In Intro to Theatre for Young Audiences with Jonathan Shmidt Chapman
By Tamara Weisz
When I started Jonathan Shmidt Chapman’s Intro to Theatre for Young Audiences class a few weeks ago, I knew that we were extremely lucky to be analyzing the world of TYA through reading some of the most incredible, thought-provoking TYA scripts out there today. Little did I know I’d be in for a treat, when two authors whose work we had been reading joined us for a lively discussion on Tuesday, October 8, 2013. As Gabriel Jason Dean and Finegan Kruckemeyer entered the room, our faces were giddy with big grins of excitement, and we were automatically greeted with a charming hello by Finegan – he’s Australian – and Gabriel, saying he was sorry not to have an accent to woo us with. Thankfully their sense of humor made us laugh and calm our nerves before delving into this exciting conversation.
Who are they?
Gabriel Jason Dean is an American playwright whose first TYA play, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño, received a lot of praise at last year’s John F. Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices conference for dealing with issues of gender identity through a humorous and compelling story. ‘Doodle’ has been work-shopped in a variety of settings, and is being made into a children’s book as we speak, but has yet to have a full professional production. Finegan Kruckemeyer is based in Australia and has had 52 of his plays performed around the world. In class, we have read two of his plays, Helena and the Journey of the Hello, and The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy. You can probably tell by all of the above play titles that these two playwrights are challenging the notions of what is children’s theatre, and we were eager to hear their opinions.
Taking Risks in a Changing Scene
Both writers are challenging norms of what we think that children can handle or understand. They believe that children are capable of exploring heavier subjects, and their plays deal with complex emotions, including sadness. Often, producers get nervous that their audiences will not understand this type of subject matter and they may think that sad moments ultimately classify a play as inappropriate – something not to be shown to children. A lot of times, adults are trying to speak for kids and it is here we realize that the problem is not with the children – it is with the adults. How do we change this conversation? How do we take risks in producing plays and trust that child audiences will go on the journey, even if it includes ups and downs? The taboo of sadness in TYA is something that both of these writers are trying to break, which is an amazing feat.
In all, Kruckemeyer said that he writes plays that he feels will resonate with audiences that bare the same humanity as him; if he can be moved towards empathy, he hopes that will resonate with anyone, regardless of their age– and in that sense, there is no difference between children and adults. If we focus on telling great stories, they will be universally understood.
Where Are We Now?
What was really inspiring was hearing both playwrights talk about working in America right now, at a time where we are on the cusp of an exciting directional change; something new is brewing in the world of TYA – we are doing some soul searching, and people are starting to realize that it is okay to take risks and challenge preconceived notions of what TYA is fundamentally. They also mentioned how amazingly collegial the TYA scene is in the States, where different people from different companies across the nation are actively in conversation about TYA’s future.
Hopes for the Future:
Kruckemeyer hopes that we stop focusing on the ‘what’ – what will the show be about? Everyone wants to know everything beforehand – can we trust our audiences? He hopes people will come experience the ‘what’ in the theatre itself, and he hopes that a lot of how’s and why’s come along with it. Dean looks forward to seeing braver choices, and stepping away from current trends (adaptations and “safe” titles). While both writers understand that there’s financial risk involved, they hope new work is created which invests in the storytellers of our generation.
Some Fun Facts:
– Did you know that Finegan Kruckemeyer has a 13 year old dramaturg that he’s been working with for years now? He says she scrutinizes his work in every aspect!
– Gabriel Jason Dean work-shopped his play, Doodle, in a middle school in Austin, TX for 6 weeks and working with children fundamentally changed the play. He believes if we trust children with the work, they may truly have something to teach us.
For more information on these playwrights, please visit:
Tamara Weisz is a graduate student in Educational Theatre in Colleges and Communities. She will continue studying new play development as a Graduate Student Observer at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices conference in 2014.