Theatre for Young Audiences in Canada

The following article was written for TYA Today magazine (September 2009).

“Children are the only reasonably sane audience.”
– Maurice Sendak

It is a pleasure to briefly introduce you to Theatre For Young Audiences (TYA) in Canada.  I have been actively involved in the field since 1976, during which time I have founded two TYA theatres that are now established cultural assets in my region (Ontario).  I mention this because it reveals that we are still a pioneering culture.  I am the first generation of theatre artists to make a living exclusively from children’s theatre.  We lack the rich tradition and history of theatre going and theatre creation that exists in Europe but we are also free to create new traditions that fit our geography, our economy and our audience.

Before I write another word I must make a disclaimer.  I speak English, I live in Toronto and I am of European descent.  To any Canadian, there are many significant cultural messages in that statement.  First of all, it means I do not live in the province of Quebec which has a very different, French language culture.  The theatre they create for young people has evolved in very different ways.  My remarks will deal with TYA in English Canada generally and my work at Roseneath Theatre specifically.  The fact that I live in Toronto means I live in the richest city in the richest and most populous province.  The fact that I am of European descent means that I am in a minority in Toronto which is one of the most multi-cultural communities in the world.  It is not uncommon for an elementary school to have children speaking eighty different languages.  And finally, living in Toronto means I am 4,400 kilometres away from my colleagues in Vancouver, British Columbia and 1,800 kilometres from my colleagues in Windsor, Nova Scotia.  It is rare that I see these colleagues and rarer still that I see their work.  However, there is a growing spirit of co-operation among this small theatrical community so that successful productions in one region are presented in others.

The first surviving children’s theatre in Canada was Young People’s Theatre founded by Susan Rubes in 1966 in Toronto.  It was followed by a rash of theatre openings as baby boomers began to have children and wanted quality arts experiences for them.  These theatres include the Globe Theatre in 1968, the Mermaid Theatre (Nova Scotia) in 1972, Green Thumb Theatre (British Columbia) in 1975, Theatre Direct Canada which I founded in 1976 and The Manitoba Theatre for Young People (Manitoba) in 1982.  But even with that promising growth there are now only fourteen professional theatres in English Canada devoted to theatre for young audiences.  By contrast, Quebec, which only has approximately 25% of the total populations has more than twenty-five.  In Germany there are approximately one hundred and fifty.

From the start, English Canadian TYA was influenced by the Theatre In Education movement that emerged in England in the early nineteen-sixties.  Brian Way’s Theatre Centre in London influenced directly or indirectly many theatres and artists including myself.  Green Thumb Theatre found inspiration in the work of the Grips Theatre in Berlin while other theatres, particularly puppet theatres, produced adaptations of famous children’s stories.   The common element all over the country was touring.   Our practise is to create plays with a maximum cast of four actors who, with a stage manager and a simple set, tour to and perform in school gymnasiums.  Given the size of the country, the lack of theatres to perform in (hockey arenas came first!) and the convenience and economy of bringing the play to the audience, ‘school touring’, as it became known, was an instant success.  In English Canada, only one TYA theatre does not tour to schools.  A school gymnasium may appear an unlikely place to stage a play, however, I would argue that it is the most democratic form of theatre. A school audience represents every racial, national and economic group.  I also believe that seeing theatre in a familiar place is an excellent way to introduce children to theatre.  In their school, they are not distracted by the bus ride, the folding seats, the strange children from other schools but are completely focused on the play.  When my actors perform in theatres, they enjoy the comfort and prestige, but they also say that the quality of the conversation between actor and audience is more intimate and more immediate in a school setting.

