Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sarah Coleman on Theatre for Young Audiences, UT: Don't Call It 'Sweet,'

Following a link provided by the Department of Theatre and Dance of the University of Texas to 'Ideas, Practices, Bright Spots' at, a journal of the theatre commons:

Don’t Call it Sweet 
March 10, 2012 | BY Sarah Coleman 

Recently, I told a well-respected artistic leader in the theater community about the MFA graduate program I am currently enrolled in—Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities at The University of Texas at Austin (UT). He responded in a dismissive tone, “that is sweet.”  A few weeks later, I sat in the lobby after The Transition of Doodle Pequeño—a play for all ages produced by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance—and listened in as fellow theater students praised, “that show was so cute!” I don’t think that a play with themes of gender identity and bullying is cute, I think it is critical. I don’t think theater with and for young people is sweet, I think it is essential.

Two months later, these moments are still rattling around in my head. Why are we compelled to use such words when describing theater with and for youth? What is the lasting impact of these descriptions on our perception of Theater for Young Audiences (TYA), theater education and applied theater?

Let’s start here. What is theater with and for youth? It is theater education—programming and curriculum that introduces, teaches and trains young people in the art and craft of theater. It is applied theater, where theater is used as a form of communication and storytelling in non-theatrical spaces from classrooms to prisons. It is Theater for Young Audiences—a genre of theater created specifically for young people.

What is implied when theater with and for youth is consistently (and dismissively) referred to as 'sweet' or 'cute'?

It insinuates that we do not think theater with and for youth is “real” theater, that TYA is less rigorous and a less important form in comparison to “professional” theater. Theater for youth is rarely considered artistically equal with theater for adults. Maybe this has its roots in the lower pay of an Actor’s Equity contract for TYA productions. Or maybe it is because adults do not view young people as individuals who need or desire challenging or innovative art. Or maybe both. In the Victorian era, childhood became defined as a time of innocence when young people were purposely sheltered from the reality of adulthood. These sentiments are still very present in how we view childhood and youth. What results is an assumption and attitude that someone under the age of eighteen does not really know what she wants, likes or needs. This posturing translates to a belief that theater for youth must teach a lesson or focus on a theme crucial to child or adolescent development. And, for whatever reason, that constraint suggests artists cannot create “real” theater like they can for adults. Aren’t themes in adult plays actually lessons from a playwright? Isn’t that what art provides, a chance to share an opinion or perspective? Why do we trust that adults want plays with shades of gray, and assume that TYA needs to have a binary, a clear right and wrong? Why aren’t we challenging youth with theater created with and for them? Why are we not taking on the task of engaging youth in conversations about aesthetics and art? This dialogue has value to all artists, educators and the present and future theater community in which we belong.  Every touch between a young person and theater demonstrates an opportunity to engage a future theater artist, audience member, advocate and supporter.

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