“It’s only a show.” “It’s just children’s theatre.” “It will be cute.”
As someone who has been creating theatre with and for young people for almost a decade, those sentiments, and many more like them, are not just a pet peeve of mine- they’re fighting words. Much like other adages and practices around pedagogy that I have taken issue with in the past (read: beginning dance teachers teaching beginners alone, women only being able to teach children in many churches), these make zero sense. I find them irresponsible and dangerous.
Yet, these are things I get told when I hold my students (and other children’s theatre productions, I’ll be honest, I’m judgey) to professional standards. Not in terms of performances, although there are some VERY talented children out there. I mean in respect to color-conscious casting and culturally appropriate show selection. Actually, I hold them to a higher-than-most-professionals standard, because there are some theatres and theatre professionals who do a TERRIBLE job of this. I hold them to a formational, educational standard.
In children’s theatre, we are encountering these young humans while they are still learning. Heck, I work in a school. My job is literally to be an educator. As such, I want my students to learn as they are involved in theatre. And, not just theatrical skills. Rather, I want them to learn the traits theatre and the arts are so uniquely suited to develop: perspective, empathy, collaboration, ensemble attitude. Unfortunately, when we tell stories that are not ours to tell, what we teach is that other cultures are here for our entertainment; cultural appropriation is okay, as long as it’s cute; and/or that the performing arts are exempt from the standards we hold for culturally responsive teaching and pedagogy in our classrooms.
As theatre teachers, it’s really time to do better. Because, the arts are underfunded, under-appreciated, and usually just seen as outlets for self-absorbed humans.. When one of us does something that is irresponsible, questionable, harmful, or just unprofessional, you put all of us under that label with you. For the sake of our own field, we have to do better. For the sake of our students, we have to do better. As Tonia Sina told us in our IDI training, “when you know better, you do better”.
This mentality, this lack of ethical art, in the name of kids just having fun, is harming all of us- as educators and artists, and our communities. Can we please find a way to have integrity AND be creative? I really don’t think it’s impossible. I do think it will take some work. Some diligent planning of rehearsal time to be sure to include dramaturgy on the culture, time period, social issues of a given show. Some hard choices being made when a show will pigeon-hole certain actors into caricatures of their race/orientation/gender. Some long discussions with students on why we can’t, in our population do certain shows. Based on this past weekend’s Twitter explosion of a high school performing Alien, a discussion on copyright and creative ownership is needed as well….
When I allow “it’s just a [children’s] show” or the entertainment factor to be my driving force for selecting a show, I ignore my responsibilities as an educator AND as an artist. Now, I don’t think any children’s theatre director (particularly one in a school) sets out to explicitly teach children these things. Nor are they explicitly taught. However, our choices set these examples for our children and their families, and will help them develop their own approach to the consumption of art, as participant or spectator. We also inform their approach to Others who are different from them. We can teach them openness, inquiry, and to find common ground while enjoying differences, as art is a common expression of humanity searching for and expressing meaning. Or, we can give them Other as Spectacle, as entertainment or caricature.
When we, as the as experts in children’s theatre or theatre education, make irresponsible choices we undercut the power we purport theatre to possess. When we make a choice based purely on cast size or title recognition, we make it all the harder for arts educators in every discipline (not just ourselves in theatre) to be taken seriously. We fulfill the outside world’s stereotype of “Oh, you teach theatre? That must be fun…”. We denigrate our ability to do our actual job of shaping the minds and lives of young people.
Responsible, ethical choices are not always easy to make. It is probably easier to do the show-in-a-box. It is probably easier to do a show you’ve done before, the way you’ve always done it. But easy isn’t always right. Easy doesn’t always carry the integrity we know we are capable of.
This world needs truth-telling theatre. This world needs audiences who recognize the power of the theatre, and artists capable of wielding it. We don’t need “just a kids’ show”.