WHAT SHOULD CHILDREN SEE?

 

Having said I don't have the right to impose my views on others, I am now going to try and describe them anyway.  The fact is that I do think I know better than most people what is appropriate for young people in the theatre.  (I should, since I am a trained professional in the field of child drama, and have studied and researched the question both formally and informally over the course of countless productions and classes.)  I said earlier that, for the sake of argument, I was assuming that individual parents have the right to decide what is best for their children.  (I put it that way because over the years I have learned that in practice some parents don't have the slightest idea what is best for their children--and I'm not just talking about the ones who chain them up in the basement.)  But even with that assumption, it is my right, and in fact my responsibility as a children's artist, to try to educate adults about children's dramatic art and the possibilities it offers for really enriching children's lives, if we can get past our own narrow definitions of appropriateness. In my view, good, "appropriate" Theatre for Young Audiences has the following characteristics:  It is about children and childhood, or about concerns that are of legitimate concern to young people.  It deals with its subject matter honestly, and it is respectful both of its material and of its audience.  It challenges and stimulates them both intellectually and emotionally.  Theatre for very young children should be fast moving and visually stimulating.  The same guidelines hold true for film and television.

 

To begin with, appropriate material for Theatre for Young Audiences is about young people.  I don't mean that every good children's play must have a child protagonist--although the vast majority of the best plays do--but good Theatre for Young Audiences addresses issues and concerns that are of importance to children.  What does it mean to grow up?  Why are some people different, and what does that mean for me?  How will I learn to control my own fate?  What if the structures that order my life--Mom and Dad, home, etc.--are impermanent?  Why is my body changing?  What is fairness and why does everybody say life isn't fair?"  These are questions that are important to children, and theatre that addresses (notice I don't say "answers") these and related questions is likely to seem vital to children.  Many playwrights speak of the "child world," or the "child space."  This is an important concept.  A playwright who is unable to recall and on some level understand his own childhood is unlikely to be good at writing for young people.  And of course, the simplest way to keep a play rooted in the "child world" is to have a child protagonist.  This seems like such a simple idea that it is a wonder it is so seldom done.  The "traditional" children's play was the ubiquitous adaptation of a fairy tale.  But few traditional European fairy tales have child protagonists or address issues of importance to children.  There are exceptions, of course, but it seems to me that the typical fairy tale protagonist is a young man or young woman, just on the verge of adulthood, who experiences his or her first love.  I am the last person who would argue that the presence of sexuality in a story is inherently harmful to children--poppycock!--but when the central issue of a story--the main dramatic question--deals with romantic (sexual) love, the story is likely to be of only marginal interest to a child who has not begun puberty.  Even many of the tales that do contain "children" are thinly veiled socializing tracts designed to foster outmoded patriarchal ideas of sexual and political place.  (On the other hand, "boogie man" tales, like the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" or "Wiley and the Hairy Man," are very real for children, as are stories of parental abandonment and personal courage like "Hansel and Gretel.")

 

In the recent trend towards adaptations of popular children's novels I see promise, because children's novelists realized a long time ago that writing for children should involve writing about real children and real children's concerns.  And it is possible to write a good children's play that does not have a child protagonist--indeed, it is sometimes necessary if one is writing a play about an important historical event.  But I don't think the literature of Theatre for Young Audiences is ever likely to really come into its own until people stop automatically associating it with adaptation and history.  Most of the playwrights I most respect have written adaptations or historical plays, but they write original stories for the stage as well, just as "adult" playwrights do.

 

In addition to dealing with subject matter of genuine interest or concern to children, "appropriate" Theatre for Young Audiences deals with its subject matter (childhood) in a manner that is honest.  By honest I mean that it presents real issues in real ways.  It does not gloss over legitimate concerns or tack false "happy endings" onto situations in the belief that children somehow cannot handle the truth.  In Suzan Zeder's Doors, the young protagonist's parents divorce despite his efforts to keep them together.  Children are not stupid.  They would not buy a different ending to the play, and even if they did, what good would it do them?  In real life, many of them will have to deal with the truth.  Characters in honest theatre do not undergo sudden, miraculous changes of heart.  Not only would children be disappointed if the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" suddenly turned nice--they wouldn't believe it.  (On the other hand, good children's theatre does include significant character development.  Characters can change, but they must change honestly.)

