Monday, November 20, 2017

My decision to participate in the Study Abroad option of the Theatre for Young Audiences was an easy one to make.  Since we had studied some of the acts that would be present at ASSITEJ this year, I already knew that TYA elsewhere in the world seemed much more groundbreaking and interesting than most TYA in the States.  I wanted to experience this difference firsthand, to observe and study these theatrical experiences and come away with a desire to create and perform pieces like these, and hopefully gain some theoretical knowledge of how to do it.

The only thing I was nervous about – which would soon be proven a groundless worry – was the language barrier.  As it turns out, one of the many great benefits of living in a European nation is that foreign languages (particularly English) are taught from a young age, resulting in a highly multi-lingual population.

It would be impossible for me to single out one show or installation as superior, as each was unique and interesting in ways too dissimilar to compare.  Despite – or perhaps due to – this dissimilarity, I was able to take away many new ideas about the field of TYA and theatre in general.  Primarily, I was astonished by the lack of an overt educational feel in most of the pieces.  In the States, TYA seems to be dominated by an education-first theory, and while this idea was born of good intentions it often leads to theatre that seems to talk down to children, that treats them as though they aren’t able to understand more complex themes.

One of my personal favorites, ‘Kalejdoskop,’ effectively created its own universe by drawing the ‘audience’ members through a series of tunnels into different rooms, each with a different hands-on experience i.e. playing with shadows, listening to the heartbeats of other ‘audience’ members, etc.  This installation – as it can hardly be called a play – stood out to me for many reasons.  All of the design elements worked beautifully together to invent a world full of patterns, which was the message behind this installation – that life is full of patterns, both good and bad.  This is an example of the complex themes many of the pieces at ASSITEJ were able to address.

The show that affected me emotionally on a greater level than the others was a Dutch show entitled ‘Prime.’  This show features a young adult cast playing eleven-year-old children, as well as the adult versions of those children (and occasionally, other adults such as parents), and deals with bullying and the existential and emotional crises faced by eleven-year-olds.  Central to this show – literally, as it is placed in the center of the stage – is a see-through box into which characters enter for multiple reasons, often when they are feeling vulnerable.  At the end of the play, the most awkward of the characters, a girl (now an adult and mother) who is frequently made fun of or excluded, seemingly commits suicide as she enters the box – now her coffin – willingly.  As her funeral progresses, all of the characters eventually reappear as adults, and the climactic moment consists of the adults turning back into their eleven-year-old selves, this time celebrating the awkward girl’s presence.  As with most of the audience, I was in tears as they hoisted her up, full of joy and appreciation.

Other shows that stood out include ‘The Girl from Leningrad’ and ‘Wolfed Down!’ for their exceptional puppet work; ‘Berlin, 1961’ for including an actual car in the set and for their brilliant handling of a rape; and ‘Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking’ for actually lighting part of their set on fire and absolutely heartbreaking story of refugees and the obstacles, both human and elemental, that refugees face – all with only a two person cast.

The large majority of the shows we saw tended to push the traditional boundaries of what is considered theatre, playing with chronology and fantasy in ways that made me smile.  As a fan of ‘avant-garde’ theatre, it was eye-opening to see non-linear plays aimed towards younger audiences, as well as pieces like ‘Kalejdoskop’ or ‘2-Dimensional Life of Her,’ both of which seemed more like performance art than ‘traditional’ theatre.

ASSITEJ also provided us with an opportunity to attend workshops and lectures given by some worldwide leaders in the TYA field.  We also had the incredible opportunity to meet and talk with members of ASSITEJ’s Next Generation, which includes theatre practitioners of all types from all over the world.

Overall, this trip has taught and inspired me in terms of hopeful future endeavors in the field of TYA, as well as theatre in general.  Someday I hope to participate in ASSITEJ again – this time as a cast member (or writer) of a show/installation in a future ASSITEJ festival.  Seeing the kind of incredibly groundbreaking work that is considered TYA in other parts of the world furthers my desire to move to another country in order to pursue this line of work, as well as my desire to pursue a career in theatre.

Matt Russak

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