Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Kaori Nakayama, my book The Young Audience has been translated and published in Japanese (2018).
To mark this publication the book has a new forward, in Japanese, reflecting on some of the developments in the field since the book’s first publication. This is reproduced here in English.
The Young Audience: Exploring and Enhancing Children’s Experiences of Theatre
Foreword to 2018 Japanese Translation
It is a great honour to have my book, The Young Audience, translated into another language and to have this opportunity to write a new forward to accompany its publication in Japanese. This translation is important, however, for reasons that go beyond the personal pleasure of having one’s words appear in a language that unfortunately I can neither speak nor read. It is important firstly because translation marks our commitment to the possibility of an international community, and the exchange of ideas across cultures and borders. The challenge of the translator is to translate not only the words of a text but also the concepts and experiences contained therein, which may not have immediate or direct correlations in different languages. I am therefore extremely grateful to Kaori Nakayama for initiating this edition and for doing the job – almost magical to my mind – of translating my text into Japanese.
In addition to this general value of translation and the communication of ideas across languages, it is also possible to see the publication of a translation of a work on theatre for young audience as important for a more specific reason. Namely, it acts as further demonstration of the growth and increasing respect given to this field. Theatre for young audiences is increasingly marked by its international outlook: a development support by organisations such as ASSITEJ; the presentation and reception of performances at international festivals; and through the growth of an international community of scholars and researchers. It is vital that theatre for young audiences – which is at once intimate, close to hand and about that direct connection with its audience – is also international in its practice and research; exchanging ideas, knowledge, techniques, best practice, evidence of impact and more on a global stage.
It is just over eight years since the publication of The Young Audience. Writing a foreword to this new addition therefore felt like an opportunity to reflect on developments in the field of theatre for young audience since 2010. In doing so I have been thinking about both what the book does successfully but also about areas that it did not touch upon but which have become increasingly prominent and warrant further consideration. In drawing together these reflections I contacted and talked with a number of individuals whose thinking around theatre for young audiences I know and respect – Tony Graham, Noel Jordan, Henrik Køhler, Tony Reekie and Manon van de Water – and their generously provided thoughts and responses are weaved through this discussion. The result is not a comprehensive survey, but a more partial and subjective presentation of three key areas that we might think about when considering ongoing questions of research and practice in the field of theatre for young audience. These areas are: the relationship between research and practice; questions of diversity on stage and off; and supporting audience engagement.
The Relationship between Research and Practice in Theatre for Young Audiences
In the time since the first publication of this book, I have been struck by how it has been read and found useful not only by theatre academics and but also arts practitioners. While all research publications in theatre and performance studies have the aspiration to influence practice – or at least be of relevance and interest to practitioners – there is often a fairly considerably gulf between the academy and the art world. That this gap seems narrower in the field of theatre for young audiences is both interesting and important. There are a number of possible reasons for this.
First are aspects particular to the field and signalled by the troubling proposition for. Theatre for young audiences; but made by, valued by, funded by, programmed by, and indeed researched and written about by adults. In my experience awareness of this essential relationship prompts a kind of self-reflexivity, a greater openness to the insights that are available through research, a greater sense of the need to work with audiences in an open and enquiring manner to find out what making work for audiences entails. I have conducted audience research across a spectrum of age ranges, young audiences and adults, but it has been almost exclusively with my research into young audiences that the insights have been met by practitioners with such interest and hunger to know and understand. I suspect this is because when making work for young audiences there is a fundamental not knowing – we as adults cannot fully comprehend the lived experience of children and young people – and this produces an appreciable desire to know and understand.
Second, and no doubt prompted by this first aspect, there exist organisations within the field of theatre for young audiences that recognise and support this self-reflexive attitude. This is certainly true of the two organisations I have worked with most closely with – Imaginate in Scotland and Teatercentrum in Denmark – both of which have consistently engaged with my research and that of others in a manner that is not only supportive but also genuinely engaged and curious. Imaginate were of course the original collaborating partner for the research that is presented in this book, and it is significant that their creative development programme includes the role of a research artist. Meanwhile, Teatercentrum engage with a diverse range of projects that go beyond narrow notions of audience development or marketing and are genuinely experimental and driven by a sense of enquiry – what does it mean to make, programme and promote work for young audiences? Just one example of this would be Audiences are Now, a symposium I helped co-organise with Pernille Welent Sørensen of Teatercentrum alongside the April Festival in 2016.
