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.  

The most innovative theater on the planet exists, without much fanfare, in the world of TYA. When “The Lion King” exploded as a big surprise on Broadway with its use of puppetry, masks and direct storytelling, TYA practitioners just sighed and smiled warmly. They'd been using such innovations effectively for years … on much tighter budgets.

Kate Rufener: The content has to be driven by young audiences/young actors. If adults are deciding everything that’s happening, that can turn off a lot of young participants. Allowing young audiences to decide the content, artistic choices and outcome has a far greater connection with the material and the process. 

Clin Eaton: I think the essential elements to making theater for young audiences intriguing is the same for any audiences.  I've had my own 8-year-old daughter sleep through a multimillion-dollar Broadway production and stay wide awake and howl with laughter with a show with no set and where the only costumes were a variety of fabric to represent different things.  

I think the energy level needs to be high for young audiences, and I also think you sink or swim with the first 10 minutes: If you grab them at the beginning, you got them the rest of the time.  Other than that, in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” he stated some rules that still hold true today.  He said every good play needs six elements: plot, crucial for holding young audiences' attention; character, both kids and adults love heroes and villains; dialogue; sound, easy in a musical and fun if the kids get to participate in some way; spectacle, a different meaning than today (give them something visual to look at, and sometimes, it can be a simple piece of colored fabric); and thought, what is the message of the piece?  Does it teach anything?

Ryan Radebaugh: You cannot play down to kids — or their parents. The show must be witty and truthful. We direct our actors to give honest, real performances because the audience will see through them if they don't. The show needs to be something that adults will enjoy as much as their kids. We try to throw in popular culture references that adults will laugh at, but the kids might not quite get. For example, in our “Aladdin” production, we threw in the Spanish translation of “Remain seated, please” from the Matterhorn bobsleds recorded spiel at Disneyland. Adults got a kick out of it and having moments like that hopefully make sitting through an all-youth show a little less painful for them.  

Penelope Marantz Caywood: Ultimately, a TYA production should function just like any other professional theater production, but the emphasis should be on the educational process. 

Creating theater for young people should involve and impact the youth in the community. I like to talk to my students, teachers and parents before I select shows for an upcoming season. We talk about what is going on in the world, what messages they think are important, what stories they have read. These conversations may not always directly impact the production season, but they can collectively identify themes and needs of the community.    

Young members of the community should gather together to create a product to be enjoyed as both a creative process and an artistic product. Exploration of the theatrical art form should happen on stage as well as behind the scenes. In my TYA productions, our young actors have the opportunity to help write music, create set designs, stage manage, build sets, sew costumes, musically direct, choreograph, etc. We encourage and surround students with professionals that can mentor them through the exploration of another facet of theater. 

For more information on local TYA productions, visit:

BYU’s Young Theatre Workshops, ce.byu.edu/cw/theatre

Egyptian Theatre Company’s YouTheatre, egyptiantheatrecompany.org/youtheatre

Grand Theatre’s Grand Youth Program, grandyouth.org

Hale Center Theater Orem’s Youth Theater School, haletheater.org/education

Hale Centre Theatre West Valley’s Access Theatre Education, hct.org

University of Utah Youth Theatre, youththeatre.utah.edu

Utah Children’s Theatre, uctheatre.org

UVU’s Noorda TheatreCenter for Children, noordatheatrecenter.com

Blair Howell's exposure to TYA began with his wife, Lori Guiver-Howell, who for several years toured across the Western states performing children's theater with the renowned but sadly defunct The Imagination Company.

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