Staging theater for youngsters that is engaging and educational

Published: Tuesday, March 18 2014 3:53 p.m. MDT

Editor’s note: Part three of a three-part series on theater for young audiences.

If your view of children’s theater is an obnoxious actor hopping on stage with large, floppy ears to portray an insufferably cute, nose-twitching bunny, you’re in for a shock.

Theater for young people can be powerful, hilarious, surprising, bold and engaging.

The now-scholarly producers of TYA, as this wholly new art form of theater for young audiences has been called, are staging works that may be based on dusty, classic literature but are re-imagined, like Utah Children’s Theatre’s “Shakespeare Festival for Kids & Adults with Short Attention Spans.” Or it’s a sparkling view of a treasured story come to life, like Salt Lake Acting Company’s “The Cat in the Hat.”

To complete this three-part series on TYA, we asked the following local experts to review the important elements of producing theater that is intriguing for youngsters: Clin Eaton, Hale Centre Theatre West Valley youth theater instructor; Teresa Dayley Love, Brigham Young University Theatre for Young Audiences director/writer/producer; John D. Newman, Utah Valley University’s Noorda Theatre Center for Children director; Penelope Marantz Caywood, University of Utah Youth Theatre artistic director; Ryan Radebaugh, Hale Center Theater Orem theater school instructor; and Kate Rufener, Grand Theatre’s Grand Youth coordinator.

John D. Newman: Quality theater for young audiences must respect the intelligence and sensitivity of children and youth. It requires absolute honesty in acting, because children expect adult actors to act with the earnestness and intensity they exhibit in their own imaginative play. Children are an ideal audience who are able to accept and embrace a variety of theatrical conventions and representations of reality. 

Good plays for young audiences are written by writers who can communicate honestly and openly with children and who haven't lost touch with the children they were, and in a very real way, still are.  

Teresa Dayley Love: Good TYA practitioners, and that includes writers, producers, designers, directors and actors, are committed to providing high-quality experiences for these people who are in such a rich, open period in their lives. They aren't all sentimental about "children."

Intriguing TYA has all the elements of intriguing theater for older audiences — challenging ideas, creative turns of thought executed in engaging theatrical language, both visual and spoken. But TYA practitioners are very attuned to how their young audiences hear and see a story. Children are as intelligent as adults.  Children just lack experience in the world, so TYA practitioners try to artfully frame the work in ways that children won't get lost in.

But do not sell kids short. Ever play Pokemon or Yugio with a child? You will have no idea what they are talking about. Yet they are able to spout statistics, characteristics, create stories and make up their own rules in ways that leave adult minds spinning. Children can handle complexity. Children, at this precious beginning of their lives, are so close to that creative "magic if" that they accept theatrical innovations very easily, as long as the "system" of the play is presented in a way that they can buy in. The most innovative theater techniques lauded by adults (color- or gender-blind casting, for example) exist in children's own make-believe worlds very comfortably. Good TYA practitioners take advantage of children's closeness to their ability to suspend disbelief and just run with it.  

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