Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences: Notes from a Convening

By Greg Reiner, National Endowment for the Arts Director of Theater and Musical Theater
cover of paper program for convening with text and photo of a young man watching a performance

When we look for reasons for why we do what we do here at the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the most powerful examples comes from observing the impact that Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) has on the young people who experience it. In the course of my time here, I’ve seen firsthand and via grant proposals the powerful work that we support at theaters that serve young audiences, both onstage and through their education programs. Works such as Idris Goodwin’s adaptations of Jason Reynold’s young adult novel Ghost use the form of theater to engage and enlighten young people about complicated subjects while helping them view the world from the perspective of others. Yet I’ve observed a surprising deficit in the support for this important sector of the theater field, both from fellow funders, arts journalism, and the theater community at large. Armed with the knowledge of the potential of theater for young audiences to dramatically transform the lives of young people all over America, the theater team here at the Arts Endowment set out to bring attention to and lift up the theaters and practitioners of TYA.

In partnership with service orgs TYA/USA and Theatre Communications Group, we brought together TYA leaders and practitioners from around the country in early June, 2019 for a one day convening in Miami, entitled “Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences.” Over the course of the day, compelling research from the field was shared, new connections were made, and presentations from a diverse group of TYA leaders brought the challenges and opportunities in the field into stark focus for all involved.

Idris Goodwin, the artistic director of Stage One Family Theatre, shared his conviction that, “A true American theater invests its full powers in expanding its definition of what an American story is. . . Stories of difference are American stories…The future of TYA has to be fully committed to returning to the past, to the community around the fire being regaled with word and mask, shadow, and song, one that is inviting, and open and relevant to all people.”

Min Kahng, a playwright and composer, shared, “I imagine a future for TYA, as we all do, where every kid who comes to the theater gets to see themselves reflected back to them on stage. I’m also interested in how this affects us as artists and as theater makers.”

Johamy Morales, director of education for Seattle Children’s Theatre, inspired the group with her proposal to “envision a TYA world where we start to attend to all of those ecosystems by building curiosity and challenging one another, with an open heart and empathy... empowering our youth through knowledge." She went on to say, "It is our obligation to create those nurturing environments, and it is our obligation to challenge our children with difficult conversations on themes that they are having to deal with on an everyday basis. I invite you all to be a part of this vision, to create it with me, and to help propel us into the new, extraordinary possibilities of our new TYA ecosystem, that includes our youth’s voices, loud and proud.”

And finally, Mary Rose Lloyd, the senior director of artistic programming for New Victory Theater, concluded her presentation by sharing her view that “I don’t think it’s provocative to equate the world of TYA with a better, more peaceful world.”

One piece from the research presented by the New Victory Theatre, which tracked students from low-income schools in their arts engagement program particularly struck me, and stays with me now as a touchstone for the importance of continuing to move this work forward. While the research presents the expected range of data and numbers on the practical effects of experiencing theater and the arts at a young age, there was an unexpected result measured in the participating students: an increase in hope.

In response to the statements “I believe I will graduate from high school,” and “I can imagine what life is like for others,” the number of students who agreed “yes” increased by an astonishing percentage. While the program wasn’t designed with this outcome in mind, Lindsey Maliekiel of the New Victory Theatre has a theory for this result: “We think as you raise kids’ ability to think about lives other than their own, and simultaneously raise their ability to practice their own imaginative skillsets, you raise their ability to be able to say ‘what if?’” she said, “and that changes their own hopefulness for their future.”

This is just a snapshot of the robust discussion that took place during the convening. I look forward to sharing our full report this fall. The report by Emma Halpern will include a detailed breakdown of the convening, datasets of the research shared, and first-person case studies from the field.