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TYA and our political future

As I wrote about in my first blog post, many of my peers from back home have decided to focus their theatrical attention on young and/or neurodivergent audiences. In particular, my friends Maddie Rostami and Maddie Napel, students at Northwestern, are on theatre boards of student-run companies that specifically make work that is TYA (theatre for young audiences), with classroom curriculum that also places an emphasis on young people in the arts. I didn’t really know what that meant beyond the summer camp that we all work at, where students put on a musical, and more recently plays (directed by yours truly). I saw this American Theatre article after I had written my first blog post and sort of ignored it since I had already posted this other thing, and I didn’t want to get lost in this new thing, and what was I going to do with another article about kids in theatre?? But really delving into it continues to remind me how we are more generationally linked than ever before with technology and the Internet, and how theatre has been able to help guide young people through earlier exposure to the so called “real world.”

Emma Halpern discusses the political content of TYA shows going up this season, with content that discusses gender identity, immigration, race, refugee acceptance, and more. When I directed the play Box this summer, we talked about identity and self-acceptance. These are big topics, and when I was first reading it, I was worried about its “cheese.” However, over the course of the process I realized what one commenter in the article also concluded, that TYA “shows the adults in the room how very capable the youth are at thinking through both the historical event and the applications to their contemporary lives.” Students are capable of absorbing relevant and potentially complex topics facing them today. My students welcomed conversations on neurodivergence, sexuality, eating disorders, and domestic violence. When I approached them with difficult themes, they stepped up to talk about them. It was beautiful.

Allowing students the opportunity to see drama that is geared towards an age range while still intentionally bringing them face to face with issues that all people must confront on a daily basis, we are preparing our future generation to more effectively handle the world as an older adolescent and later an adult. I have been thinking more and more of the potential of TYA in my future as a director, teacher, or writer of plays. Even though I don’t primarily identify as a playwright, I believe that I could lead classes that involve devising or adapting stories that are valuable to young people to provide them with a voice in a creative process while also allowing them to speak for themselves when confronted with the society around them.

I have been given a unique opportunity at the theatre company I work at to start this process, and the more I do, the more passionate I become about the potential in arts education. Because it is based through a theatre company, these summer programs in particular serve a certain audience, one that can pay for students to attend a high quality summer day camp in Portola Valley. While the companies mentioned in this article have outreach programs into schools, I have been thinking about the standard of creating a theatre education in elementary schools and middle schools that works specifically towards this goal, based in students’ educational setting.

Halpern’s article comes in the midst of a terrifying election season, with plays that deal directly with what our candidates are offering us as Americans. TYA takes these important political topics and gives young people the voice to express feelings and thoughts about what is going on around them. I wish that I had had more of this opportunity as I was growing up.

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