Sunday, April 21, 2019

Diversity in TYA: The Queer Agenda

One of my favorite things about attending national conferences for TYA/USA or AATE is being challenged by passionate graduate students and young professionals. I have attended many sessions and had many conversations with young professionals challenging the field to be more inclusive of LGBTQA issues on our stage.   Our established theaters for young audiences need to be challenged to continue to grow as artists to better serve all communities.

For the last fifteen years, the discussion seems to have focused on having queer characters on the stage. Why aren’t there more queer characters and stories on our stages? Our field began to publish plays with queer characters such as The Wrestling Season the award winning play by Laurie Brooks, The Misfits, my adaptation of James Howe’s wonderful novel, Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents, and Teachers by Norma Bowles, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño by Gabriel Jason Dean, , And Then Came Tango by Emily Freeman, and fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life by Sarah Gubbins. After these plays were created and published, the conversation started to change into why TYA companies aren’t producing these plays more often.

2011 Omaha Theater Company Prodution of THE MISFITS

2011 Omaha Theater Company Prodution of THE MISFITS

Recently the conversation seems to be focusing more often on the representation of queer characters on stage as victims. Anne Giannini’s article “Queer Representations in TYA” points out that many of the gay and lesbian characters on our stages are victimized and bullied because of their sexuality. Ms Giannini argues that this perpetuates the notion that “being gay” puts youth at risk for a plethora of problems. Her article seems to be a rallying point to ask: Where are the positive queer characters on our stage?

Don’t get me wrong. As a queer activist and TYA artist, I would love for our field to produce more plays with queer characters. I would love for our conversation to go beyond the bullying and troubles of being gay to start including more positive representation of queer characters. However, if we want to examine our field, measure the impact we have on queer youth issues, and to increase the influence our field has in fighting homophobia, we need to increase the scope of the conversation. I challenge the researchers, queer activists, and our field to go beyond analyzing the written plays with queer characters. We have to include the impact and influence of queer youth theater projects. We have to challenge our field to look at how we cast our plays. And we also have to include plays that include gender nonconformity in our discussion.



All of the full-time teaching artists at my company direct a teen theater production each year. In 1999, I started Pride Players, a teen devised theater piece exploring queer youth issues such as bullying, homelessness, marriage, job discrimination and more. In 2001, my artistic director explored a grant to develop, produce and tour a professional scripted production inspired by Pride Players. The tour was going to have a professional playwright, a professional director and professional actors to explore these issues. This project was antithetical to the original mission of Pride Players. The power and success of Pride Players is tapping the voices of the young people to create and perform scenes about queer youth issues.   The authenticity and immediacy of this project has impacted our audience of teens, teachers and parents.   In fifteen years, our teen troupe has reached over 10,000 audience members. We have toured to schools, universities, education conferences, and community groups. We have also collaborated with groups in several other cities to help them start their own queer youth theater.

Pride Players 12 Cast

The Pride Youth Theater Alliance (the North American network of queer youth theaters founded three years ago) now boasts over 15 queer youth theaters all across North America. While a few are housed in professional Theaters for Young Audiences, queer youth theaters are also housed in adult queer theaters and community centers.   We have to include the impact of these queer youth theaters in our discussion of the impact of theater for young audiences on queer youth issues.



Many theaters actively use “color-blind” casting when producing theater for young audiences.   While Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time or John Arable (Fern’s father) from Charlotte’s Web are Caucasian in their original books, many productions will cast performers of color in such parts. In non-traditional casting, companies hire ethnic minority performers in parts where race or ethnicity are not germane.


I challenge our field to look at gender and sexual orientation when casting our plays.   In Ramona Quimby, young Ramona is upset because her Aunt Bea is getting married and is moving away. Why not cast the love interest of Aunt Bea as a woman? The conflict for Ramona stays the same: fear that her aunt is moving away. However, we can represent a same sex marriage (which is legal in over 30 states now!)



When examining the state of queer character representations in our TYA field, one challenge we face is the large number of plays for younger audiences (3rd grade and under). This is a huge part of our audiences for school groups and public performances. In general, these audiences are not interested in romantic stories. They don’t want to see any kissing on stage (straight or queer). Developmentally, romantic love is not part of their world yet.

However, gender expectations and conformity is. One of the main causes of homophobic bullying in schools is when young people don’t conform to “traditional” gender roles.   Boys who like pink or act effeminate are bullied (whether they identify as queer or not). Girls who have short hair and like playing sports face bullying too. Queer kids who match gender expectations face much less bullying.

