Why Theatre for Young People Matters

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Playwright Mieko Ouchi writing in the Leighton Artist Studios.

Rounding the corner into the final week of my three week residency at the 2017 Banff Centre Playwrights Colony, from my captain’s seat in the Elsie K.—a 1948 gillnetter fishing boat, built in Steveston, B.C., and now moored at Banff in the Leighton Artists Studios—I find myself navigating through a lot of hard questions brought up by the theme of this year’s Colony: Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).  

How do we, as theatre makers and playwrights, really look at and interact with children and young people? How do we choose to represent their lives and experiences on stage? How do we decide as creators what it is that they need to think about and explore? And, of course, why do we, as artists, continue to do this important work and find it so compelling, even when it can be overlooked or undervalued by our theatre colleagues?  

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but so many Colony participants have got me thinking and re-thinking.

The work of Adrienne Wong (Ottawa) and Jan Derbyshire (Calgary) on their project, Me On The Map, reminded me about what it is to ask for and invite civic and intellectual engagement from children as fellow citizens, and really mean it. 

Danish TYA practitioners Methe Bendix and Anna Panduro (Copenhagen), this year’s Senior Playwright in Residence Marcus Youssef (Vancouver), Project Humanity’s Andrew Kushnir and his collaborator social scientist Dr. Kathleen Gallagher (Toronto) and David Harradine of the U.K.’s Fevered Sleep all brought forward different, but equally important, perspectives on exploring positive and incredibly complex ideas with young people, such as happiness, joy and radical hope.

Tasnim Hussein (Sydney, Australia) shared her experiences as Playwright in Residence at the wonderful Australian Theatre for Young People, which not only commissions plays from young people, but also features them as actors and directors rather than simply the receiving audience, making me wonder, is having the work produced by adult professionals as important as I might have thought?

And, of course, U.K. playwright Bryony Lavery and her collaborators, dramaturg Ruth Little and director Kendra Fanconi (Vancouver) continue to amaze us with the sublime madness of Bryony’s play Slime, which asks, do we even need human language to connect to youth and adults about climate change?

Brian Quirt, the Colony Director and Artistic Director of Nightswimming in Toronto shared with me an inspiring conversation with Boomer Stacey (Executive Director, International Performing Arts for Youth), discussing how the most dangerous ideas and concepts for adults are often the same for children: grief, death, revenge, reconciliation, justice. Three other playwrights are diving fully into these questions. Pascal Brullemans (Montreal) is examining how children face monstrous acts that have been done to them. Makambe K. Simamba (Calgary) channels the story of Trayvon Martin through his own deceased body. And Catherine Hernandez (Toronto) is diving deeply into the experience of child soldiers.  

Through these artists and all the other equally remarkable writers and collaborators who participated in #PlaywrightsColony17, sharing the air and a sense of community, I feel challenged, invigorated and shaken.

The biggest ideas repeated, reiterated, echoed: we do this because we believe in children. Now. Not as an investment in future audience, in adult subscribers, but an audience worth writing and performing for right now. Just as they are. We do this work because we’ve discovered how much we can learn about our own shared humanity from how children and young people receive and engage with huge ideas. We do it because we’ve learned that we want a conversation with young people that is never one-sided but reciprocal. 

Radical hope. I’ve got me some. Thank you, Banff.


Mieko Ouchi’s plays The Red Priest (Eight Ways To Say Goodbye), The Blue Light, The Dada Play, Nisei Blue and I Am For You have been produced across Canada, the U.S. and abroad, and have been finalists for the 4 Play Series at The Old Vic and a Governor General’s Award, winning the Carol Bolt Award and the Enbridge Award for Established Canadian Playwright. At Banff Centre, she’s working on The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story of Robin Hood, which will be the centrepiece of the 2018 Citadel Theatre/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program and premiere at the Citadel in Edmonton in April 2018.

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We also recommend these recent articles that further examine the value and importance of creating new works of performance for young people:

On Why Children Matter, by David Harradine

Fevered Sleep's Future Play project

John Doyle on Netflix's 13 Reasons Why

Tim Crouch on creating TYA