On the international stage, van de Water highlights the founding of ITYARN (International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network) in 2006 as an important moment when theatre for young audiences began to take research more seriously, with the goal of ‘facilitating communication and exchange between researchers and universities’ (per comm Nov 2016). Van de Water describes how this development was accompanied by an increasingly dynamic and international facing ASSITEJ under the leadership of its president Yvette Hardie and how a previously ‘fairly stilted organization was looking at new avenues for membership, new way of communicating, new ways of defining the field of theatre for young audiences, new insights on inclusion and diversity’ (per comm Nov 2016).
A further reason for the interest in the possibilities of research rests with the ‘advocacy’ agenda. Previously having labelled itself the ignored or undervalued ‘Cinderella’ of the performing arts, there has been an understandable sense that research can support arguments for the value of theatre for young audiences, bolster the case with funding bodies and aid cultural policy arguments. Noel Jordan (currently Festival Director of Imaginate) states that he is convinced the sector must and should continue to advocate for the importance of the arts in the lives of young people […] Any and all research that continues to prove the benefits of the arts in the lives and well-being of young people provides the sector with much needed research artillery to continue to fight and advocate for our position in the arts ecosystem and in the very well-being of children. (per comm Oct 2016)
Similarly Tony Graham declares that ‘we continue to need research that validates the impact of the work, both qualitatively and quantitatively, for our political masters’ a utilitarian statement that he qualities with the remark ‘But we also need research that is itself less bound by previous research norms, that can be informed by the nature of investigative, exploratory work that sits between creativity and emotional knowledge’ (per comm Sept 2016). These are valid and understandable positions and the particular current circumstances in different countries make this requirement increasingly more urgent – whether through squeezed arts funding or changing agendas and priorities in education curricula. Often these educational changes take the form of the increasing adoption of target-led curricula that leave less and less room for the more elusive, holistic kinds of learning that can occur through the arts. The exploratory research that Graham describes – and which this publication sets out to present – enables us greater insight into these kinds of affective and experiential impacts of the arts.
It is however important that the distinction between research and advocacy is maintained, otherwise there is a danger of falling into the trap where only positive findings are valued and recognised (see Johanson and Glow 2015 for an excellent discussion of this ‘virtuous circle’ in arts evaluation and research). This is something Graham recognises when he asserts that, ‘The value of research is to ask questions, and as theatre for young audiences grows ever more confident as a discipline these questions need to be critical and challenging’ (per comm Sept 2016). At the same time researchers need to ensure that they work with practitioners and programmers, to ensure that findings and insights are effectively disseminated and heard. The value and importance of research to a dynamic field of practice is asserted by van de Water, the first researcher to be part of the ASSITEJ Executive Committee, who writes that:
Research can bring to light why we do, what we do, how we do. It can put practice into context and offer alternative perspectives. It can lead to practice by trying out theories and hypotheses. It can demonstrate how the past lives on in the present and guides the future. It can reframe, recontextualize, reposition existing theories and lead to something new and exciting. It serves to move the field forwards, rather than stagnate. (per comm Nov 2016)
Very positively there does indeed seem to be a continued growth of vibrant and questioning research including – most significantly for the future – through PhD candidates choosing to focus their research on theatre for young audiences. Examples from the UK include Karian Schuitema, whose doctorial research focused on intercultural theatre for young audiences and also co-edited the 2012 Theatre for Young Audiences: A Critical Handbook, and Ben Fletcher Watson, whose research has focused on theatre for the early years. There will be other examples internationally. Such research also indicates some of the trends that we have seen in the field and which are sure to continue, which include consideration of questions of diversity, both amongst audiences and in the work placed on stage.
Diversity on and off Stage
The increasingly widely utilised description ‘theatre for young audiences’ has an important practical and identifying function. It enables us to work and think across a broad spectrum of activities and begins to form a discipline of research and practice. ‘Young audiences’ also tactfully avoids the word ‘children’, which is more restrictive both in terms of implied age and also perhaps attitude. While children as an identifier carries multiple cultural connotations (from innocence to naivity; from relationship to adults to the requirement to be cared for) young audiences is a less loaded term that primarily asserts a relationship to a performance.
At the same time the word audience can have a homogenising implication, the presumption that all audiences are the same, with the same backgrounds, experiences and responses. Equally when children and young people are primarily marked as not-being-adults, the diversity amongst young audiences can become neglected. This was not a factor I address centrally in The Young Audience, except to acknowledge it as a problematic issue in constructions of childhood. It is however a factor that needs to be considered both on and off stage, in terms of research and practice, and across a range of factors including disability, gender and sexuality, and ethnicity. As van de Water’s asserts, ‘we have to become more inclusive of our notions of what theatre for young audiences is, who its participants are and what constitutes a young audience.’
