Saturday, December 16, 2017

You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope: TYA in the Face of Darkeness

**This piece is part of a larger series of responses to TYA/USA’s Call to Action: Responding to Hate with Art and Action, written by a range of leading voices in the TYA field. Read other pieces in this series here.**

 

One of the many lies I tell my students begins with the title of the course, Playwriting For Young Audience and Young Voices. It’s sort of a short con, because the jig is up on the first day when I tell the truth: there really is no difference between writing for adults and writing for tinier humans. And then I spend the rest of the quarter proving it.

And disproving it.

Yes, the fundamentals are the same, and the idea that there are “taboo topics” for TYA is a particularly unhelpful myth, but I do believe there are a few specific considerations when writing for YA, and these considerations have primarily to do with the world our YA’s must walk back into when leaving the theater. And we want them to leave the theater! We want our newly theater-ed young audience members to feel energized, equipped, ready and wanting to go back out into the world, even when that world is big and scary. Especially when that world is big and scary.

Because that world is big and scary.

Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches by Philip Dawkins at Children’s Theatre Company ; Photo By Dan Norman

And that’s where I believe TYA differs from T(BigPeople)A. TYA has a responsibility to exercise radical HOPE.

 

And that’s where I believe TYA differs from T(BigPeople)A. TYA has a responsibility to exercise radical HOPE. While it’s perfectly acceptable—and often thrilling—to traffic in ennui, existential, pervasive dread, nihilism, scrap-booking, etc. when creating T(BigPeople)A, it’s pretty cruel to tout hopelessness to a person whose sole occupation is to concentrate on continuing to grow into an awesome adult one day. Writing a TYA piece devoid of Hope is tantamount to telling a child, “I mean, I guess you could grow up, but….why bother? It only gets worse from here.” Even if we truly believe it only gets worse, we don’t know that it will for a fact get worse for them. All we know is that it got worse for us, given our mistakes, our missteps, our failure to campaign hard enough in the swing states. Shouldn’t we invest all our energies in making sure the we equip our young ones with the tools to make it actually BETTER?

Sure, we can create the darkest worlds imaginable on stage, but we must encourage our young ones to go back out and be lights in the face darkness. We must show them, through the power of STORY, that Bravery doesn’t mean not being scared, but being scared with good reason, and persisting anyway.

We must show them, through the power of STORY, that Bravery doesn’t mean not being scared, but being scared with good reason, and persisting anyway.

In an internetly famous quote attributed to Stephen King (but more likely/accurately/probably from blogger, Robin Browne), he/she opines that “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” Whether Ms. Browne or the master of horror said it, I think what they were getting at is that one of these series is excellent TYA, and the other is…. Not. One leaves the reader with hope, and the other leaves the reader with a bad case of literary herpes.

Anyway.

Hope, is my point. Hope has to happen in TYA. Otherwise, what are we doing except trolling in the comment section of life.  

Hope. We’re not required to provide answers–thank Maude!– only the assurance that the answers are out there, and we hope the people in our audiences will find them.

“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you…And you…And you…Gotta give em hope.” –Harvey Milk

While researching for my upcoming play, The Burn, for Steppenwolf for Young Audiences, I interviewed teens about their realtionship with social media and online public spaces. Many of the teens reported being attracted to but also afraid of social media, having a love/hate relationship with it, instances of bullying. I found myself admitting to these teens often, “I’m so glad the internet didn’t exist when I was your age. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.” Then one wise young lady said to me, “You know, that’s not helpful, right? You’re basically saying our lives are much worse than yours and you can’t imagine being able to figure it out. If you can’t imagine figuring it out, what are we supposed to feel? That’s not very encouraging to all of us who are out here trying to figure it out.”

Damn.

She’s right, of course. I wasn’t approaching my subject from a place of hope. I was adulting a potentially hopeful experience. You gotta give ‘em hope.

Charm by Philip Dawkins at MCC Theatre; Photo by Joan Marcus

Something that gives me hope is to remember that TYA should more probably be TYAATF, because the YA often arrive with Their Families. People of all ages do come to TYA with their young ones. If we know that all these adults are in the audience, shouldn’t we challenge and engage them as well? I mean, they’re already in the theater!

Once, when I was a baby queer TYA playwright, I wrote to sex advice columnist, Dan Savage for his thoughts on a moral quandary I was having: Is the American Theatre only preaching to the choir? He responded:  

“There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir – it arms the choir with arguments that they can use on folks who don’t agree with [you]. And if you preach well, and you preach long and hard, your choir tends to get bigger. They’re going to leave […] and encounter people who don’t agree with [them], and when they do, they’ll be in a better position to argue with ’em.”

The adults in the TYA audience are the choir. They show up and listen to the preacher, same as everyone else in the church (only from a different vantage point). Today, thanks to excellent, readily-accessible YA films like those of Pixar, many adults in a TYA audience come expecting to be engaged along with their children. Some don’t expect it, but many are ready and listening along with their kiddos. Either way, there they are, sitting in the audience. I say challenge the chaperones. We can’t afford not to.

PREACH!

And, if we can do it in a way that provides hope, we can equip young people and their families with the desire to go back into the world and create the “Better” that we promise our kids “it gets.” We may not have the answers, but we do have the opportunity, to remind our audiences—big and small—that all hope is not yet lost.

Right?

Geez, I hope so.

 

Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches by Philip Dawkins at Children’s Theatre Company ; Photo By Dan Norman

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