A National Perspective of Theatre for Young Audiences

Mirror Image Arts is a theatre for young audiences, simply stated, we work for and with young people. Here, Sam Provenzano, an alumni artist of Mirror Image Arts, shares an international perspective.

I recently came back to the U.S. from two weeks in Cape Town, South Africa where I attended an international Theatre for Young Audiences festival. Over 50 pieces from around the world gathered to share their work with their international colleagues over the course of 12 days. I saw some of the most life-changing theatre I have ever seen, regardless of intended audience. But the fact that all of these pieces were specifically crafted for young audience members made them that much more important.

Some of the pieces brought to South Africa were highly political and complex. These works were profound because they were complicating issues and were inviting the young audience to enjoy, challenge, and investigate the complications. One piece, a collaboration between the UK, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, was called Pim and Theo. I could not get tickets to this production but everyone who saw it was blown away. In this piece, high school age audiences enter through an installation on fascism and civil liberties, eventually ending up in the space with the characters of already dead Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh, two real-life men who were both murdered for their outspoken political beliefs and actions. The show uses live-video streaming and positions the audience to answer how far they would go to protect someone else’s rights. Here is a trailer for the piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqnpfIH8oqA

http://www.pimandtheo.com/

My favorite piece by far was a South African George Orwell’s Animal Farm by a company called Shakexperience based in Johannesburg. This piece had six women performers who transformed into various animals and human through the use of simple props and costumes pieces with base costumes as guerilla-style fatigues. The transitions and storytelling were uniquely South African, as many audience members around me would burst into applause. laughter, or verbal response to what was happening on stage. What stuck with me about this production is that it did not shy away from either the humor or gruesome of reality.
Here is a video excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZaM7gO3PZk

The only piece from the U.S. was called Seedfolk from Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. This piece is a one woman show where the actor depicts multiple characters from the same neighborhood hoping to transform a rat-infested lot into something more. While this a beautiful piece, I could not help but ask myself where was the rest of the U.S. representation?

In the U.S., Theatre for Young Audiences is not given the same weight as “adult” theatre. I wonder if it has something to do with how we as a society view childhood. I attend the University of Texas at Austin and I am studying drama and theatre for youth and communities and I have a professor that continually challenges how we discuss young people. Societally, there is a default of adult. Adult being the ultimate thing one can be and young people are working to get to “Adult”. Meaning they’re not necessarily full human beings yet, but they will be at the age of 18-25. Childhood is a moment in time that is held precious, but perhaps by doing so, we ignore the complexities of a child as a human. The idea that they are already full human beings with complex thoughts and emotions worthy of complex art.

There were multiples times throughout my theatre watching in Cape Town where I thought, “No way would that be put on a U.S. stage.” During these moments though, I would look around at the young people fully engaged in whatever was happening. Because what was happening was beautiful, or dangerous, or important. As storytellers, the theatre-makers held the audience in high regard and respected their aptitude for complex stories.

My family and friends are asking what Cape Town was like. I keep giving the short answer that it was one of the most complicated places I have ever been, with extreme poverty right next to luxury living. Political unrest in the relatively recent shadow of apartheid. Unbelievable beauty at the base of one of the oldest mountains on Earth with fresh fog from the ocean covering parts of the city. Witnessing highly skilled actors delivering quality, critically engaged work for the young people of Cape Town spurs me on to continually strive to make theatre that honors young audiences as fully human.