On Art and ‘Ought’: Three Questions for Educational Theatre Maverick Tony Graham

Tony Graham, a visiting professor in Steinhardt’s educational theatre program, is the chair of the NYU Forum on Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).  On April 27, the forum will convene, “Which Way TYA?  New Directions for Theatre for Young Audiences,” a two day conference that will take a broad look at the past, present, and future of the field through the eyes of its artists, directors, writers, and audiences.

Graham hails from London, where he served as the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre for Children. Under his direction, the company became world renowned for its high quality productions, adventurous programming, commitment to education, and full-time acting ensemble.

What is an average day like for an artist-in-residence in Steinhardt’s educational theatre department?

Wonderfully, there’s no such thing as an average day. Take today, for example. It began with a masters student, who takes my class, seeking help with her playwriting. We talked about plays that are driven by plot and those driven by character. Her plays tend to fall into the latter category. We sat in the sunny square – my English prejudices can’t quite accept that it’s a park; a piazza maybe – and our discussion ranged from dramaturgy to tales from Kansas to how to navigate an artistic future. Can anyone be a great director and designer, for example?

From there, I moved onto another meeting in a nearby cafe with a doctoral student. This time, we considered the potential for a theatre partnership with disciplines such as architecture and mathematics. As artistic boundaries are breaking down, bigger questions of aesthetic knowledge arise. We also talked about the shackles imposed by the category of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA). It is low status, under-resourced, and can be beset by bad practice and a poor reputation. At the same time, it has gained in artistic credibility in the last period and has attracted interest because it raises such radical questions about the nature of theatre. Young audiences bring something else to the party. We agreed, I think, that TYA hangs on the issue of ‘a child’s perspective’ and that this therefore requires special attention and expertise in repertoire, method and sensibility. At the same time, it’s theatre. It’s like any other theatre experience except that our audiences are younger. It’s imperative therefore that we employ the best theatre artists. We also explored the possibility of ‘theatre for babies.’ Despite my skepticism, ‘theatre for babies’ raises all the most basic question of why and what theatre is. When language, when narrative, when do we make contact, how?  And that was the morning gone.

Other days find me teaching my class, helping to organize the forum, learning how the department manages its multiple commitments. In January and February, I directed YIKES! by Bryony Lavery at the Provincetown Playhouse featuring NYU students.

How do adults and children differ as audience members?  Do they come to the theatre with different expectations?

Adults choose to go the theatre. Children rarely do.  Some are brought there by teachers or parents. This is where our problems often start. I wish that ALL children, as a right, could experience theatre a few times a year, along with live music, art, and dance. Children need opportunities to participate in and experience a high quality cultural life. The United Nations has a charter where it states that all children have a right to culture. Is to deprive children of cultural experience any worse than depriving them of air, food, shelter and security? Without play and aesthetics, children’s inner lives can shrivel up and die. But of course this is invisible, although the effect is often all too visible — lack of empathy, less able to express, watch and listen. Governments should be ashamed for not putting arts education at the top of their agenda. In all seriousness, what is more important to all our futures? But I’m off the question here. Children do bring something fresh to the theatre experience. But this demands a great deal from those who work in this field. If we are to make real, meaningful contact with young audiences we have to be honest – and this can prove to be challenging.

Children have a sixth sense when it comes to theatre. They know when you’re moralizing, when you’re trying to ‘teach’ them something, when you’re glossing over things. They recognize deception because this is all too often what they experience in life. On the other hand, offer children a truthful, complex, dark where it needs to be dark, reflection of life, and they will pay more attention than any adult audience I have ever observed. Anyone who thinks children are ‘innocent’ cannot have spent much time with children. Less experienced, certainly. But with a broad and growing emotional intelligence and perception from the moment they are born. Of course, it is important that we present them with hope. Children do not and cannot have the same experience as adults. They cannot distance themselves from the drama in the same way we do. We need to protect them into emotion not away from it.

One of the questions you’ll be discussing at the conference next week is how much theatre is driven by ‘ought’ and how much by ‘art.’  Are you on the ‘ought’ or the ‘art’ side?

Who would even own up to being on the ‘ought’ side? But think about it. Teachers and educational authorities will often decree what children should and shouldn’t learn and at what stage of their development. Parents will, understandably, want to protect their children and shield them. These are not problems for adult theatre makers. But anyone who makes theatre for children has to consider the boundaries of taste and the moral dimension. A great Swedish theatre maker, Suzanne Osten, argues that nothing we do on the stage can ever be as hard, complicated, oppressive and challenging as life itself. And our children can experience shocking things: war, civil war, natural disaster and so on. Even or maybe especially in so-called ‘civilized’ societies, millions of our children have to protect themselves from warring and hopeless parenting, poverty, bullying, racial and sexual abuse and discrimination. What right have we to pretend that life is all sunshine and light? Artists have a responsibility to tell it like it is, albeit through metaphor. The key thing is that we consider the child’s perspective, to offer them a way in, to create a safe haven in order to explore the danger and daftness. To try to find a way to be truthful AND hopeful.

Children love it when we take them seriously. They often won’t forgive us if we don’t. Sometimes, when we get it right, theatre is the only place where children can see that they are not alone. Not because of some moralizing drivel but because what we portray is what life feels like to them in all its beautiful, complicated, messy, vulnerable, hysterically absurd and funny imperfection. To translate this into a joyous, rich experience for our young audiences requires not moralizers but artists.

Learn more about the conference by visiting TYA’s blog.

(Photo:  Tony Graham by Lisa Barnard; Trusty Theatre Company’s The Little One and the Sea of Letters, Leah Reddy; Pierre Bismuth & Stefan Brüggemann – Shallow, 2010.)