Thinking first about disability, historically perhaps the primary narrative in the context of the arts has been concerning questions of access, and ensuring the provision of ramps, induction loops, signed performances and so forth that enable disabled spectators to firstly get into the building and secondly engage with the performance as fully as possible. Australian disability arts researcher Bree Hadley describes this in terms of an attitude that providing ‘ad hoc logistical accommodations’ is ‘enough’. To this end theatres implement:
a set of standardised logistical accommodations, that allow [disabled people] to participate without disrupting, challenging or changing the theatre practices in any significant way, are thought to be ‘enough’. If a blind, deaf or otherwise disabled spectator can attend a designated session, so that their visual, physical or tactile mode of spectating can be dealt with without disrupting the pleasure of their fellow spectators, then this is thought to be ‘enough.’ (2015: 162)
Implicit within Hadley’s critique – and explicit within her discussion as a whole – is that this is far from enough. Instead she proposes that there are two further factors that should be considered: firstly that disabled spectators have the right to see portrayals of their own lived experiences on stage; secondly that greater attention should be paid to how ‘alternative modes of spectating’ might be accommodated (163). By this Hadley means considering how disability impacts on how people perceive and relate to the world. ‘In a disability theatre context,’ writes Hadley, ‘there is a clear move away from these distanced, scopic, singular modes of spectating, and towards more textured, tactile, haptic, multi-modal modes of spectatorship’ (167).
In the context of theatre for young audiences there are similar requirements and also similar potential to develop innovative and exciting forms of theatre. Indeed, this is precisely the practice of Oily Cart, who Tony Graham identifies as having spear-headed disability theatre for young audiences and as having significant impact internationally. As Tim Webb writes in an introduction to the work of Oily Cart titled ‘Impossible Audiences’:
How do you make theatre for people who are unable to see or to hear what is happening on stage? How do you put on shows for people who become very anxious when encountering new people or situations? How do you create performances for people who may not understand that this is a story and that the actors are pretending to be other people? (2012: 93)
These are vital question and the work that results is amongst the most interesting and innovative precisely because of the creative challenge of having to solve them. Other interesting work in this area, emerging from the direction of research rather than practice, includes the Imagining Autism project, led by Nicola Shaughnessy of the University of Kent. Imagining Autism had a more interventionism starting point, with ambitions to facilitate language, sociability, empathy and imagination amongst young autistic participants in immersive theatre environments. However, in its development of insights into the potential of visual and sensory environments, using puppetry, light, sound and multimedia, it is also an exemplary piece of performance practice (see http://www.imaginingautism.org).
A further and increasingly familiar phenomenon is the emergence over the last decade of ‘relaxed performances’. Sometimes also described as ‘autism friendly performances’, the relaxed performance can include making changes to levels of sensory intensity, additional training for staff and communication to the general audience that a diversity of sometimes physical and auditory responses to the performance are not only acceptable but also welcome. Ben Fletcher Watson has written about relaxed performances seeking to ‘create a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere’ (2015: 65) and thereby they begin to address something of Hadley’s requirement to facilitate ‘alternative modes of spectating.’
At the same time, of course, it is necessary to point out that these and other examples of practice and research largely remain exceptions. More needs to be done to recognise diversity within young audiences and also represent diversity on the stage itself. As Noel Jordan writes:
As a theatre sector we need to embrace and portray the diversity of our society on our stages in the widest most inclusive way. For too long the place of the ‘other’ – people of different race, sexuality, physical and intellectual perceived disabilities – have been absent from representation on our stages. This is even true of gender with male roles often exceeding those of female let alone those of intersex or the trans community. Providing positive and genuinely reflective society role models for the children and young people who make up our audiences has to be a prime focus and driver for the sector in the coming years. The TYA sector should be the leaders in this area but it is hard to find examples particularly on Western stages. (personal communication Oct 2016)
Just as questions of staging diversity should be a prime focus for practice, so too are there important questions here for researchers. Notable examples of work being done here include Karian Schuitema’s research into intercultural performances (2012). In addition there seems to be a growing focus on questions of gender and sexuality in relation to theatre for young audiences. This includes work by Manon van de Water who usefully maps the constrictive nature of some existing discourses on homosexuality within theatre for young audiences, describing how it is often ‘treated as a calamity, discreetly packaged in plays to teach lessons about tolerance’ (2012: 82). Such representations may be well meaning, but they perform a kind of ghettoization, where sexuality is only addressed in relation to victimisation or bullying. The more radical potential of theatre for young audiences is its ability to stage rethinkings of how we conceive of gender and sexuality. This possibility is presented by Lindsay Amer through her analysis of how two theatre performances, Catherine Wheel’s White and Emily Freeman’s And Then Came Tango, begin to construct a new queer normalcy, concluding:
When queer stories begin to be told and treated with the same level of normalcy with which heterosexual stories are treated, then queerness itself will then be perceived as the everyday, mundane way of life that it truly is, rather than as the inflammatory, inappropriate calamity it is still treated as today. (2016: 25)
Also worth mentioning here is the Gendersaurus Rex project, led by Imaginate Research Artist Eilidh MacAskill. This is an enquiry driven investment into the potential intersections between live performance for children and themes of gender, sexuality and difference. As a researcher whose focus has been on audience responses, I would like to see investigation into the affect and effect that such performances have on their audiences – conceiving audiences here as including not just young people but also those gatekeepers such as schools and parents who sometimes position themselves as having a role in protecting children’s assumed ‘innocence’ in matters relating to gender and sexuality. It is areas such as disability, diversity and sexuality that high quality research is most valuable, for it is here that theatre for young audiences has its most immediate potential to influence lives and change perceptions.