So where are the plays that explore gender non-conformity in our field? They are everywhere. When we did my adaptation of MISS BINDERGARTEN GETS READY FOR KINDERGARTEN, we had a very effeminate boy kindergarten character and a very tough girl kindergarten character. PINKLALICOUS: THE MUSICAL ends with an amazingly positive message about gender non-conformity. The straight father admits that he always loved the color pink as a child, but he was made fun of.   The musical embraces the theme that boys and girls can love the color pink (and the gender non-conformity that this theme implies). So when discussing and researching the impact of TYA on queer youth issues, we need to also include the plays and productions that embrace gender non-conformity.


CONCLUSION: Brian will step off his soap box soon.


I remember when I as in graduate school and really questioning where my queer activism would fit into my career in TYA. Would I have to choose between these two passions, or could I find an artistic home that allowed me to both work with young audiences and queer youth? I am thrilled that my professional TYA company allows me to be a queer activist and a TYA artist.

I am also thrilled that so many artists and educators in TYA/USA are trying to teach acceptance and decrease homophobia through our art. Yes, let’s write and produce more plays with queer characters. Let’s show the struggles, challenges, and joy for these characters. Let’s produce plays that explore these issues in developmentally appropriate ways. Let’s produce plays which express the ways children of all ages encounter and experience these issues in their lives. Let’s ALSO include the impact of queer youth theater. Let’s ALSO use non-traditional casting and directing to put queer couples on stage and to help the audience look at a story and our communities in a new way. And let’s ALSO discover, highlight ,and promote all of the plays that teach gender non-conformity.


Robin Hood 129

Brian’s Will Scarlett had a HUGE crush on Robin Hood


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    0 Response

    1. Camilla

      This is just the kind of discussion a collegue of mine and me are trying to push forward in Germany. We actually managed to publish an article in the magazine of the association of dramaturgs. If there’s any interest I’d give the translation a try.

    2. Camilla

      “Im Zweifel fuer den Zweifel”
      [Tocotronic.: When in doubt chose doubt]
      Clemens Leander & Camilla Schlie
      translated by Michèle Fischer

