Young people ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Young people

One of my minor obsessions is the question: what about theatre for young people? Theatre for children and young adults is generally marginalised as a minority sport. Being a keen reader of children's fiction, I know that some of the work written for young people is as fine as anything written for "grown ups" (try Alan Garner, Sonya Hartnett, David Almond or Alice Hoffman). And so it is with theatre.

In our culture, theatre for young people is either hived off into specialist companies - not that I mean to dismiss what can be wonderful work - or into educational programs. What doesn't happen in any of our major companies is main stage programming of work that is specifically made for young people: that is, a sense that this theatre audience is taken seriously.

Yet this happens routinely in Europe, where major companies commonly program plays for young people alongside their productions of Kleist or Euripides. The National Theatre in London puts on a massive production for children each year (most recently, a very successful adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel Warhorse). Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I can't remember the MTC, for example, ever putting a show for children into its mainstage programming. (Update: I was mistaken, as a commenter below points out). Last year the Malthouse came close with their production of Stephen Page's Kin, which I saw with a lot of children in the audience, and it made me wonder why more of this kind of programming doesn't happen.

It's not as if there are not beautiful works written for young people. To take a couple of English writers, try David Almond's Wild Boy, Wild Girl, or the extraordinarily lyrical The Lost Child by Mike Kenny (who is, oddly, extremely popular in France). There's no reason why theatre for young people ought not to be as artful and profound as theatre for anyone else; and to me it seems like such a strange oversight. Young people are, after all, every theatre's future audience.

We can't just leave the anklebiters to the Wiggles. I deeply worry that all the smart young adolescents I know hang out at art galleries and concerts, and scarcely ever think about going to the theatre; they are literate, sometimes scarily so, in film, visual art and music, but not in theatre. (My children are an exception, because they've been indoctrinated).

There is, of course, a lot more to say about all this, and some of those who ought to be saying things are young people themselves. Which brings me to Theatargh, a new blog started by 19 year old arts/law student Chris Summers which promises "thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes". He aims, he says, to explore "youth and emerging forms of theatre". The blogosphere is of course full of startlingly young persons who make me feel like Methusaleh (hi there Avi and Matt) but Chris is highlighting an area that is sadly overlooked. And he's made an excellent beginning with an interview with Platform Youth Theatre's Nadja Kostich on her upcoming show Tenderness.


Born Dancin' said...

Great post Alison; I hope it starts a fine discussion. I guess the first question centres on the distinction between theatre for young people and everything else. This is something more thoroughly nutted-out in the literary world; I suspect it's murkier when it comes to performance.

I saw a few great kids shows over the holidays - great experiences rather than 'great theatre'. La Mama and some smaller companies routinely program plays on the VCE syllabus. And companies such as Arena are geared towards younger audiences. But as you say, there's a certain marginalisation going on - an MTC show for children would be a surprise.

But the Malthouse production of Kin should have attracted bigger groups of kids and families than it did, and I wonder if 'youth' theatre has that certain air that ghettoises any theatre with a prefix. Does it connote something else - simplification? Sanitisation? Worthiness?

In any case, a sophisticated show for children would be welcome hereabouts, but is there the audience? I wouldn't know.

Alison Croggon said...

It's sort of nutted out in the book world, although children's fiction still gets minority status in the wider world of literature, sometimes very unjustly, as in the authors I point to above.

Yes, it's tricky. I guess part of the problem is that there are at least three definable audiences with different needs - the very young (and there are quite a few programs for them), children around 6-12, and 12 plus. Though there are all sorts of possible divisions. I guess I'm thinking that the 12-plus YA audience in particular is neglected, and surely that's a crucial target if you want those young adults to grow up with the idea that theatre is an interesting place to be. Of course there's a potential audience, but as a culture it's fairly rare to take children to the theatre as opposed to, say, taking them to see movies. And education does in fact have a role to play in this: not theatre as education, which is unfortunately how it's most often presented, but education about theatre. I wonder if MTC subscribers would go for a children's show? Certainly the National Theatre shows have attracted lot of adults.

Anonymous said...

The last show for young people that the MTC presented was I believe an adaptation of Morris Gleitzman's book Second Childhood in 2001 at the Fairfax Studio (co-production with Hothouse Theatre). There have I think been a couple before then but even further back. I agree with you that programming of the MTC (and other State Theatre companies) could be more adventurous especialliy in its presentaion of work for young audiences - but to clarify, the MTC have produced work and on the 'mainstage'.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, anon. How did it go? Ie, was there a response?

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
Very good post, very relevant as there is an argument that theatre is going/has gone, the way of Opera - a 'high' art for the culture vultures closeted away from the masses(I don't mind opera myself, but I digress). I remember seeing Peter and Wolf in primary school and being absolutely entranced by the whole thing - starting a love of theatre.
I guess these days youth are more sophisticated (as to exposure and knowledge of electronic media) and largely uninitiated by the 'magic' of theatre, they may think it an 'old' person's past time - like sitting around the fire listening to stories...
I guess thats part of it, they (children)are developing their characters and thus a world view through a narrative, thats why great children's literature has such an impact on us - they transport us to story - narrative in ALL its forms modern and classical. In a world of Facebook and Xbox - where can children delve into the irrational, the danger of a story?


Kathleen said...


After reading this post I must say I agree with you on everything you're talking about. I live in an area in the US that's full of rich, vibrant theatre but I hardly see anything that is directed towards a young audience.

I don't understand it myself. If adults can enjoy good theater, why can't the kids? There are plenty of plays out there. And heck, plenty of playwrights that maybe can have a notion of actually creating new material. But what I'm noticing as well, and someone noted this on my own blog, is that people want to resort to the old and familiar, especially for financial reasons.

My college actually happened to do a Theater For Young Audiences play this past semester. The play's called: "King Stag." While they performed it for our college, they actually went to a neighboring high school and performed the play. It seemed to be a success.

So maybe there's hope in this idea... Maybe to see more young audience plays...We have to start with the young theater companies. As you said, kids are our future audience-goers. I personally still believe theater is alive and well. Kids just aren't paying attention because they've got their computers in front of them to keep them busy...

While i'm hopeful for some fresh, new material in this area, Theatre for Young Audiences has a plethora of material to choose from and all it needs to be brought up to children again is a little push. Very good post!