 

Good Theatre for Young Audiences is respectful.  By that I mean that the theatre must treat its subjects--children--as intelligent young people rather than as stupid adults.  Two of my least favorite media objects are the comic strip, "Family Circus," and the various television shows and books of the "Children Say the Darnedest Things" ilk.  (Don't get me wrong--as entertainment for adults I don't really have any legitimate objection to either of these things, but I see them as supremely inappropriate for children.)  This kind of entertainment insults children by turning their naivete into fodder for jokes.  Typically the humor centers around a child's mispronouncing or misapplying a word, on his taking a parents' instructions over-literally, with humorous results, or on his supposedly excessive concern about some issue adults understand as trivial.  "Look how silly they are!" is the prevailing theme, and if you substitute the word "cute" for the word "silly" don't expect children to feel any better about it.  This is humor at the expense of children.  It is amazing to me how many plays supposedly written for children rely on this kind of humor.  As I see it, there are only two things that can happen to a child in an audience when this kind of joke is played.  If she understands the joke--proving that she, at least, is smarter than the child onstage--she will be insulted that the playwright thinks children are so stupid.  And if she doesn't get it, then what's the point? The bottom line is that the concerns of children must be considered important in the world of the play, and the children must not be treated as stupid or silly.

 

On the other hand, respecting children also means not expecting them to know or understand things that are unreasonable.  I'm not talking about difficult concepts or ideas.  As I will say later, I think children's entertainment should challenge its audience to think and to learn.  I'm talking about situations, and especially humor, that depends for effect on prior knowledge children are unlikely to have.  The best example of this is camp.  Camp (as I understand the term) is a type of humor based largely on imitation of familiar theatrical and other media forms, and on subverting the expectations we have of those forms.  The "fractured fairy tale" is a typical example of camp, although for the purposes of this argument it is not an especially useful one, as will become clear.  A less familiar but more apposite example would be the "Banned in Boston" or "Forbidden Broadway" style of parody revues that have cropped up around the country.  This kind of humor is only funny if you recognize the originals begin parodied, and if your own emotional response to those originals is similar to those of the creators.  Don't get me wrong--I enjoy both of the institutions mentioned above.  But I wouldn't take children to see them.  When I see a giant little girl in a bad red wig bawling out, "Re-DUN-dant!  Redundant!  This song is Redundant!" I laugh, because I instantly recognize "Tomorrow" from Annie, and I, too, am sick of hearing it.  When a child sees the same performance, she may not recognize the song at all, and if she does, it may be her favorite song, so the gag falls flat.  Camp in Theatre for Young Audiences is pretty common, and usually a bad idea, because, like humor at the expense of children, it is geared towards adults.  (Of course it goes without saying that any plot point that depends on recognizing references or having prior knowledge children don't have is equally to be avoided.)

 

"Fractured fairy tales" are a special variety of camp, in that they subvert material that is familiar to children.  I have borrowed the term, "fractured fairy tales" from cartoon segments on the old "Underdog" cartoon show.  I dislike this kind of play too, as a rule, because it treats with disrespect a very important literature of childhood.  But I admit that's largely a matter of taste, since children do often enjoy the humor that comes from subverting their expectations in this manner, and there are plenty of specific examples of the type that I do enjoy.  (I love the segments from the old "Underdog" show, but "Underdog," like many cartoons from that era, was clearly never intended for children.)

 

Respect for the material, and honesty in dealing with it must be carried into the acting of Theatre for Young Audiences as well.  This is usually not an issue in children's film anymore, although it still applies to much children's television.  It is difficult to describe in writing what I mean, but everyone has seen the cliché "children's theatre acting" done by many troupes.  These performers speak in a tone of voice, and often with a facial expression, that seems to include an "Oh, my!" between every other word.  Or they speak as if they were trying to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English, is very, very deaf, or is astonishingly stupid.  Real people don't act like this, and children know they don't.  This kind of acting rings just as false for children as it does for adults.  Children's theatre is less locked into the modern realism school than is "adult" theatre--other than musical theatre--and I'm not asking performers to play naturalistically if that's at odds with the style of the play.  In fact, I find the freedom children's theatre artists feel to experiment with presentation styles refreshing.  But it is extremely important that they not "play down" to children.  (And please, God, please, if you absolutely must come out and make a little speech to the audience before a performance, about how they are expected to behave and what they will be seeing, speak to them like intelligent human beings and PLEASE don't put on a stupid bunny suit!)