      When children and young people watch plays with their kindergarten group or class, the audience consists of various social backgrounds, portraying a cross section of society. If children and young people are taken seriously as an audience and a representative of society theatre meets them on eye level and aesthetically reflects the world in which we live in its intricacy and complexity. In order to do so, literary texts are needed which address the full range of societal reality and meet it with openness. If you attentively search for plays, subjects and stories for a theatrical piece, you will stumble over the gender constructions in children’s and young people’s literature in all age groups.
      The starting point of this analysis of German children’s and young people’s literature was the wish for plays or templates in which women are the figure of identification so that the girls in the audience could identify with the character without having to translate it.i The number of plays in which female characters are at the centre and manage to be successful, independent of male support, is extremely low. The same is true for a differing portrayal of boys or male characters. The so called “topics for girls” render the conflicts with female heterosexual gender roles (e.g. “teenage pregnancy”, “lesbian coming-out”, “eating disorder”, “sexual abuse”, aversion for the classical role as “wife and mother” etc.) problematic, using a more less obvious didactic focus. After profound research and analysis we came to the conclusion that a poststructualist way of thinking or, to state it differently, awareness about the constant construction of gender roles has not yet been established in the German children’s and young people’s theatre. This shortfall has to be taken seriously. There is need for action. This discourse has to be taken up.
      Questions of gender are very much in the eye of the public at the moment (the most recent discussion about sexism, the intense discourse about sexual orientation, in the form of marriage equality or the dabate about sexual diversity in school curiculums). This shows on the one hand society’s interest in a public discussion. On the other hand it mirrors the current power relations and the cultural battle for definatory power and representation. A productive handling of gender constructions in German children’s and young people’s literature demands that theatre makers and writers have a look at the local self-conception of children’s and young people’s literature. Iris Bierschenk describes this issue in her analysis of queerii narrative structures in Swedish young people’s literature as follows: “In the conventional definition of young people’s literature the development of a homogenous self-identity has always been the indicator for reaching maturity, young people’s literature was supposed to describe ways and aims for finding this identity. […] In connection to the changes within postmodern literature, in which not only the prevailing social depiction of young people changed but also the production of literature for young people, the concept of literature is seen as fixed and thereby contradicts the norm of literary adequacy in young people’s literature.”iii That means that in a contemporary understanding of identity in adulthood we look at a variety and a brittleness of personal identity which necessarily is portrayed in various living realities. For decades an increase in individuality and diversity of lifestyle has been observed in reality. This shows a different picture from the assumption of a complete adult identity and through that of the omnipresent idea of the ideal family. In following Bierschenk’s argumentation further children and young people do not need a special literature which helps them reach a complete identity. Children and young people are a literary target group just like any other. In literature aimed at them the permeability of identity is to be mirrored on a personal level as well as a structural level. Therefore an understanding of reality which depicts a “normal biography”iv has to be put aside.
      In most plays for young audiences the portrayal of gender roles is heteronormative. It is not the aim of this discussion to demand more lesbian or gay protagonists but to direct the attention to the construction and reconstruction of binary gender roles. Gender Studies coined the term “doing gender” which means that gender conformity is not biological. Social gender is next to biological gender (sex) an adopted category which is permantly re-enacted. It is not inborn but acquired. Therefore, boys who show fear are discredited as “girlish” or branded as “girls” because fearful behavior is connected to the “weak” female gender by society but does not have any connection to the biological understanding of the female sex. The reader will rarely find worlds in children’s and young people’s literature in which girls are the driving force. One exception to this is Andreas Steinhoefel’s novel “Beschuetzer der Diebe”. The essence of the story is the exposure of a crime by three young people, two girls and a boy, who move in a world in which single mothers, homosexual couples, estranged adults and processes of reaching independence during puberty are normality. “Normality” is an important term at this point as it does not portray the cultural and social phenoma of “single mothers” and “homosexual couples” in a problematic or stereotypical way . Instead it describes them as possible and existing lifestyles which are equal to other lifestyles.
      There is literature for children and young people which deliberately chooses LGBTTIv topics. The difficulties with most of these “reprocessing” pieces of literature can be found in the fact that they problematize homo-, bi-, trans-, or intersexual identities. They maintain the “difference” of these identities and through that determine and reinforce their “abnormality”. A direct attribution as this promotes an understanding of human behavior which does not depend on situations but on biological definition. As a consequence the audience depicts the characters’ conflicts as being based on their sexual orientation: “Hans” has got a problem because he is gay, not because he is unhappily in love; – as this could happen to anybody! Due to the lack of literature which deals with the topic of gender in theatre for children and young people we turned towards the similar discussion of “migration theatre”. Here, too, identity ascription and self-description are the centre of the argument. Especially when questioning categorization, the argumentation can be transferred to discussions of gender: Stories, which depict children as victims of violence, as searching for their identity, as victims of their social background who turn into perpetratorsvi, are criticized. As such they constantly reconstruct and enforce the discrepancy and special position of the affected characters instead of leaving the audience with some questions on their minds. The author Azar Mortavazi writes: “The production of knowledge about a certain group produces, at the same time, stereotypes, which are enforced by repetition. […] These stereotypes do not pose questions but supposedly present certainties.”vii This realization about the impact of identity ascriptions on people and on the way they look at the world become apparent to the theater professional or playwright when looking at “Othello” in Shakespeare’s drama of the same name. But the realization of the constructedness of identity and reality and the connected understanding of the way these ascriptions work is only rarely transferred to the question of gender. By using a problematic depiction of sexual diversity on stage the “difference” is reproduced as different and not as accepted norm. This is a deficit for all audiences not only for young people.
      There are two possible ways to meet these traditional gender roles. One way would be to break out of the biological labeling of sexuality through the choice of costume. That means to act against the norm in a visual way. This form of visual provocation is very common in a variety of theatres. As costumes are settled on a associative level and not necessarily on the linguistic level it is of great importance for the interpretation by the audience that the costumes are incorporated into the concept of the production. The deliberate decision as such is obvious to today’s audiences, because the text states something else than the visual appearance shows: “a man is playing a woman” or “a woman is wearing men’s clothes” etc. The logic of the visual confusion depends on the concept of the respective production. The way in which a story is visualized makes additions to the environment at the basis of the narrative possible and increases the comlexity of the portrayal. This, however, leads to the question whether there are stories which are already complex from the beginning. This kind of literature offers another way of meeting traditional gender roles. But stories like these are almost non-existent in children’s and young people’s plays.
      Iris Bierschenk includes in her analysis the temporal dimension of a non-determined, nonidentifiable personal identity which makes a finality of the search of identity obsolete: “In accordance with the narrated world the identity of the individual can only be established by telling one’s own story and it, therefore, remains dynamical and will never be final. The postmodern subject regards the search for identity as the aim in itself.”viii In society, however, the wish for finality dominates especially in connection to sexual identity. This wish is based on the imitation of conventions which make them the only successful way to follow. “The tight corset of “typically male” and “typically female” behaviour hinders the children’s development. It, for instance, leads to the fact that boys rarely pick up a book, because it is suggested to them that reading is too effeminate.”ix There is a lack of examples and points of reference for young people which portray a different and more complex reality and help them to develop unfettered. The media conveys a picture of men and women which makes the differences between “female” and “male” very clear, not only in connection to the visual difference but also to specific roles which have to be observed. The reality of other versions of identity or alternative family structures is ignored or portrayed as problematic, tragic, dysfunctional or a social failure. A rigid ascription of gender identities prevents children and young people from gaining a variety of experiences, which supposedly belong to the other gender. Even in the realm of theatre which is based on an as-if agreement between audience and actors, in which worlds, situations and characters are created, in which there is a permanent interaction of truth and pretence, even here unambiguity in respect of gender roles and sexual identity is demanded. It is not about avoiding conflict in theatre but about portraying this conflict and the interacting characters in an ambivalent way without basing them on fictional labels. The fact that animals are rarely played by living animals in theatre is widely accepted but it raises issues when a female character is played by a man or vice versa, or when the gender of a character is not obvious.x With these issues a great part of self-determination gets lost. This limit of choice is perceived as a personal need which is mirrored, amongst other things, in the suicidal rate of young homosexuals which is four times higher then that of heterosexual young people.xi Journalist Laurie Penny describes this social dimension in which a situation is reduced to one single person as follows: “In the centre of this sexist reasoning stands the notion that the body with which we are born dictates our character, our behaviour and appearance, our life’s decisions, the nature of our relationships and the work we do. Feminism holds the radical notion that this is not true. It insists on the fact that gender identity is not laid down in our genes. It is much more an emotional, personal and sexual state which can be expressed in various ways and which goes beyond the binary categories of “man”and “woman”. Feminism insists that rigid gender roles are a tyranny and that nobody, regardless of whether they are trans, cis, male, female or intersexual should be forced to conform to them in order to prove their identity, their right to exist or their value as a human being.”xii
      “Sexual diversity” and the portrayal of “queer” characters has to become normality and should not be restricted to the main characters of “problem plays” about sexual orientation. This means constructing “girls” and “boys” in a more diverse fashion and giving them more scope than the traditional array of “masculine” and “feminine” behavior and gender identity. This also implies the decision to keep a character ambiguous and allow them more room in order to deal with conflicts using the situation and the actual behavior of those involved instead of using ascriptions. It implies to choose the complexity of reality and to portray characters in a different way from traditional and stereotyped gender identities.
      We claim for our audience a children’s and young people’s theatre which deliberately deals with gender constructions and does not see them as a marginalized phenomenon.
      We want a theatre for young people which portrays the diversity and complexity of lived gender identities, which describes the differences as positive while not forgetting the social power relations.
      We need a mutual exchange, a shared discussion of the topic and its theatrical realization. We have to develop our own expertise. We all need this discussion not only the theatre for children and young people.