It’s Not Just About the Performance: Enhancing Engagement
The final theme I would like to discuss here is one continuing development that was anticipated and perhaps even accelerated by the publication of The Young Audience in 2010. This is the increasing focus on young people’s engagement with theatre as an ecological whole, rather than the performance being an considered an isolated moment in and of itself. By this I mean how the experience of theatre extends both backwards and forwards from the performance, embracing prior experiences, anticipations and the framing of the event and aftershow discussions, memories and responses.
One of the significant themes of The Young Audience was the exploration of ways in which audiences’ theatrical experience can be enhanced or extended, particularly through facilitated structures and activities such as drawing and conversation. I have since explored this further in an article, ‘The Longer Experience: Theatre for Young Audiences and Enhancing Engagement’ (Reason 2013), and it is this area that I believe my research has had its most direct and immediate impact on practice.
In 2010, the same year as the publication of the book, Imaginate produced two key resources: a publication, ‘Evaluating the Performing Arts: A Step by Step Teaching Guide’; and an interactive online resource, ‘Evaluating the Performing Arts’. Both these resources focus on encouraging young audiences to respond to performances in a reflective and critically empowered manner. They are open resources that can be applied to any production and focus not on extraction of content or curricula-related information from a performance but on engagement with the performance on its own terms. As Alice McGrath, at the time development director at Imaginate, writes in the introduction to the published resource, the aim is to facilitate discussion and debate, explore the creative process behind a performance and empower teachers and pupils to express their opinions confidently through a variety of means. Most importantly though we hope that through extending engagement with a performance, teachers’ and pupils’ imaginations are sparked and they feel open to exploring new possibilities (2010: 4)
Since then a further activity in this area has taken place in collaboration with Teatrecentrum, with whom I have produced a series of booklets under the title ‘Talking about Theatre’. These are designed to facilitate children and young people’s post-show conversations about live performance through a series of open questions or playful instructions. Each booklet has a different set of questions to produce a differently focused conversation: The Generic Conversation, The Narrative Conversation, The Performers Conversation, The Scenographic Conversation, The Sound & Music Conversation and The Experimental Conversation.
Other researchers and practitioners have been working along similar lines, with one example being ‘Theatre Experience’, undertaken by Louise Ejgod Hansen of Aarhus University in collaboration with Tine Eibye, deputy head of Randers Regional Theatre and Pernille Welent Sørensen at Teatercentrum. In an evocative description the project presents ‘an opportunity to work and “thicken” the artistic experience in a post-process, because relating to art does not come along by itself.’ This last phrase – because relating to art does not come along come along by itself – echoes my discussions of how watching theatre entails a going between of work to audience and also a return of attention, feeling and investment from the audience to the work. This investment can take varying levels of intensity, it can be critical, it can be emotional involved or intellectually detached, but without the spectator investing in the work the value of the experience to the spectator is necessarily diminished.
Henrik Køhler, director of Teatrecentrum, describes how while previously in Danish contexts it had been customary to let a performance ‘stand for itself’ there is an increasing awareness of the need to find ‘methods to open theatre experiences through before, during and after processes’ (per comm Nov 2016). Before performance processes can include what he terms ‘hooks’ that establish a sense of ‘ownership’ of the performance. An example of this is the Danish Culture Crew programme, established in 2010, where students work as organisers and hosts to theatre performance in their school or community. In some instances the Culture Crew also work to select performances and concerts, thereby further enhancing this sense of investment.
