The drama of the 2016 Presidential election and its aftermath has catapulted many Americans, including theatre-makers, into a new era of activism. Of course, using theatre to teach, inspire and activate change has always been part of Theatre for Young Audiences. A recent survey of 40 TYA professionals found 77 percent who agreed or strongly agreed that, “As artists, we have a responsibility to ensure that our season programming is in direct response to what is happening in the world.” Reflective of this perspective, Youth and Activism was a featured topic by Dexter Singleton at One Theatre World 2017, and TYA/USA Executive Director Jonathan Shmidt Chapman also addressed the issue in the June 21st issue of TYA Connect.
As a playwright, dramaturg and former journalist, my theatrical interests often have led me to write works that are historic, political and/or deal with issues of social justice. I brought that perspective with me last year when I began a dialogue with Johamy Morales, Education Director for Creede Repertory Theatre. She had commissioned me to write the 2017 Young Audience Outreach Tour, which brings theatre to more than 24,000 children in underserved communities in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada. We spoke about how angry we were feeling about the blatantly racist anti-immigrant rhetoric that characterized the election, and now the Administration. Johamy is first generation Mexican-American, and although my grandparents came to America three generations ago, both of us acknowledged how much immigration has shaped us as artists.
Many of the students who are served by Creede Rep’s Young Audience Outreach Tour also are immigrants or children of immigrants, some of whom are in the US illegally. For these children, the powerlessness that Johamy and I were talking about is all too real. These kids see the news – they know about “the wall.” They hear Mexicans being called “bad hombres.” Parents of Dream Act kids fear the police and immigration authorities. They are afraid of being deported. Hate has trickled down to these innocent lives, and kids who are tan or brown or speak a language other than English are being threatened and bullied and told to go back to where they came from. We wanted to reach out to these populations with a message of resistance and hope.
We also wanted to reach the many Native American students who live in the Four Corners area with the same message: Be proud of your heritage. Resist labels and stereotypes and bullying. Instead, stand up for yourselves and your neighbors. Honor your differences. Extend a hand. Embrace each other. All people are equally valuable and important.
The result is ALBERT PORTER: BOY EXPLORER (NIÑO EXPLORADOR), a multilingual musical that honors the history, culture and diversity of the Four Corners area. When he falls into a kiva, Albert journeys back in time to learn about the people and cultures that shaped the place he lives near Delores, Colorado. His journey starts with the Ancient Ones, America’s true natives, who are considered by the Pueblo tribes to be their ancestral people. Along the way, he encounters other Native Americans as well as European immigrants and learns his own family’s history with the bracero program that recruited Mexicans to work on American farms during and for 20 years after World War II. Albert realizes that his land is filled with rich stories of diverse people who lived there before him, and that we are all connected.
As the creative team begins its journey in making ALBERT PORTER a reality, we’re beginning to imagine ways in which our production choices also can break down barriers and challenge dominant normative paradigms in the children’s theatre. For example, rather than define a border between actors and students, we will present ALBERT PORTER in the round to reinforce the notion of oneness in the storytelling circle and create a more inclusive environment for everyone participating in the process. Actors will transform between characters not behind a curtain but as part of the performative experience. When Albert’s abuela shares the story of her family history, she will do so in the space occupied by the students and invite them to participate by playing various family members. As these abuelas, abuelos, madres and padres travel long distances for work and come together by crossing borders, students will move around and really feel the ebb and flow of migration in time and space.
A poster hangs near my writing desk that I have had since I was in college in the early 1980s. It’s a woodcut print of women of various ethnicities with their arms raised in defiance. The words read: “Break the Chains! Unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution!” Writing for children’s theatre is a quiet act of resistance compared to overt socio-political protest, but the seed of resistance is the same. For me that is the seed of fury, and I hear it in voices of the oppressed – including children – that must not be silenced.
Children are not simply small adults – they have different needs, interests and levels of sophistication and understanding – but they shouldn’t be excluded from the socio-political dialogue that shapes their future. On the contrary, it is imperative that TYA embrace the geopolitical and social issues that impact children. And while doing so may feel risky, it’s easy to take baby steps in that direction without alienating audiences (or donors).
First, investigate the topics that are important to your community. In Creede, issues of immigration and racism quickly surfaced with just a little online research into the people and politics of the area. Topics of interest in your community may include violence, environmental preservation, pollution or poverty. Online resources that I find helpful in researching community concerns are census data, maps, city and county annual reports, local newspapers, and of course, school district curricula.
Next, identify new plays and playwrights who are writing the kind of material you hope to present. One online resource is the New Play Exchange, which, for a very small fee, you can filter plays for young audiences and then search them by subject. If you don’t find precisely what you want, but you find a playwright you like, reach out; playwrights long to be in dialogue with theatres, and often are happy to be asked to write a commissioned or spec piece.
Finally, be up front with your board and other stakeholders about your intentions. Start a dialogue about why you want to produce work that may challenge children to think differently about their world. Lay the foundation for ongoing communication to handle pushback that may come from stakeholders who have concerns about your artistic vision. Be sensitive to those concerns and address them respectfully.
Next year in Creede, we’re tackling issues about consumption and climate change, and we’ve already begun talking about potential minefields. Honest dialogue early in the process and ongoing communication with board members, parents, teachers, and donors can help you honor your commitment to using TYA as a form of resistance and to make positive change without alienating your base of support.
Remember, the job of a non-profit board is not to reach 100 percent agreement all the time. A strong board – and, likewise, a strong community – is one that can embrace diverse points of view and respectfully host dialogue about difficult issues. Communal conversation sparked by your theatre reflects true democracy and creates yet another a powerful lesson for young audiences about what really makes America great.
A version of this essay originally appeared on The Lark Theatre blog.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TYA/USA.