      Concerning identification and rolemodels in TV compare: Maya Götz (HG.): „Girls and Boys and Television. A few reminders for more gender sensitivity in children’s TV“ © 2008 Internationales Zentralinstitut für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI), Germany (
      “queer” was initially used as an insult. In the course of the homosexual movement of the 1980s the term’s change in meaning was politically motivated. Against this background and the background of feminist theory from the beginning of the 1990s “Queer Theory/Queer Studies” developed: “Queer Studies concentrate on social practices of representation and on the area of tension between culture, identity and textuality. It deals with positions instead of authentic identities and subversion of ontologies and tendencies of homogenization.” („Gay and Lesbian Studies“ Ansgar Nünning (HRSG.): Metzler Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie. Metzler : Stuttgart 2004, S. 237)
      Iris Bierschenk: Kreuz und Queer. Queere Erzählstrukturen in der schwedischen Jugendliteratur. Verlag Dr. Kovac:Hamburg 2010, S. 10ff
      In the 1960s Erik Erikson defined ego-identity as “increase of personal maturity which the individual has to have acquired at the end of adolscence in order to be prepared for the tasks of adulthood.” His phase model describes the “normal” biography as successful identity work against the background of the 1950s and 1960s.(Erik H. Erikson: Identität und Lebenszyklus, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1966)
      Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender and Intersexual; “trans” includes transgender, transsexual and trans identities
      Compare: Annett Israel: „Kulturelle Identitäten als dramatisches Ereignis. Beobachtungen aus dem Kinder- und Jugendtheater“ in: Schneider, Wolfgang (Hg.). Theater und Migration. Herausforderungen für Kulturpolitik und Theaterpraxis. Transcipt: Bielefeld 2011, S. 47ff.
      Azar Mortazavi :„Über das Bekenntnis zur Uneindeutigkeit. Die Konstruktion des ‘Anderen’ und was Theaterkunst dem entgegensetzen kann“ in: Schneider, Wolfgang (Hg.). Theater und Migration. Herausforderungen für Kulturpolitik und Theaterpraxis. Transcipt: Bielefeld 2011, S. 74
      Iris Bierschenk: ebid
      Florian Urschel-Sochaczewski is an academic assistant in the Departement of Didactics of German Language and Literature at the Freie Universität Berlin. Compare: Florian Urschel-Sochaczewski: „Stereotype. Homos kennt die Schule nicht“ im Tagesspiegel vom 24.09.2012
      Compare as well the studies by the Internationalen Zentralinstituts für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI) on the topic of “gender”
      Laurie Penny: „Fleischmarkt“. Edition Nautilus : Hamburg 2013, S. 85

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