Theatre for Young Audiences Moving Forward
The range of performances and theatre practices presented to young audiences continues to develop in many exciting ways, but also in manners that raise further questions requiring reflection and research. Køhler for example notes the increasing number of site specific performances he is seeing, along with immersive performances than engage audiences sensorily. Both Køhler and Graham note the prominence of young people on stage alongside professional performers. Graham expresses concern that there is a continuing lack of quality work for older children, possibly the result of a continuing narrowing of the curriculum, writing that ‘more work is being produced for early years, less work is being targeted at especially older but also younger teenagers.’ Van de Water confirms this, describing the older teenaged audience as the ‘forgotten age group.’ Jordan notes the continued experimentation with technology in performance, extolling the possibilities while also cautioning about its potential limitations: ‘The technology itself can become the focus and leave behind the experience of those engaged as audience members’ writes Jordan. ‘It is only by seeking to use the tools at our disposal that we as theatre makers discover and share the truly exciting moments of the intersection between the live and digital experience.’ Tony Reekie similarly describes an excitement but also caution about the continued progression to what he describes as ‘the smaller, the more personal, relying on close visual and emotional engagement’. This, Reekie observes, has come at the cost of the work that can work for larger audiences:
Productions specially created to go into school environments are thinner on the ground than I can ever remember, and this seems to me an area where development will find a new balance. As our interaction with art continues to change, artists working for children will have to find new ways to interact, and that must include meeting on their ground, on their terms. Where else better than their own special cultural space, and often that of the wider community: the school. (per comm Nov 2016)
When looking at the future development of the discipline there are therefore hugely exciting possibilities, and also a range of questions. We need to consider what it means for young people to be participants within a work, and the twin possibilities of emancipation and tacit coercion that goes with that. We need to research into the audience experience of immersive theatres. We need to take seriously the questions raised by audiences with disabilities; and the audience experience of watching performers with disabilities. We need to conduct research into the nature of the representations that appear on stage, and how diversity is constructed and perceived by young audiences. We need to think about the relationship between live presence and the digital, particularly with generations of digital natives. We need to use research to construct new relationships between aesthetic and education experiences before they get separated entirely in the name of educational instrumentalism. We need to investigate how theatre can be of continued relevance and interest to adolescent audiences.
Mess, by Caroline Horton, at the Imaginate Festival in 2015. Mess is a deeply touching comedy about anorexia, with songs, jokes and a camp self-referential sound technician. As a performance it is one of those unusual but vital works targeted at adolescent audiences and one that stages mental health in a profound and important manner. It also has that particular, common place and yet remarkable characteristic of theatre, which is that we experience it together as a large scale collective audience.
I remember watching it in a mixed audience of adults and young people in Edinburgh and noting a line of teenaged girls in the row in front of me. I was intrigued by the nature of their public and yet private engagement with the themes of the performance, which must have spoken to them directly, and how the dramaturgy used presence and humour to promote both empathy and insight. All this felt unique to theatre and worthy of further research and investigation. I guess I am saying here that there is a need for further research, and that this book only begins to explore the young audiences experiences of theatre and live performance.
Amer, L., 2016. ‘Towards a Queer Theatre for very Young Audiences in Scotland and the United States’. Scottish Journal of Performance, 3(1): pp.9–28.
Fletcher-Watson, B., 2015. ‘Relaxed Performance: Audiences with Autism in Mainstream Theatre’. Scottish Journal of Performance, 2(2): pp.61–89.
Hadley, B. 2015. ‘Participation, Politics and Provocations: People with Disabilities as Non-Conciliatory Audiences’. Participations, 12 (1). 154-74.
Johanson, K. and Glow H. 2015. ‘A Virtuous Circle: The Positive Evaluation Phenomenon in Arts Audience Research’. Participations, 12 (1). 254-70
McGrath, A. 2010. ‘Introduction’, Evaluating the Performing Arts: a step by step teaching guide. Edinburgh, Imaginate.
Reason, M. 2013. ‘The Longer Experience: Theatre for Young Audiences and Enhancing Engagement’, in Radbourne J, Glow, H and Johanson, K Eds The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Intellect: Bristol. pp 95-111.
Schuitema, K. 2012. ‘Intercultural Performance for Young Audiences in the UK: Engaging with the Child in a Globalised Society’. In Maguire T and Schuitema K Eds, Theatre for Young Audiences: A Critical Handbook. IOE Press: London. pp. 69-79.
Webb, T. 2012. ‘Impossible Audiences: The Oily Cart’s Theatre of Infants, People with Complex Disabilities and other Young Audiences who are Primarily Non-Verbal’. In Maguire T and Schuitema K Eds, Theatre for Young Audiences: A Critical Handbook. IOE Press: London. pp. 93-103.
van de Water, M. 2012. Theatre, Youth and Culture: A Critical and Historical Exploration. Palgrave: Basingstoke.