 

If the material of the theatre comes from the real concerns of children, and the material is handled honestly and respectfully, one must still ask the question, just as one does in the "adult" theatre, "is this play any good?"  I'm not trying to be facetious here.  One of the reasons that there is so much bad children's theatre in the world is that adults often expect to find children's theatre simple and unchallenging, so they don't object when it is.  But I would argue that it is "inappropriate" for children to see theatre that does not aspire to the highest level of artistic, intellectual and aesthetic achievement.  In fact, I think this is a far more important concern with audiences of children than with audiences of adults, because children are in the process of forming the aesthetic judgment and artistic taste they will carry into adulthood.  If an adult sees bad theatre, he either recognizes it for what it is, or he doesn't, and it's probably too late for him.  But children can learn not to demand more.  An eminent child drama specialist once declared, "If you give children nothing but shit, eventually they will come to love shit." This problem is even worse in television and film than in the theatre, but the reasons for it are a little different. Part of the problem is that the experience of getting all dressed up and going to a real theatre to see a live play is inherently interesting and exciting no matter what actually happens on stage. Adults see a play they personally think is pretty dumb, or pretty boring, but they say to themselves, "but the kids seemed to like it." They liked it because it was more fun than NOT seeing a play, and they don't know there's more out there. I recently found another way of expressing the idea--one that doesn't rely on profanity: Just because a child will happily eat paste doesn't mean we shouldn't try to feed him nourishing food.

 

Good Theatre for Young Audiences challenges its audience to think and to feel on a deep level.  While it is important that the subject matter be pertinent to children, it does not follow that it must be simple, and it does not follow that it must be "nice."  One of the best American children's plays I know is The Yellow Boat--a true story of a young hemophiliac who dies of pediatric AIDS.  This is not a cheery, up-tempo story.  What is more, the way the story is presented is far from simple.  The ensemble cast plays many roles with very little attempt to disguise the fact.  Much of the character development and even plot development takes place through large drawings that the child, Benjamin, makes.  Colors take on meanings and individual characteristics.  Nothing is presented naturalistically.  In one truly chilling scene, we actually see, metaphorically, the HIV virus as it passes into the boy's body.  I have seen this play with audiences of children many times, in very different neighborhoods, and I can guarantee that the children do not have difficulty understanding the story, and they are not scarred for life by the honest telling of a tragic tale.  By approaching the story from the point of view of the stricken child, the playwright, David Saar (also the real-life father of the real-life Benjamin) has created a complex, layered play that is ultimately uplifting, celebrating Benjamin's life rather than mourning his death.  The children who see The Yellow Boat are deeply moved, but in a positive way.  Once, when discussing a Youth Theatre project we were creating, someone asked, "but what if it makes the children cry?"  I wanted to yell, "Great!"  Please understand:  I don't approve of scaring children senseless in the theatre.  But when adults go to the theatre and are moved to tears, we generally consider it a good thing.  Great art is supposed to make us feel.  Within reason, I see no justification for denying children this kind of profoundly ennobling experience.

 

Particularly with younger children, there is another significant consideration.  Particularly in today's world of MTV-style editing in film and television and the constant barrage of stimuli from video games and computers, young children need to be stimulated visually and aurally, as well as intellectually, if they are to stay with a performance. Stories need to move fairly quickly and efficiently.  "Talking heads" plays, no matter how brilliant, are inappropriate for young children because they cannot hold their attention.  Either the children will fidget and disturb the other patrons, which, if it is allowed, teaches them a disrespect for the theatre and for their role as audience which may be difficult to unlearn; or, if the adults around them succeed in keeping them stilled and muzzled, they learn that the theatre is a boring place to be endured, rather than a wonderful world to be discovered.

 

This does not mean, however, that the splashy, Broadway-style musical presentations favored by some large touring children's companies are the answer--at least not the only answer.  (In fact, old-style musicals, in which the songs do not advance the plot, actually move pretty slowly, which is why The Sound of Music bored me so as a child.)  I have seen companies of two or three performers, and even a few solo artists, who have kept very young children spellbound.  What it does mean is that plays for young children need to involve considerable and varied movement and sound (all of which can be created by human beings) and should move quickly, sticking fairly closely to the story.  Wandering off into side issues that do not affect the main dramatic question is usually a bad idea.  In my own experience I have discovered particularly that the climax of a play for young audiences belongs at the end, with a very short dénouement, if any.  Once the main question has been answered, the play is over as far as the audience is concerned.

 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and I have no doubt there are excellent plays for young audiences that violate some or all of my prescriptions.  The best (and only really effective) way to determine whether a play is going to appeal to a given audience is to play it for them and find out.  But parents, teachers and others are frequently in a position demanding a decision without that liberty, and I think I have provided some good "rules of thumb."

 

NEXT:  WHAT SHOULDN'T CHILDREN SEE?