quality plays in publication and several in production each year across the country, she expressed the fact that she does not make a living by her writing alone. But I'm sure this is not news to those of you working in the playwriting or acting careers. :-P)


3) Kids can be a very selective and sophisticated audience.

If you're doing it because you have a romanticized image of the innocence and kindness of children, you're in it for the wrong reason. Yes, they can be selective and sophisticated--but unlike selective and sophisticated grown ups, kids don't have a filter and won't put on niceties. If they don't like your play or performance, you will know--either by direct catcalls, or the fact that they have begun to find the way their chair wiggles more interesting than your soliloquy. 


Astute readers (or really, anyone with eyes) may notice the first three reasons TO do TYA is the same three reasons not to. 


Honestly, my biggest pet peeve is theaters that throw together an education program, underfund and undercut it, yet happily use it to reap in revenue in an attempt to stopper their financial hemorrhaging elsewhere. If you're a theater, or an actor, or a writer, and you do pieces for young audiences, do it because you want to MAKE A DIFFERENCE first. The other reasons are just perks along the road.


And you know, the funniest thing about that is, "Make a difference" before "money and fame" is the word of caution every theater artist, professor, and friend I've known has given me about working in theater in general. ;-)

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