Sarah Grimke works in performance of all types in the Philadelphia region. They’ve been on stage, backstage, and in the office for years now.
In my pockets:
If you’ve ever watched or worked in children’s theatre aka Theatre for Young Audiences (if you will, TYA), you’ve probably noticed some real problems with it.
Here are my top 3:
- The scripts are terrible! I once read a retelling of Peter Pan where the scene just stopped in the middle with absolutely no explanation and picked up somewhere else. IT WAS THE MOST PRODUCED VERSION. Even with such an obvious error, it was less terrible than the rest. Directors just covered it up with movement and added dialogue. If you ever want to be a playwright and don’t know what to do, just write good TYA. You’ll get produced immediately.
- It talks down to children, assuming they can’t follow almost any level of plot.
- It is most frequently based on the same problematic and biased children’s books and fairy tales we shudder about when we look back now. Lots of rescued princesses, mysticized people of color, strange morality, and lots of white characters with male heroes.
Our children deserve better.
If you are a part of the Philadelphia Performance Community (PPC, if you will), you’ve probably already gotten this advice, but just in case, here it is again.
Go see Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) at the Arden Theatre and try to go for a 10am weekday matinee.
There are many reasons for this. Here are my top 3.
- The Arden treats Theatre for Young Audiences with great respect, giving them the same budgets and designers and performers that they use for their mainstage Theatre for Fully Grown Audiences (TFGA, if you will).
- Going to a weekday matinee means you are going with school groups = about 15 kids to everyone adult.
- Kids have zero audience shame.
Even if you don’t care what the story is, even if you don’t particularly like children, you’ll be changed by it.
This writing is particularly about The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (TSCM, if you will), the Arden’s most recent offering in TYA, but this is also sort of a reaction to TYA in general and especially at the Arden.
And maybe art and theatre in general.
WHOA! I know! Crazy leap, right? Hold on, friends. I’ll get there!
Another Bonaly writer the other day told us all how tired they were of people using “diversity” to only mean casting. Their point was that true diversity includes the audience, designers, cast, administrators and anyone else involved in the organization. It isn’t enough to cast diversely if your audience is still homogenous, if your admin team and your designers are homogenous. If you embrace diversity as a mission for your organization, you have to do more.
Diversity noun, di·ver·si·ty \də-ˈvər-sə-tē, dī-\
- : the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.
- : the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization
If your art is being made by and for predominantly one group of people, a small touch of difference put forth in the most obvious way you have at your disposal does not make you diverse. Show me your playwrights of color. Show me your female directors. Show me your economically heterogeneous audiences. Show me your queer Managing Directors of color before you dare call yourself diverse. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Casting is the bare minimum. We can do better.
In the Arden’s case, I can’t praise everything, but I can say they have invested in their audience. Through a program called Arden for All, they reach out to the schools where the parents and the school itself are less likely to have expendable income, and they invite them in. They get free tickets, free copies of the books the play is based on, a teaching artist in the classroom, and buses to and from the show. The Arden is looking at the big picture here. They are creating a more diverse audience. Diverse in class, race, culture, background. Truly diverse.
And they complement the diverse audience with diverse casting.
This is where going to a matinee comes into play. I walked into a theatre filled with 8-10 year olds. About half were from a lovely private Quaker school, and half were from a North Philadelphia public school. It was the most diverse theatre audience I had ever seen. Class, race, gender presentation- all of it.
They were all losing their g-d minds singing along loudly to the pre-show music (shout-out to sound designer Mike Kiley for bringing the Top 40 anthems so that I could hear 100+ 9 year olds sing Chandelier, a song about alcoholism and drug addiction, at the top of their lungs). They were laughing and yelling and singing and waiting for the show. ZERO SHAME. Those kids were living their lives. Together. They were doing it with kids from a very different world. Turns out all kids love Chandelier.
Then, the show started and the pre-show speech was delivered by actor, Doug Hara, who then told the kids what they were doing was 100% correct. Laugh! Yell! React! Enjoy it! Those kids were thrilled. He pointed to the stage manager’s booth, all decked out with lasers and a disco ball, and identified their DJ for the performance, DJ Blingwood (Katie Ringwood, a marvelous Stage Manager). She immediately played a song I am sure is really cool these days. The crowd went wild.
Then, they slowly met all the cast members. There were only 5, 2 women, 3 men. 1 man was black. The rest were white. The cast all played multiple characters with a million quick-changes and silly voices, all adored. If you don’t know, this play and book are retellings of classic fairy tales, but with a silly twist. This allows for all the terrible tropes to be removed, for instance, the princess in the Princess and the Pea based section was played by Rachel Camp, who did an entrance to Beyonce’s Run the World that will stay with me for years. That Princess was in control and playing those parents’ scheme for all it was worth. Ashton Carter’s Prince was charming, a great rapper, and had a cool as hell costume (designer Jillian Keys), and black. I watched about 50 ten-year-olds have their first crush.
Those kids gasped, laughed, ooooohhed, clapped, yelped, and danced around. Some of them got to go on stage and participate in different ways. I’ve never seen a clearer expression of Aristotelian theatre than TYA. If what I saw wasn’t ethos, pathos, and mythos, I’ve never seen it.
Those kids experienced empathy, they experienced strong emotion in a room full of people different than them, and they did it all with people they might have normally been uncomfortable in front of.
And that made me experience all of those things instead of being embarrassed. I laughed loud, shrieked with surprise, sang along. It was wonderful.
The post-show talkback and meet and greet let the kids mingle and react together. They were much more at ease after they just had the experience together. Hell, I was more at ease around all those kids.
It made me realize what theatre is so often lacking and so inappropriately full of. It lacks abandon, and it is too full of tradition. As an audience in most theatres, we all clap at certain times, we are all silent as much as possible, we all politely clap and maybe stand at the end with some polite woohoo-ing. I’ve frequently witnessed that all it takes is one loud laugher in the room to loosen up an audience. Now, imagine a room where half or more of the audience are loud laughers. It’s infectious. It’s joyful. It’s pathos at it’s purest.
Was the play intellectually stimulating? No. Was the script wonderful? No. Did it let me see these very talented actors at their full breadth and depth? Absolutely not. (Although I saw SCM and Underground Railroad Game in the same weekend, and that really puts Scott Sheppard in an amazing light.I highly recommend the experience). In fact, I had some real problems with it. However, if I learned anything in that room, it was that I had learned to take theatre too seriously all the time. Maybe it was ok to relax this once.
I left with a smile on my face.