The level of government subsidy through our arts councils affects our repertoire.  Subsidy can range from 30 –60 per cent of our operating budget.  By contrast, the Schauburg – Theater der Jugend, an established Mainstage TYA theatre in Munich, operates a subsidy of more than 90% whereas the Seattle Children’s Theatre in the United States operates on a public subsidy of only 2%. When subsidy is large, theatres can afford to take more risks.  Canada falls in the middle of these extremes.  Our corporate subsidy is generally low which means that performance fees, which come largely from schools, represent about 50% of our income.  This puts pressure on us to program plays with a strong pedagogy.  Quality Canadian TYA companies can be characterized by their ability to resist this pressure and program strong, character based dramas that have issues only as a backdrop if they exist at all.

Despite the hard working conditions that school touring entails there are many advantages to working in Canada.  Political or religious agendas do not affect our programming.  There is excellent support for playwrights.  95% of the TYA plays produced are by Canadian playwrights as compared to 50-60% in Germany.  In most centres there is a good to excellent pool of free lance theatre professionals who are happy to work for young audiences.

Roseneath Theatre, where I have been Artistic Director since 1999, is the largest touring theatre in our region giving 300 performances annually to 100,000 young people and their families.  This is accomplished on a budget of about $700,000 CAN.  We are very efficient!  We do five productions a year, four plays from our repertoire and one premiere.  New work is developed over a two to four year development cycle which involves dramaturgy, readings with actors and workshops with actors.  Some of our workshops even have quite elaborate  design elements to see how they interact with the performers.  We actively seek out feedback from children or youth as well as adults, other theatre professionals, teachers and specialists. A long development period  provides the playwright time to create and also to reflect.  It provides time for the director, designers and composers to develop their contribution as the project grows.  It mitigates against the short, by European standards, rehearsal period of three weeks.  It also ensures that the production will have every chance of succeed, which is essential for a theatre like ours which keeps productions in repertoire for up to six years.

Our creative goal is to create theatre that is popular, personal and artistic.  By popular I don’t mean popular theatre in the political sense.  I mean inclusive because the children in our audience represent ALL of Canadian society.  No special skill or experience, intelligence or aesthetic is a prerequisite to the appreciation of our plays.  At the same time, our work strives to be more and more sophisticated.  Indeed, when adults see our, so-called, “children’s shows” they comment on the multiple layers of meaning they have experienced and enjoyed.  The plays are personal in that they are artist driven rather than pedagogical, commercial or bound to any theatrical style.  We hope to reveal, through the theatrical imagination, the shades and colours, the tempests and calms, the humour and the suffering of our personal lives.  We limit this pursuit of the personal in one way only.  The people we serve are children.  Finally, our work is artistic in that we strive to make it imaginative, exciting and new. We strive to push the boundaries of what has been seen before, in terms of style, content or both.  We believe that young people have as rich an emotional life as adults.  They are limited in experience but their joys and heartaches, victories and defeats are felt with as much power and passion as adults.  In creating theatre for them, we try to find themes and characters that express as much of that rich, complex life as we can and then distil it into a theatrical form that is accessible.  Our theatre doesn’t solve problems.  It doesn’t even care about problems.  But because it doesn’t care, it is, paradoxically, the ideal place to explore them.  Henrik Ibsen said, “When you write, you sit in judgment on your soul”.  We strive to have that integrity inherent in our work.   It is why theatre is, and has been since the Greeks invented it, one of the most civilizing forces in the world.  Feast – not fast food. Simple – not simplistic. Involve the audience – don’t distract them.  Emotionally powerful – not superficial.  Play up, don’t play down.  These are the artistic touchstones, guiding principles and tremendous challenges of creating theatre for children.

It may seem strange, from a European perspective, to have to justify the value of theatre but in Canada, as a developing culture, these arguments are essential if Theatre for Young Audiences is to survive. We must convince the general public as well as arts councils that our work is an essential part of the aesthetic life of young people.  To do this, we must create work that answers the questions that all human beings are asking artists to explore and present them to children and youth who are hungry, starving even, for truthful and theatrical representations.  I have been, and continue to be, constantly engaged by this challenge.   Thank you.