“My Son, Pinocchio, Jr.” for Our World Neighborhood Charter School in Astoria
Even though I have worked with children in a theatrical setting for several years, I have always had a hard time wrapping my mind about meaning of “theatre for young audiences”. For a piece to hold the title of a TYA play, does the piece simply have to attempt to appeal to a young audience? Is it still a TYA piece if the production is meant for young people, but doesn’t connect with the young people who see it? I think part of my confusion comes from the mission of TYA/USA itself. The TYA/USA website states that its mission is “to promote the power of professional theatre for young audiences through excellence, collaboration and innovation across cultural and international boundaries.” While this mission is meant to be inclusive as possible, I can’t help but notice how the use of phrase “professional theatre” excludes a massive population of theatrical practitioners and creates its own cultural boundary. Churches, schools and after school programs often produce theatrical performances for their own communities. For some children, these productions are their first and sometimes the only exposure to theatre in their young lives. If the definition of theatre for young audiences is literal – theater that is produced with the purpose of entertaining people ages 22 and younger – then wouldn’t these community productions fall under that umbrella and are we not providing a disservice to the communities that we are attempting to serve if we do not acknowledge the theatre that is already present?
I believe that the discussion around professional and community theatre is vital if the TYA community is going to embrace the idea and practice of multiculturalism. For TYA to be accessible to everyone, we need allies, especially in communities where professional theatre is not apart of their cultural reality. I believe those allies will come from the churches, schools, after school programs and community theatres. As theatre professionals, we need to be as open to the communities that we are serving as we want them to be with us. This openness can be simply asking our community allies about what their children need to see and hear or engaging the children themselves about the stories and styles they would like to see on stage. For however long a TYA trope is in front of an audience, they are apart of that community. It is part of our responsibility to engage and respond to the community around us, not just deliver a disconnected cultural experience. We should not perform at a young audience, I believe the purpose of TYA is to perform for a young audience.
My first professional theatre experience, meaning that I was paid for my work, came in 2006 when I was asked to teach, co-write and assistant direct a play for the Charles Drew Elementary School in Philadelphia. The play, which told the life story of Charles R. Drew, was not only culturally relevant, but was also a rallying point for the school community as a whole. Performed in the cafetorium, a combination cafeteria and auditorium that serves as a stage for many schools across the country, was this experience a TYA production? I know that it impacted the lives of the children involved. I know that the experience of being on stage and seeing a play performed the best our abilities brought light, laughter and appreciation from the school age audience. The success of this production not only required the cooperation of the organization I representing at time, Drexel University’s Community Engagement program, it also required buy-in from the principal, the teachers and of course the students themselves. Together, we co-created this theatrical experience for the entire school. I feel that this experience and other theatrical experiences like it, i.e. Black History shows, talent shows, school plays, have a power and influence over the communities they serve that needs to be acknowledged by the professional theater community and especially the TYA community.
When it comes to multiculturalism in TYA, we cannot let cultural elitism be a boundary. Professional theatre can provide the grandeur, spectacle and experience that simply are not available in a community setting. Community theatre is there to provide the backbone of theatrical appreciation when professional theatre is not around or has moved on to the next location. These experiences together can reach young people where they are at and while at the same time expand their horizons. If multiculturalism is the future of TYA, then there is no choice, but to genuinely and respectfully engage the culture experiences that are already present in our communities.